Mad Men and the Judgment of God

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After a protracted contract dispute, AMC has announced its hit television series “Mad Men” will be back on the air this season. This had to elicit sighs of relief in the niche cable network since the show, about advertising executives in the 1960s, has proven to be a ratings boon. Some have speculated that the show’s success is due to its naughtiness, the allure of the forbidden. People smoke in public places, men sexually harass their secretaries, and Moms drive their kids around without seat-belts. Above all, people move in and out of casual sexual encounters, all with ease. But maybe there’s more going on here.

Recently, in light of the contract resolution, NPR talk show host Terry Gross re-ran an interview with actor Jon Hamm, who plays lead character advertising guru Don Draper. Hamm said that he and the other actors never know where the arc of the story will lead in any given season, and that he doesn’t want to know. He might, he argued, allow his knowledge of the fictional future to subconsciously shape the way he portrays his character, a character who, of course, doesn’t have access to his life’s script. But, the actor said, there’s a theme, present from the beginning of the show, that only now is beginning to become visible: actions have consequences.

Gross noted to Hamm that his character seemed much less glamorous these days than the cool, fedora-wearing success story he seemed in the show’s first season or two. She pointed to an episode in which the drunk, divorced Draper is dragged out of a bathroom, so inebriated he cannot walk, with a vomit stain on the front of his shirt.

“The guy’s world is slipping out of his grasp, and he is no longer the master of his universe that he once seemed to be,” the actor said. This is all part of the big picture he and series creator Matt Weiner agreed on from the outset: all of the actions would have consequences.

“I think some of the early criticism of the show was like, these actions don’t have consequences, like this guy gets away with everything,” Hamm said. “He’s a liar, he cheats on his wife. And what we’re now finding out is that they don’t have to have consequences on the same day or on the same episode or in the same hour of television, but they will have consequences.”

This actor is on to something here. In a media-driven era, it is easy for us to think of our lives as a series of separate episodes, each compartmentalized from the other. But this isn’t unique to us. The Christian story tells us that, from the very beginning, the curse of sin holds people in an illusion that actions don’t have consequences precisely because those consequences aren’t immediate.

When the primeval woman doesn’t drop dead after chewing the fruit, she probably assumes the serpent was right: “You will not surely die.” The Apostle Peter warns us that it is easy to assume that, because the appearing of Christ has been delayed for then decades, now millennia, that this means history will continue along as normal (2 Pet. 3:1-13). And virtually every page of the Scripture addresses the truth that it seems, in the short run, that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer.

But we are looking at too small a narrative arc. We want to reckon the Lord, and the consequences of our actions, as slow “as some count slowness” (2 Pet. 3:9) rather than seeing the vast cosmic drama in which we are but a mist. Because we hide our sin, we assume it is forever hidden. Or, because we don’t see the glory of God about us, we assume we’ve been forgotten.

We can’t see the script of our lives ahead of time. We can’t see which consequences come with which actions. It is hard enough to see the consequences in this life for our actions, much less those in eternity. But we see the gospel. We see that Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead, and, therefore, our inheritance is sure. We see that judgment has fallen on him, and, therefore, God’s justice is sure. As Paul writes: “God is not mocked, whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Gal. 6:7).

That is very difficult to see from here. In order to believe it, we need a word from the outside, a preview of our future, in all of its gore or in all of its glory. Apart from that word, the word of the gospel, we’re all alone with our consequences. We’re just sinners in the hands of some very mad men.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).