A Reflection on Breaking Bad and Hendrik Berkhof

I think if Dutch theologian Hendrik Berkhof were still alive, he might say that AMC’s big hit, Breaking Bad, just may be the perfect parable on the powers.  His little book, ,Christ and the Powers, was translated into English by John Howard Yoder and serves as a foundational work for Yoder’s theology as well as the unique work of Walter Wink.  I think it would be fascinating to reflect on this drama with the three of these great thinkers – now all dead (which, considering the tone of the show – seems kind of fitting).

Berkhof was one of the first (maybe the first?) to take a critical look at just what the Apostle Paul was talking about in the New Testament when he referred to “powers, principalities, and authorities.”  Essentially, he goes on to suggest, they are the unseen forces that are at work in our world.   This particular realm of discussion always makes me think of this scene from School of Rock – you may not understand the language of Powers – but everyone knows who “The Man” is:

I’ve never seen a more vivid commentary on the Powers than in the storyline of Breaking Bad.  Hollywood has long wrestled with the dark realities and crises of sin through the genre of horror (a personal favorite!).  Coming to terms with the reality of sin through the over-the-top nature of the the likes of Freddy Kreuger and Michael Myers is less threatening to our personal faith than what we encounter through Breaking Bad.  It just doesn’t seem that threatening to talk about what we would do if a mass murderer ever broke into our homes or dreams.

Maybe it began with the Saw movies – or maybe it was Se7en – but somewhere along the line the audience wasn’t allowed to simply watch idly by as a terrible tale unfolds and project ourselves into impossible scenarios.  Instead, these new movies invite us into more realistic moral quandaries – what do we do when our only choices are between two evils?  To what extent are we willing to participate in the fallen state in order to maintain our self-preservation?  Just how entangled are we in the sinful work of the Powers?

In the beginning, of Breaking Bad we meet Walter White – an under-achieving chemistry genius who teaches high school science.  Providing the plot lines to the program, Walter faces the Powers up close and personal through disease (cancer) which plunges him to face other realities that we all face: economic Powers, the Power of health care, the illegal drug world, and on and on the story goes delving more and more deeply into the interconnected world of the Powers.  What begins as a somewhat light-hearted traipse to the dark side of the law, continues to grow darker with each episode.  It’s as if we the viewer are invited to witness the degree to which Walter becomes entrapped by the Powers in order to reflect upon our own life and the degree that the Powers have entangled us.  As the story develops, the audience is forced to wrestle with the reality that the chief “hero” of the story, is slowly becoming baptized by the Powers and turning into the nemesis.  This couldn’t resonate more directly with Berkhof’s teaching on the Powers: created as good, but fallen with all of creation and now ruling instead of serving.


2 thoughts on “A Reflection on Breaking Bad and Hendrik Berkhof

  1. Well said. It’s tempting to say that Breaking Bad is yet another in a growing line of nihilistic pop culture options–encompassing everything from Seinfeld to torture porn films like Saw and Hostel. I’m tempted to say it too, after watching the finale to season 3, which seemed irredeemable and dark. (Still, the show is absolutely captivating.)

    Still, I see in it a strong character study, along the lines of a Shakespearean tragedy. Walter White’s choices are leading him to change unalterably like, say, Macbeth. It’s just a matter of when it all ends.

    But your point of White turning from hero to nemesis is an interesting one. Was he ever the hero? I suppose so, in a libertarian, libertine sort of way. Perhaps more antihero. But coupling Breaking Bad with other popular dramas, like Mad Men or The Sopranos, I wonder if Hollywood is trying to jettison the idea of “the hero” entirely, opting for your “choices between evils” and even further pushing their muddled, postmodern view of reality. Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper are protagonists, but not heroes. And perhaps with this shift in storytelling, we find ourselves with no good choices, because bad–or, frankly, evil–characters struggle to even make good choices.

    I don’t know. I think I’m babbling a bit now (and I don’t know if I addressed your initial point). But hey, that’s a mark of a good post–it encourages babblers like me!

  2. @ C.T. Westing “Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper are protagonists, but not heroes.”

    True. Maybe Hollywood is just tired of doing the superman thing.

    I’m not sure if Superman type heros sell anymore.

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