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By August 17, 2013 2 Comments

Over the past year I’ve done much reading and listening to podcasts on the show Breaking Bad. Sunday marked the beginning of the end – the last installment of the mythic transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg. Much is made, by those who care, about the transformation of Walter White; they argue that the show is an invitation for the audience to see how far they can go with Walter. In the beginning we sympathize with him; he is, after all, a pathetic character. A high school teacher who could have been a billionare if he hadn’t left the company he started over a romantic breakup. A husband and father who tries hard but comes off as soft and out of touch. When he discovers he has cancer we feel badly for him. We understand, even if we disapprove, why he decides to take up cooking meth. We are pulled into an ethical dilemma that flips us over and turns us around. What Walt is doing is wrong, right? He’s becoming a monster, yes? Then why do I sympathize? Why do I find myself rooting for him? Why do I want him to get away with it?

By his own admission Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show, wants the audience to feel this way. He wants to see how far we will go. And by the time season six opens many, I’m sure, have gone far enough. Walt has done terrible things. Coldly, calmly, all in the name of his “empire,” he becomes Heisenberg. Many are rooting for Jesse, his conscience stricken partner, to kill him. Or, for Walt’s brother in law Hank, the head of the local police force, to catch him and throw in in the clink. Walt has, for many, transformed from tragic hero to villain. Yet… and I hesitate to admit this… I’m still rooting for him. Not sure what this says about me and my character…but I see Walt as someone who has been awakened. Asleep for a decade or more, being at the mercy of his circumstances, Walt woke up, grabbed hold of his life; Walt decided to act. 

For the past year I’ve been immersed in all things Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Reading Bonhoeffer, and reading about Bonhoeffer, it’s fascinating to see how the evangelical Christian world has made him into a caricature. When I tell people I’m writing on Bonhoeffer I usually get “Oh, I love Bonhoeffer. Cost of Discipleship is wonderful!” Cost of Discipleship… the writing that Bonhoeffer, while sitting in prison, seemed to regret writing, even calling it “dangerous.” Reading Bonhoeffer I discovered someone who had grown weary of the high principles by which the Christian community excused their inaction; principles that rendered the gospel “safe” and “inert.” I discovered someone who appreciated Nietzsche’s declaration of the “death of god,” not as some atheistic disbelief, but the declaration of the end of metaphysics and all reified forms of the “good” or “transcendence.” Bonhoeffer emphatically calls for responsibility, for decision, for action. Not based upon some eternal hope, some eternal world beyond, but in the name of a love revealed in Jesus Christ that is for the world right here and now. To stand in the face of death and anxiety, to face the principalities and powers of this world, to stare into the darkness of chaos and meaninglessness, and act. To decide. To love and hope.

In the end, Walter White and Dietrich Bonhoeffer stand on opposite sides. Walter’s transformation into Heisenberg epitomizes the inward curvature of the self; he is trapped within his own hubris. Walter has crossed over into the darkness and he has embraced it. However, I imagine if Bonhoeffer and Walter White were to meet there would be mutual respect. Bonhoeffer would nod, and Heisenberg would give a tip of his black rimmed hat, as they both turn and walk their chosen paths.

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at


  • Ed says:

    The one thing that Bonhoeffer didn't have to face, which all those who admire him do, is the presence of The Spectacle as Guy Debord described in Society of the Spectacle.

    "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. …

    The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. …

    The concept of "spectacle" unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena. The diversity and the contrasts are appearances of a socially organized appearance, the general truth of which must itself be recognized. Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance. But the critique which reaches the truth of the spectacle exposes it as the visible negation of life, as a negation of life which has become visible."

    Politics and religion are now hyper-realities, about the "show" of righteousness. I wonder how Bonhoeffer would relate to both evangelicals and progressives today? I'm not so sure he'd be very happy with either expression of Christian discipleship.

  • Jason Lief says:

    Thanks Ed,
    I think I disagree – Bonhoeffer certainly did encounter "spectacle." The Third Reich was "spectacle" in its purest form. In fact, the Third Reich epitomized "branding" before "branding" was cool.

    (See Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State) by Steven Heller

    A reading of Ethics and Papers and Letters from Prison show that Bonhoeffer prophetically addresses issues (spectacle, simulacra) that are deeply imbedded within contemporary society.

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