Saturday, February 21, 2009

On Discernment, Taste, Quality, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I have never seen an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I have been told numerous times by numerous people (some whose opinions or judgments I actually respect) that it is a quality show. I don't doubt it. From others, whose rhetoric is a bit less carefully chosen, I've been told that I would like it. I do doubt that, though I allow for the possibility that it is true. (Doubt is not denial; it is uncertainty.) From still others, whose rhetoric is even less circumspect, I've been told that I "should" watch it. I would doubt that if I thought it meant what it said and wasn't just a lazy short hand for "well, I like it."

I have pulled Season One off the shelf at CD Warehouse numerous times and looked at it. I've had friends who own the complete series who have offered to lend it to me for free. I've thought about putting it on the Netflix queue. Each time, though, I've stopped. Not because of some critical panning or particularly bad review--I actually can't think of a single person I know who has seen it and given it a bad review--but because some inner voice or impression has said, each time I've thought about watching it, "You don't want to do watch that."

Now in Christianese circles, the word attached to the process I've described here is generally "discernment," and my reluctance to actually just use that label says a little something, perhaps, about the odd way in which that word has been appropriated, deconstructed, diminished, and come, perhaps, to stand in for something other than what it is.

Perhaps, then, before I amplify, a few disclaimers are in order. There are a number of things I am NOT claiming, and its important for me to point them out because of the way this concept is batted around in Christian circles.

1) I am not saying that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is bad artistically.

2) I am not saying that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is bad in some spiritual or moral sense, especially if by "bad" we mean:
2a) intrinsically or essentially bad, bad in its essence and, hence, logically
2b) bad for everyone.
[To cop a food analogy, giving peanuts to someone with severe peanut allergies would show bad judgment. It doesn't follow that peanuts are inherently bad and should be denied to anyone.]

3) I am not claiming that those who refrain from watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer have more judgment or discernment than those who don't. If I'm a diabetic does my refraining from certain foods mean I have better judgment than those who partake of it? Perhaps, if they too are diabetic, but maybe their ability to partake is evidence of the fact that they are constitutionally better equipped to process such foods, could even be evidence that they have not exercised bad judgement (in terms of diet) as much as I have in the past and are thus in a better position to be able to eat food I can't.

4) I am not claiming that those who are able to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer are more spiritually (or emotionally) mature, developed or discerning than those who aren't. This may seem counter to what I just said in #3, but it isn't. Because while there are situations in which particular choices can be evidence of good judgment, it doesn't follow that the same choice (in different contexts) is always evidence of the same degree of judgment. This point strikes me as one that most Christians I know seem to find very difficult to embrace when it comes to art or consumer choices. Even though they wouldn't insist on the logic, most sort of reflexively hold onto the notion that maturity means more choices and thus, de facto, anyone who can make a choice another cannot is more mature. I think this is a false premise, not necessarily false logic, and I largely attribute to it the disbelief (and sometimes exasperation) people express if I cop to the reason I don't watch Buffy as being one of discernment. But you're such a mature Christian! But you watch _____________ (insert the name of something that they think is intrinsically worse)!

In the vernacular, "discernment" simply means acuteness of judgment. To exercise discernment is to exercise good judgment. But that is to use a synonym rather than to actually define the word, and in Christianese the term carries with it the notion that the judgment is good because it has been particularly or peculiarly informed or influence by God. For example the NIV translates Hebrews 5:14 as "But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil" while the ESV renders the same verse "But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil."

The tension I see in this verse is that both translations give the ability to distinguish good from evil as the hallmark of those who have discernment. Thus, doesn't it follow that what they are discerning is the "good" and "evil"? And wouldn't it further follow that the choice to refrain would only come from discerning evil? I don't think so.

First, this logic follows if there are only two, absolute, concrete categories. Good and evil. I tend to believe (as, for example, Milton claims in Areopagitica) that in the world good and evil (and the ability to discern them) are intermixed. In fact, the pure "good" is so rare as to be possibly non-existent. (This is why I reject the--what seems to me socially fundamentalist position--that the proper response to all mixes is to refrain and only partake of what is an unqualified good.)

Second, bear in mind that the verse above is talking about teaching. In cultural conversation it tends to get conflated with verses about meat offered to idols and thus create a notion that, analogously or metaphorically, it is okay to eat meat offered to idols (i.e. partake of something questionable) if one has and exercises discernment.

Let's separate these two verses, though. It seems to me that what Paul says about eating meat that was sacrificed to idols not that it is okay for some and bad for others. He says it is fine, that there is nothing wrong with it. He then goes on to say that if you think or feel it is wrong and do it anyway, that you have sinned against your own conscience and tells those who have freedom in their conscience that they should refrain rather than tempt a brother to stumble. [My friend Don often used the term "tyranny of the weaker brother" for those who used this verse to try to coerce people not merely to accommodate their weakness but to defer to their judgment. That is, to people who used the argument of I Cor 8 but used it as a trump card to try to force their will where their were disagreements about the substance of 2A rather than about the effect of exercising freedom they acknowledged the other person had.]

The Hebrews verse, by contrast, strikes me as saying that Paul (or the author if you don't believe in Pauline authorship of Hebrews) would be able to give more difficult or advanced teachings if the listeners/readers had more discernment, but that such teaching may be damaging (or at the least unhelpful) to those who hear it without judgment.

Clearly the author isn't saying that the lack of discernment on the part of the hearers is in some way correlated to the intrinsic good or evil of the object. The teaching itself was good, so I have a hard time buying an interpretation that says the motive for being unable to give the teaching that the hearers might err in their discernment about the intrinsic nature of it. I have a similar hard time buying the argument (though I think it marginally more possible) that the reason for refraining from giving the advanced or good teaching was that it might induce some to accept ideas without coming to any determination at all, without making that part of their mental calculus.

What I think the verse does suggest, and what I think can be applied to art or entertainment choices is the notion that the more developed the person's discernment (i.e. capacity to distinguish good from evil), the more they can make such judgments (about what to listen to) for themselves rather than having to be shielded from not only those things that are always or intrinsically bad (or wrong, or evil) but from those that might have bad consequences stemming from their inability to distinguish the good from the bad in it or who might be peculiarly or particularly injured by the bad intermixed in it, even if that amount is smaller in quotient relative to the good than it is in other matters. ( This latter is, I think, the category that Buffy falls into for me and why I don't watch it.)

None of this strikes me as particularly new or insightful or "out there." So why share it now and here?

Only this. I tend to congregate in circles where the default is to more often criticize the puritanical censor, the weaker brother tyrant, or the holier-than-thou-snob. Most of my friends and many of my acquaintances, to the extent they congregate in Evangelical circles at all, have had experiences of being ostracized, condemned, defamed, or criticized for not refraining from something that someone else thought it their business to tell them they ought to refrain from.

By and large the ability to screen out, ignore, or leave behind the voices of the puritanical, Pharisaical censor (whether it be the external voice of a toxic, self-appointed guardian of morality or the internalized, nagging voice masquerading as conscience in those who have lived too long amongst the others) is, in my experience and judgment a difficult but important and liberating step away from cultural hegemony and towards emotional and spiritual maturity.


Well, there is such a thing as backlash or blowback, and it puzzles me how often the exercise of one's discretion grates on or offends another party, even when it is not accompanied with judgment or condemnation. Of course, maybe it is possible that I misjudge or mismeasure the extent to which I don't communicate or don't feel those things in reference to those who watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Were I to be asked to enumerate the five people whose spiritual judgment I trust and value the most in the world at least two of them would be self-professed fans of the show. So if I hold some secret contempt in my heart for those who watch the show, it is one of those well kept secrets that I'm keeping even from myself. I can't recall ever (before now) volunteering that I had never seen the show when others were praising it nor stating what my reasons were for not watching it unless specifically asked. Yet in those times when it does come up my decision is more often met with criticism or frustration rather than understanding. I suppose on some level the irritation and frustration can be chalked up to enthusiasm leading to disappointment--those who like books or films like being able to share them with people they like--and not to something less benign.

What I do know is that people who I think wouldn't dream of replying to someone who said, "Well, there is nothing wrong with double fudge cake, but diabetes runs in my family and I don't think that is a good idea for me" with "Oh, come on, you'll really like it, and one scoop won't kill you!" seem to feel no compunction about telling me that I've unfairly misjudged their show, that I'm needlessly missing out on the most fun I'll ever have in my life, or that I must therefore be just like those fundamentalists that told them they were going to hell when it got out they had seen Nine Songs or listened to the Police.

And I don't get that. If your partaking shouldn't lead to my taking offense, please don't take offense at my refraining. Look at it this way, that just gives you something to do while I'm watching South Park or Eyes Wide Shut or Brokeback Mountain, and while we're together we can always watch Firefly or Dollhouse.



peter, your 6th man off the spiritual bench said...

While I'm certain that I'm not numbered among the top five spiritual guides in your life, I'm going to go ahead and chime in here with some simple advice.

As you've heard from reliable sources, it's a good show. Season One is not the best season, however, so you'd have to soldier on a while to get to most of the stuff that we fans most like about the show anyway.

Don't watch it. Don't worry about not watching it. And don't let anyone give you any crap.

peter said...

"Discernment," however, will always raise people's hackles, because the common understanding of the word implies a superiority of judgment, rather than just knowing what's best for one's self. I understand how you're using it, I'm just saying that's how the word is probably perceived by most.

Beth said...

Your argument makes perfect sense to me.