One of my favorite television shows of all time is a Canadian gem called Flashpoint, which ended this past year after a five season run. It was well written, well acted, incredibly dramatic and exciting, and, because it was Canadian, it wasn’t graphic with its violence.
(God bless Canada. It says something about my non-Canadian culture–not something good, in case that wasn’t clear–that we think realism requires gory, bloody, anatomically accurate carnage. Similarly we think love requires sex. Apparently we can’t fathom anything that doesn’t happen to our bodies. Hooray naturalism.)
In brief the show follows a group of dedicated police officers who enter terrible and dangerous situations, then try to defuse them and get everyone out alive. Usually someone has made terrible life choices, gotten themselves into a heart-wrenching situation, and created a worse situation in the haze of despair. Sometimes things go badly–as they say in the show, they can do everything right and still have the situation go wrong–but other times the heroes save the day.
That’s what the police are intended to be in the show. (Yet another thing to like about it; police usually don’t get enough respect.) Its creators describe it as a show about the human cost of being heroes. We’re supposed to see the heroes be heroic and understand what it takes for them to do it.
Now, anyone who knows me at all knows that they had me at heroes. There are no genres I embrace more enthusiastically than heroic narratives. Lately I discovered another show, Arrow, which is about the DC Comics superhero Green Arrow; it’s badly written, poorly acted, doesn’t seem to understand even the basics of drama, and I watch it anyway. I kind of miss it when I can’t watch it, actually.
It might be easy to dismiss this particular infatuation because I’m male–lots of folk talk about how men want to be heroes themselves, and even more folk talk about how women are sick of people thinking they need to be saved by men–but there’s a bit of a twist. Yes, I like the idea of being a hero–I’m enormous and hairy, so there’s no point denying the level of testosterone in my system–but I like hero narratives because I’m already in one, and I’m the person in distress. For me hero narratives point to the hero of my own experience, who is most certainly not me.
Let’s use our imaginations for a moment and imagine a person who makes bad choices. (This should not be difficult.) Bad choices tend to lead to bad situations, and in bad situations it’s easy to make more bad choices. If you watch any crime shows at all–or have even a passing acquaintance with actual human beings–this is easy to understand. People end up addicted, desperate, trapped, and doomed. A lot of the time they get themselves there freely.
So let’s imagine a boy who’s small and scared, poor and isolated. He’s constantly hungry and nervous, in addition to the usual childhood burdens of jealousy and impotence. Then someone offers him a way to be less hungry, less scared, and the cost is relatively small, maybe a petty theft. Well, it feels good to have a bit of power over his own fate, so he does that a few more times. Eventually escalation is required, but it doesn’t seem as hard anymore.
Fast forward to the teenager in a gang who’s more scared of the people over him than he ever was of the outside world. Now he’s seen the terrible dehumanizing cost of the life he leads, but what can he do? Even if he could escape, what would he be escaping to but either justifiable punishment or a miserable life trying to hide both from punishment and his gang.
Incidentally, this is exactly the sort of teenager who would make a desperate decision and need to get rescued by the police in Flashpoint. Also incidentally, it’s the story of Christmas.
You see, there’s a moment in every heroic narrative when the hero shows up. If it’s done well–so don’t look for examples in Arrow–it’s magical. As the one song puts it, there’s a “thrill of hope” that maybe everything will be ok.
In the heroic narrative we call history, that point happened about 2,020 years ago. Every human being was that desperate teenager I described above. We all made bad decisions, we all chose such corrupt power as the devil offered in place of God, and as a race we came to deeply regret it, but what could we do? Our situation was hopeless; we didn’t know how to fix what we’d caused, we didn’t want the punishment we knew we were due, and we couldn’t stop making things worse.
But then God came.
When it comes to holidays, Easter is the most important one in the Christian story–if Christ wasn’t crucified and resurrected, nothing else matters–but Christmas is the climax. Once God shows up, resolution is inevitable. The resolution is also inevitably good, because God is Good, but that takes a bit more unpacking. What’s clear though is that everything changes. To use a toned down version of the cliché: “Things got real.”
Let’s imagine that desperate teen above confronts the leader of the gang. The leader of the gang responds with violent fury. The teen imagines he’s going to die. Then Batman shows up and says, “Leave the kid alone. If you want to tangle, how about you tangle with me.”
That’s Christmas. That moment is Christmas. The eternal Son of God shows up and says, “Okay, Sin, how about you tangle with me?” (Spoiler: This does not go well for sin.)
And that’s why I like heroic stories. For me, every heroic story reflects the one truest one, the story of a heroic God. It’s why I like Christmas too, when the heroic God showed up. Frankly I can’t get enough of that story.