Why is wrongdoing made to seem so sexy and rebellious and virtue so dull and boring in our culture?
There is an unsettling mystery about evil which deprives us of satisfactory answers. The creation in Genesis tells a story of how evil entered the world but does not reveal its origins. Its enigma is clearly one God is not willing to share with us, implying its roots lie far beyond human understanding and fall into Donald Rumsfeld’s category of ‘the things we don’t know we don’t know’. All around us we see the effects of evil in the way the powerful abuse the weak and yet our imagination is sometimes clouded by the allure of transgression.
In a post-modern world, tales of wrongdoing in books and on screen often make it seem sexy and rebellious, as if there is more courage in taking this stand. By contrast, goodness is usually presented as bourgeois and conformist, as if a person who pursues this is less fully alive. The very use to which the word good is put in popular culture (do-gooder; goody two shoes) implies that people who aim to do good are often misunderstood and misrepresented. Any story of altruism will find some reaching instinctively for a selfish explanation.
Evil, however, is given a charismatic twist in our storytelling. The best villains have a seductive and hypnotic power: Hannibal Lecter, the Joker, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman in the first Die Hard movie, in case you’re wondering). Perhaps it started with Milton’s Paradise Lost where Satan hams it up heroically at the expense of God, who comes across by contrast like a ‘constipated civil servant’ in the words of one critic.
In the final analysis, we prefer glamour, personality and wit. This leads to a strange double standard, for real evil is a matter of loathing. There is nothing charming about murder or abuse and we know these sins are of a piece with other kinds of wrongdoing, and yet we cannot resist presenting sin as magnetic and entrancing. Perhaps we may find a new perspective on the attractions of glossy evil with the growing number of entertainers from the seventies who are being exposed for child abuse. We took their charisma for granted, without seeing the nefarious purpose to which it was being put.
This predilection for describing evil in entrancing ways contrasts sharply with Hannah Arendt’s famous summary of Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann. The ‘banality of evil’ she found in him eschewed any sense that a man capable of organising the Holocaust could be an inspired wizard. Instead, Eichmann was a boring bureaucrat with no imagination. Perhaps we struggle with her finding because it locates evil in the mundane and prosaic detail of human life, where we all belong. We prefer to think of evil as diabolical when it is bland; colourful where it is vapid. It is in the ordinary and commonplace choices of life that we weave virtue or vice. The tapestry of evil is shallow and boring, as well as shocking and sad. As the philosopher Terry Eagleton has observed of evil, it is like being ‘talked at for all eternity by a man in an anorak who has mastered every detail of the sewage system of South Dakota’.
While there is a risk of trivialising evil when we focus our attention on its inanity, some awareness of this is called for if we are to overcome it rather than be transfixed by it. To be full of the fruit of the Spirit is to be full of life in all its facets; it is not just being kind, patient and faithful, it is being true to the personality we have been gifted, in all its sparkiness and creativity. Irenaeus said that the glory of God is man fully alive. When light shines on us, the colours come out; the darkness, by contrast, is lifeless and dull. It’s strange how our stories have it the other way round.
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