Evil Never Looked So Good

About this article

This article looks at how evil is such a preoccupation in our modern culture. Interesting connections are made with gnosticism and sentimentalism. A differentiation is made between being a sinner and a victim that is thought-provoking and challenging.

Do you think you're a victim? Do you avoid making judgments because you'll hurt someone's feelings? Do you feel betrayed by your wrinkles or your balding dome? Be careful. You might be cuddling up to heresy, which just had a face-lift and now looks positively tempting.

We are bombarded with the claim that our culture has lost its way, that folks have abandoned the ground of strong moral claims in favor of watery sentimentalism or terminal relativism. We say that, and yet we notice, as we look around, that there is so much that is generous, fair, and good. Certainly great words like compassion and rights appear to suffuse the air that we breathe.

I propose that we take a good, hard look at much of what marches forward under the banner of great, good words--compassion and mercy, as but two examples. Are these manifestations truly authentic fruits of the Christian tradition, or are they instead something that passes for mercy or decency or turning the other cheek, but on close examination turns out to represent nothing of the sort? As the great moral teachers remind us, much of the "bad stuff," including evil, presents itself to us in the guise of light and goodness and mercy. This makes the task of critical reflection on one's own cultural moment a daunting task indeed.

But let's try to get our bearings. I propose that we begin our task of reflection by taking up the question of evil. In American popular culture, evil is represented as embodied and active; it takes on a life of its own rather than signifying a terrible desert of the human spirit, a dearth and an absence, in Saint Augustine's powerful formulations. Our films and television programs often represent evil as a kind of irresistible force with a compelling, if terrifying, bodily form.

One social critic has found that the image to which American teenagers are most drawn in this regard is that of the vampire--the living dead--an evil force that goes on and on "infecting" the living, who then have no power to resist. Sooner or later the vampire will get you. All of us are literally having our life's blood sucked out by sinister forces. And once that happens, we are no longer responsible for our deeds as we, in turn, suck the life out of others.

But this isn't really evil; it's just a kind of living death that never ends. Other images of evil are more Manichean in this sense: All the evil is projected into some external force--aliens, for example--while we are portrayed as somewhat befuddled but good creatures, helpless before this outside power. Much of our fascination with aliens, superhuman monsters, and creatures rising from the depths of the primeval ooze all tap this theme.

Consider a second preoccupation, a manifestation of what might be called New Age gnosticism. Gnosticism is an ancient phenomenon that appears, in one form or another, in every cultural epoch, it seems. For gnostics, the body is corrupt--only "spirit" is pure. Additionally, gnosticism historically has trafficked in the view that a select few of the pure or purified alone understand the mysteries of life and the complexities of faith.

How do we today manifest a persistent gnostic attitude? Consider how our culture represents the human body itself. The body is an enemy that betrays us. The body ages. It grows infirm. We become ill. But we are promised we can be "forever young." How does our cultural gnosticism, of which the promise of perpetual youthfulness is itself a symptom, urge us to respond?

We are enjoined to trick the body with potions and surgeries and nostrums and spas and sexual-potency medicines. We must bend the body to our sovereign will. We are barraged daily with the promise that nearly every human ailment or condition can be overcome if we just have the political will and the technological skill. Increasingly, as we seek cures for the human condition itself, our desperate seeking bespeaks a brittle conviction that our imperfect embodiment is the problem. For example: a premise--and promise--driving the Human Genome Project, an effort to map the genetic code of the human race, is that we might one day intervene decisively in order to guarantee better if not perfect human products. In the genome-enthusiast camp, they are already talking about designer genes--genes, not jeans.

Called upon to justify this sort of thing, most people are mystified. They simply assume it has to be good. Besides, we are simply helping God out, perfecting what God created. The underlying message is that we can no longer abide the notion that God works upon us. We must be our own construction, our own work. This isn't simply anti-Christian. That's why it gets so tricky. It is taking a piece of the Christian tradition--the human being as co-creator--and excising that recognition from a horizon framed by recognition of our creatureliness. So, oddly, a preoccupation with the body becomes a flight from it--from the old, imperfect body, in any case.

There are so many symptoms of this flight from the body. Consider how blithely we speak of "cyber-communities," of disembodied communities existing entirely "in space." Consider, also, that somehow whatever we do with our bodies doesn't truly "touch us." What counts is the purity of our hearts. Perhaps this helps to account for President Bill Clinton's tortuous attempts to define embodied genital contact of a particular kind as "not" a sexual relationship at all. The body isn't really the self; hence, "it" can commit no real betrayal or have a betrayal performed upon it, so to speak. Doesn't matter. No sweat.

Yet, and against the gnostic temptation, the Christian view is that the body expresses the person: What we do with our bodies exposes and displays the very self.

A third manifestation is even harder to name. It goes something like this. We are awash in sentiment that takes the form of a refusal to offer up discernments or assessments or even judgments that might "hurt" someone else's feelings. There is a distinct Christian backdrop and origin to our sentimentalism. We have turned compassion into a kind of indiscriminate identification with victimization of all kinds.

One high-school teacher passed on to me the following tale. During a civics exercise, he asked his class to divide itself up: Those who saw themselves as victims were to go to one side of the room; those who believed they had some power over their fates and conditions, the other. Everybody rushed to be a victim.

This is a distortion of the Christian tradition but inexplicable without it. Called, as we are, to open our hearts to the cry of mercy and the claims of charity, we have somehow found it necessary to amputate our critical intelligence. How does one set about sifting genuine moments that embody enactments of caritas from a sentimental humanism that currently substitutes for it? Not an easy job.

I was struck by a recent essay by theologian Gerhard Forde in the Christian Century. Forde writes that a "theology of the cross  . . . is not sentimentalism." He frets that, in Protestant churches at least, the theology of the cross has become a variant of sentimentalism and the sentimentalization of victimization. We resort to platitudes and to a "blatant and suffocating sentimentalism."

By contrast, a true "theology of the cross" challenges a "sentimentalized theology." Jesus, after all, told us to weep "for yourselves and for your children." To be a sinner and to be a victim are not the same thing. So our language has slipped and fallen out of place and we have lost the ability to name things correctly--what is good, what is bad, what is wrong, what is right. Writes Forde: "The language of sin, law, accusation, repentance, judgment, wrath, punishment, perishing, death, devil, damnation, and even the cross itself--virtually one half of the vocabulary--simply disappears."

And if we cannot truly recognize despair--as I like to say, we don't have sin anymore but syndromes--then we cannot truly live in hope.

I was thinking about just how schizophrenic we have become in the matter of the body. On the one hand, it "tells everything": the DNA will tell the tale (except in certain highly publicized double-murder trials). But what we do with our bodies doesn't really matter. It doesn't touch the soul. The antithesis between body and soul may lie at the heart of these new heresies. The body is everything. But it is really nothing at all; only the spirit counts.

When the poor, sad souls of the Heaven's Gate group took their own lives, there was a lot of loose talk about how "Christian" it all was: knowing the spirit would live on, even injunctions to martyrdom. But there was nothing remotely Christian about it. In Christianity, we are ensouled bodies, not souls who just happen to have bodies. Our culture has forgotten so many things or, perhaps, remembered them in a way that distorts and exculpates. It isn't really "me" doing any of this but vampires, aliens, conspiracies, a weak body but a pure, sweet soul within.

If our seminaries and theological centers and churches do not keep alive the complexities and power of the Christian tradition, in all its irreducible fullness and, yes, toughness, then the heresies will triumph. I fear that, at least for the time being, they already have.

By JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Among her recent books are Augustine and the Limits of Politics (Notre Dame, 1998) and Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life (Johns Hopkins, 1997).


This article first appeared in U.S. Catholic magazine and is reprinted here by permission of the author and U.S. Catholic. For more helpful articles from U.S.Catholic, visit their web site at http://www.uscatholic.org.

Published July 1, 1999.