Via Media: Mad Men

jane_barter_moulaisonIn the season six finale of Mad Men – a season which, significantly, begins with the protagonist reading Dante’s Inferno – Don Draper at last comes to terms with the “dark wood” of his past. In the midst of an advertising pitch to the all-American chocolate bar empire, Hershey’s, Draper finally  confesses that his childhood was not the perfect Norman Rockwell scene that we would expect of him, but was instead, the lonely and confused  sojourn of a “whore bastard” raised in a brothel.
Draper recounts how his prostitute “friends” encouraged him to rifle through johns’ pockets while they were otherwise engaged. The reward for Draper was a cut of the profits, as the prostitutes-cum-pimps offered back some pocket change with which the child would simulate a normal American boyhood by purchasing a Hershey bar, and stealing off to some quiet corner.
Don’s confession was a masterfully told narrative, not because of its novel revelation (Mad Men fans had al- ready pieced together Don’s sorry past over the span of six seasons), but because it provided a familiar and potent, discursive strategy through which the protagonist came to terms (partially at least) with the pain of his past.
A confession is a largely Christian form that allows the one confessing not merely to give an account of her or his life, but to give an account of life as it should be. It is a story of the self who stands in contrast to the identity that has been conferred upon her or him through accident of birth, circumstance or person- al failure. It is an acknowledgement of the rupture between who I am and who I am called to be, and as such, confession represents a new beginning.
Fans of Mad Men may be excused for being skeptical about Don Draper’s new beginning, and director Matt Weiner ingeniously offers some clues about the ambiguities of confession. Sure, Don Draper has confessed, but at what cost? What are the implications of his stalwart self-disclosure upon the company that he serves, a company that had desperately hoped to land the Hershey deal? In other words, how does confession become a coercive power?
While I do fantasize about devoting a year or two of research to the ingenious television drama that is Mad Men, I have recently taken up a broader task in my writing (sigh!).
I was recently asked to write a book on the history of the Christian doctrine of humanity – its anthropology – and thus, to explore the biblical and historical features of Christian conceptions of the self from apostolic times to the present.
My new book project is related (I promise!) to my Mad Men meanderings because my thesis is that the distinctly Christian view of humankind is that we are confessing animals. That is, we see ourselves as ones who are called by God to proclaim Jesus Christ, and such proclaiming involves a seeing of ourselves as contrary to what we once were.
In other words, as Christians, we understand ourselves as those called to confess a gospel that displaces both our prior pictures of ourselves and of the world into which we are born. Like Draper, we know ourselves to be more than our life circumstances or our mistakes. But like Draper, confession  of our true identity can be at odds with those around us, especially when it becomes a claim to authority.
I believe this work to be helpful for the church as it offers a framework for understanding distinctly Christian conceptions of the self. Further, this has practical consequences as Christian anthropology continues to inform a variety of ethical and political positions and perspectives.
When persons within post-Christian culture speak of having a unique grasp upon the truth or when they hold in their very DNA the conviction that there is an authentic self (“the real me”) who is contrasted to those “false selves” that the world has constructed (one could easily also read the characters Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell this way), they are hearkening to a tradition that I would argue derives from a uniquely Christian worldview. And although Weiner is a Jew who lovingly portrays characters who are mercifully unpreoccupied with confession (such as Rachel Menken or Michael Ginsberg), he is close enough to the Christian world to see both the power and the peril of such a vision.
My book will attempt to take us through the Christian story of humans as confessors in all its ambiguity. And while this book may lack something of the dazzling beauty that is Mad Men, it may yet have something to tell us about whether Don Draper’s confession was good and true.

Jane Barter Moulaison’s book, titled The Human Animal as Christian Confessor, is scheduled for publication in 2017 with Paternoster Press.


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