Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Deeper Hungers and Darker Games

 I'm a big fan of honesty in fiction. 

 I don't want cookie-cutter personalities, saccharine love, or shallow stereotypes.  I want the author to convince me to cheer for heroes and against villains - and I want to know why the heroes and villains are worthy of the label.  I want grit and beauty, despair and hope, love and loss. If a story tells me what the world is like, I don't mind if it’s happy or grim.  I want actions to have real consequences, and I want to feel like I ought to feel if the same situation were happening in real life.
I want to believe that some things are worth fighting for and some things are not, and I want to be reminded that people can be redeemed though not all will be.

This is why I like The Hunger Games series. There have been some really good posts about these books (Holly Ordway's comes to mind, as does J.W Wartick's); since I would be both redundant and boring if I covered the same ground, I will address an issue I have not heard discussed much elsewhere.

 The Hunger Games is entirely a world without God.

Suzanne Collins does not give even the slightest nod to God or religion. As a result, she has done a stellar job introducing a YA audience to a dystopian, godless future that reveals the horrors of unbridled human nature.  As a Christian, I don't mind that God is absent from the story.  If an author is going to write about a world without God, then show a world without God.  I just want the story to be honest about how awful that world would be - and it is.
  •   There is no Higher Power to give objective standard for justice. Neitzsche said that when everybody understands that God is dead, they will know they are beyond such petty labels as "good" and "evil" and will simply exercise power.  In The Hunger Games, what happens when one corrupt regime is replaced?  The next regime moves in with the seeds of corruption already sown. The State kills people without benefit of trial or proof; so does President Snow.  So do the rebels.  Gale might just be the ideal Neitzschean Superman, finally able to move beyond attachments and emotions and wield his power on behalf of a regime that is new, but not that different.
  •   There is no Higher Standard for morality.  Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote: “If God is dead, somebody is going to have to take his place. It will be megalomania or erotomania, the drive for power or the drive for pleasure, the clenched fist or the phallus, Hitler or Hugh Hefner.”  Neil Postman noted, "Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."  Collins’ world without God captures both these possibilities. Those in the Capital who are not abusing or being abused by power are consumed with ease and pleasure.  The rebels “fight the system,” but what can they offer to replace it?  They are already intoxicated with the power they have. The distorted pleasure will follow, as we see foreshadowed in the agreement to have yet another Game.  
  • There is no Source of Hope outside ourselves.  Where does one find hope in the midst of the brutality and pain?  The only thing the book offers is relationships with others.  While I believe in the meaningfulness of community and companionship, that is the only hope in the story. Justice is either brutal, corrupted, or vigilante, and no ultimate justice will one day make things right.  There are no miracles, no unblemished saviors, no trustworthy authority figures.  There is only others - and even the hope found in them is broken. (The last chapter in the series is simultaneously hopeful and tragic - a measure of peace has been found, but it's a broken hallelujah)
  •  There is no Purpose to history.  In Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited, White, the nihilistic atheist, says: “The darker picture is always the correct one. When you read the history of the world you are reading a saga of bloodshed and greed and folly the import of which is impossible to ignore. And yet we imagine that the future will somehow be different.” What will happen in Katniss’s world?  No way to tell, really, but White appears to be correct.  If there were a Book Four, I suspect we would see the new government looking more and more like the old regime.  Even the best of the rebels seemed to lose their soul by the time the revolution was complete.  The Mockingjay can only repeat what it knows; just like the iconic bird, the individual characters appear to be only echoes of the people and events that have formed them.  Why should governments be exempt?
This list might leave the impression the series is not worth reading, but that is not the case at all. The series has a lot to offer in a world awash in worldview battles. Collins did not shy away from the reality of the world she created. There were no false moments.  If one can learn truth equally well through a story that shows compelling good as well as disgusting evil, The Hunger Games has done a lot in the service of truth, even if the story is disturbing and grim.
 Contrast this approach with another recent YA phenomenon: Twilight. The series is full of bizarre distortions of reality - it never does the story, the characters or the reader the honor of allowing something real to happen.
Young, impressionable teenage girls absorb the message that putting all one’s self-worth in one boy is okay; that stalking is romantic; that ordinary, boring friends are losers; that a love triangle involving a teenage girl and two really dangerous men (one who is much older than she) is really cool; and that rough sex is okay if he loves you (you only bruise the ones you love!) No, thank you.  I am not entertained.

Let's not kid ourselves; today’s youth know that life is grim. They already know that parents die, friends can turn on them, power can corrupt, and even the best relationships are full of tension and pain.  For many, life looks so overwhelming at times that the only thing they can do is hide for a while and wonder how they can possibly be made whole.  Maybe they are drawn to this story because it does them the honor of giving them truth.

I'd much rather they read a story that takes life seriously than one that insults them with beautiful twilight lies. At least now we are in the realm of truth, and the truth of Christ has the ability to bring hope, life, and light into very dark lives indeed.


Recommended Reviews of The Hunger Games:
Christian Reflection on the Hunger Games Trilogy - very thorough post from J.W. Wartick
The Hunger Games, Ethics and Christianity - another post about the role of luck
Book Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy - good overview and perspective of the series as literature
Blood-Stained Ink has a three-part series worth reading
From Emily Torres' Dystopia Ministries - a series of short articles on how our culture is intersecting with the Capital.
A series based on The Hunger Games and Philosophy begins here.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Logic and the Art of Reason Rallies

I teach an introductory logic class to high school students.  Each year, I have to explain to  a new group of students the difference between a valid argument and a sound argument.  
 A valid argument is on in which the conclusion must follow necessarily from the premises because the argument is framed correctly.  For the sake of determining validity, we grant conditional truth to the premises.  The goal in determining validity is not to decide if the argument is true, but only if it is valid. 
A really strong argument needs truth in order to be sound in addition to being valid.  My students can construct the best logical fortress in the world, but if their premises are not true, the argument collapses.

Arguments need to be valid and sound.
As I write this, the Reason Rally is in full swing unless the weather has hindered their plans. As the rally has raised the bar pretty high by claiming what appears to be exclusive rights to reasonableness,  I have been looking for thoughts from their leading lights that display valid thinking based on truthful premises.  I must admit, I am having a hard time with the material available.


“Goddamned annoying evangelical Christians. I’m beginning to feel like my long-standing personal policy of not intruding on their church services needs to be questioned, because man, is this ever arrogant and obnoxious…."  His advice?  "Calmly and politely take their rubbish arguments apart with much soft-spoken malice and cruelty… I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. This gathering will certainly attract swarms of mindless parasites."
 My argument with P.Z. Meyer is not that his thinking is invalid; my argument is that his thinking is not sound.  Even if Christians are damned by a God he does not believe in, and are in fact annoying, arrogant, obnoxious, mindless parasites, it does not follow that their arguments for God are either invalid or unsound and deserve to be taken apart with malice and cruelty.  I have heard plenty of adjectives attached to the stars of  Jersey Shore, but if any of them say  2+2 =4, I wouldn't pick the claim apart with malice and cruelty. Neither soundness nor validity hinges on likability. 

So, let's grant that Christians can really be lousy people. Does that matter?  Surely P.Z. Meyer is aware that top notch Christian philosophers present perfectly valid arguments for God’s existence - and some of the people are even nice, if that helps.  In his post he links to a website offering Christian literature to the Reason Rally as well as a list of names of the authors who contributed. Here is the partial bio of just one of the authors, William Lane Craig:  
Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology...dual M.A.s from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham (England), and a D.Theol. from the University of Munich... taught Philosophy of Religion at Trinity... moved to Brussels, Belgium, where Dr. Craig pursued research at the University of Louvain.  
I get that Meyer doesn't agree with Craig, but calling him a mindless parasite with rubbish arguments is hardly the kind of language by which glowing homilies to reason are constructed.  Not a great publicity post for a Reason Rally. 


According to Yahoo News: “And while there are plenty of critics of atheism, CNN reports the only group to have officially registered for a competing spot of land to protest the rally is the Westboro Baptist Church, a group infamous for its picketing of funerals of American servicemen and servicewomen.”

CNN and Yahoo News got this story wrong by leaving out a crucial detail:  The Reason Rally invited WBC.  That’s right, in spite of being contacted by Christian philosophers and apologists who asked to be part of a reasoned discussion, the Reason Rally went out of its way to reject those overtures and pursue the most inflammatory, irrational Christian group they could find. They are inviting the weakest possible opponent to showcase the strength of reason.  Odd...  

This pursuit of the easy target is not out of line with past approaches by those connected with the Reason Rally.  Bill Maher, one of the featured guests at the rally, made a movie called Religulous which featured predominantly really unfair representations of genuine Christianity. If his film was all we had to go on, I suppose his conclusion might have been valid:
"The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people - by irrationalists - by those who would steer the ship of state, not by a compass, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken." 
That's a very thoughtful analysis.  Wait - no, it's not. That film did absolutely no justice to the breadth and depth of Christian history and philosophy. I simply cannot find a way to make a purported celebration of Reason coexist with the decision to invite WBC and speakers whose analysis of faith is far more visceral than rational.  


 Richard Dawkins is the headliner for the rally.  In an interview with PBS Dawkins stated,
“Even if you are in some sense a determinist -- and philosophically speaking many of us may be -- that doesn't mean we have to behave as if we are determinists, because the world is so complicated, and especially human brains are so complicated, that we behave as if we are not deterministic, and we feel as if we are not deterministic -- and that's all that matters.”
So we are determined, but we don’t have to behave as if we are, which sounds like we aren't (?) Even while we deceive ourselves into thinking we are free – but wait, I can’t choose to deceive myself, because that’s determined, I guess – we can comfort ourselves with the idea that we at least feel free, and apparently that Noble Lie is all that matters.  

(To read more about Dawkins, follow this link to read about an event in 2008 in which he tried very hard to walk carefully through the ethical maze of vegetarianism, alas to no avail.)

My point is not to contrast irrational atheism with rational faith.  There are plenty of irrational people of faith, unfortunately, which is one reason I teach a logic class at a Christian school.  I merely intend to point out that no one owns the domain of rationality.  We can all be involved whether we claim faith or not.

Perhaps we could cover much more ground if we could agree that people from a huge range of worldviews have the ability to think rationally.  At the most basic level of reasonable discourse, we ask if the reasoning of an argument is valid.  

If the answer is "yes" - if conclusions logically follow from premises -  perhaps the debate can move more quickly to the soundness of the different premises contained in worldview systems.  If all parties are brave enough to look at themselves and their arguments honestly - and the ways in which they think - then we have nothing to fear from a pursuit of the truth.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Frontiers and Tumbleweeds

There's always gonna be another mountain
I'm always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be a uphill battle
Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose
Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb. 
- Miley Cyrus, "The Climb"

When I played this song to my class at school, all the kids knew it. Half of them hated it, but they could still sing the lyrics with a catchy sarcasm.  No matter their opinion of Miley, there is something about finding every moment of life meaningful that captures the imagination. I suspect that in a world of broken homes and damaged lives, the idea that even the most daunting climb matters resonates as well.
As compelling as the message may sound, there is a better and deeper perspective. Every journey has a destination; that much is true.  We will all arrive somewhere, and unless we want to be terribly disappointed we should probably know where we want to end up.  The journey is important, but the destination matters too.

"Something of this longing for what is not here, this joy of the pilgrimage, has set deep roots in the soul of Western man.  But it has become detached from an end to the pilgrimage. We thus lose a sense of home, both the eternal and the temporal. So we seek new frontiers to discover and to master, but without any point beyond the assertion of mastery.  We praise ourselves for our mobility, meaning that we can move, without noticing that without any sense of ultimate meaning, without any Person to whom we grant ultimate allegiance even in the smallest acts of our everyday lives, me must move.  We are under compulsion of perpetual mobility precisely because, without God, to settle means to acknowledge defeat, and to rest means to die within...

We change towns, we change schools, we change houses, we change husbands and wives, we change churches, we change faiths.  We go off into the distance, and we set at at a distance those nearby things we still pretend to cherish, as, for instance, our children.  We look down upon women who 'stay home,' thinking of them rather as creatures who are stuck in mud.  We almost treat as pious heroes those who are determined to leave their homes and never return, yet who still claim some tenuous and sentimental attachment to what they have abandoned.

It is doubtful whether, without steadfastness, without devotion to this place, this work, this spouse, this land, we can enjoy even a decent human life.  A tumbleweed is not only rootless.  It is directionless.  It is blown about by the chance of the wind, quitting here, divorcing there, forgetting here, abandoning there.  In following our own purposes, regardless of the claims of steadfastness upon us, we lose our purpose, and turn with every turn of the fickle heart."

 - Anthony Esolen, "God's Place & Ours," in Touchstone

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Zombie Thread: Extinction Event Ethics

    I am a fan of The Walking Dead (the series, not the comic).  I don't care for the gore, but it's not really the heart of the show. The writers are using extinction event drama as a sobering backdrop for a serious tour de force through an pockmarked ethical landscape.

    After last week's episode of The Walking Dead, Karl Meszaros (a friend and a comic book genius extraordinaire) started an email discussion about this show with Scott Smith and I.  Karl reads the comics; Scott and I watch the show. What follows is a discussion covering worldviews, ethics and morality, parenting, the Iraq war, and the Kardashians.  I hope at least some of it is insightful. If you like this topic, feel free to keep the thread going in the comments section.

 Karl Meszaros: Tell me what you think of this -

Scott Smith: Couldn't agree more.

AW: I don't agree with all of the article.  They were going to execute a man; Dale should have been the gadfly he was.  He was the only voice on that side of the argument - and he was right.
     I thought the vote, the almost execution, and the decision to imprison were awkward plotting. No way was Rick going to be willing to execute somebody that quickly.  The show should have given a couple more episodes to Rick becoming hardened, or desperate to keep his wife and put Shane in his place.

SS: I don't think it was that clear cut an issue. Not that executions should be such an easy option, but saving a bad guy without any consideration of the consequences is equally idiotic. If they really wanted to do this issue justice, it could have been handled much better by actually presenting  arguments. Like the article said - go straight into group discussion rather than all this junior high nonsense.
     What drives me nuts is that many of these issues are their own creation. This wouldn't be an issue if Rick wasn't so indecisive and weak.

KM: Just remember, this is comic book show.  One of the main rules in comics is “heroes don’t kill.”  Rick is the hero.  Shane is the villain.

SS: That's good to keep in mind (even though it's a silly rule - and one Rick has already broken). Do you think they intend us to see Shane as the villain?

KM: Shane is definitely the villain.  That’s why they had him sleep with Ricks wife.  This is a comic written for guys as seen from Ricks point of view.  Sleeping with the wife is a no-no.

SS: Yeah. He's definitely a bad guy in that sense. Most senses, actually. I asked because even though I think he's immoral and an idiot and I'm ready for a walker to take him, I don't see him as evil. I agree with him more often than I do Rick, but for different reasons.

AW: Shane is the ultimate Darwinian pragmatist. Dale called out his "survival of the fittest" life on the last episode. Rick is a good representation of a genuinely good man who finds himself mired in no-win moral dilemmas.  He may be indecisive, but it's because he recognizes what is really at stake more than the rest of them.

SS: True, but there is a place for some pragmatism, don't you think? Rick would have continued the search for Sophia forever, no matter how many people died or were injured in the process, even after all hope was gone. And then, he refuses to deal with Shane who is probably a bigger threat to the group than the walkers are.
     I think he is more level-headed than the rest, but I think that even a shred of imagined hope distracts him from reality and often paralyzes him from making proper decisions.

AW: In contrast to the rest, who have abandoned hope, refusing to see it even when it is there.We are seeing a downward spiral of all the characters who are willing to give up on people or devalue individual human life.  Shane kills a dude to get away, and he is now spiraling out of control.  Rick's son has lost perspective, and now he's taunting walkers.  The psycho redneck is a loose cannon.  It's the ones who refuse to give up on the living who maintain their humanity. The rest are becoming monsters.

SS: I actually like Daryl. He is a bit of a loose cannon, but look at his progress. When you see his backstory, I think this process in actually civilizing him. His erratic behavior is because he is having a hard time learning how to act in a group since he essentially raised himself.
    Carl is broken because he isn't being parented by anyone and his mother is insane. I don't think Lori or Shane are spiraling. I think they were rotten people to begin with, and the current circumstances are merely allowing that to shine.
    The show has been focusing on the nutjobs recently. We haven't seen much from Maggie, T-Dog, Glenn, Carol, or Herschel. They are all relatively stable people. I think the show just focuses on the grease fires lately rather than ensemble issues like it did earlier on.
    Prediction: If what Randall said about the other group is actually true, I predict that Duane is among them. That will make for some more conflict for Daryl.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Good Christians and GCB

If ABC aired a show called "Good Muslim Bi*****," what do you think would happen? If history is any indication,  this, this, this, this, and this.  What about a show called "Good Scientologist Bi*****"? Or "Good Jewish/Buddhist/Hindi/ Neo-Pagan/Girl Scouts/Knights of Columbus Bi*****"? Any guesses on the fallout?

We'll never know, of course, because ABC would never air shows with these titles. (In ABC's "defense," they very cleverly dropped the book's original title and renamed the show "Good Christian Belles" before settling for the oh-so-compelling "GBC"). These alternate shows I listed would get neither sponsors nor airtime; if they did they would not get glowing reviews from Hollywood Life. 

In fact, of all the reviews I read, very few reviewers were upset by the casual, almost indifferent obnoxious of the show.  The greatest crime was lack of compelling characters, the waste of good talent, or the tragedy of not having a show that would pick up the "Desperate Housewives" torch.  The distortion of ordinary Christian life was not a problem that even made the radar in any review I read - and I read a bunch.

I'm not actually very upset about this show.  It's no secret that Hollywood and religion are uneasy bedfellows. Most entertainment does not understand faith, let alone take it seriously enough to embed it realistically into the ordinary lives of characters and stories. I don't count on Hollywood to invigorate me spiritually. I long ago lowered the bar so far that I am pleasantly surprised when I find a show or a movie that takes religion seriously - and there are at least a few (and I don't mean Left Behind).

On the other hand, I have talked to enough people to know that the Christian stereotypes captured by entertainment have an impact. It hard to have a productive conversation with people whose best analysis of the faith comes from Dogma or Easy A - and now this.

Here's the thing: we don't worship the Bible. We don't worship the church. We don't worship morality.  We worship Christ, and even when He is insulted, we eventually relax because we believe truth will win in the end. Christians will not resort to bombing as we respond to the belittling and mischaracterization of our faith. I grow weary of the constant reference to Christian terrorists (“Radical Christianity is just as dangerous as radical Islam”) and Christian Sharia law.  The Bible could not be more plain: our biggest conflicts are not physical, but spiritual (see here for Jesus' words; here for Paul's).

The battle lines are drawn in our souls, not in our streets.  Jesus made it clear that I am to think of those with whom I disagree as my neighbors, not my enemies.  We all bear His image, even if we go out of our way to diminish or distort it.

ABC is welcome to air its adaptation of Good Christian B****.  We who are seeking to represent Christ in the world should see this as an opportunity to prove ABC wrong.  If we can't, the problem is ours, not theirs.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Walking Bad: Zombies, Meth, and Mesmerizing Nihilism

Two of the most popular current television shows are also two of the most grim:  "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead."  If you want to go for a trifecta, throw in "Game of Thrones," which is not yet as grim as it’s going to be.  Trust me.

For the record, I love "The Walking Dead," like "Breaking Bad," and was slightly bothered by how quickly and thoroughly Martin's "Game" drew me in.  The ideas of brilliant (and slightly disturbed?) minds have been captured and communicated by people with amazing talent.  If there is a Golden Age of TV drama, perhaps this is it.

I am also intrigued by the popularity of these shows.  While they leave something to be desired (I’ll get to that at the end), they all borrow heavily from a surprisingly Christian view of the world.

1) They value human life.
"Walking Dead" clearly paints the dissolution of humanity as a bad thing, not a good thing.  Even among the survivors, individual human lives are of utmost importance. In the midst of the hysterical decrying of the very existence of people, it's nice to be reminded that we are not the plague. 
"Breaking Bad" painstakingly chronicles the impact of the main character’s decisions on the lives of all those around him.  We care about Walter White’s wife and son, because they matter. When the son of two meth-addicted parents is rescued, we cheer. Even when characters are killed we cringe, because we know that not only has something bad happened to the victim, something dehumanizing is happening inside the killer too.

Christianity has always elevated the value of human life; we are created in the image of God, and as such carry intrinsic worth.  In a world that struggles to understand what it means to be human, these shows offer a refreshing perspective: people matter.

2) They give brutally harsh portrayals of the consequences of sin, even sin committed with the best of intent.  

A person’s actions either make them or break them, if not immediately then eventually. "Breaking Bad" shows a hero who becomes a monster, slowly and freely choosing to become evil.  What happens?  As Shakespeare once wrote, “ Chaos has come again.”  The camera refuses to look away as Walter sows and reaps.

"Walking Dead" shows the downward spiral of individual characters giving in to the temptations of the moment and gradually losing their souls in the process.  There may be monsters out there, but what about the monsters inside?  What if the sickness really is myself?

One cannot read the Bible without seeing a world of consequences; yes, God offers forgiveness and grace, but we still reap the things we sow. In a world where so many comedies and realities gloss over the real world impact of our choices, these shows unflinchingly display the fallout.

3) They value community.  
The extinction event in "The Walking Dead" is clearly not a boon for the world. The collapse of civilization is not a blessing.  The life of a solitary wanderer is a life to be mourned, not embraced.  Solidarity is safety; camaraderie is life.  In a world where technology allows us increasingly to isolate ourselves at the expense of true community, the reminder that the people around us need to be embraced is an important one.
In "Breaking Bad," the value of community is perhaps best seen in the tragedy of conflict.  The longer Walter White “breaks bad,” the more we see the horrific impact as everybody around him begins breaking as well.  We cheer him not when he heads off into the desert, but when he eats supper with his family.  The fact that his secret life requires him to be hardened, deceitful, and distant reminds us that honesty, integrity and companionship make the world go 'round.
The Bible presents a world in which people are meant to live together in unity and self-sacrifice. Sure, the rugged individual gets all the press,  but it's not the way life is meant to be lived.

4) They long for a better world.  

With this longing comes the idea that things are not as they should be, but a solution exists.  To borrow from C.S. Lewis’s language, they know what crooked is, and even if they don’t yet see the straight, they long for it.
The zombies in "The Walking Dead" are not right; they are human, but they aren’t.  There is a search for a cure to bring health back to the sick; there is a desire to rebuild communities; there is a longing for a world with trust, peace, hope, children and families.
"Breaking Bad" attempts to draw very clear lines between the good and bad actions of all the characters.  Everyone has insight into what ought to be done in certain situations, even if they only consistently uphold that standard for others. Perhaps it is true that our moral compass is best shown in our reactions to others even more than our deliberate actions.
Christianity claims that there are objective ways of understanding good and evil, and we are all called to fight to overcome evil with good. In a world that so often refuses to take a stand on morality, these shows are not afraid to claim not only that evil is real, but also that we must agree to fight against it.

5) They look unflinchingly at the capacity for both evil and good in everyone.

The stories draw us viewers in because we sense that something meaningful, important, and deep is happening.  Within each character, a war is raging between selfishness, pride, greed and power or selflessness, humility, generosity and servanthood.  All the characters have situations that challenge them, and even their smallest victories or compromises matter.
We will all one day be held accountable for what we did with the choices we have been given.  I believe it was Lewis who once said we don’t interact with just people, but with beings who will one day either stun us with angelic glory or horrify us with demonic ugliness. In this life, we catch glimpses in ourselves and in others.  In these shows, we watch the trajectories of everyone unfold.

John Stonestreet talks about entertainment being good, true and noble: good, in that the quality is high; true, in that its portrayal of the world matches up with reality; and noble, in that it inspires us to be better people. In many ways, these shows meet the criteria.
Here’s the problem:  none of them offer hope.  Sure, particular situations end well - occasionally.  But the pot at the end of the rainbow is not filled with gold.  The characters are forced to create their own meaning in a meaningless world; to find their own kind of hope when there is none; to rage agains the dying of the light while not actually believing there will be any end other than darkness. (This isn't limited to TV shows, of course. I'm also thinking of films like The American, Hannah, The Grey, Sucker Punch, and No Country for Old Men).
These movies and shows may all be good and noble. But without hope, the truth about reality is incomplete, so…it’s really not true.  And a partial truth is a lie.
I am starting to think "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead" move me because I bring to them a hope and a belief in redemption that is not actually in the story.  If I  step outside of my Christian presupposition about the world - through Christ, all can be made well -  the shows strike me as mesmerizing nihilism. (UPDATE:"Better Angels" on 3/11/12 seems to confirm this even more.)
If that is true, what does the popularity of these shows say about our culture?  Do they make us feel better?  I don’t think so.  Do they remind us of the really important things in life?  Well, yes, but to what purpose?   These shows have a lot of brilliantly packaged sound and fury -  without hope, do they also signify nothing?  Walter White is Macbeth, but there is nobody to clean up the kingdom when he’s gone.  Rick Grimes is as nobly doomed as Eddard Stark, except humanity’s winter has now arrived, and there will be no summer.

George R.R. Martin is a stunningly good writer, and his characters and his worlds move me.  But the relentless, brooding fatalism of the 7 Kindgoms is offset only by individual stories, lives occasionally lived well in the midst of a universe and a kingdom that simply do not care and are not fair. "Game of Thrones" will break new ground, I think, in its beautiful presentation of despair.  It has at least 4 more seasons ahead of it, and the road to darkness has been largely paved already.