Stranger Things on Netflix
We were finally watching Stranger Things as a family, my teen daughter having finally sold her (over)protective parents on it. For the past couple years I’d shrugged off her complaints about being “the only kid in her grade that hadn’t seen it,” and left out of the conversations. But the Cyrs had been without a family-binge-watch show for a while, and she’d renewed her efforts since season three was released this summer. In the end I reluctantly agreed to a heavily censored version using our VidAngel subscription.
I still have my misgivings, since tamed-down sci-fi horror is still sci-fi horror, and I’m not sure the bad isn’t outweighing the good when it comes to her impressionable mind. But one of the most disturbing messages during the show came from an altogether unexpected source. Myself.
Late in the first season comes a scene in which one character is giving another a verbal humiliation. The antagonist is a high-school boy the show has, up to this point, gone out of its way to make us dislike. The other boy, you will already have guessed, is the sensitive, long-suffering social outcast and underdog. As the popular and cruel boy systematically denigrates the underdog and every member of his family – finally pulling in his younger brother who is missing and believed to be drowned – the tension builds until the underdog turns and socks his tormenter square in the kisser.
At this moment a guttural and involuntary “Yes!” escaped me.
In the time it took for an answering smile to begin to curve my daughter’s face, I was already starting to feel a little like I’d been punched myself. Thankfully her mother was out of the room, gone for more popcorn or something, but I didn’t need anyone to point out how no bueno my reaction had been. I’d been thinking about a TV show’s capacity to corrupt my daughter, but it was my own corruption that had been exposed. When the onscreen scuffle was over, I had a talk with her about that impulse for revenge in me. That it was something I needed to put to death because it could only produce death in me. That the way further into Life is to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. I asked her to forgive me for the bad example I had set, and to join me in rejecting this impulse whenever she found it in herself.
I’ve been thinking of that moment ever since – that gleeful, vengeful response that washed over me quicker than thought. It’s by no means a new development. It is my habitual, chronic response: I want to see the bad guy get everything he deserves and then some.
The story of a high-school boy finally lashing out at the bully strikes close to home; in fact, it’s impossible for me not to see how my own history has conditioned my response to that scenario. Throughout my youth I was physically scrawny, and had the sort of withdrawn personality that attracts schoolyard predators the way wolves are drawn to the weakest caribou. I spent most of my adolescence imagining for myself the ability to hand out savage beatdowns wherever they seemed most needed. Often the revenge fantasies drifted into grotesque payback scenes that far exceeded the actual offense. Like Inigo Montoya, I would roll vengefulness around in my mouth, savoring it and feeding off it for months and years. The long-term effects of that habit have been hard to roll back. Even now, twenty years later, I find myself having to periodically re-forgive certain teachers and peers from my personal Dark Ages. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to trigger a memory, and before I realize what’s happening I’m using my imagination like a voodoo doll. Then I have to cast off this line of thought and with an effort of will, choose the way that Christ showed us.
Part of what makes this so hard is that imbedded deep in the churnings of vengefulness lies a desire for Justice, which is itself a virtue. It’s as if the plumb lines the universe is founded on run right through even something as corrupt as human revenge. C.S. Lewis talks about this in The Problem of Pain when he says “a core of righteousness was discovered within the vindictive passion itself, in the demand that the evil man must not be left perfectly satisfied with his own evil, that it must be made to appear to him what it rightly appears to others.” While acknowledging that “the least indulgence of the passion for revenge is very deadly sin,” he says that part of what we are craving is that the wrongdoer’s suffering would “plant the flag of Truth within a rebel fortress.” I suppose then that revenge remains a temptation even for the most virtuous; the more we desire the Good, the more we want some overwhelming force brought to bear against evil.
Even such a noble soul as Frodo of the Shire suffered from it for a time. Long accustomed to ease and safety, when Frodo hears that Mordor has learned the name Baggins from Gollum, placing Frodo in great danger, he laments “that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!” When Gandalf rebukes him, Frodo holds out Gollum’s many horrible deeds, and says “at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.” And while Gandalf agrees with this assessment, still he calls Frodo to restraint and even compassion for Gollum in his wickedness.
Compare this Frodo to the one we find at the end of the book. When, after all had seemingly been accomplished, the hobbits find the war has come home even to their own Shire, which Isengard’s evil has been busily remaking in its own image. A few of the hobbits have taken lessons from the Orcs, and have become little better than they, as the younger Frodo said of Gollum. But now Frodo’s main concern is that his friends not deal too harshly with their countrymen “even if they have gone over to the other side.” He even asks for the half-orc thugs who’ve been terrorizing the Shire to be spared, if it can be done without endangering anyone. This is a Frodo who knows himself to have stood before the Crack of Doom and said “The Ring is mine!” Knows himself to have fallen to the same temptation that Boromir and Saruman did, and to be no better than Gollum, of whom he can say “there but for the Grace of God go I.”
And I, I’m forced to add. I’ve learned with Frodo that I can’t resist the Ring of Power, and only an undeserved Intervention saved me from slavery to malicious wretchedness and downward-spiraling misery. Though as scrawny as Gollum, my younger self still took the chance to be the bully when I could. If I could make myself feel a scrap less helpless by tormenting my little sister, or other younger kids, I did. I am one of those hobbits who, when things got ugly, “went over to the other side.” That is what it means to be human in the world after Eden. We desire Justice and for Evil to be thrown down, but how will we ourselves escape that Justice when it comes?
Thankfully, a better story has since been told. When Peter could stand it no longer and waded blade-first into the Pharisee’s mob to sever ears, Jesus stuck them back on. When Jesus was slandered and mocked, struck and spit on, He asked God to have mercy on the offenders. And since in Christ both Justice and Mercy are fulfilled, He has enabled us to share in His superpower-level forgiveness. Forgiven all, I can choose to Forgive by His spirit within me. This is what it means to be human in the world after the Cross. A self-righteous, murderous Saul can become the kind of Paul that when wrongfully imprisoned, shares that Better Story with his jailer, then baptizes him and goes home to dinner with him. A man can go meet the tribesman who speared his missionary father to death, forgive him and adopt him as a second father. I can forgive my old gym teacher, and believe that both he and I can be better than we were.
The culture around us doesn’t do a good job of telling this story; too often it doesn’t even try. A worship of revenge seems to be spreading through many of the stories we tell ourselves. But when someone offers us a tale of forgiveness and redemption, it has a power that we don’t soon forget. We still read about Jean Valjean and Javert, and Ebenezer Scrooge has passed into immortal legend (with his distant relative the Grinch following in his footsteps). And what would have become of Star Wars if it had ended with Luke cleaving Vader in half? Would we now remember it as anything but a special-effects landmark?
Even sci-fi horror hit Stranger Things seems to understand there’s something better available for “bad guys” than consigning them to revenge-fodder. That spiteful jerk that I was so eager to see get a beating? As our family catches up to the second season, He’s showing signs of remorse and repenting his earlier ways. He sometimes even acts with kindness and understanding. One of the” villains” of the first season, he’s now becoming one of the Good Guys. Will he ever come so far along as to forgive later villains in their turn, and see their redemptions unfold? In a world in which God broke into our dimension to be born in a barn, then killed and hung up on a post only to burst back to life, nail-holes and all… you might say Stranger Things have happened.