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Ne'er the Worldviews Shall Meet? Lena Dunham and Jane Austen

If you ever need an example of how the Christian worldview clashes with modern secularism, you could hardly do better than to watch an episode or two of the HBO series titled “Girls” — that is, if you have an extremely high tolerance for sleazy television.

In the May issue of the journal First Things, Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs describes an episode of “Girls” that he finds especially repellent. I won't go into graphic details, but the episode involves the character Hannah Horvath, played by the show's creator, Lena Dunham, having intimate relations with her part-time boyfriend Adam. In the midst of this activity, Adam begins to fantasize about a child heroin addict.

But Hannah sees nothing wrong in any of this behavior. And neither, evidently, do many fans or television reviewers.

Notably missing here, Jacobs writes, “is the possibility that there could be a moral dimension to Adam's behavior.” Adam’s defenders — fans and reviewers alike — Jacobs says, “treat Adam as a real person but, any appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, a fundamentally decent one.”

Jacobs goes on to ask, almost as if he’s yelling at the TV (as I would): “Don’t you think Adam is, at the very least, really creepy? You know that Adam desperately needs healing, don’t you? You realize that he could possibly be dangerous to Hannah?”

But real danger is not a factor in “Girls.” There’s no possibility that reckless behavior could result in devastating consequences.

Jacobs compares the show's lack of a moral dimension to Jane Austen's Mansfield Park — a novel which contains quite a few bad apples among its characters. But Austen understands something that Lena Dunham does not: When moral education is neglected, bad character and evil actions are the logical results. For instance, when the heroine, Fanny Price, calls the behavior of her neighbor Mary Crawford “cruel,” her cousin Edmond corrects her. “The evil lies ... in a perversion of mind,” he says. “Hers are not faults of temper ... [but of] a corrupted, vitiated mind.”

By contrast, as Jacobs observes, for Lena Dunham and her fans, “Girls” is a “moral world in which 'perversion of mind' can have no place, even when the mind in question occupies itself with … fantasies about performing degrading acts.”

These two moral worlds — that of Jane Austen's novels and that illustrated by the TV show “Girls” — do not “touch at any obvious point. To hold one is to reject virtually every premise of the other,” Jacobs adds.

The difficulty for the Christian is in trying to bridge the gap between these two moral worlds. How can we even begin to have a conversation with someone who genuinely believes that there is nothing wrong with the kinds of fantasies Adam enjoys? How do we speak about Christ and sin to someone who believes, as Jacobs puts it, that catastrophic moral harm is not a meaningful category?

Well, we won’t bridge the gap merely through reason or argument. That’s because Dunham’s fans don’t need argument, they need conversion. And to accomplish that, Jacobs writes, true moral instruction must engage their affections and desires, and to increase in them a love for what is good, true and beautiful.

And we do that by the way we live, and by encouraging and creating “better art and better stories” — books, films, TV shows, works of irresistible beauty that reflect the moral reality of the universe.

Come to BreakPoint.org today. We’ve gathered resources for you on the power of story and art to create in us the desire for what is good, true and beautiful.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: May 22, 2013

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