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Can We Be “Good” While Reading & Writing About “Evil”?

Yesterday popular Christian writer Tim Challies made A Plea for Innocence:

I want to be good at good. In fact, I want to be an expert in good. At least, I do when I’m at my best. But in moments of introspection I see a real interest in evil as well. These desires battle within me, the desire to fill my mind with good and the desire to fill my mind with evil.

It’s an important plea, one that each of us should take seriously. But as someone who writes and reads in the horror, supernatural, and dark fantasy genres, the plea for innocence can also be a potential indictment. I mean, is it possible to “be an expert in good” while having “a real interest in evil”? Perhaps “interest” is the wrong word — “wonder of,” “speculation about,” or “attention to,” might be a better way to put it. Either way, Challies makes a powerful case:

John Stott says this: “To be wise in regard to good is to recognize it, love it and follow it.” Do you recognize what is good, and find that it stirs your heart, and motivates you to pursue it? Do you love to tell others about the good you have seen, the good you have learned, the good you have done? Stott continues: “With regard to evil, however, he wants them to be unsophisticated, even guileless, so completely should they shy away from any experience of it.”

Enjoy what is good, not evil. Watch what is good, not evil. Ponder what is good, not evil. Dream of what is good not evil. Read what is good, not evil. Use social media to celebrate what is good instead of bemoan what is evil. Most of all, do what is good, not evil.

The plea to focus on good and be guileless regarding evil is firmly biblical. There’s no other way to cut it. God wants us preoccupied with good — doing it, thinking it, envisioning it, praying for it, and bringing it about.

The questions come, as always, when we apply this to our daily lives. Especially as it relates to pop culture and those of us who read and write about the weird, dark, and horrific.

  • Does this mean we can never write / read a book that contains depictions of evil, occultism, or the devilish?
  • Does this mean we can never write / read a horror novel or watch a horror movie?
  • Does this mean we should never contemplate evil deeds, shocking scenes, or atrocities?
  • Does this mean we should never ponder the the morally diseased or demonic?
  • Does this mean we should never intentionally walk through the valley of the shadow of death?

On the one hand are those who advocate complete abstinence from viewing / reading / participating in anything they consider evil.  In an article Is It Okay for Christians to Watch Horror Movies? this ministry concludes:

Horror movies are created by disturbed and evil people, by the inspiration of the devil, for the purpose of manifesting demonic wickedness and evil in a tangible, visible and audible way.

Horror movies contain evil wickedness, murder, rape, abominations and various satanic content that traumatizes the viewers brain, emotions, mentality and subconscious. This is the goal.

On the other hand are those who regularly watch / write / read about evil because of a lurid fascination with the dark, demented, immoral and wicked.

I’m guessing that Challies falls somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, his appeal can be easily seen as an indictment of readers and writers of the dark genres.

So if Christianity is about Light, why should we watch or read about the Darkness? The Bible calls us to think about things that are true and good and virtuous (Philippians 4:8). So why should we voluntarily scare ourselves? Why should we willfully subject our minds to disturbing images, carnage, depravity, the occult, or wickedness? A couple of responses:

I think a case could be made for not running from evil, not closing our eyes to it. The famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa simply said, “The role of the artist is to not look away.” Christian artists and readers, perhaps more than any other group, should embrace this proverb. We should not “look away.” Our eyes should be wide open. I don’t mean that we should delight in evil, be captivated by the macabre, or celebrate darkness, but that our perspective of the human condition should be unflinching and particularly acute. In fact, according to the apostle Paul in Phil. 4:8, the first object of our attention is “whatever is true.” Sometimes the “truth” of a situation involves the truly evil. The suicide of a pedophile. The mental disorder of the adult victim of a pedophile. The horrors of war. Societal injustices. The abortion industry and the victims, born and unborn, it leaves in its wake. The lists of “evils” we should study, gaze upon, even expose are many. Sure, feel-good, inspirational story-telling may have its place. But writers and readers — especially Christian writers and readers — who only subscribe to a “feel-good” world have violated an essential artistic, dare I say, biblical law … they have “looked away” and shrunk from “whatever is true.”

The Bible is perhaps the greatest argument in favor of looking into the Dark. The Horror Writers Association puts it this way,

…the best selling book of all time, the Bible, could easily be labeled horror, for where else can you find fallen angels, demonic possessions, and an apocalypse absolutely terrifying in its majesty all in one volume?

Scripture contains scenes of gore, torment, destruction, demons, plagues, catastrophe, divine judgment and eternal anguish. The reader who wants to think only on what is “pure and good” may want to avoid such biblical stand-bys as the Fall of Man (Gen. 3), Noah’s Flood (Gen. 7), the Slaughter of the Firstborn (Ex. 11), the Destruction of Sodom (Gen. 19), the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev. 20), and The Crucifixion of Christ (which involves one of the most brutal forms of execution ever devised). While the Bible’s message is one of redemption, that redemption unfolds amidst a dark world that is cannibalizing itself, pummeled by evil beings and barreling toward chaos and destruction. And we Christians are called to “not look away.”

Some will counter that the reality of evil is not justification to focus on it. Reading or writing about evil is akin to focusing on darkness, rather than Light. No doubt, some read and/or watch horror to fuel prurient interests or feed depravity. (I can’t see any other reason why people would watch The Faces of Death except that they are disturbed individuals.) However, there are people who read other genres for the wrong reasons too. Some read romance novels to arouse sexual desire or replace its void. Some read fantasy novels to escape the mess they’ve made of their lives. Some read Amish lit because they simply can’t cope with the 21st century. In fact, I think an argument can be made for how a preoccupation with “clean” fiction or films can actually harm us. So while some may, indeed, focus on dark lit as a means of dark fascination, this is not unique to readers of the genre. Readers / writers of ANY genre can turn to novels / movies as an unhealthy form of escapism or titillation.

I would also add, there’s a difference between what we look at / observe / encounter / ponder and what we choose to embrace. Just reading or watching something horrific does not make us horrible, any more than watching a car accident, robbery, flirtatious affair, or elder abuse makes us compliant. Sure, fighting monsters might make us monsters, but this is not a good excuse to ignore the beasts. The Bible is not telling us to turn away from what is unlovely and impure, but to not dwell on them, to not allow the darkness to usurp our hope and resolve. So it’s not an issue of ignoring monsters, but learning to look in their eyes and battle them. Thus, Christians are commanded to NOT turn away from evil and misery. Refusing to look upon or acknowledge evil may in fact BE evil.

I appreciate what Tim Challies is advocating. It so obviously biblical it doesn’t require my advocacy! Nevertheless, I think there’s more nuance to the application than simply a checklist of abstinence (not something Challies advocated, btw). Yes, we are called to think pure thoughts and meditate on that which is good. However, that does not mean we should live in denial about the darkness all around us. Nor should we eschew the evil and horrific simply because it is unsettling. In fact, this “unsettling” may make our stories more efficacious. As long as there is real Evil, really a place like Hell, then humbly, cautiously, reflecting on them must be part of the Christian imagination.

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Heather Marsten February 24, 2015, 7:07 AM

    I’m working on a memoir that may be shunned by many who choose the see-n0-evil approach. I was sexually abused as a child, left God, tried suicide, tried the occult, and ultimately God reached out and found me (in truth, He never left me) but it would take years of counseling and writing my memoir to see He was with me through it all (even the occult).

    My pastor’s wife has encouraged me to write the truth, including details I didn’t want to share. She told me she grew up in a home that was very Godly and she had no contact with the kinds of things I’ve experienced. Reading my story helped her to minister to some in our church because she then knew what to say. A priest who has read my story told me the same thing.

    My pastor, his wife, and the priest tell me my story will help many. One other purpose for writing my memoir is to encourage other hurting people that God can heal anyone, that God has not left them, that God will love them no matter what they have done. The priest told me my story will also help the caregivers to understand firsthand what it feels like to be abused and hurting.

    When I write, I’m thinking about the people my story will minister to. I suppose no book will reach every type of reader, but I have to be true to what I feel God is leading me to write.

    • Matthew Sample II February 24, 2015, 9:57 AM

      Very grateful that God has worked in you despite all of the evil you have seen and experienced–very grateful that he led you through and out the other side. He is truly a kind Lord, though I don’t understand why He allows all of the tragedies.

    • Mirtika February 24, 2015, 1:12 PM

      Praise God for that Hand that reached out to you. And yes, write the truth. It will help someone. It will.

  • Kat Heckenbach February 24, 2015, 7:15 AM

    According to the Bible we are at war. Good vs. evil. In war, you have to know your enemy. You would never refuse to see what your enemy is doing because it’s not “good” and expect to defeat them. Again, I quote Chesterton: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” Horror writing isn’t about glorifying evil, at least not for the Christian. It’s about bringing it to light so we can learn how to defeat it, how to kill the dragon.

    It’s all about your intent. Are you reading horror because you relish the gore and harm people come to in those novels, taking sides with the villain? Or are you reading it because you thrill in seeing the light of hope even in the most desperate of situations?

    • Mirtika February 24, 2015, 1:15 PM

      It’s interesting because neither in film or book do I enjoy gore, but I will nonetheless watch or read books with it, and for me it’s the catharsis of good overcoming evil, even great and awful evil. If a book lets evil win, then I feel very dissatisfied. I want to see evil pummeled and people rescued (when possible).

      In an age where many want to discard terms like sin or wickedness, fiction is still a place where we can clearly display actions as having dire consequences–even one small lie can destroy a family or society, one act of selfishness, one neglect or abandonment of a child, one cruelty to a neighbor. I think that depiction is more powerful than any sermon in showing how sin ripples out and, while we may get temporary satisfaction, it can grey out one’s sun.

  • Margaret Mills February 24, 2015, 8:06 AM

    Just a comment on your comment about the Faces of Death video – As a child, a young woman I know witnessed a friend being struck and killed by a truck (middle school age, on bikes). She once told me how traumatic that was, and that the handful of kids who witnessed the tragedy, not having counseling or other support available, obsessively watched the Faces of Death for a time. To desensitize themselves? I’ve wondered how that helped, but it did seem to help the kids cope. She also went into medicine and is now an RN at a children’s hospital – another way of facing down that particular dragon. I’m not recommending that as therapy, of course – just an interesting use of the film.

  • Matthew Sample II February 24, 2015, 9:47 AM

    HAM: C’mon, just because I’m the artist of the family doesn’t mean you have to curse my son! Awww…. nobody understands me. >sniff<

    I'm sorry, that was my second thought when I ran across the Kurosawa quote. The first thought when I see that quote is always, "but is that biblical?" I think we have a lot of ideas that are connected to art that are unbiblical.

    Specifically dealing with the topic of evil, I do think there is a time to turn away from evil, and that we have a mandate to be almost naive in regards to evil. While Jesus told us to be wise as serpents, He also told us to be as innocent as doves. Paul instructed the Romans to be "wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil," and though he admonished the Corinthians to be mature in their thinking, he also instructed them "yet in evil be infants." The thought life especially is very important, because out of our hearts, the mouth speaks. What we think about, meditate on, fill our lives with, will come out. I think that's why Paul tells the Colossians, "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ."

    I think there is a time to turn away from evil. Not in a way that protects evil perpetrators, or in a way that ignores their victims, but in a way that turns our eyes from evil imaginations.

    If there's a line in the sand here that affects all of us creatives, it would be: are we indulging in fictional evil as entertainment–our own bubble, protecting us from the real world of evil outside–or are we actually engaging with real evil in ways that reflect Christ?

    • Matthew Sample II February 24, 2015, 9:51 AM

      BTW, I have no answer for myself. Going through some major life changes. So I’m not pointing fingers here. Just throwing the question out for the community to mull over.

  • Gary Whittenberger February 24, 2015, 10:33 AM

    Mike, keep reading about and writing about evil. There is evil in the world. We don’t help reduce it by ignoring it. Don’t be an ostrich; be a giraffe.

    • Mirtika February 24, 2015, 1:22 PM

      Not even the giraffe. Be the witness. There are many gross things in Scripture that God could have glossed over and just used the phrase : “and then they did a wicked thing.” But instead he tells us what the wicked thing is–whether it’s the Sodom male residents wanting to gang-rape the visitors or the woman gang-raped to death and chopped into pieces and sent out to various places. The fact that God clearly tells us what awfulness was about to be or actually was done says that for some reason detailing that evil was necessary. Not just historical fact, but necessary for us to know.

      We sometimes must witness what is done and grieve and sound warnings and be horrified. Would simply telling folks about death camps have the same impact as seeing ONE photograph of the piles of the starved dead? That photo alone reminds us how very far we can fall from any sort of normal humane mentality: we can become perpetrators of such things. We don’t have to look at it constantly and we don’t have to get kicks from it (I hope not). But we should witness what we are…when we fall from goodness and grace.

  • Tony Breeden March 18, 2015, 1:46 PM

    Excellent article and well worth it for this line alone:

    “Sure, fighting monsters might make us monsters, but this is not a good excuse to ignore the beasts.”

    It’s a variant on the Dark Knight’s question: How long can we fight the darkness before we are affected by it? This is exactly the theme [well, one of many] I’ve been exploring in my latest novel. Robin Parrish tried to tackle it in Vigilante, but I think he ultimately gave us a Christianized cliché at the end of his Dark Man-esque superhero tale.

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