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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.


Review: The Gospel-Driven Life

Continuing with our series on recent books about the Gospel (you can read earlier reviews here, here, and here), today we’re looking at Michael Horton’s The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World (Baker 2009).

Horton divides the book into two sections. The first half deals with how Horton understands the Gospel, and the second addresses how the Gospel informs what it means to be a Christian community. Right away, then, we see that Horton sees Gospel and community as inseparable. As he says, “It is not merely that there is a gospel and then a community made up of people who believe it; the gospel creates the kind of community that is even now an imperfect preview of the kingdom’s marriage feast that awaits us.” (11)

Without a doubt, one of the best things about the book was Horton’s emphasis on the Gospel has as “a dramatic narrative that replots our identity” (12). It isn’t simply a set of beliefs that we must affirm, but it is the historical unfolding of God’s faithfulness that culminates the crossas the fulfillment of “his promise that he made to Israel and to the world by sending his Son for the forgiveness of sins and the inauguration of his new creation” (89-90). And, it’s a narrative that fundamentally shapes and reshapes who we are as human persons. Although most would agree with this, Horton is one of the few who actually takes some time to unpack the narrative as he explains the Gospel. And, for Horton, getting this story right is central to understanding the Gospel. Without the narrative, you will misconstrue the good news.

I also appreciated the way that this emphasis on the Gospel as dramatic narrative led to his use of “news” as a central motif in the book, much of which is structured around sections in a newspaper. Seeing the Gospel as news shapes how we view the Gospel in two ways. First, it makes us realize that the Gospel is something that has already been done, not something that we do.

The heart of Christianity is Good News. It comes not as a task for us to fulfill, a mission for us to accomplish, a game plan for us to follow with the help of life coaches, but as a report that someone else has already fulfilled, accomplished, followed, and achieved everything for us. (20)

This leads to a consistent resistance to understanding the Gospel as something that we accomplish or contribute to. Indeed, he deals with a number of misconceptions about the Gospel, most of which have something to do with shifting the focus of the Gospel from God to ourselves. Rather than finding the good news in God’s faithfulness and glory, we want to make our own transformation . And, in this way, we make the Gospel merely a means to an end – improving ourselves. Instead, we need to see that the “big story” is about God.

But, this doesn’t mean that Horton doesn’t think the Gospel has anything to do with personal transformation. He also contends that if the Gospel is news then it also means that it is potentially surprising, unsettling, and transformative.

If the ‘Good News’ that we proclaim is determined by what we already know—or think we know—and experience, it isn’t really news….It can never throw us off balance or cause us to reevaluate our priorities and interpretations of reality. (20)

So, the Gospel transforms us as we allow the truth of the narrative to sink in, reshape our understanding of everything, and respond appropriately. That’s how Horton explains sanctification (77).

And, I also appreciate Horton’s strong emphasis on the Church as integral to understanding the Gospel. Unlike many books on the Gospel, Horton’s perspective is not limited to or even particularly focused on the salvation of the individual. He absolutely talks about the salvation of individuals, but he presents the good news of the Gospel as being more about the restoration of God’s people to their proper place and role in the world. It’s a vision that is bigger than me, though it does include me. And, his chapter on how the Gospel creates a “cross-cultural community” was particularly engaging.

However, the book does have a few significant drawbacks. First, given Horton’s strong emphasis on the importance of understanding the dramatic narrative, I was startled by how little time he spent discussing the creation narratives and the status of God’s plans and his people prior to the Fall. He does talk about creation, of course, but it plays a relatively insignificant role in his overall account. That’s unfortunate. The dramatic narrative that reshapes my identify must include the plans and purposes that God had from the beginning.

Second, like most of the other books that we’ve reviewed so far, unfortunately little is said about the role of the Spirit in this dramatic narrative. Even when Horton moves on to discuss the transformation that results from the Gospel, he explains it in largely cognitive terms – letting the truth sink in – and says very little about the transforming work of the Spirit. Fortunately, Horton doesn’t make the mistake of allowing this pneumatological lack to devolve into a “just do it” response to the Gospel. That is antithetical to the message Horton wants to get across, and he’s careful to argue that the Christian life flows from the transformative nature of the Gospel. We don’t do it ourselves. But, his presentation would have been significantly improved with greater attention to the work of the Spirit here. And this lack was particularly disappointing given his emphasis on the community as it relates to the Gospel. This, at least, would have been a great place to introduce the work of the spirit in empowering the people of God to be kingdom witnesses in the world.

And, finally, I would have liked to see a more extended discussion of what it looks like for the church to live as heralds of the kingdom in the world. He claims that the church is now a “new political order” (186) in the world, but says very little about what this means, placing most of his emphasis on declaring the truth of the gospel and saying very little about whether heralding the new kingdom might mean more than that.

But, all things considered, this is a very good book and well worth reading if you’d like to understand the Gospel and it’s significance for life and ministry.