Gleanings from Nerd Culture: What I Learned From Chuck
by Kevin Rigdon (@pralix1138)
I admit I originally had a different title for this post. A title so exciting, and relevant, that it expressed the entire content of this article in just a few words. I was so proud of its esotericism. It was glorious, until I looked at it again before submitting the article, and thought to myself: what the hell does that even mean? Here’s the original title: “Chuck vs Experiential Knowledge as Hypostatic Affirmation.” Yeah, I know. But the point of the original title, and the article itself, is to explore the idea that there is something deeper in the stories we tell, in the games we play, the movies and television shows we watch, than just mere entertainment. These things have the potential to help us discover who we are, and I hope that this little article helps others to see this as well. I swear it’s not as pedantic as the original title.
I’m a firm believer in the principle that words have actual meanings, and not simply the meanings we ascribe to them in order to create new euphemisms for various things. And it is becoming increasingly apparent that we are losing the meanings of words, and are, as a result, becoming poorer in the art of communication-especially in the wonderful art of storytelling. This rule applies most especially to the word, “knowledge.”
It’s not necessarily that the definition of the term, knowledge, is false, but in our current context it has been reduced in our understanding to that which we learn through books, papers, etc. We intellectually learn various subjects, theories, information, and facts, and so forth. When we have achieved a certain amount of memorized information, we can say that we know the subject. But there is a level of knowledge which isn’t reached until one experiences the object of study. I’m assuming none of us would want to be a passenger in a plane with a pilot who only has a theoretical understanding of flying.
Now, we need to remember this description of experiential knowledge, especially when it comes to our knowledge of other persons. The following is one of my favorite exchanges in the entire series of Chuck, because it expresses such a simple and beautiful reality: the intimate knowledge of another human person.
Sarah: Okay, fine, I’ll answer one question about my past. You’ve earned that much.
Chuck: …No, thanks… I don’t need to know more about who you were. ‘Cause as much as you don’t think so, I know who you are…
– Chuck vs the Cougars
When watching this episode for the first time, I glossed over this line, thinking it was a nice little way for Chuck and Sarah to have a moment. The second viewing, I picked up a little more of the meaning. But it wasn’t until the third time through, that the significance of it hit me. It is in this exchange that we come face to face with the depth of human need and desire: to know and to be known. And this knowledge that Chuck possesses of Sarah is not an intellectual knowledge. He’s had that; he knows she’s a spy, an assassin, knows how she works, and so forth. This empirical knowledge is information he has gleaned from observation and discussion with either Sarah or Casey.
But the statement, “I know who you are,” is not empirical. It is existential. Simply put, there is a shared, lived, experience between persons that goes beyond theories or explanations, beyond empirical data, and even beyond words themselves. Does Chuck have to express this intimate knowledge of Sarah in words? No, he does not. In fact, what comes next is a perfect of example of how this knowledge is gained: they share a cheeseburger prepared her favorite way just to be sure that we–as the audience–get the fact that he knows her. And so this experiential knowledge transcends the need for words. It is simple, yet profound.
As a further example of this shared experiential knowledge, I’d like to consider a bit from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, after they had just dealt with the mountain troll:
But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.
–Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
This helps to illustrate what I’m trying to get at here: Chuck’s statement to Sarah that he knows her is predicated upon a shared experience, indeed many shared experiences, which transcend the intellectual. This experiential knowledge is more integral to who we are as human persons than intellectual, or theoretical, knowledge, so much so that I think we can safely say, that it is ontological, it is part of our very being. To be human requires–yes, requires–us to know and be known.
And this brings us back to a concept that I talked about earlier, and that is experiential knowledge is at the very heart of what it means to be human. To know and to be known: this is what communion is [see: ChuckvstheEveryman], because knowledge, as outlined by the evidence above, is participation. The lover cannot know the beloved without participation, without a shared experience.
To know another soul, or souls, is to affirm them. It affirms their very existence. “I don’t need to know more about who you were. ‘Cause as much as you don’t think so, I know who you are” not only testifies to Chuck’s love for Sarah, and her acceptance of that love, it proclaims her very being. To say, “I know you,” to another human person affirms their personhood, it is equivalent to saying, “you are.”
Here we see the coming transformation and salvation of Sarah Walker. In her shared experience with Chuck Bartowski, she comes to know another human person. She comes to be known by others. In this exchange of experiential knowledge, she cares and is cared for; loves and is loved; changes and is changed. This is the deepest and truest desire of the human person.
In fact, we can sum up this truth of human nature with two statements from Chuck:
(1) “I know who you are.”
(2) “I love you, Sarah Walker. Always have.” – Chuck vs the American Hero.
The first statement affirms her existence, not only as an agent, a spy, or tool of the government, but as a human person. Chuck’s knowledge of Sarah reveals her to be someone who is intrinsically valuable and one who is worth knowing. The second statement, I love you, is part of the existential knowledge of another person. It is, according to Paul Evdokimov in The Sacrament of Love, the same thing as saying: “You will never die.”
So, in the end we have from Chuck Bartowski to Sarah Walker: You are, and you always will be. Good stuff! Who’d’ve thought we could learn so much from a simple television show?