Archive for November, 2007

Evil and the cure

If I were to sit and loosely categorize all of my actions according to their general subject matter (say I had a category for actions pertaining to relationships, money, school, religion, etc.) I think I would find a weird pattern: the worse things are generally going for that category of life, the more prone I am to sin in respect to it. I find that the pain or confusion of my life makes it easier to stumble morally. I don’t know if that is a common pattern for people, but I really imagine it is. Otherwise Job is a remarkably unremarkable person. The whole deal Satan brought to God was that Job would quickly sin if things got worse for him. Job was a real hero. I think God is too bright to take Satan up on the same bet over me though.

But sin and evil have gotten a weird spin put on them lately. One of the most frequent places where we find wickedness/sin/evil addressed is in movies. Though churches can ramble on about evil indefinitely, those who are heavy participants in pop culture certainly don’t have the stomach for it, but film has a wide open door into the mind of the average person. And any film that tells a story needs conflict. And the quickest way to get a solid conflict is to raise up a villain. And this is where sin gets the spin.

As far as I get literature, a villain serves the purpose, in the story, of producing or embodying the conflict for the protagonist, and in most literature (cinematic or written) the villain is presented as a truly bad person – not just someone who happens to be a mild annoyance to the good guy. When we import this literary framework into the Christian worldview, it can give us a pretty useful view of life.

What I mean is this. A villain is (generally) just the bad guy in a story, and a story is just seeing life and it’s events from a particular perspective. So, any perspective on the world and everything that goes on in it is pretty much a story. And thats just what your, and everyone else’s life is – one perspective on the world and the things that are going on in it. And your story has many villains in it – those who cause pain, strife, and unhappiness within your perspective. And you have played the villain to many people too. We’re all bad guys some times.

But think for a second about how villains are most often portrayed in film and other literature. Until a few recent movies (like Mr. Brooks, and sometimes the Hannibal Lectre movies) almost every bad guy I’ve ever known has been presented as some utterly vicious Hitler who sits and wrings his hands, gleefully cackling at the thought of all the evil they cause. To say it plainly – bad guys are nearly always pictured as being bad and loving it, as if they were evil for evil’s sake alone.

Now, to see the spin, think back to some time in your life where you did something truly wicked. (If you can’t, you probably need to spend some solid time in moral introspection, because most people have done something truly bad at some point). Assuming you’ve got such an instance in mind, think: when you were then at your most wicked, were you like the hand-wringing maniac, laughing at the thought of your evil?

No. I bet you weren’t. I bet that, at your most wicked moment, when you were joining in with the crowd to humiliate the weak, or unabashedly ripping someone off, or betraying the trust of a friend, or whatever, I bet you weren’t thinking “How I love being evil and hurting others!”. You probably, at that moment, felt a deep pang of shame and frustration with yourself. And you probably nudged that pang away with reasons why you had to do what you were doing. Or (maybe even worse) you didn’t feel the pang, and knew you should feel it, but were totally apathetic to the wrongness of your action. Either way the point is this: you weren’t loving being wicked. You were enticed by whatever positive reward your wickedness might offer – pleasure, money, convenience, etc.

This is where modern film is undermining evil. It presents evil through the lens of a near-comical caricature. The evil person isn’t one who struggles in her mind to justify her wickedness, and nudge away her moral sense that cries out against it like a hand delving into the flame. That would hit too close to home. We would feel too much like the bad guy, and that’s never us, right?

And it doesn’t stop with the bad guys. While the villains are becoming more and more like a more gruesome Marvin The Martian, the good guys are becoming more like us when we’re being real bad guys. Think of the new superman movie. If anyone is a good guy it should be superman. He’s an explicit messiah figure even! But what is the new superman like? He’s the kind of guy that gets a chick pregnant and leaves her with the bastard child while he runs off to work. So on one hand wickedness is kept at a distance by painting it in such unrealistic and alien terms that Satan himself wouldn’t qualify as a wicked man, and on the other hand the own wickedness that plagues our lives and makes us villains is justified by making us sympathize with a morally defective “good guy”, using the caricatured villain as a foil to make sure we don’t catch on to what’s really going on. We never notice that Superman’s (an alien)
scummy behavior is right at home here, and Lex Luthor’s “wickedness” is the most alien thing in the whole flick.

Where do we go from here though? Well, the title talked about a cure to sin. I don’t mean a real cure that will rid the world of wickedness forever, but some substantial medication for the disaster that hits our lives. I went through the film stuff to shed a simple light on sin so that we would know how to approach the sinner. I don’t mean to understate the case on sin here; there are some truly wicked people out there. But approaching badness in a person should never be done as if they fit the bill for the villain in Freddy Kreuger. No one is really like that. The girl who made fun of the social outcast in high school didn’t do it because she liked the idea of them crying themselves to sleep that night; she did it because she felt ugly or afraid and somewhere in her jumbled mind it all made sense, and the pain hushed the moral outcry. And the frat boy who makes it his aim to desecrate as many girls as he can is more often seeking something that will come close to the deep intimacy he needs and has been deprived of, than trying to cast a lifelong blanket of shame on some girl.

These deep, personal lines of reasoning are what motivate almost every bad action, no matter the severity, and approaching someone in their villainy must be done with this in mind. Sympathy is the balm – the cure for most, not a blitzkrieg of condemnation and calling-out. That only addresses the visible symptom of evil and pushes for practical conformity of behavior. But wickedness is deeper, and now we see that it is more personal, logical, and complex than the movies show. We must approach the villain first on a common ground of love and sympathy, identifying with their plight that is common to all people, and seeking to help them along this common path. God knows this well. His plan to bring humans to the Godlike life was not to stand apart from them screaming correction and condemnation, but to identify with us. To come alongside us as one of us who understands us and can guide us. In following Him we must do the same.