The Vortex of Bent Stories
It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, and as the saying goes, “I was too young to die.”
For one summer, I lived in the charming town of Bend, Oregon, with family friends. What makes this town so grand is the Deschutes river that flows through it. During the summer months, hundreds and hundreds of people grab tubes, blow ups, anything that floats and then laze down the river. Of course, I didn’t die that summer (as my writing this blog would prove a great mystery), but I came much too close.
You see, after a couple weeks of peacefully floating down the river, my friend and I decided we wanted to float a little more swiftly and a lot less peacefully. We needed rapids. So, we jumped into his Wrangler and drove up the river until we found them. The only eyes around us were the pine trees and the boulders that peeked out of the river like tortoises.
We were ready to go. Rapids, check! Rafts, check! Sunglasses, check! Life jacket, helmet, and experience with rapids--uh oh! No check. That’s ok, I thought. I’m a great swimmer. I love water. And it loves me.
I entered the water with my raft, and in 15 seconds, I was in the water without my raft. I’m embarrassed to say that my training in lifeguarding, water polo, and surfing did absolutely nothing when my excuse of a tube nudged the first boulder on the first rapid plunging me into the ferocious tide. Without a life jacket, the rapid shoved me to the bottom of the river bed, directly into its endless hydraulic cycle. As I did somersault after somersault (not from my initiative, mind you), I lost any bearing of what was up and what was down. I would try to push off the river bed only to have my feet flail into the Oregon air. While spinning and flailing, my desperate wish was that I could just find some firm ground to reorient myself. By God’s gracious providence, I finally discovered the river bed and managed to escape the monstrous vortex. As I flew down the river, I had one aim: find solid ground and hug it. When I found my boulder in the river, I launched myself onto it and refused to move for what seemed like an hour. I can’t fully express how grateful I was to the Lord for that refuge rock and the orientation it provided.
I will never underestimate rapids again nor the panic of losing connection to what is up as opposed to down, left versus right. Over the years, this Oregon escapade has come to function as an analogy, one I’d like to apply to our second type of story: bent stories.
The Bent Story
Jack Taylor explains that a bent story is one in which good is portrayed as evil and evil as good. While broken stories maintain the distinction between goodness and evil, bent stories do not. Or, to put it in narrative terms: bent stories make the line between hero and villain, villain and hero, murky.
A clear home to look for bent stories is in our contemporary films and television shows. Consider the AMC phenomenon Breaking Bad which has been nominated for 58 Emmys. (A quick note: despite its critical acclaim, due to its disturbing violence and mature content, I don’t recommend this show to children nor most adults. I review it here because it represents a philosophical perspective that undergirds bent stories that is widespread today.) With that said, the drama opens with Walter White, a chemistry teacher, loving husband, and father who is driven by a cancer diagnosis to find ways to provide for his family: he resorts to selling meth. Generally, we’re not confused about drug dealers, they are on the wrong side of the law. Their work hurts others. However, as an audience, we sympathize, or at least understand, Walter’s reasons: it’s hard to blame him for wanting to provide for his wife and special needs child, even if his fundraising strategy is dubious.
Yet, here’s the twist: the cancer doesn’t claim Walter’s life; actually, he recovers. And you may see the dilemma: his original purpose for selling drugs, the one we sympathized with, is no longer relevant. Now, Walter is healthy, wealthy, and terribly powerful. Should he return to his life as a teacher, content to live on his pittance, or continue his new vocation? Walter chooses the latter, and through a series of small choices, he becomes a bent character in a bent drama. What is both intriguing and disturbing is the way the audience (I speak now just for myself), for the most part, continues to sympathize with Walter after he’s healed, hoping the DEA does not snatch him. Just as Walter does not fully justify his new lifestyle in a specific episode, so the audience does not choose to root for Walter the cancer-free and violent drug dealer in one episode, but slowly over a number of episodes. At distinct times in the show, I’d ask myself, how did the creators of this show move me to a place where I want Walter to escape the justice he deserves? How did they suck me into their disorienting vortex?
My answer is brilliant storytelling and remarkable acting. As a Christian, I’m not pleased that I cheered for Walter White amid his violent escapades, but it does raise an important question: what purposes, beyond entertainment, do bent stories serve? As a Christian, what am I to do with them? I’d like to offer a number of thoughts to consider. (Before I leave the Breaking Bad exposition, I recommend the following article from Christianity Today as an insightful approach to this drama from the Christian perspective--“Why We Need Breaking Bad.”)
1. Bent stories present a moral vortex that can confuse readers or viewers about the distinction between good and evil. Subtly, bent stories propose that we cannot really know what is good and what is evil. They suggest that these categories, in some ways, are just artificial constructs of our perspective. Many detective shows do this by deconstructing their hero, slowly revealing that he is not as honorable as we thought. This makes us wonder: Is the hero any better than the villain he is chasing? Bent stories often leave us with the thought that no one can know. The world is too complicated.
2. But is the world so complicated that when we take a close look we cannot really distinguish between good and evil? Good and evil are not two sides of the same coin (sorry Star Wars). Good flows from the character of God and evil is the corruption of good. Many times in Israel’s history, Israel entered the disorienting moral vortex. God used the prophet Isaiah to reorient them:
Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
The world is complicated, but Scripture grounds us, informing us about behavior that does and does not honor God.
1. Bent stories highlight the reality of creation’s curse on the hero and villain. While good and evil are not artificial human constructs, no man is wholly good (except the God-man). Every human hero is beset with moral weakness. Israel’s greatest king was a murderer and adulterer. Similarly, no man is as evil as he could be, as even the most depraved individuals still carry the image of God. As the saying goes, even Hitler was not as evil as he could be. (He killed millions, but I don’t believe he killed his mother). It’s not difficult to find individuals in history who started out heroic but ended villainous. And, of course, we can point to many who lived wickedly and then found redemption.
2. Bent stories deconstruct the idea that the answer to humanity’s problems is a human hero. Sadly, even the institutions designed to deliver justice in our broken world do not always deliver justice. Judges make poor decisions and police officers act from prejudice. As Hamlet discovered, justice for wickedness cannot always be easily found in this cursed world. We may argue that Hamlet’s pursuit of justice for his father was anything but the work of a righteous judge, as his revenge directly, or indirectly, brought about the deaths of Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Laertes, leaving the kingdom of Denmark to Fortinbras, a foreigner.
3. If we listen carefully, bent stories awaken our longing for a hero who is righteous, thoroughly righteous. The disorienting nature of bent stories reminds us that our world will not always look black and white. Only God knows if our good deeds are free from selfish motivation and our mistakes have redeeming value. The problems that bent stories unearth are opportunities to look to God who has provided a righteous hero who will one day eradicate cancer, heal the helpless, and revenge the wicked as a judge who has never been confused about right and wrong, hero or villain.
As a teacher, bent stories provide necessary trembling when I think of how they can disorient me, my students, or other artists, to think the world has no up or down, good or evil, hero or villain. But, this trembling leads me to think carefully about ways to use these stories to fulfill the storyteller’s job: to tell the truth. Our world is certainly bent, and our movies are right to state this, but they are mistaken if they want us to conclude that justice is never possible, righteousness is just a perspective, and redemption is an illusion. God has provided justice, righteousness, and redemption in Jesus: this is the truth.