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.