People Don’t Change; They Just Get Mad Men

AMC’s brilliant period drama Mad Men returned to television last night, reuniting fans with the inner workings of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce after a 17-month hiatus.  I won’t spend time summarizing the plot here, but suffice it to say that the 1960s were in full swing.

The complicated Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the main character of the series, and he continues to intrigue.  For the past four years, viewers have observed him in all his stoic and secretive ways.  Branded very early on as a liar and serial adulterer, he is the anti-hero if ever there was one.  Surprising, then, that good ol’ Don made it through two hours of screen time last night without cheating on his new wife once.

Has Don changed?  That’s the question of the day.  Unfortunately, the answer is “probably not.”  In the run-up to the Season 5 premiere, Slate.com had an interview with the show’s creator, who said the following:

“What I like is that on our show the characters are really trying to change. I look at Don and I say he really wants to change. And events have happened. I’ve committed to change in a way that TV shows usually don’t…But one of the premises of my show is that people don’t change. Don Draper is certainly a creature of external change. He’s an imposter.”

While this certainly doesn’t bode well for Don, it also opens up the bigger philosophical question of how change really works on a personal, psychological, or spiritual level.  Do people really change?

On the one hand, I believe they do.  The whole Christian message is predicated on the fact that God can bring about some amazing changes in the live of individuals.  Why else would Jesus use the evocative metaphor of being “born again” if not to imply that entrance into the Kingdom of God couldn’t be a more drastic shift?  The Scripture–and history–is replete with stories of great change, and it is something I believe.

Yet at the same time we know that change is not easy.  I know it isn’t for me.  For some it really does seem impossible…and not just at the moment of religious conversion.  In becoming Christians, for instance, some do change their belief systems but seem incapable of moving beyond inherited worldviews or family patterns or patterns of thought.  Conversion happens on a formal level, but the effects of that change do not always work their way into the soul.  Sometimes this inability to change has minor repercussions; other times it runs the risks of upending the whole enterprise.

Further, just as the Scripture relates the stories of those who do change and answer the call, so too we meet others who do not: innumerable Pharisees, a rich young ruler, and–indeed–most of humanity that would rather end Christ’s life than consider his radical life and message.  Harder than going through the eye of needle indeed.

That’s why I think I admire most those individuals who have had the boldness and courage to convert as adults and/or radically revise their understanding of Christianity after years in the faith.  Because of the baggage they carry with them and the radical revision of established life and relationships these changes require, theirs is many times the hardest decision of all.

What do you think?  Is change really that hard?  Is it impossible?  How much to do most people really change?  How much do we?

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9 comments on “People Don’t Change; They Just Get Mad Men

  1. Viletta says:

    I’ve never watched ‘Mad Men’ but I will answer the questions you’ve asked.

    Yes, I believe change is really hard. I think that’s why there are so many Scriptures that refer to GOD being the agent of internal change in our lives. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation….” “Behold I make all things new…”

    I can testify that I have seen the results of God radically changing people. I have a cousin who went from being an alcoholic and a terror to being a God-fearing, compassionate, loving man who people looked to for help and encouragement. Everyone who knew him before his conversion could only stand in awe of the transformation. This was not something he could have done on his own – it was truly supernatural. With man it is impossible, but with God ALL things are possible…even change!

  2. Viletta,

    I agree. God is the change agent here, certainly. But there is also the fact that we have the ability to cooperate or reject that change.

    But regarding your points, I do believe that people can change. I know it. At the same time, there are an awful lot that don’t/won’t/seem like they can’t. I consider this a tragedy.

    • Viletta says:

      Yes, it is a tragedy when people refuse to change even when given the opportunity. We do have the ability to cooperate in change. Case in point, I had a conversation with my pastor about ordination of women in Church of God (Cleveland, TN). He said that there are older men in the leadership of that denomination who simple refuse to ordain women more out of tradition than Scriptural principles. Rather than change, they are willing to keep strong leaders from their ranks who could be helping bring others to Christ.

      Of course, there are other examples such as relationships where counsel has been given that will help the relationship be stronger, yet a person refuses to change their behavior because of pride, eventually leading to the relationship’s demise.

      Yes, we definitely have to work with the Holy Spirit and those the Lord puts in our paths to give us counsel.

  3. JS says:

    The key word in Viletta’s comment is transformation. That transformation is God’s work in us. Without it, is there faith? Depends on what you make of human beings — how reformed your theology is, for instance.

    And yes, change can be really hard to complete. Ingrained patterns of thought, behavior, and context put us in contact with reflections of our past selves, recalling to us our past milieus, pulling us toward repetition of the past. The familiarity is comforting. That’s why breaking even the simplest habits challenges us.

    When people try to effect change in their own lives, they often practice at least one tenet of the “buckets of crap” philosophy: avoid known buckets of crap in order to prevent descent into one of them. If they were really transformed, they’d understand that the buckets really are full of crap, that nothing good comes from being near them or in them. But people who aren’t really transformed fall into the pattern of transforming buckets of crap into something attractive or appetizing, hence the need to stay away from said buckets.
    Transformation, in contrast, suggests that the change is complete, making the repetition of the past self truly uncomfortable, causing even disgust. Transformation creates a new context and a new frame of reference, ridding the past of most of its power.
    (I say most and not all because even transformed people admit to being subject to temptation.)

    I’m not optimistic about Draper’s future. The show would be less interesting to its target demo if his self-destructive pattern really broke with this episode. It’s the beginning of the season, not the finale of the show, right?

    By the way, nice new blog, Ziefle.

    • Thanks, Sponsler! I’ve been thinking about you recently! Drop me an e-mail and let me know how your’re doing! (joshua.ziefle@northwestu.edu)

    • Also, I hear you on transformation as God’s work. But then I’m not very Reformed, and feel that we can certainly choose not to cooperate with that transformation (or pieces of it, anyway.) “But I like that one bucket!” 🙂 Since I do believe accepting God’s transformation is a choice, I question how willing people are in general to accept it knowing the changes that will result.

      By the way, wouldn’t it be hilarious if Don Draper converted to Pentecostalism this season. Now THAT would be drama!

      • JS says:

        Yes, that would be something. I’m resisting the urge to lay down a whole series of stereotypes here a la The Simpsons.

  4. Andy Wong says:

    Adult convert to Christianity here.

    I think more than anything it’s a PR problem. (I know that sounds shallow but we’re talking Mad Men here). I think most people who resist “the gospel” do so because they know the cost but not the benefit. My experience (having been outside the church and having a lot of family still outside the church) is that it’s not a negative association with the gospel that keeps people away; it’s no association. They’re not resisting the good news of Jesus Christ, they’re resisting an invitation to a church event.

    They know that being a Christian (over generalization here) means giving up Sunday mornings and some other stuff, and maybe it makes some claims about what happens when we die, but other than that, where’s the return on investment? They’ve got jobs, kids, hobbies, houses and all kinds of other stuff clamoring for their time. Why bother to go to a church event?

    • Interesting. So then, you are suggesting we are not adequately expressing what being a Christian really is beyond external duties, etc.?

      I’ve always been worried that evangelicals/Pentecostals might overpromise the benefits of salvation.

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