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Culture Television

A debt to the truth

(HBO)

Television

A debt to the truth

Chernobyl honestly portrays the disaster that can ensue when people believe in lies 

The book of Romans teaches that God’s invisible qualities are evident in His creation—thus, people have no excuse for failing to know Him. It seems fair to posit the inverse is equally true: It shouldn’t take a reading of Calvin’s treatise on total depravity to have a pretty good understanding of our nature as well. In that respect, the ideology of a particular storyteller often isn’t terribly important. So long as he strives to tell his tale honestly, the objective realities of God’s world will shine through.

That means you can ignore whatever silly, off-the-cuff political comments the team behind HBO’s excellent new miniseries Chernobyl may have made on red carpets or on social media. It’s clear that, while taking a few artistic liberties to create entertainment that is both gripping and informative, they strove to recount accurately what led up to the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Chernobyl does what the best stories do: It details events within a specific time and place while also revealing deeper truth that extends well beyond the bounds of a single narrative.

From the outset, it’s apparent that a catastrophe on Chernobyl’s scale could only have been possible in a culture of fear, where politics has taken the place of religion and where a coercive consensus of human opinion stands in for “facts.” When some of the nuclear engineers balk at being asked to act in ways that practically guarantee their own destruction, an elderly apparatchik counsels, “Our faith in Soviet socialism will always be rewarded. … It is my experience that when the people ask questions that are not in their own best interest, they should simply be told to keep their minds on their labor.” Shockingly (or maybe not so shockingly), most do.

The applications extend beyond socialism or the Cold War era. The self-censoring and willful ignoring of time-tested common sense sounds ominous warning bells in present-day America as well. 

Both before and after the meltdown, scientists who dare question the prevailing party line are silenced. Those who express opinions not sanctioned by the centers of power face threats to their lives and livelihoods.  

HBO

(HBO)

These things can happen anywhere, anytime. Just ask Peter Vlaming, a Virginia public school teacher who lost his job last year because he refused to call his female student by a male pronoun. Or talk to the researchers drummed out of academia for espousing the merit of intelligent design. Or consider how tech giant Twitter recently told pro-life activist Lila Rose it would continue to ban her ads unless she agreed to stop posting images of ultrasounds. 

Yet, as the series illustrates, the initial failures at Chernobyl had little to do with KGB monitoring or retributive state action. The physicists and engineers already had conditioned themselves to subservience and silence regardless of the evidence. Their instinct was to toe the popular party line before anyone asked them to.

One of the few criticisms the show received from a Soviet-born American journalist was particularly illuminating. If the series erred in any degree, Masha Gessen writes in The New Yorker, it was in overplaying the threat of violence: “By and large,” she says, “Soviet people did what they were told without being threatened with guns or any punishment. ... But resignation is a depressing and untelegenic spectacle. So the creators of ‘Chernobyl’ imagine confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable.”

How quickly is confrontation becoming unthinkable in the United States? How immediately do corporations, public figures, or private figures made public by agenda-grinding media grovel and apologize for uttering some impolitic thought?

Chernobyl does contain some rough content. This includes fairly frequent foul language and an ironic but unnecessary scene of brief male nudity when several overheated miners strip down to headlamps because they aren’t allowed to use fans that might stir up radioactive dust. But, conscience permitting, I’d argue that in this case it could be worth suffering through the unnecessary in light of the value of the whole. 

Stories can persuade in a way no lecture or essay can. Already The New York Times, Slate, and other outlets are worrying that viewers might take away the wrong lessons. Lessons that might make the fashionable icons of American socialism, such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, suddenly look less attractive. Viewers should recall while watching the show that this was the kinder, gentler socialism under Mikhail Gorbachev. He was the Soviet leader with the supposedly light humanitarian touch. The leader that major American media largely embraced as urbane and dignified. 

All that to say, when my own daughters are teenagers, I won’t hesitate to watch Chernobyl with them, despite the bits I wish weren’t there.

At one point the hero of the series, nuclear expert Valery Legasov (a phenomenal Jared Harris) considers the cost of a society that willfully rejects what is unquestionably evident. “When the truth offends,” he says, “we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there. But it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”

It is a wonder to me how anyone could watch that scene and not have the many insanities of our time and place swim uncomfortably to the forefront of his or her mind. But then I remember that the heart is deceitful above all else (Jeremiah 17:9).

Whatever guise it wears, socialism remains an ideology that parades counterfeit virtue and shouts twisted logic in defiance of the evidence of our eyes. And just like every other argument and pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, it leads its people into death.

Comments

  • CJ
    Posted: Fri, 06/14/2019 11:33 am

    "It is a wonder to me how anyone could watch that scene and not have the many insanities of our time and place swim uncomfortably to the forefront of his or her mind."

    i had that sense just reading this review... or much of the news re our culture's embrace of gender dysphoria and abortion. 

  • PG
    Posted: Sat, 06/15/2019 02:51 pm

    We in America have turned our hearts away from God - is it any wonder that what is good we consider evil - and - what is evil we see as good?  But I believe the fault does not lie so much with our secular society but with the many professing Christians who are living as though they were atheists.  The early church offered a viable alternative to an evil society - the modern day church offers litte or no such alternative.