Showtime’s hit series “Dexter” is one of the most popular television shows today. The show’s namesake and main character, Dexter Morgan, is a likable young man who seems harmless enough. No one close to him would suspect that he fits the cliché of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. The ghastly truth is that Dexter is a serial killer. His everyday ruse is so convincing that not even his sister and closest friends, who all happen to be police detectives, suspect him of anything but being a good person.
Dexter was trained at a young age by his adopted father, the late Harry Morgan, to hunt down and execute other killers. Harry was a police officer who discovered the infant Dexter sitting in a pool of blood at the scene of a grisly murder. Dexter’s mother had been brutally killed and poor young Dexter had witnessed the horrific event.
Harry, a veteran police officer, immediately recognized formative circumstances that could produce a deranged murderer. Harry predicted that Dexter, having been exposed to monstrous violence and death at such an early age, could possibly become a monster himself. Harry was right.
Dexter clearly exhibited traits of a serial killer in the early stages of his life. He was an emotionless child with little regard for life. Harry recognized the monster in Dexter early and encouraged Dexter to take up forensic science. This way Dexter would understand how murderers are caught, enabling him to avoid his own capture. Harry did everything he could to make sure Dexter never had to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Some may question Harry’s judgement. His actions can be explained by a combination of fatherly love and guilt. The guilt comes from the fact that Dexter’s mother was Harry’s informant. She was murdered because of her involvement with him. I see Harry as a good man who tried his best to make the best out of a bad situation. This may sound like foolishness or even madness to some, but I would venture that, like Harry, all of us have done bad things with good intentions.
Harry didn’t only ensure that Dexter could get away with murder. He also ensured that Dexter targeted the right individuals for his ritualistic kills by making Dexter adhere to a code. Dexter can only kill those that he can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt are guilty of murder. Also, Dexter only targets individuals that escape the law via loopholes in the legal system, although, on some occasions, Dexter helps these individuals escape the law so that he can exact his own justice on them in order to satiate his dreadful addiction to murder.
I was at work talking to a colleague about this show one day when a man overheard me and began to criticize me for liking Dexter. He was a Christian who believed that watching the show was sinful. While his concerns were genuine, they were uninformed as the man admitted that he had never actually seen an episode of “Dexter”. He only knew that the hero was a serial killer.
The man felt that those who watch Dexter are letting evil into their hearts. I admit that I definitely feel a level of grim satisfaction in the irony of a monstrous individual who meets the same end that he inflicted on others. It’s this grim satisfaction that can be seen as evil because it’s a desire for the harm of someone else. This is clearly contradictory to Christ’s teachings.
However, when it comes to adjudicating legal matters, the Bible advocates an eye for an eye (Deuteronomy 19: 21) God is often described as one who loves justice [Isaiah 61: 8]. Perhaps it’s this same love of justice tainted by our sinful natures that makes us want those who have caused horrible suffering to experience horrible suffering. I’m not saying that feeling this grim satisfaction is right, just understandable.
Believe it or not, despite Dexter’s admittedly depraved qualities, there is some Biblical truth to be learned from him. For example, Dexter displays a common theme seen in the Bible, specifically the Old Testament, that from evil, God can bring about good. Dexter is a serial killer that kills other serial killers. He may be an evil person, but he’s ridding the world of other evil people and purposely saving future victims of this evil. In this way, Dexter also demonstrates that we’re all under the control of the sovereign God. Even someone like Dexter can be God’s instrument.
Dexter can be seen as a personified analogy to human beings and the sinful nature. The fact that Dexter recognizes that he's a monster – as he refers to himself – and is unhappy with that demonstrates that there’s some good in him. Likewise, our recognition of sin is a sign of the good in us. It’s an indication of God’s image in us. It’s the good in Dexter that makes him control his evil to the best of his ability unlike his targets who he condemns for murdering what he calls ‘innocents’. Also, Dexter’s love for his family makes him more like the average human being than some may want to admit.
Furthermore, Dexter’s slow graduation from using Harry’s code as his moral compass to actually feeling compassion is analogous to humanity’s graduation from the guidance of the Law to the Gospel. The Law is a set of commandments to guide behaviour which doesn’t necessarily require any substantive changes in the heartfelt intentions of the individual. The Gospel is a message of love that enlightens us to the saving grace of Christ which inspires a change in our hearts to try and demonstrate our faith by treating others better. Similarly, Harry’s code simply guided Dexter’s behaviour so he didn’t satisfy his sinful addiction by killing innocent people, but this didn't change Dexter's heart for murder. But as Dexter experiences love throughout the show, that love has caused a change of heart that makes him want to give up his monstrous habits.
At the end of the day, Dexter is a sinner like us. Dexter shows us the evil of sin and the disturbing repercussions of the human addiction to it. He also knows it’s wrong and does what he can to be better. In this way, Dexter is a good example of what a Christian should do. When he realizes that his struggle with sin is too big for him to handle alone and that he needs Jesus Christ, he’ll be a good example of how a Christian should be.
Over five seasons, Dexter has increasingly discovered his humanity. In his attempts to have a wife, family and friends in order to conceal his dark side, he has learned that he’s capable of loving, feeling guilt and sacrificing for others. I’m convinced that there’s hope for Dexter. This is encouraging because if there’s hope for someone like him, then there’s hope for all sinners, including us.
Typically, a character like Dexter would incite hatred and disgust from people, but in giving us inside information on his life and his thoughts, the show helps us to understand him. The more our knowledge and understanding of someone grows, the greater the potential to love and forgive them. This is in accordance with Paul Young’s point in The Shack that knowledge is a skin around love (chapter 11, p. 155). God knows us better than we know ourselves and that’s why His love for us is so great. The lesson here is that if we learn more about each other and try to understand each other, we might be better at loving each other the way God intended us to.
Above all, my favourite thing about watching Dexter is when I get to see him develop into a better person, when the hold that his sin addiction has on him is loosened and he begins to realize that he’s not just a monster, that he’s human after all. When I watch Dexter, I’m cheering for him more when he realizes his capacity to love others than when he gets away with murder. It brings me joy to see Dexter feel guilt because that guilt brings with it the prospect of Dexter embracing his humanity and developing a moral code superior to the one that Harry taught him. I watch Dexter in hopes that, one day, he will turn into the good man that he can be. I believe that this is the same hope that Jesus had for humanity when he sacrificed Himself for us.
We’re called to love the sinner and hate the sin. In no way am I condoning murder by watching “Dexter”. I don’t think that Dexter is a righteous character, but neither does Dexter. The thing is that I can relate to Dexter just as I believe Paul does when he reflects on his own inner struggle with sin in Romans 7 and calls himself a wretched man (Romans 7: 24). Stripped down to a simple description, Dexter is a man with a dark side. We all have within us the dark side of sin. It acts as a handicap for us in our efforts to be children of God. Like Dexter, the better of us endeavour to be as good as we can possibly be despite our handicaps.