Kristi and I recently watched all four seasons of Breaking Bad (don’t worry, not all at once). The series follows the trajectory of Walter White, “an underachieving chemistry genius turned high school chemistry teacher” who, upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, turns to using his chemistry expertise to provide for his family after he’s passed, by producing the “the world’s highest quality crystal meth” (quotes from IMBD).
As you might guess, the show is pretty dark and increasingly violent. And yet, it’s also got a healthy dose of the rubberneck syndrome. When you drive by a car accident, you can’t help but look. The viewer becomes transfixed as White’s lies pile on top of one another and his illegalities compound until he finds himself locked in a battle with an international drug kingpin, the Mexican cartel and it seems like there’s no possible way out.
It is a fascinating picture of the impact and depths of sin. Though White started with good intentions (wanting to provide a legacy for his family after he was gone), he chose the path of sin (if I may use such terms, and, since I am a pastor, after all, I may) in order to try and fulfill those good motives. And it becomes increasingly obvious throughout the four seasons (we are waiting for season five!) that White doesn’t just have cancer, he is a cancer. His attitude and actions draw everyone around him into his world of lies and danger. His actions are never isolated and always impact those he loves.
Contrast this with one of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day. Bill Murray plays Phil, an arrogant, insensitive weatherman who begrudgingly barrels through life belittling everyone he comes in contact with. Phil finds himself trapped living the same day (Groundhog Day) over and over and over and over until he finally gets it right, going through the day sacrificially, thinking of others before himself and finally getting the girl. Needless to say, it takes him a while before he finally gets it right.
Though Groundhog Day is meant to be a heartwarming romantic comedy (which it is), as a follower of Jesus, I am fascinated by its undercurrent; the idea that if we just get everything right, if we just do the right things, then we’ll be alright. Granted, Phil does seem to have a heart change but the idea seems to be that the day is not going to change until he gets everything right; as if there’s some magic formula of events and actions that he has to get just right. Which he finally does.
I mention these two scenarios because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what Tim keller calls the “three ways to live.” Many Christians are under the notion that there are two ways to live in the world, God’s way (Christianity) and Our way (rebellion). But, Keller reminds us (most powerfully through his treatment of the parable of the Prodigal Son(s), Prodigal God), there are actually “three ways to live” and two ways to run from God: “irreligion,” the younger brother in the parable, or Walter White and his increasing rebellion and “religion,” the older brother or Phil who has to do the right things before he can move on.
I am fascinated by finding portraits of both brothers in pop culture. Walter White may initially want a good thing (to care for his family) but he chases it by making crystal meth and ultimately finding himself involved in murders, cover-ups and money laundering. It’s almost as if his sin is swallowing him alive but he keeps chasing it. This is exactly how many people go through life, chasing money and security at any price necessary, even destroying themselves and those they love in the process.
Phil the weatherman, on the other hand, finds himself in the unwanted predicament of having to “get it right” before he can move on. This is exactly what many people here when they hear Christians say “come to Jesus.” They hear us saying: “be good people” and “do the right thing,” which translates to them as: “if you obey, then God will accept you, so you’d better get your actions in line.”
But, as Keller reminds us, there are actually three ways to live. The Gospel cuts right through our irreligious rebellion and unfettered pursuit and pleasure and the shackles of religion, trying to get our behavior right so that we can be right with God.
If we don’t understand the difference between the Gospel and religion, we are setting people up for a false encounter with Jesus. On the one hand, those people with iron-clad self-will might actually begin to change some of their behaviors and, once they do, they will begin to pat themselves on the back, gain a false sense of God’s favor and begin to look down on those who don’t live as well as they do. We’ve all encountered judgmental Christians (“judgmental” and “Christian” are terms that shouldn’t make any sense when put together and yet, sadly, we’ve all experienced it). Or, on the other hand, people will not be able to live up to Jesus’ standards and walk away, saying things like “Well, I tried that Christianity thing and it just didn’t work for me.” Or worse yet, we will set people in the horrible position of trying to meet standards they can’t and perpetually feeling judged by God because they’re just not “good enough.”
But the good news about Jesus isn’t that we can get good things through rebellion or that if we obey, God will accept us. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God didn’t come to them and say: “OK, listen up: Here’s 10 Commandments. If you keep them, then I’ll rescue you from Egypt.” No, it was the opposite! He redeemed them, and only then took them to Sinai. Before giving them any “rules,” God reminded them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:1). The Gospel says: “I am accepted, therefore I obey.”
Everywhere we turn, our culture is struggling to make sense of both ends of the spectrum. Pop culture is filled with glorifications of sin, but it is also filled with misguided efforts at religion. We Christians need to do a better job at humbly but boldly showing how neither will lead to satisfaction because both are actually ways of running from God. But I worry that the reason so few Christians make this distinction (especially between the Gospel and religion) is because so few Christians actually understand it. Many well-intentioned Christians are clutched in the talons of religion rather than flying in the freedom of the Gospel. If we don’t get it, how in the world should we expect pop culture to get it?