Doctrine I Want Students to Grasp From “Tiger King”

Social media is ablaze with the latest documentary freak show on Netflix. Some describe it as a train wreck you can’t take your eyes off. Many are laughing, making the show an ideal new source for memes. America is sitting at home wondering where to buy toilet paper while watching “Tiger King.”

“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness” provides the kind of teachable moment that does not come around often enough. Rarely does something pop up in the broad category of entertainment that we can discuss with students and all be impartial. Generally what students love, they are unable to be objective about. Talk to them about their favorite musician or movie star and they often get defensive. The people we meet in “Tiger King” are such a mixed bag at best that it’s impossible to fully embrace any of them. These are not people students are aspiring to become. If you are dealing with any exceptions to this, let us know how we can pray for you!

Netflix created this series after years of filming various owners of exotic animals. In it we meet several very eccentric personalities. Most run private zoos and one operates a refuge for large cats. Conflict among them creates a dark, twisted story. For any students who have not seen it, let them take a pass. Given the amount of profanity, violence, drug use, and sexual content, it’s not commendable as entertainment.

Where teenagers have seen the show, however, we have an opportunity to teach vital doctrine that can shape their worldview. The series vividly illustrates concepts that are normally difficult to approach. The doctrine I have in mind is the first of the five doctrines of grace. It deals with original sin and is given the term total depravity.

Total Depravity and the Doctrines of Grace
The doctrines of grace are so named because they are concise expressions of saving grace: That God saves sinners through Christ for His glory. The first of the five, total depravity, enables us to recognize our desperate need for God to save us by His means.

Total depravity, sometimes called radical depravity, is the reality that every part of our being has been affected by the Fall (Gen. 3). By “total,” we mean there is no part of who we are that has not been affected. This does not suggest we lack any goodness in us; we acknowledge that God’s creation of human beings was good (Gen. 1). But all of our thoughts, actions, emotions, and desires are morally polluted by sin.

Here’s an easy way to illustrate this at home or over a video call: Take a clear glass of water and put a few drops of food coloring in. Give it a stir and ask, “is there any part of the water that has not been colored?” Likewise, in our natural state, we are impure and affected by sin.

Three Truths To Talk About

There are several aspects of depravity that I want students to understand from “Tiger King.” One is that sin left unchecked can spread into a complex mess across every aspect of our lives. Many people in “Tiger King” are caught up in drugs, sexual sin, and illegal activity. They did not just wake up one day in that mess. We are also susceptible to sin. When we ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit, our sin begins to entangle us.

Another is the subtle reality that good intentions are often marred by sin. We can serve others or rescue animals and not have pure motives or actions in the process. Joe got wrapped up in money and lost sight of the care of animals. Carol rescues cats and spends lots of money combatting her enemies rather than providing better shelter. Mixed motives should humble us all.

Finally, we need students to understand that our desire to watch documentaries about broken lives highlights our own depravity. I did not first watch “Tiger King” as research for this article. I’d heard it was Netflix’s hottest new catastrophe. Pun intended. There is something in us that is drawn to watching broken people and amused by their messy lives.

Starting the Conversation
As you begin a discussion with students who have watched Tiger King, invite them to reflect on the popularity and premise of the show. Here are some questions you can use to get the conversation going:

  • Why did this suddenly become the #1 show on Netflix?
  • What is it about the show that draws us in?
  • What is it about humanity that desires this entertainment?  Or to simply watch this?

Since our goal is to help students recognize the reality of human depravity, ask students to think about Tiger King’s characters:

  • How would you describe the main people in the show? (i.e. Joe Exotic, Carol Baskin, “Doc” Antle, Jeff Lowe)
  • Who stood out as the most unusual? Why?
  • What would you say they all share in common?
  • Do you think their motives in working with big cats changed over time?
  • What sort of poor decisions did they make along the way?
  • How do you see their fallen nature influencing decisions and actions?
  • How does our own brokenness affect our lives?

Then work through the following Scriptures to show students what God’s word has to say about depravity and grace.

Walking Through Scriptures About Sin and Grace
Our fallen condition (Gen. 3) is in us from our birth (Psalm 51:5). We are held captive by a love for sin (John 3:19; John 8:34) which causes us not to seek God (Rom. 3:10-11). Even our hearts deceive us (Jer. 17:9).

Here is where we can fully explain the doctrine of total depravity. Students need to understand how it shapes their worldview to know that all human beings have been affected by sin. This changes how we read the news, and watch TV, movies, etc.

A study in Romans will allow students to understand the extent of sin in our lives and in the world. It’s pervasiveness and infectiousness cannot be understated. Given the context of the “Tiger King” characters, Romans 1:18-32 provides a gradual build toward directly addressing issues seen in the show. Paul explains that all human beings are without excuse to know God because He has revealed Himself in creation. Yet people have worshiped creation instead of the Creator. Turning away from God has led them to be filled with “every kind of wickedness” (v. 29).

Hopefully students will understand the doctrine with compassion not judgement. If any lack compassion, Paul makes a sharp turn in the start of Romans 2. He throws everyone into the category of unrighteous. A look at the first five verses of that chapter are enough to make the point. We must then get to the Good News and point students to the truth of God’s grace.

We find the gospel of grace clearly proclaimed in Romans 5:6-8: Christ died for sinners to bring us back into a right relationship with God! Paul continues this point throughout chapter 5. Students need to see that we are saved by grace, and not by our own doing. Therefore, our response to those who don’t know God, who live as though he does not exist, is to love them gracefully and to show them His love.

“Tiger King” isn’t going away anytime soon. The internet is blazing with interviews of those involved. Speculations are out about new specials, series, etc. For now, we have plenty to discuss. Yet best of all we have the opportunity to praise God for his abounding grace.


Dave Wright is the Coordinator for Student Ministries in the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina. He previously served churches in suburban Chicago and Cheshire England. Dave has written extensively for a variety of youth ministry publications, contributed to The Gospel Coalition blog and authored a chapter in the book Gospel Centered Youth Ministry. He blogs occasionally at

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