Zero Shades of Gray

I read an article recently arguing that Christians should stop watching Mad Men. The justification was that the characters, despite being despicable people, were getting good things and enjoying themselves. The show seemed to turn bad into good.

My wife and I were rather frustrated with this perspective. The biggest problem was that the author failed to recognize the bad that was happening despite the appearance of the characters enjoying themselves. All he could see was the good, as if it blinded him to the more subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) bad that was happening at the same time.

It struck us both as another manifestation of what I’ve come to see far too often in our culture: a failure to integrate good and bad. We tend to live in a black and white universe; things are either good or they are bad, not both.

This is a curious circumstance, really. I mean, where in all of history can you see a more blatant mixture of good and bad than at the cross? Torture, murder, unbelievable suffering, and death paving the way for forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. Our faith is born out of good and bad integrated.

Yet we stubbornly refuse to recognize this in the world, causing all sorts of problems. We take stands on things, affirming that our position is right, which means that the other position is wrong. Already there is a problem if we do not allow for flaws in our own thinking, mistakes in the position we take, bad black mixed in with the white that shines in our position. Conversely, there are nothing but flaws in the other stance. They are wrong through and through. They have no good ideas, nor any valid points.

To make matters worse, once we take such a stance, in order to protect our position we can begin to vilify the people holding the other ideals. If their ideas are wrong, then they are wrong. They become bad, and there is no good in them. They can end up ceasing to be worthwhile people and are simply evil to be eradicated. The rhetoric that runs around in politics is exemplary of this: “The [democrats/republicans] are wrong, and everything that they think is invalid and should be pushed against. There is nothing in their position that has any merit, and they should be stripped of any power.”

I watch this mentality play out not only in grand social scenarios, but in basic relationships. People in conflict stop relating to one another and simply bite and devour one another because they cannot even fathom that their all-good understanding of the situation might have some bad in it. The conflict becomes all the other person’s fault; none of it was me. There is no time to stop and consider how there might be good in the other or bad in myself. Black and white are the only options.

I have even watched this happen in individuals’ thinking of themselves and of God. For that matter, I’ve done it myself. “All the bad things I’ve done makes me such a horrible person that there is no good in me.” Or the converse of, “I’m a good person; it’s not like I’ve killed anybody.” Or with God, who is so concerned with right and wrong that there is no room for kindness or so loving that right and wrong don’t matter. One or the other. Either, or. Black, white.

The reality is that the world is ambiguous. Every person bears the image of God while simultaneously being a broken, sinful human being. Each political party has some assumptions about the world that are faulty, but their perspective sees things the other inadvertently (or sometimes even intentionally) neglects.  We do not live in a world of either/or, but one that is peppered with this AND that, simultaneously.

That’s not to say that the world is simply gray and that black and white do not exist, but rather that black and white are very real, but abide next to one another in a complicated weave.

Living in a woven world is not easy, but it can be done, and it must be done. Jesus ate with Pharisees, tax collectors, and sinners, and he found both good and bad in all of them. Integrating them in our minds and living with them is part of maturing.

In a way, maybe Mad Men shouldn’t be eschewed. Maybe it should be seen as a training ground, a space to learn to discern the coexistence of good and bad. Maybe we need arenas where we can grow more discerning of the ambiguity of the world we live in and of our own hearts. Somehow, we as individuals, as Christians, and even as a people have to learn this skill of living with the presence of good and bad at the same time. After all, if we can’t, then we really can’t live with ourselves, just some fake images we hold up to mask the truth. We’re stuck in Eden just after the Fall, covering ourselves with leaves and running away from God, who knows our good and our bad and chooses to live with us anyway.

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