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 Krueger 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.