Jesus Never Said, 'Be True to Yourself'
For all that the AMC series Mad Men gets wrong about desire, they know this to be true: to be human is to want.
Set in the '60s, the show thrives on "the drinking, the smoking, the lack of seat belts — [the dark appeal] of living without boundaries." At the end of the first half of their final season, Peggy Olson, who's risen to copy chief, is turning 30. Though she's turned down convention for career, and like Don Draper, lived by her desires, she wonders: Were those the right choices?
Mad Men is not a show you have to watch in order to understand its premise. It peddles very familiar cultural formulations of desire and want.
"Trying to match your desires to a vague notion of the ideal is exhausting — and you can, in fact, listen to what your mind and body seems to be yearning for instead of battling to shut it up," writes Anne Helen Peterson. In her essay, "What Peggy Olson Has Taught Me About Doing It My Way," Petersen admires Peggy for having resisted the "Greek chorus, constantly reminding Peggy that she made all the wrong choices." She's done it her way. Peggy may never have the happiest life, but even if she is miserable, at least it will be the misery of her own choosing. Peggy's courage—to want—must be bravely imitated.
There's something inviting about the Mad Men world: that we should live by our desires, that our desires express our most authentic selves, that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks or expects. Isn't it great that Peggy is free to want? In fact, isn't she most free when she wants?
But of course this is the virtue of "being true to yourself"—which wasn't included when Jesus was asked to identify the greatest command in the Law (cf. Matt. 22:36-40).
Recently, I've been teaching a class on desire at my church as my book on the subject, Teach Us to Want, nears its release. At the first session, I showed a clip from Mad Men, launching a conversation about how the culture teaches us to want.
We summarized the culture's messaging on desire: If it feels good, do it. Desire can't be repressed; it has to be expressed. Nothing you want is ever wrong.
And then the church's: If it feels good, don't do it. Desire is evil. The highest calling in the Christian life is sacrifice.
No wonder desire has been my greatest confusion as a Christian. I've known that my life with Jesus required surrender. So what did I do with my wanting? Was it always evil?
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