My friends accuse me of having highbrow taste in pop culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a pop culture junkie—I’ll get my fix anywhere. Yet, I do have my standards and limits. I’m aware, too, that many of them are illogical. For example, I often pass over music bands and TV shows simply because their names do not appeal to me. Without shame, I confess that I would rather listen to Coldplay or Rhianna over My Morning Jacket or Portishead any day of the week. Who cares about critical acclaim if their self-given names are terrible? [note: I have listened to the latter and I find their music as compelling as their names.]
With this attitude, I overlooked Dexter since its Showtime premiere in 2006. That is, until recently. I’m not sure what changed my mind, but I’m glad I gave the show a shot. It’s fascinating: it’s Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde meets The Punisher meets American Psycho with dashes of dark comedy and German Expressionistic tendencies.
For those of you who are not already familiar, Dexter is based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay. Dexter Morgan, the namesake of the show, is a forensics specialist for the Miami Metropolitan Police Department’s crime lab. He is able to decode murder scenes with uncanny expertise and efficiency because he himself is a serial killer. He, however, kills according to a code of justice as taught to him by Harry, his deceased adoptive father and decorated police officer. The code limits Dexter’s killing to criminals who slip through the legal system. As Season 1 unfolds, we learn, through flashbacks, that once Harry discerns young Dexter’s desire to kill, Harry tries to suppress it. Aware that suppression can only go so far, Harry begins teaching Dexter the code and how to hide his true nature under layers of “normal” behavior. Becoming an instrument of justice is Dexter’s redemption. Of his father and himself, Dexter comments: “Harry was a great cop here in Miami. He taught me how to think like one; he taught me how to cover my tracks. I’m a very neat monster.”
The show raises many interesting issues. For me, the most compelling ones deal with human nature and its mutability, or lack thereof. An underlying premise of the show is that everyone is gripped by some kind of moral, spiritual or emotional deficiency and that everyone, not just self-aware psychopaths, go to great lengths to hide the monsters that they are. This is highlighted through Dexter, the only one who is able to call himself a fraud. Dexter is unable to change, only modify his behavior to escape notice and to get away with murder. His only motivation to adhere to the code is Harry’s love, which was expressed most deeply whenever Dexter was overwhelmed by his true nature: “Remember this forever, you are my son, you are not alone, and you are loved.”
Dexter is strangely relatable. After all, I know all too well the emotional stress of pretending to be normal and wondering if my mask is good enough to hide whatever I conceive to be my fatal flaw. I know the frustration of being unable to change some unattractive personality trait. It is also a bit exhilarating to see someone execute the justice I sometimes want to. And who doesn’t want the kind of all-embracing and non-judgmental love like Harry’s?
Yet, the more I think about it, the romanticism fades and I see how tenuous it all is. Harry’s love is tremendous, but it is not enough to change Dexter. In fact, it subjugates him to a whole new set of rules, which is anything but liberating. Ironically, the only time he feels free is when he is committing a heinous crime, and each one puts him one step closer to getting caught. It also strikes me as completely self-righteous to think that I should have the power to decide who deserves punishment when I too have cause to be guilty. And no matter how you slice it, Dexter is a scary, scary serial killer!
At this point, I become ever more grateful for Jesus. In the Gospel accounts of the New Testament, Jesus hammers away over and over again that there is more to us than our outward behavior, and what really matters is the condition of our hearts. Jesus exposes us to be monsters and we are unable to do anything about it no matter how much we modify our behavior. We don’t like hearing this because it is an affront to our can-do/self-help/I’m OK culture. Not content to leave us exposed, Jesus embraces us with his love. It is in this love that we are able to confront who we truly are and find forgiveness and redemption. Jesus’ promise points us to complete freedom and total re-creation, both of which happen in ways that escape our plans, timeline, and expectations. As St. Paul writes, in Jesus the old has gone and the new has come, even if the day-to-day suggests otherwise. This is true hope. Now that’s good news, indeed.
So, start watching Dexter for the sheer entertainment value (Dexter’s sister Debra is also a fantastic character!), and along the way, it may spur some deep thinking about human nature, redemption and freedom.
WHAT: Mockingbird seeks to connect the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life in fresh and down-to-earth ways.
WHY: Are we called Mockingbird? The name was inspired by the mockingbird’s peculiar gift for mimicking the cries of other birds. In a similar way, we seek to repeat the message we have heard - God’s word of grace and forgiveness.
HOW: Via every medium available! At present this includes (but is not limited to) a daily weblog, semi-annual conferences, and an ongoing publications initiative.
WHO: At present, we employ two full-time staff, David Zahl and Ethan Richardson, and two part-time, CJ Green and Bryan Jarrell. They are helped and supported by a large number of contributing volunteers and writers. Our board of directors is chaired by Mr. Thomas Becker.
WHERE: Our offices are located at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA.
WHEN: Mockingbird was incorporated in June 2007 and is currently in its ninth year of operation.
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