It is no longer uncommon to overhear people excitedly discussing the details of a grisly crime scene: college students at a coffee shop, parents in a carpool line, coworkers in the break room. The true crime genre’s popularity has surged in the last decade, as TV shows and podcasts have hooked fans on cold cases, ongoing investigations, and infamous crimes. Increasingly, these shows are not merely designed to entertain but intended to provide a glimpse into the changing cultural dynamics around truth, science, and morality.
While the true crime genre has enjoyed a long history of popularity, its form and focus have evolved: from leaflets in the 16th century, to more journalistic treatments in the 19th century, to a focus on the growing field of criminology in the 20th century. As criminal justice itself changed, so did the various ways we consumed related pop culture stories. Forensic science became more prominent in police investigative work, and true crime stories changed from near-parables about good and evil into explorations into the power of human reason to solve mysteries. In these stories, the guilt or innocence of the real-life people was no longer painted as “reliant on divine justice, but rather on human intelligence.”In our enthusiasm to defend truth, we have denied a doctrine at the heart of our faith: that we are finite, sin-corrupted creatures with senses and intellect that are both inherently limited by our creatureliness and marred by the introduction of sin into the world.
Many modern versions of the genre (podcasts like Serial or S-Town, TV shows like Making a Murderer or American Crime Story) reflect contemporary concerns about social and economic injustice, corruption in law enforcement, and racial bias. One new addition to the genre, Netflix’s Exhibit A, portrays not only these criminal justice dynamics but also a larger cultural shift in the way we think about the nature of truth.
The starting line of the entire docuseries comes from a forensic science expert, who opines:
“Ultimately, there is a universal truth. The problem is that all of us are human beings, and so for us to get to that universal truth is not necessarily something we’re inherently capable of.”
Humanity’s inability to consistently discern the truth, even via supposedly unbiased and accurate scientific methods, becomes the guiding theme of the series’ four episodes. We learn that video forensics, blood spatter, cadaver dogs, and touch DNA each have their own errors and inaccuracies via four specific court cases in which the key factor was a misapplied or misunderstood forensic science (according to the perspective of the filmmakers, of course).
More than the specifics of these cases, though, Exhibit A repeatedly emphasizes that these forensic methods are not merely inaccurate but misunderstood by the general public (and thus, by the juries in these cases). One expert in the last episode says that these forensic sciences are often perceived as possessing “the power of magic. And that’s what makes it very, very dangerous.”
In a world where we are increasingly aware of our lack of a common story or universal values, we are infatuated with the idea that science is objective and infallible. When we recognize the limitations of our perspectives and the vast difference that social location and culture make in our judgments, it is comforting to think that there exists a universal method of accessing truth. But as one expert notes in the first episode:
“Every time technology advances, we get closer and closer to being able to reach that universal truth, but we’re certainly not there as human beings. And that means we aren’t there as forensic scientists either.”
Each of Exhibit A’s episodes chips away at our assumption that science provides an unbiased correction to the frailty and finitude of human experience. It turns out that the collective work, intellect, and inventions of humanity are just as fallible as we creatures are. While some true crime shows comfort us by their technical nature, teaching us that we can control or understand the horrific evil in the world if we only break it down, dissect it, and put the pieces back together in a coherent story, Exhibit A yanks the rug right out from under our feet. There is no real stable ground in the world, because even supposedly objective science is revealed as woefully vulnerable to human biases, assumptions, and mistakes.
Perhaps one of the reasons that this particular form of the true crime genre—the kind that shows us how fallible and contextual our scientific efforts really are—is growing in popularity is because the stories resonate with younger generations that witness this reality in a variety of spheres. Digital natives are much more comfortable with a world of competing stories, widely differing perspectives, and the destruction of supposedly universal narratives. Exhibit A helpfully illustrates the ongoing destruction of the idea that all truth is universally accessible to humans if they apply the right methods, and highlights the reality that preexisting commitments, biases, perspectives, and context all shape how scientific data is understood and communicated.
While Millennials and Gen Zers might be more comfortable with the world Exhibit A reveals, our elders have often been terrified of it. In a recent seminary class, many of my fellow students described the messages they heard in their churches and youth groups about how “postmodernism” and “relativism” were tearing apart our society. Our friends at school, we were told, thought that “what’s true for me isn’t true for you,” and we needed to do one of the many goofy illustrations our pastors shared in order to show them that they too believed in universal truth. We all trust gravity to make our pencil fall on the ground if we drop it, right?
Relativism was a force to be reckoned with, out to chip away at our confident declaration of capital-T truth. And yet, as James K. A. Smith writes in Who’s Afraid of Relativism: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood,
“In some ways, the medicine might be worse for faith than the disease. Should we be afraid of relativism? Perhaps. But should we be equally afraid of the ‘absolutism’ that is trotted out as a defense? I think so.”
Like the forensic science technician at the beginning of Exhibit A, we can believe that absolute truth exists without making any kind of pretense as to our ability to access it. Instead, our fear of the “relativism” boogeyman caused a reaction that betrayed what Smith calls a “theological tic that characterizes contemporary North American Christianity—namely, an evasion of contingency and a suppression of creaturehood.” In our enthusiasm to defend truth, we have denied a doctrine at the heart of our faith: that we are finite, sin-corrupted creatures with senses and intellect that are both inherently limited by our creatureliness and marred by the introduction of sin into the world.
It is Christians that have the greatest justification for recognizing that our perspectives are limited, our communities suffer from generational and structural biases, and there is therefore no universal basis for evaluating our environments. We know that sin has infected our own minds and hearts, our institutions, and our own creative work in the world. We also center our communities and lives around truths that require the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit to believe. Rather than remaining fearful of the ever-decaying belief in objective means of assessing reality, the church has an opportunity to welcome those who are searching for a community to provide its own narrative, background, and constitutive elements that give members identity and truth.
Exhibit A is a little bit like a faith deconstruction: what seemed so simple and straightforward is more complicated than we were led to believe, we feel betrayed by the authority figures who insisted that we stop asking questions, and at the end of all the questioning, we’re left without solid ground to stand on. After years of an education bent on inscribing loyalty in our hearts to a certain all-powerful force, we find that it is just as fallible and finite as everything else in the world. It may be hard for longtime believers to feel the weight of this disturbance.
After that rug has been pulled out from under people’s feet, our impulse is likely to reassure them with another promise of an uncomplicated and universally accessible means to determining truth. We want to soothe our troubled souls with promises that truth is easily grasped, unhindered by neither sin nor finitude. Yet Exhibit A’s starting line might be a good place for us to start: universal truth is out there, but we are kidding ourselves if we think we have the power to get it right every time.
Exhibit A is just one example of storytelling that reinforces for my generation that we cannot trust our own evaluations and judgments, that we can be easily deceived, and that “hard facts” can lead us astray. What initially appears to be a frighteningly strange new world where our old apologetics tactics fall short, can actually be a wonderful opportunity for faith to grow in churches: storytelling communities that use particular narratives, practices, and norms to instill in us a truth that could not be reached by reason alone.