The Twilight Zone, one of my all-time favorite shows, was famous for its macabre twists. Creator Rod Serling deftly put his characters into bizarre situations before yanking the rug out from under the audience and leaving them stunned and bewildered. Sometimes the theme was “things aren’t as they seem” like The Eye of the Beholder or The Invaders. Other times it was “getting everything you wanted is actually a bad thing” as in Time Enough at Last or Walking Distance. The true calling card, however, was always the characters themselves who get dragged into a strange world of paranoia and horror and who suck the audience in with them. We learn about their deepest flaws, their basest instincts, and the true forces that drive them to action (good and bad).
Netflix’s Black Mirror borrows from this thematic tactic, but brilliantly versions it up for the 21st century audience. Creator Charlie Brooker presents tech-based stories that are so arresting and strangely believable that they cause viewers to look around as the credits roll with a creeping fear that they may actually already be living in the same world as the show. The aliens and talking dolls of The Twilight Zone are replaced by next-gen social media apps, terrifyingly sentient AI, and implantable computers. Suddenly the horror isn’t so far-fetched.
In fact, Black Mirror’s hiatus during the Covid years seemed like no hiatus at all, just a way to allow a real-life season of the show to take the stage. Paranoia, global disharmony, and humanity’s lack of control were played out in every corner of life. Twitter became awash with Black Mirror memes and attempts at (dark) humor. “This new season of Black Mirror is a little too close to home”, etc. As I mentioned before, the recurring theme of near-future technology betraying its users runs like a thread in every installment of the anthology series. In this way, the show highlights the worst-case scenarios of our present technological trajectories.
This viewpoint pushes back against a more rosy, humanistic view of the future. Those who prognosticate, saying, “With the right people in power and with new data and communication, we can solve all our problems” are proven fools in the world of Black Mirror. Maybe more technology in the hands of flawed people yields middling or even bad results. Or to borrow again from the forerunning Twilight Zone, maybe getting what you want is a curse.
Example: In an episode entitled The Entire History of You, people are offered a small implantable device that records all their experiences and saves them for later playback. A dashcam for your entire life, if you will. And of course, you can share these recordings with others. The central married couple enjoys using these devices to relive fond memories later on. But this enjoyment evaporates as the husband begins suspecting his wife has been dishonest with him. He obsessively combs through his recorded memories for evidence of infidelity and throws clips at his wife to demand explanations for tiny comments or glances. The entire affair boils over into violence and a dark ending for everyone. The technology that offered joy and shared recollection has instead given fuel to sin, jealousy, and unforgiveness.
Black Mirror is not what one would call a “feel-good show.” There is very little light in the universe of this program. And yet, I think God has embedded some brilliant truths here that teach us about the interplay between law and gospel.
Like near-future technology, the law of the Old Testament places the burden on humanity to save themselves. It tells us that with the right behavior, and with the right tools, we can elevate our station before God.
But here’s the thing: getting new running shoes doesn’t magically make you a runner. Getting a pricey new journal notebook doesn’t make you a better writer. Picking up a new Bible or devotional book doesn’t make you more pleasing to God. In fact, these things can soon become the tools that mock you for your failure if your measurement for success is high. The shoes don’t get used enough. The notebook keeps too many blank pages. And the Bible and devotional are not read enough. In these times, we feel worse, not better, when we realize that we’re still the same broken people as before even though we feel like we should be better now. Rather than save us, these endeavors humble us. They show us that our sin is still inside no matter what we try to do to extract it or purify it ourselves. We’re like the doomed Black Mirror characters, looking around in shock. Aren’t things supposed to be better? Why are they worse? We’ve advanced so far as a civilization and things are still so bad!? To paraphrase Paul in Romans 7, “Who will save us from this world of death?”
And that’s where the gospel rushes in, wiping off the black mirror that records and plays back our faults and helping us see through a crystal clear glass instead to something else, to someone else. The answer isn’t our reflection, it’s the windows of Jesus’ grace. Once we stop gazing at ourselves for help, we can see Jesus as the one who takes the burden off our shoulders, and even “forgets” our sin (Heb 8:12), at the cross.
Jesus doesn’t offer us some tools and technology to pull ourselves out of the grave — none such tools exist today or ever will. Instead, Jesus himself pulls people out of graves with his own nail-pierced hands. His resurrection is ours when we believe. With the black mirror of the law, this is impossible. But with Jesus Christ, all things are possible.
Here in the 21st century, this gospel helps us navigate a confusing and increasingly bleak feeling culture. This gospel invites us to not rely on humanity quite so much. It invites us to let go a bit more, to be people of grace to those around us. It invites us to interact with the tools and personalities of the world without pouring our hopes into them. So when people let us down, when tech lets us down, when sinful people keep doing sinful things even with all the right data available to them, we can lean on Jesus. We can lean on our church. We can be not dismayed, but know that our Savior lives. The black mirror won’t save us. Jesus will. Always.