Arts, Media, and Entertainment

The Oldest Morality Play

It's an opening familiar to millions of Americans. A New York resident is walking down the street, minding his own business -- maybe arguing with his spouse or chatting with a friend. Suddenly, he stops, a look of horror spreading over his face. At his feet is a dead body. The blood and gore are clues the victim probably didn't die of natural causes. It's the beginning of Law and Order, one of the most popular cop shows of all time. And it's far from the only cop show on television these days. Police and courtroom dramas have all but taken over prime time: BonesThe ShieldThe CloserWithout a Trace, three versions of Law and Order, and three variations of CSI. What is it about these gritty shows that appeals to so many people? You might assume that they're popular because crime is out of control, and viewers find comfort in watching programs that show murderers and muggers getting their just deserts. But that can't be the case, because crime is down. So what's the answer? I'm convinced that the popularity of cop shows reflects our God-given desire for justice and moral clarity. Our love of these dramas -- and before them, westerns -- reflect our acute awareness of the difference between good and evil, guilt and innocence. In this respect, cop shows are like mystery novels -- also hugely popular today. Mystery novelist P. D. James points out that the finale of any mystery is a kind of Last Judgment. There's a moral rebellion expressed in the murder itself and the confusion that occurs in its aftermath. Finally, the moral order is restored. What was done under cover of darkness is now revealed in the light. Evil is punished; the innocent go free. Police dramas presuppose a moral universe. In fact, moral absolutes are essential to police dramas. Take them away, and the story falls apart. Why? Because if there is no such thing as real evil, there's no such thing as a guilty party. There would be no point in tracking down a killer -- because murder would not be wrong. Cop shows are virtually the only place on television where it's acceptable to be morally judgmental. In an age that rejects absolute moral truths, the popularity of cop shows is a healthy sign, because they point to the existence of a moral order that is intuitively understood, and hence, to the truth of Christianity. Because we are made in God's image, we inherently crave to know that moral universe. We yearn for justice and absolute good. And that's why -- despite the corrosive relativism of the postmodern age -- we like stories that paint a picture of a moral universe, where evil is punished and righteousness triumphs. If you have unsaved friends who enjoy police dramas, you might ask them why they like them so much. Help them understand that these moral dramas tap deeply into the needs of the human heart -- and reveal our longing for truth, for wrongs to be righted, for justice and, of course, redemption. Even a TV cop show filled with graphic violence and rough language can give you an opportunity to point out that redemption comes, not from wise-cracking detectives ultimately, but from the Great Redeemer of history.


Chuck Colson


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