The Real Reason People Like 13 Reasons Why

There have been plenty of reasonable critiques of the new hit Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why, which follows the story of a community dealing with a young girl’s suicide and the creative “notes” she left behind. Bad acting, bad writing, the “role models” are extraordinarily clueless, suicide is romanticized, etc. Okay… then why is it so popular?

Take a look at the trailer (language warning):

The most powerful moment in the trailer, at least for me, is the revelation that the tapes are from Hannah, at 37 seconds… The following 20 seconds build on this force.

I suggest that the reason people are so intrigued by the show is this: it presents a concrete, realistic example of someone speaking from beyond the grave. Through her tapes, the Hannah Baker character presents a benign version of otherworldly communication, and people find this attractive. We human beings have a deep-seated need to go beyond this world and encounter something greater than ourselves. By committing suicide and leaving voice recordings of herself, Hannah half-accomplishes this – she is half-encountered, and she is half-greater, as she has become “ubiquitous” and commands enormous attention, but… spoiler alert… she’s dead. At any rate, people’s sense of the otherworldly is “turned on” by the show, and since many are not activating that sense adequately through religion, they watch this show to compensate. (This goes hand in hand with Hollywood’s obsession with exorcisms and the occult – a topic which merits its own post.) Hannah takes the place of God, Who, by the way, does not seem to find His way into the screenplay.

The problem is just that. Being convicted by an accusation of a dead girl through an audio tape is painful, important, and final, but she neither necessarily has got everything correct (as the show explores at length) nor is anyone’s life truly measured by her judgment. Furthermore, there can be no reconciliation with her… it’s over.

On the other hand, being convicted by an accusation of the living God through Scripture or preaching or conscience is quite different. Because God does not make mistakes, and because He does indeed provide the true measure of our life, His accusations, if seen rightly, are more painful, important, and final. It is no use arguing or rationalizing – we must reconcile, which thankfully we can do. It is even more powerful to find oneself being accused by God due to the fact that He is not just looking to prove a point, or to get some kind of attention, or to show that He’s really upset and can’t take it anymore… He convicts us of sin because He loves us, and reconciling with Him and amending our lives to be in accord with His Will are the best things for us.

Not so with Ms. Baker.

The characters in the show indirectly contributed to the death of Hannah, but she is clearly the one who is actually responsible for taking her life… Christ, however, was really put to death by others; and we ourselves are indirectly responsible for His death, at least insofar as we are sinners standing in need of that death, which He chose for our sake. So each and every one of us is one of His “reasons why.” He speaks to us now, but unlike Hannah Baker, He is alive and is waiting for us to speak back. And once you realize that, it is much more powerful than a suicide note could ever be.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: thumbnail from Netflix’s trailer for its show, 13 Reasons Why

The Dark Knight of the Soul: Fortitude in the Batman

Behold, a humorous essay I recently wrote for a moral theology class, with some slight edits. Enjoy!

Mr. Bruce Wayne had a troubled childhood. Not only did he lose his parents to a crazed gunman, but he also fell into a deep well full of bats. The former occasioned the inheritance of vast amounts of wealth, while the latter occasioned an intense case of chiroptophobia (fear of bats). Together, these effects would eventually lead him to undertake a massive bat-themed vigilante project which would dominate his life and cause a complicated set of benefits and drawbacks in Gotham City. The question is: whether the act of becoming the Batman was an act of true fortitude on the part of Bruce Wayne?

What is clear is that in Batman’s vigilante project there is matter for fortitude, namely, dangers of death. “Now fortitude is a virtue; and it is essential to virtue ever to tend to good; wherefore it is in order to pursue some good that man does not fly from the danger of death.” (1) Wayne, of course, is choosing to fly toward dangers of death, and literally at that. With countless thugs, gang leaders, and dastardly supervillains, Gotham is anything but safe; and this is not even to mention the means which Wayne adopts for fighting crime, which includes jumping off skyscrapers and careening in between all kinds of obstacles, supported by some mesh wings. He is doing battle with criminals who might kill him, in a way that might kill him. “Dangers of death occurring in battle” are the proper matter for fortitude, beyond lesser evils like bodily pain or the annoyance of standing in line at the DMV. (2)

It seems that Wayne might have gone to a vicious extreme in overcoming his own private chiroptophobia by becoming “half bat.” Yet there is really nothing to fear about bats in themselves, so to fear bats at all seems to be a case of timidity. This means that overcoming such a fear is a good thing to do. In facing his repressed traumatic experience of nearly dying in the well, which became so closely associated with the well’s bats, Wayne becoming Batman would only tend towards a vicious neurosis if his new bat-persona did not serve some purpose beyond itself. That is to say, if Wayne habitually dressed up like a bat in his own house and looked in the mirror, this would be disordered. Taking on the bat-persona for the sake of intimidating criminals, which is his primary motivation, is something else entirely.

Wayne does not become Flowerman or Butterflyman or Puppyman, he becomes Batman. Even if he had had traumatic experiences with flowers and butterflies and puppies, surely he would not want to deal with those memories in the same way. The idea of a vigilante qua bat (or alternatively qua spider) is simply terrifying, which is the point: it is an effective aid to fighting crime. This, however, does not necessarily make it prudent, as prudence means that justice and other virtues are not being violated. Here we will simply mention the possibility that vigilantism is unjustifiable in Gotham, given that there are good cops like Commissioner Gordon around. If Wayne had not considered this, or had not considered the physical risks involved, then the decision would be imprudent regardless of whether it is just. Becoming a vigilante virtuously requires serious counsel and an understanding of the principles of law. (3)

There are certain appearances of fearlessness and daring throughout the career of Batman, but one must wonder if this is merely a result of having mastered the fear of death during his time training in the mountains with the League of Shadows. On the contrary, Wayne goes to great lengths to protect himself, investing in the production and maintenance of extremely sophisticated protective devices, and this could exonerate him at least of fearlessness. Batman, supposing his project is just, certainly ought to fear death, not just for his own sake, seeing as life is a great good, but also for Gotham’s sake: “Death and whatever else can be inflicted by mortal man are not to be feared so that they make us forsake justice: but they are to be feared as hindering man in acts of virtue, either as regards himself, or as regards the progress he may cause in others.” (4) This is also part of why concealing his true identity is so important, for if it was widely known that Batman is Bruce Wayne, he would be easier to destroy.

As for magnanimity, Wayne already has great honors, insofar as honors accrue to a man of enormous wealth such as himself. Ironically, his public identity as a billionaire is a cover for what he really lives for privately, which is the accomplishment of great things like deposing crime bosses and deterring supervillains at great personal risk. He accepts the “unofficial honors” that come with such acts, but he does not care for them for their own sake, so he is not ambitious. He takes on the project to give the city of Gotham hope, which is where he refers the glory given to him as Batman. Therefore, Batman has a degree of magnanimity. (5) There is, however, an element of Wayne’s public life that is pusillanimous, as he purposefully distances himself from seeming great by being an arrogant, dishonest, quarrelsome womanizer. He could gain more honor publicly by being more virtuous, but he rightly fears that this could lead to the suspicion that he is Batman. Insofar as this component of concealing his nocturnal activities is vicious, it is neither magnanimous nor fortitudinous, as sins cannot be called acts of virtue.

The crime fighting skills of Wayne are second to none, and since he has ordered his life and vast wealth towards crime fighting without compromising his fortune or social status, he most certainly deserves to be ascribed the virtue of magnificence. For, “[It] belongs to magnificence not only to do something great, ‘doing’ (facere) being taken in the strict sense, but also to tend with the mind to the doing of great things.” (6) Since Wayne could do almost anything he wants on account of his wealth, the good use of which is the proper object of magnificence, his mind certainly tends with great force toward the accomplishment of masterful crime fighting. (7) Otherwise he would do whatever it is that other billionaires do.

To the question, whether Bruce Wayne’s choice to become Batman was an act of true fortitude, we answer is the affirmative, with two qualifications. The first is that the entire vigilante project is just, which is unclear. The second is that the artificial public persona taken on as part of the condition for the project, which can be assumed to have been part of the means from the start, is at least mildly vicious and therefore reduces the fortitudinous character of the choice.

(1) STh II-II q. 123 a. 5 ans.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Namely, gnome and epikeia would be required. See STh II-II q. 51 a. 4; q. 120 a. 1, a. 2

(4) STh II-II q. 126 a. 1 rep. 2

(5) That his voice is extraordinarily deep is not a sign of greater magnanimity, it is merely another component of his intimidation, as well as a way to conceal his public identity. Furthermore, that he does not walk slowly to accomplish his tasks does not imply a lack of magnanimity, as the particular kind of great things which he seeks to accomplish demand agility.

(6) STh II-II q. 134 a. 2 rep. 2

(7) STh II-II q. 134 a. 2

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Intercession and Science

Once in a while some zealous atheist, agnostic, or deist will throw down a challenge: “If God answers prayers, we should be able to prove it with an experiment. But we see no statistically significant difference between groups of sick people who are prayed for and groups who are not. Therefore: A) there is no God, or B) we can’t be sure if there is a God, or  C) God does not involve Himself with us.”

It seems like a strong argument at first. If God really does respond to intercession, then we ought to be able to observe that response in contrast with a lack of response corresponding to a lack of intercession. Intercession is an action, healing or whatever response is or would be an equal and opposite reaction, while on the other hand whatever is in motion tends to stay in motion – those who are sick or in need will continue to be so unless they are helped.

There are some problems with this argument.

First, let’s take a look at the Temptations of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11)… It is Lent after all.

  1. Turn stones into bread – Jesus could solve world hunger and win over all the crowds this way. (Jn. 6:26 – “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”) He responds, “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
  2. Fly around Jerusalem – Jesus could publicly manifest Himself with abundant clarity in a way that would leave everyone in awe. (Mt. 16:4 – “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign…” And in the same chapter, v. 17 – “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.”) He responds, “You shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.”
  3. Make a compromise – Jesus could rule over the Earth without the Cross, without the public ministry, and generally without much effort. (Jn. 18:36 – “My Kingdom is not of this world.” And Lk. 24:26 – “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”) He responds, “Get away, Satan! For it is written, ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.'”

Christ’s Temptations provide the first major counterpoint to the skeptic, which is that God is not primarily concerned with making this life easy for us. We are promised that we will receive whatever we ask in His Name (Lk. 11:9, Jn. 14:13), but we are also promised trouble and suffering, the acceptance of which is even a condition of discipleship (Mt. 10: 16-39). These two promises do not square with each other unless we see that Jesus does not mean we will be given whatever material convenience we want, like a genie would do for us, but that we will be given every spiritual gift truly suited for us for which we pray sincerely. Virtues are the goods which truly help us.

Furthermore, God is wise to our tests and designs (Jn. 2:24). And no, He does not care to play along. A mysterious kingdom needs a mysterious road to lead to it. The New Jerusalem is nothing like the New Rome. Citizenship in the one is gained by unyielding faith in a crucified carpenter as God Incarnate, while in the other citizenship would be gained by simple obedience to an opulent and benevolent dictator.

Let us consider another passage, Mk. 9:14-29, where Jesus heals a possessed child. The crowd gathers, and the boy’s father explains the damage the demon has done over the years… “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus does not take kindly to the word “if”: “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then we are given the famous line, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus rebukes the spirit and tells his disciples that this kind of demon only comes out “through prayer.”

This episode gives us an insight into the project of the public ministry – it is not primarily about fixing people’s inconveniences, it is about fixing people’s souls. Jesus waited to do a good deed until the boy’s father manifested faith… This was His prerogative, since He came to draw people away from the world to Himself. The Christ did not open a miraculous hospital, or an infinite soup kitchen, or an infallible psychic hotline; rather, He told people to beg for God’s forgiveness (Mt. 4:17), to sin no more (Jn. 8:11), and to extend faith in God to Him as well (Jn. 14:1). Fixing people’s earthly problems were and are for Christ merely a means to an end: moving people to repentance, conversion, discipleship, and finally perfection in union with Himself and the Father. Just because we don’t get exactly what material convenience we want, when we want, how we want it, does not mean that God does not exist or concern Himself with us. When He doesn’t give worldly help, even when asked sincerely, it’s because He knows that to give us some particular opportunity to forsake the world and cling to Him in abandonment to His will is better than to give us what we’re asking for. (Remember the dichotomy of promises!)

We are not in the same position. It does not belong to us to help others conditionally to the same extent as God because we do not have the same privileged insight into people’s souls that He has, and even if we did we would not always know how best to use that knowledge. Sometimes we can be quite sure that withholding some help will be good for another – like when we allow a child to “learn the hard way” – but by and large we have a duty to provide basic goods for others we encounter and are able to help. We do need to open hospitals. We do need to run soup kitchens. (No psychic hotlines, however.) In fact, we would never be able to show love for each other without the opportunity to do these kinds of selfless acts.

So, can we test God’s response to prayer and prove with statistically significant results that He does indeed answer them? As it turns out, we actually can. Anyone who prays earnestly and frequently for help to become virtuous and holy will become virtuous and holy. And you can survey the lives of the saints and see that this is indeed how they prayed.

I will now teach you a short but powerful prayer which if you repeat often and with sincerity will change your life radically by changing you radically: “Oh Lord, help me to become a saint as soon as possible and at any cost to myself! Amen.”

Don’t be afraid to have this prayer answered.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: screenshot from the film Aladdin (1992)