Beth Harmon is profoundly wounded from being rejected by her parents and by others who should have loved and accepted her. The orphaned chess prodigy who is the subject of Netflix’s new original series, The Queen’s Gambit, turns to drugs and alcohol not only to cope, but to play chess and win.
While the international chess scene of the 1960s is the stage, the story is about healing from the deep wounds of sin. Her own, but even more those of others. The narrative contrasts destructive, self-medicating behaviors with genuine healing and transformation. In doing so, the series taps into some essential Christian anthropological truths — truths Christians don’t always accept.
Her redemption comes from her friends’ love for her, from them showing up for her when they had no reason to. Only after receiving their love and acceptance does she have the strength to reject the things she’s used to medicate her pain since she was a child.
A couple weeks after I finished the series, I stumbled across this piece by Josh Herring over at The Public Discourse, titled, The Netflix Effect: Corrosive Storytelling and the Human Person. He takes issue with the show’s portrayal of woundedness and redemption, claiming that it presents a false vision of the human person.
Her redemption comes from her friends’ love for her. Their love and acceptance gives her the strength to reject the alcohol and drugs she’s used to medicate her pain since she was a child.
Herring contrasts this Beth Harmon depicted by Netflix with the Beth from the original novel by Walter Tevis, published in 1983. He claims that the novel’s Beth exemplifies a more ideal vision of the human person, one who achieves healing and transformation through isolation and asceticism.
Tevis, Herring says, “closes his story with Beth’s metamorphosis into a woman of excellence whose self-discipline has allowed her to transcend her inner faults.” In other words, the article assumes that individuals can overcome all circumstances and vices if they just work hard enough. He concludes the article: “either we recognize the importance of making the best choices and inherit a position of moral responsibility, or we face the despair of living in a world without moral agency.”
A Corrosive View
This view of the human person is corrosive. It stresses moral agency as if we were not also fallen and broken and in need of Divine mercy and healing. Herring presents an individualistic and pelagian vision of the human person where individuals can always transcend their wounds and weaknesses just through sheer force of will. In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis rejects the belief “that all things are possible by the human will.” This “contemporary pelagianism,” he says, rejects the reality of human weakness and blocks grace from progressively healing and transforming us.
“Contemporary Pelagianism,” says Pope Francis, rejects the reality of human weakness and blocks grace from progressively healing and transforming us.
Herring’s exaltation of individual isolation also rejects the Christian belief that human persons are made in the image and likeness of a community of three Divine Persons. As the pandemic has made explicitly clear, human beings cannot thrive in isolation. Built into our nature is a very real need to love and be loved.
In his new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, the pope says, “Human beings are so made that they cannot live, develop and find fulfillment except ‘in the sincere gift of self to others.’ … Implanted deep within us is the call to transcend ourselves through an encounter with others.” We transcend our inner faults through loving relationships with others. Sacrificing for another and accepting the sacrifice of others, not discipline and isolation, is what will save us.
In the final episode, Beth had hit rock bottom. She binges for days on drugs and alcohol. She is only able to move forward after she realized that the orphanage’s janitor who taught her chess and her best friend from the orphanage actually cared about her, cared about her without asking anything in return. Only after she understands their love for her does she finally have the strength to confront the memories of her birth mother, flush her stash of pills down the toilet, and defeat her Russian nemesis in the climatic tournament at the end of the show.
The Damage Sin Causes
Herring claims that the Netflix series tries to ignore sin by depicting vice without cost. It’s really his pelagiansm that denies the reality of sin. That false anthropology ultimately rejects the actual damage sin causes (our own sins, the sins others commit against us, and structures of sin). If we can heal ourselves then sin doesn’t actually wound our very nature.
This belief can lead to the particularly insidious conclusion that victims of others’ sins are morally responsible for their wounds. If we believe we always have the ability to heal ourselves, we’ve given ourselves permission to think that things like poverty and addiction are simply the moral failings of the poor and the ill.
In the final episode of the series, Beth visits the orphanage of her childhood and has a flashback of a teacher speaking a cold and calculating pelagianism. “Choices have consequences. You’re here because your parents made certain choices. You will need to learn to make different choices.” If all we need to do is learn to make good choices, then grace and sin don’t actually mean anything. If we can save ourselves, we don’t need a Savior.
When the flashback ends, Beth says, “I just realized I don’t ever want to go back in there again.” If we are honest about our own weakness and need for grace, neither should we.
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