5 things I learned about the Gospel from a serial killer

He’s a really nice guy – generous, kind, neat, and patient.  He works for the police, catches bad guys for a living, and in his spare time…he murders people.

I just finished watching season 1 of Dexter, a Showtime series about a serial killer. Well, to be fair, he’s more of a psychopathic vigilante. Because of a traumatic childhood experience, Dexter is unable to feel real human emotion, has no sense of right and wrong, and possesses a deep-seated need to kill people. But, fortunately for him, he was adopted by a well-intentioned police officer and raised to channel his violent tendencies in “healthier” directions – i.e. only killing people who really deserve it.

I don’t want to comment on the entire series. In many ways, it’s very well done – especially the acting, writing, and directing. At the same time it is violent, graphic, and disturbing. So, it’s definitely a watch-at-your-own-risk kind of show.

But ironically, as I was watching the show, I realized that it had a lot to say about the Gospel.

  • We’re all broken. Dexter is clearly broken, an emotionless murderer incapable of developing real connections with other people. But, one of the show’s clearest messages is that we’re all broken (selfish, overly ambitious, narcissistic, violent, insecure, lonely, etc.). Indeed, in some ways Dexter comes across as being “healthier” than the others because he at least recognizes his brokenness and deals with it head on. In the end, we’re all in the same broken boat.
  • We all learn to cope with our brokenness. Dexter learned to deal with his brokenness by pretending to be normal, and he was quite good at it. As the show progresses, though, you begin to realize that all the characters are pretending. They’re all trying to find ways of coping with their brokenness by hiding behind masks and activities. They all find ways of hiding from the terrible reality of their lives just long enough to make it through another day.
  • Coping is lonely. It’s interesting that Dexter’s biggest problem is not that he’s a serial killer; that’s just his reality and something he needs to live with. His biggest problem is that he’s alone. He’s convinced that he’s so broken, no one else could possibly understand him. And, although he’s good enough at faking “normal” to be in a dating relationship, he realizes that it’s not true intimacy. But, what he doesn’t understand is that everyone has the same problem. Because they’re all hiding behind their coping masks, broken by shame and guilt, they’re all alone in their own ways.
  • Everyone longs for “normal.” At a deep level, the show is really about hope. Although everyone and everything in the show is broken, they all hold onto the hope that there’s more out there. There’s this illusory thing called “normal” that no one ever seems to achieve, but that you should strive for nonetheless. And, it’s this hope for “normal” that keeps them all pushing forward.
  • You can’t fix the brokenness with more brokenness. Thus, each of the characters in the show remains somewhat heroic. Striving for “normal,” they’re not content with the brokenness and constantly seek to put things right. But, like Dexter, the only tools they have at their disposal arise from their own broken state. So, no matter how hard they try, things stay broken. Indeed, their efforts often leave things more broken than when they started. Thus, although the show is about hope, it is a vain and illusory hope.

Sadly, that’s as far as the story gets. In Dexter, the Good News is….well, there really isn’t any. There’s hope, but it’s never realized, constantly blocked by the reality of brokenness. The best that we get (at least by the end of season 1) is the “good news” that if you try really hard you can learn to fake “normal” well enough to make it through another day.

So, in the end, I really didn’t learn that much about the good news from Dexter. But, the show certainly does a good job drawing you inside the broken reality of the world so that you really begin to see the desperate need for the Good News that is out there.

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on February 15, 2011, in Culture, Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Keep watching. I don’t know if there is gospel in Dexter, but there is a lot of theology to reflect on in the show. I think some of your categories might be filled out by continuing to watch Dexter’s life unfold as a husband, father, brother, etc.

    The “Dark Passenger” will preach – though the challenge is ‘Should I use ‘Dexter’ in sermons?'”

    • The preaching question is a great one. I may post something on that a bit later to see what people think. I used to wrestle with the “appropriateness” question all the time in youth ministry.

  2. Just another thought about Dexter –

    If they ever *do* get to the good news as far as the main character is concerned, that will be the end of the show.

    It’s inherent in this kind of scripted drama: the *premise* of the show is that this man is seriously flawed in dangerous ways. If they solve the premise, they end the show.

    • Good point. If Dexter was ever “fixed” the show would lost steam pretty quickly. But, I think it’s also inherent in the show (season 1, at least) that the root problem can’t be fixed. So, it’s not like unrequited love as a plot device, where know that the problem could be solved if the writers just wanted to do it. Brokenness seems inherent to the “world view” of Dexter. (If I’m wrong and they go in different directions with later seasons, I’m sure somebody will tell me. But please, do give any details for those of us who are a few years behind.)

  3. So if you were to interpret this through a “Reformed” lens would you say that Dexter is all “Law” and no “Gospel?” 😉

  4. I think (hope) you mean WTS/C – not WTS. The hard Law/Gospel stuff comes from Horton, Clark, et al. Not Ferguson, Gaffin, Murray, etc.

  1. Pingback: The Dark Passenger – an analogy of sin and addiction « scientia et sapientia

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