Breaking Bad: 5 Gospel Truths I Learned From Walter White
You know the story: High school chemistry teacher living a ho-hum suburban life with his wife and kids discovers he has inoperable lung cancer. With limited financial options or long term security for his family he does what perhaps anyone of us would do…
…he begins cooking crystal meth.
From that point on through five TV seasons we viewers witness a tragic “comedy of errors”; a journey which leads Walter further and further into a world of lying, manipulation, organized crime, and finally cold blooded murder (a lot).
In a similar fashion, I went through my own evolution (or devolution) throughout the show with regards to my emotional relationship to ol’ Walter White:
Season 1: I was sorry for him
Season 2: I was irritated with him
Season 3: I was angry with him
Season 4: I wanted him arrested
Season 5: I wanted him dead (Sorry, just being honest)
You can see the emotional energy this show, and Walter White in particular, generated. I think a core reason Breaking Bad resonated with a lot of people is poor Walter…well…he is “us”. He’s the average guy, doing average things, who envisioned his life would be so much more at 50, but it’s not.
I have also been fascinated by the number of fellow Christians who have followed, and even blogged about, Breaking Bad. (For the record my wife Tammy is NOT one of them. )
It’s easy to see why when the Biblical notions of choice, justice, mercy, forgiveness, grace, vengeance, and love are laid out like an Old Testament soap opera.
I’ve been musing on these themes for a while now so without further ado here are 5 gospel truths I’ve learned from Walter White.
1) The truth will set you free
Walter White is perhaps the greatest liar TV land has ever produced. How many times did we watch him sit down across from Skyler, Walt Jr., Hank, or Jessie promising to tell them the truth only to spin another web; a fabrication so good even the viewing audience wanted to applaud.
Finally in the last episode (spoiler alert) Walt comes clean. In a final encounter with his wife Skyler when she rolls her eyes at what looks like another vain attempt to claim all he had done was for his family, Walter cuts her off:
Skyler: If I have to hear – one more time – that you did this for the family…
Walter: I did it for me…. I liked it…. I was good at it….and… I was alive.
At this moment we got to see Walt through the charade and it even managed to soften Skyler’s hard heart…a little. The truth can be freeing!
2) Respect should not to be grasped for
Walt’s cancer diagnosis was only an excuse for long dormant ambitions to rise to the surface. Walter White was a man who felt over qualified and under appreciated. He lacked in many areas of his life and even his own family, who although they loved him, didn’t hold him in particularly high regard.
His insecurity and low self esteem fueled a desire to grasp for opportunities that would earn him the respect, admiration, love and fear he so desperately craved.
Instead Jesus gave us a different model in Philippians 2:6 where although he deserved to be treated as God, he saw that as not something to be grasped but instead chose to serve others. The reward in the end was that Christ was given a name above any other name while Walt instead lost everything he desperately had grasped after.
3) Dead men have no fear
How much would we live our lives differently if we had nothing to lose? From the minute Walter White got his cancer diagnosis his whole world view changed.
I have spent my whole life scared – frightened of things that could happen, might happen, might not happen. Fifty years I spent like that. Finding myself awake at three in the morning. But you know what? Ever since my diagnosis, I sleep just fine
Walter White – Breaking Bad episode 2:8
The irony was that Walter only felt most alive…when he died. The Bible likewise makes many references to our only experiencing real life when we “die”.
For, as far as this world is concerned, you are already dead, and your true life is a hidden one in God,
It seems strange yes…but dead men have no fear. And fear cripples our lives. It keeps us in a prison and cut off from a rich world of choice and opportunity.
A world God wants us to live in and explore… a world without fear.
4) Don’t live a luke- warm life
Despite the outer appearances of a content, and somewhat boring existence, Walter White yearned for something more. He wanted to feel alive. In Season 1 we see flickers of this “new life” after his first foray into the criminal world. He barely makes it home in one piece and the first thing he does is make love to his wife in a way we are made to feel hasn’t happened in a long time.
In John 10:10 Jesus said he came to give us life to the full. In our 21st century existence where a day’s work has been often reduced to staring at a computer and pushing papers around, we can somehow feel trapped by a life that seems to be passing by without any meaning whatsoever.
Walter White was many things in the end but I don’t think anyone could accuse him of being “luke-warm”. He took his dull, boring life and filled it with meaning. But “the meaning” he chose to fill his life with left death and destruction in its wake. Jesus promise a life that leaves life to those we encounter… and it all comes down to choice.
What do you fill your life with?
5) Love can pierce the hardest heart
**Spoiler*** Walter White’s brother-in-law Hank is, ironically, a drug enforcement agent. Throughout the series he is hunting a kingpin crystal meth producer who he only realizes at the very end is, in fact, the family member he’s been having Bar-B-Q with for years around the dinner table.
When Hank is about to be executed in a remote desert area Walt looks on in horror. At that moment he begs the killers to spare Hank’s life even to the point of offering the $80 million he had made in his drug dealings as ransom for his life.
Even when Walt was at the most treacherous and murderous point of his criminal life, in that very moment, love broke through. His love for Hank…his love for family made him willing to give it all up.
The horror and despair in Walt’s eyes when he saw Hank executed began for him a journey back toward the partial redemption we see for Walt at the very end. It’s no coincidence that when Walt lay dying in the final scene of Breaking Bad having saved Jesse and making his family safe, the camera slowly pans up as he assumes the position of a man on a cross.
In the end Breaking Bad was great story and great TV. We got to see good people do bad things and bad people do worse things. But through it all, rays of sunshine and redemption poked through at just the right moments and reminded us that a little love, mercy, and forgiveness are still available in a weary world.
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