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Musing on defeating evil in modern stories

Most people in Western societies today do not fear the influence of demons. If modern movies and novels are any indication, however, people today do have a sense of foreboding that some supernatural, malicious evil is out there that haunts and assaults human beings in a seemingly arbitrary way.

Movie producers and novelists capitalize on this modern uneasiness in their science fiction thrillers and horror tales. In these plots, an insidious alien power bursts on the scene. It usually takes the form of some virtually indestructible being who can metamorphose into any shape and is bent on destroying individuals and eventually the whole world. Other movies have to do with an outbreak of some deadly, incurable disease that strikes fear throughout a region and threatens to devastate it. Still others center on a murderous human monster who has nine lives and comes back in sequel and after sequel to savage his victims. The villains are usually dispatched by some violent means or scientific wizardry, which ends the movie but never completely solves the problem. These cinematic battles that pit the forces of light (so-called) against the forces of darkness show no knowledge of God's purposes or power to overcome evil and have no awareness of how God works to defeat it. They assume that humans have the power and ingenuity to expel the evil from our midst.

--From NIV Application Commentary: Mark by David E. Garland
I was struck by David Garland's observation above that, in spite of the general lack of belief in or fear of supernatural beings, some of our stories nevertheless seem to grapple with an awareness of "some supernatural, malicious evil" lurking in our world—and, being an ardent fan of science fiction as well television shows about vampires and ghosts, I must agree, heh.

I also think Garland has a point when it comes to a common weakness in modern films and stories that grapple with this sense of malicious evil. Indeed, in many of these stories God is absent and violence and human ingenuity are the weapons of choice in their fight against it. There is a general lack—even in films that directly reference God and biblical content—of overt revelations, knowledge or reflections of God’s purposes, power and methods.

I can’t help but note, however, that those who follow Jesus may be in the same boat. Interestingly, I ran across Garland's observation as I was researching the scene in Mark's gospel where, just after calming a storm-tossed lake with a word, Jesus is confronted by a legion-of-demons-possessed man near the tombs in which he lives. In modern society and culture, the idea of an overt, malicious evil like this lurking out there isn’t an easy, comfortable or even socially acceptable one to contemplate. I found interesting Garland's observation of how we—believers, in particular—react to such a reality. For many of us, it's easier to contemplate the idea of an evil within the hearts of men, but confront us with a scene like the one between Jesus and a man possessed by not one but a legion of demons, well, some of us might tend to squirm a bit. Garland observes how some of us tend to be embarrassed and/or skeptical about those parts of scripture dealing with demons, and thus skip over them or attempt to explain them away. On the other hand, there are also others of us, Garland points out, who have a tendency to exaggerate or attribute too much power and activity to this kind of evil. We can become so wrapped up in the evil from without that we ignore the danger of the evil from within.

But, ultimately, erring on either extreme is missing the point. Garland points out that when we examine Jesus' confrontation with such evil, we find a completely different approach both regarding the “source of evil and how it is overcome”—an approach which not only our modern storytellers tend to miss but we believers miss, too:

Evil comes from a demonic power that seizes human beings. It is not something that we can defeat on our own. It takes a greater supernatural power to vanquish it—the power of God. . .

Only in Christ can we find “a shelter from the stormy blast” and the power to overcome demonic forces, which can swamp not only individuals but whole nations and continents. Only in Christ are we delivered from the dominion of evil powers. In Mark’s account we also see that this evil is dispatched when Jesus calmly speaks a word. All of the violence is caused by the evil spirits, not by Jesus. Mark emphasizes Jesus’ mercy (5:19), not his blustering power, that vanquishes evil. In Christ we see God destroying evil through love.
I double-underlined that part: In Christ we see God destroying evil through love. Through love. It is not violence, blustering power, human ingenuity, or evil for evil but love that overcomes evil—and we see that at work in Jesus everywhere he goes and in everything he does.

In light of this, however, I wonder if there might be more evidence and knowledge than we think about God's purposes, power and methods of defeating evil in those modern stories that deal with a sense of malicious, supernatural evil.

As mentioned above, many of those films and stories that reflect this sense also lack overt knowledge of revelations, knowledge or reflections of God’s purposes, power and methods—but in some of those stories there is a very powerful thread that echoes all that woven deep into their makeup: evil is overcome by love and sacrifice. I see this in science fiction and supernatural stories, from Defying Gravity, Battlestar Galactica (above photo), Pitch Black, Blade Runner, Terminator Salvation, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles to Lady in the Water, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Being Human, Twilight, Vampire Diaries—the list goes on. In most of these, there are no overt revelations, knowledge or reflections of God’s purposes, power and methods (BSG proves the most dramatic exception), but I think there is—like our storytellers’ sense of evil—a sense of it.

Folks like J.R.R. Tolkien observe how God expresses himself and his truth through storytellers who don’t know him, as this article at C.S. Lewis Foundation points out:

In a 1931 letter, Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis (not a Christian at the time) describes a conversation with Tolkien and their friend Hugo Dyson about the significance of myths, in which the two men explained their belief that:

"The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth orking on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened. . . . The Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’"
Paul seems to take this stance as well when he speaks at Mars Hill, pointing out to those gathered the bits and pieces of truth from their poets and even their religion. “We live and move in him,” as Paul says. “We can’t get away from him.” God saturates our world and our stories—whether or not we set out to directly acknowledge him or his power and methods.

But Garland has a good point. For the most part, most of the pagan myths, ancient poets and modern science fiction and vampire stories inevitably fall short; they don’t give the entire picture—and sometimes, they give the wrong one. But I firmly believe that, like all good stories, in the best of them we can hear the strains of a symphony full of resounding echoes.

(Image: Constantine screenshot, Warner Bros; Hellboy II poster, Universal; Terminator Salvation, Warner Bros; Battlestar Galactica screenshot, SyFy; Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronices, Fox; Lady in the Water poster, Legendary and Warner Bros.)


Joseph said…
Great post as usual Carmen. I have been musing a lot on the fascination with vampires lately myself. I too am a fan of Sci-Fi and fantasy as well as vampire and werewolf stories, etc.

I have often wondered how these stories, or elements of them at least, can be "redeemed." There must be something primal (for lack of a better term) about them or we would not be so fascinated with them.

Thanks for a great read on this topic.
Ken Brown said…
Great post! That sounds like an interesting commentary as well.
Carmen Andres said…
i think Garland gets at a bit of why we are so fascinated with these stories. if Scripture is true, then there is a malicious and supernatural evil lurking about us, and even if we aren't aware of or don't believe it, we will still have to grapple with it--and good stories help us do that.

ken, the set of NIV Application Commentaries are the best i've run across. doug moo wrote the one for romans and mcknight did two of them, i think. anyway, i've really liked the ones i've read; heh, i even own some of them :)
Anonymous said…
HI Carmen,
Check out the movie Refuge From the Storm. I think you will like it. It will be on DVD in a few months.