Religion & Liberty Online

How Do You Solve a Problem like Reacher?

(Image credit: Prime Video/Amazon Studios)

The highly rated and well-reviewing streaming series about a military man who breaks more than a few rules—and commandments—stars an out-and-proud Christian. Where does one draw the line between sin-ridden fiction and faithful witness?

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Over the course of two seasons, the action series Reacher on the Amazon Prime streaming service has lured in viewers for its vigorous action, surprising storylines, and vigilante vision of the world. Based on a popular and sprawling series of novels by Lee Child, the show stars Alan Ritchson as the eponymous Jack Reacher, a one-time U.S. Army Military Police Corps major who, since forsaking his official duties, has come to embrace itinerancy. Physically rootless but not morally unmoored, Reacher spends his days as a kind of roving private investigator and administrator of justice. In Child’s conception, Reacher tries to be of service in investigations, but he does so on a strictly freelance basis and frequently, like many a traditional genre detective, bypasses the laws of the land.

“He doesn’t fit in, and he spends his time wandering America, seeing the things that he’s never had time to see before,” Child, who has spun dozens of novels around the character, said in a 2012 interview with Time magazine. The novelist regards Reacher as a successor to “a very ancient tradition: the noble loner, the knight errant, the mysterious stranger, who has shown up in stories forever.”

The books are undeniably involving and their cinematic properties have already been exploited by Hollywood once before: Tom Cruise played Reacher in a pair of feature films from the last decade, Jack Reacher (2012) and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016). Both were box office successes, but the Amazon Prime series is not only more expansive, gripping, and authentic to the serial nature of the novels but also better cast: Ritchson is rougher, tougher, gruffer (and, it should be noted, taller—the character is described as 6’5” in the books) than the ageless, seemingly perpetually untroubled Cruise. And, as it turns out, it’s precisely that casting advantage that has engulfed the show in a curious controversy—one surely missed by most viewers but of great importance to a segment of them.

Ritchson is that rarest of things in modern show business: a serious and steadfast Christian who is, by all appearances, forthright in sharing it in the public square. Today that means that Ritchson is active on the internet: the 41-year-old actor maintains a YouTube channel called InstaChurch, the title of which—suggesting bite-size nuggets of doctrine—should not obscure the essential nobility of the undertaking. Thousands of viewers have watched Ritchson discuss marriage, prayer, the New Jerusalem, and other topics; perhaps a few of them have been enlightened or otherwise driven to orthodoxy.

Yet the sacred and profane came crashing into each other on a YouTube video Ritchson posted last month. Therein, the actor addresses a group of “supposed Christians” who have found fault with him for taking on the part of Reacher, who is, admittedly, the very definition of an antihero: he may be on the side of the good, but his methods (and bedroom habits) can be as troubling as they are entertaining to watch. Apparently offended by the accusation, Ritchson launches into a defense of the art of drama. “As if the only TV that should exist is seeing people silently folding their hands in the pew of a church,” he says. “What kind of stories are we supposed to tell?”

At first blush, Ritchson’s argument rests on a kind of “what-about-ism,” insisting that great works of art always and inevitably present man in his sinful state. That’s fair enough, but then he goes on to describe Scripture as though it was not the Word of God but itself an elaborate series of tales. “We get stories of paganism and war and bloodshed, and ghost stories, mysticism,” he says of the Bible. “We see miracles and magic, and we see life and resurrection and death.”

Despite the earnestness, even plaintiveness with which he presents his case, Ritchson is conflating the Word of God with the works of men. The actor is correct that the events described in the Bible reflect God “reveal[ing] who He is through an imperfect people.” But, to make a breathtakingly obvious distinction, the Bible’s purpose of human salvation cannot possibly be applied to Reacher—or anything created by human beings: not books, plays, TV shows, musical comedies, movies, or streaming series based on bestselling novels. Ritchson is attempting to equate the sin told of in the Bible with the immorality (or, as he would have it, “moral ambiguity”) of the character he plays on TV; by that standard, any work of art that depicts malicious or salacious material could be defended in spiritual terms.

His sense of indignation notwithstanding, Ritchson has his defenders. In the British publication Premier Christianity, sitcom writer James Cary presents us with a litany of biblical figures whom he judges to be flawed, presumably in the manner of Reacher: King David is a “philandering murderer,” “Moses murdered an Egyptian,” and “Noah got drunk and naked.” “And these are the good guys,” Cary writes.

Yet this is a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it, too. We all wish to watch our favorite shows or read our favorite things and not be scandalized, and Ritchson (and Cary) are no different. Yet sometimes such works are scandalous and deserve to be rejected or ignored, no matter how appealing or fun they might be. There comes a point when the culture produced by a secular society becomes so toxic that it cannot be, in good conscience, reconciled with the demands of religious conviction. What can a Christian hope to take from the casual disregard for human life in, say, Pulp Fiction, Saw, the latest gross-out horror movie, or the offhand endorsement of sexual immorality in Boogie Nights,* Shame, or the latest music video by Cardi B?

That does not mean that works of art should limit themselves to glib expressions of sentimentality, which is an equally false picture of human nature. The best novels, plays, movies, and shows reckon with our sinful nature within a moral framework that never preaches but always edifies. For example, the films of Alfred Hitchcock are replete with murders and murderers, but one never mistakes the presentation of such acts or their perpetrators with sympathy for them. Hitchcock is on the side of “the wrong man,” the man on the run, and the woman in peril, not the figure wielding the knife or the man in the crop duster trying to mow down Cary Grant. We need not avert our eyes from sin in books and movies; we just need it filtered through a rigorous ethical, ideally spiritual, vision.

In the case of Reacher, Ritchson doth protest too much in insisting on the compatibility of his faith and his work. Is he, deep down, troubled by the paradox of what he believes and what he does on screen? He would not be faulted for at least pondering the matter. After all, Christians should always ask themselves if what they are watching or reading supports, contradicts, or is merely indifferent to their faith. But the standard is arguably lower for mere consumers. Even if people choose to watch or read something that attacks, or is inconsistent with, their convictions, they can at least be assured they are engaging in a relatively passive activity: that is, watching or reading. (Though, to be sure, the act of buying a ticket or a book can hardly be considered passive.)

On the other hand, a Christian actor asked to appear in such a movie or show faces an actual time for choosing: to pretend to do vile things on screen is to, in some sense, actually do them. (Kurt Vonnegut wrote no truer words than this line in his novel Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”) Admittedly, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda had it easier than the stars of today. Those old-timers were generally tapped to play heroes, or at least decent men, and even when they were asked to make the rare villainous turn, they never agreed to appear in a production that was actively, unambiguously wretched. And if they had been asked to appear in such a project, we can be sure that they would have thrown the script in the garbage.

In the final analysis, Reacher falls somewhere in between an ennoblement and depravity: it’s a perfectly fine show. Ritchson should leave it there: his faith on one hand, the show that pays the rent on the other. It’s a stretch to suggest that there is a spiritual dimension to the show’s presentation of vigilantism, or to mount a spiritual defense of Ritchson’s involvement in it. Yet, in insisting as much, Ritchson appears at least somewhat troubled by the accusation that he should be troubled. Maybe, deep down, he wonders if he ought to be. In Robert Bolt’s play and film A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More reproaches the galling spinelessness of Richard Rich by saying these famous words: “Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?”

By the same token, let us rephrase More’s statement as a question: It profits Alan Ritchson nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Reacher?

*It should be noted that the star of Boogie Nights, devout Catholic Mark Wahlberg, has all but disavowed his role in the film

Peter Tonguette

Peter Tonguette is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and the Washington Examiner.