Philosophers and theologians have, for millennia, spilt much ink prying into the metaphysics of being—the question of ontology, or essence. Not surprisingly, the genesis of thought revolved around the idea of God as the perfect and necessary being, pure actuality, one for whom existence is not distinguished from essence, and other technical formulations worthy of ivory tower shut-ins. As mind-bending as discussions of absolute perfection are, God’s ontology is, in fact, simple—in both the metaphysical and colloquial sense.
Closer to the ground, for beings who are not necessary but contingent, where the question shifts from essence to identity, it gets more complicated. Human beings are shaped creatures, transient, living in constantly changing and evolving contexts populated by a barrage of competing values. And we haven’t even begun to talk about human sin, both manifested and innate, which incessantly works to counteract one of humankind’s prime directives: to know oneself. Within this swirling bog of conflicting claims to identity, it is perhaps a surprise that we might discover some answers within a messy narrative of crime, deceit, and family relationships. But considering the human state, maybe it’s not so surprising after all.The lesson for us as Christians is that we likewise toe the precarious line of having our identities shaped by both a heavenly and earthly community. It is simultaneously fixed and fluid, flourishing and fallen, but always on an upward trend in a world where the good guys get the loot.
Enter Marius Josipovic, AKA “Pete Murphy,” the title character of Amazon’s crime series Sneaky Pete. Recently released from prison and hoping to reconnect with his brother, Marius learns that a mobster named Vince (Bryan Cranston) is hot on his tail for a $100,000 debt and is holding his brother under threat of removing one finger for each week Marius delays repayment. Needing temporary sanctuary while he works out his plan, he bides his time in the Bridgeport, Connecticut, home of his former cellmate… by stealing his identity. Even in prison, the skills of the expert con had remained sharp as he recalled the stories and details of his talkative cellmate’s childhood on the farm, which Marius deploys to ingratiate himself to the real Pete’s family, the Bernhardts. As a result of Pete’s mother’s estrangement from the family, they haven’t set eyes on Pete in 20 years, so facial recognition is not an obstacle. They catch up on old times, and he learns of their bail bonds business, a potential financial source for his urgent ransom need.
Early in season one, we come to understand identity as a set of perceptions projected in narrative form onto the Bernhardt family. It’s a disguise to be believed. At critical moments, Marius must induce and maintain memories in the minds of the family members, memories he has only as a collection of stories he heard from a third party—things like the apple tree they played around as kids or the antics of his bullying cousin, now turned cop, Taylor. Marius is a pro, but he must never get sloppy; he must never drop the con. His small gains of trust must be protected against attempts at counter intelligence, as when his suspicious young cousin, Carly (Liber Barer), exposes a memory that never happened, which leads Marius on a fact-checking visit to his former prison. Self-interested deceit and opportunism is at the root of identity at this initial, superficial stage. This “Pete” is not an evil man, though. He relates with “his” family as real people, and the moments of tender authenticity and emotional vulnerability in his relationships with the family members are no less real.
It soon becomes evident that what Marius assumed was a small tribe of country bumpkins is actually a collection of complex beings with secrets of their own, along with a penchant for both deceit and gullibility. Grandma Audrey has herself fallen prey to a costly con with wolves coming to collect. Not surprisingly, conflict threatening the family forges deeper relational and emotional bonds, forcing everyone to be more “real.” Marius’s drive to use the family purely for his own ends gradually becomes less pronounced as they experience more mutually impacting trouble. He employs his skills in the redemption of people beyond his immediate concern—even using truth about his past life to help keep his con alive. Genuine empathy seems to unlock instincts for survival that transcend the cheap tricks in Marius’s archive of pre-packaged cons, like “The Turk” and “The Spanish Prisoner.” This contrast comes out in Marius’s juxtaposition with Porter, a veteran conman who robs residents at old folks’ homes. The man is scuz, but Marius recruits him for the higher cause, and there’s redemption even for him.
It might be said that as the interests of the characters slowly merge into a unified effort, one’s personal identity is inevitably shaped by the other. Marius’s behavior as a member of the family becomes less of an act and more of the natural outworking of his true self.
Marius finds himself on a mission that necessarily involves taking on the pain and problems of a people not his own. His prime motivation is the redemptive restoration of his own, real family, and in this regard, his identity is fixed and his objective is clear. But as he necessarily “becomes” Pete Murphy and indwells the web of his newfound family’s ills, the interlocking threads of this complicated mystery merge into a single story of loving your neighbor/enemy.
But isn’t this is the very narrative of the incarnation?
If ever history was perplexed over the identity of a single person, it was that of Jesus Christ. The watershed controversies that gave rise to the ecumenical councils and creeds (Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, etc.) were essentially debates over how to balance his other-worldly reality with his projected image in space and time. The earliest heresies revolved around the suspicion that Jesus was only pretending to be human—that his behaviors, like eating and sleeping, and his thoughts, like doubt and ignorance, were mere confidence games meant to feign solidarity with us. In time, the debate evolved into the dichotomy between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith,” each birthing its own movements led by passionate heralds. The former tended to deny that Jesus was anything other than a first-century preacher of ethics: one who projected little but was completely real. The latter tended to elevate him to an existential ideal untethered to historical circumstances: one who projected much but whose reality exists only in what people believed about him.
As orthodoxy played itself out on the stage of Christian history, the conclusion has been that Jesus’ identity necessarily means taking seriously what he projected himself to be in his incarnation (true humanity) and the lofty ideas of him as a member of the triune Godhead (true deity). Knowing Jesus means knowing him both in his nearness and his otherness.
Sneaky Pete, as a marred picture of Christ, reveals the redemptive nature of incarnation, of the great effort and distance that must be crossed to identify with lowly and helpless creatures, and the risk involved in having one’s identity shaped by a fallen community. The dark upshot to redemption is not only that Vince the villain is dead, but also that Sneaky Pete’s character and skill, this true identity, has rubbed off on his beneficiaries. Just as he becomes one of the family, the family becomes like him. In season two, the real Pete Murphy and even his mother become convinced to keep up the con at Marius’s behest. Sure, the traits of a con are not morally praiseworthy, but within an anti-hero heist genre, it’s all good. The lesson for us as Christians is that we likewise toe the precarious line of having our identities shaped by both a heavenly and earthly community. It is simultaneously fixed and fluid, flourishing and fallen, but always on an upward trend in a world where the good guys get the loot.
By the end of season two, we find that the real, flesh-and-blood Pete Murphy opts to forego disclosing the truth to his family about Marius. There’s no point. Marius Josopovic is Pete Murphy, the only beloved Pete Murphy that the Bernhardts know as a result of the deluge into which they were all plunged. In the frequent scenes of family meals together, it becomes obvious that this union is gradually happening, even up the point that the real Pete Murphy is the true stranger at the table. The notion of “confidence” is redeemed from an elaborate scheme of exploitative deceit to the faith-ful trust that comes from consistent dependability. The family’s once-held heretical suspicions have been transformed to orthodox faith through their experience with an incognito incarnate. The dichotomies between history vs. belief and projection vs. reality end up missing the point. The point is that in their fear and fight, they have learned to belong to one another. They share a union that does not require a proof of identity but, rather, creates the identity that is required.
With Sneaky Pete rumored for a season three return, we’ll see how the theme of identity develops as Pete Murphy continues to navigate his shifty sense of self while we do the same. Although our contexts continue to change and our own hearts deceive us about who we are and what we want, we can be assured that we are truly known by the One who Is.