Christianity, Evil, Control, and the End of Storytelling


I’ve become a fan of The Phil Vischer Podcast/Videocast. The show talks popular culture and Christianity, and it’s almost always thoughtful, despite verging into moments of silliness. (This is the guy who started VeggieTales, remember.)

The following episode has so many interesting talking points on Evangelicalism, evil, tolerance, witchcraft, control, the world becoming post-Christian, and the end of storytelling, I didn’t even know where to start to unpack it. Once you get past the Pope sneaking out of the Vatican to give alms to the poor (ends around 7:17), the conversation shifts to the depiction of supernaturalism in films and what constitutes good and evil in a post-Christian world.

At around 22:38, Phil, Drew Dyke, and Skye Jethani begin discussing what happens when diversity attacks shared values and how this destroys the ability to tell a story. Phil quotes screenwriting guru Robert McKee noting that when a society has no shared common values you can’t tell a story because no one will agree with the framing mechanisms of rightness and wrongness needed to make a statement about a value depicted through story. Earlier, the trio decided that this has left us with only one agreed-upon value: Don’t oppress (or be mean to) other people. And in the end, this is all that is left of evil.

It’s a powerful discussion with startling ramifications for Christianity, both as Christians seek to share The Story of All Stories and as we confront genuine Evil as the Bible defines it.

The discussion then verges into talking about external evil and how stories are loath to discuss a greater evil that cannot be explained as just bad thoughts we might have for people who are different from us. We also see into how this comes down to control and why religious ideas with controlling godlike powers or controlling God Himself are anathema to the Christian worldview. And then Jethani mentions how some Christians are essentially practicing witchcraft.

If you want something to ponder this weekend, this provides a monster-sized load of fodder. Consider how certain groups in the U.S. are marginalizing Christian voices using revised storytelling. Ask how it is that Evangelicals try to control God. How are systems evil, including those systems we cherish as Americans first and Christians a distant second? And isn’t Atheism nothing more than a grab at control?

A lot of issues we American Christians don’t want to touch get talked about on this podcast/videocast, and not just this episode. Check it out.

(And for the Cincinnatians in the reading audience, yes, that’s a Skyline Chili mug in front of Skye Jethani, who is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford. The videocast is shot in the Wheaton, Illinois, area, home to my alma mater.)

Each of Us a Monster


Whenever a media event occurs that involves some sort of atrocity, the language of discussion involves power words. Human beings have an ingrained need to label, so the words we assign to horrific events and the people involved in them are the most powerful we elicit.

I’ve heard the word monster used often in the past week. A power word like that contrasts with the other labels we use, such as innocent. Labels help us make sense of the world, especially when tragedy strikes. The problem with labels is that we usually use them incorrectly. If anything, they become a means for us to distance ourselves from reality, a lie we tell ourselves to feel better in the midst of pain.

Evil demands labels because we want to make sense of it. We have a strange sense of fairness about how life should be, and most often evil is what we consider anything that robs life of its fairness. It’s a very American way of thinking.

For these reasons, we label perpetrators of evil as monsters, especially when that evil appears to us to be on a grand scale. Almost everyone considers Hitler a monster. So were Stalin and Mao. Anyone who preys on children is a monster, such as John Wayne Gacy or the Columbine shooters.

Though Americans are less of a religious folk than they used to be, if asked where those monsters are now, few would balk at claiming they are in hell. The ways in which monsters commit their crimes only furthers our belief that such people must be subjected to everlasting torment for us to feel that life is fair.

Here is what others say about genuine evil:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
—Matthew 5:20-22 ESV

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
—Matthew 5:27-28 ESV

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.
—Romans 3:10-19 ESV

In the end, the truth is inescapable: Each of us is a monster.

The Nazi Final Solution happened because thousands or even millions of people just like you and me were complicit in sending other people to their deaths. A nameless, faceless man at a desk initialed an order that killed families by the hundreds, then he went home and ate a meal with his own family. He was just doing his job. They executed the generals and commandants when the war was over, but the guy who initialed the papers went unjudged. Or so we think.

The rhetoric of evil in the America today makes no room for the thought that we too swiftly judge the obvious monsters and excuse ourselves. We condemn those who use guns to kill, but we make excuses for ourselves when we use words that kill the spirits of others and often trap them in a living hell for the rest of their natural lives. The young girl who is called ugly. The boy subjected to a  morose father’s beatings. The people we crush without thinking, mostly to make ourselves feel superior or to demonstrate our illusory power.

Each of us is a monster.

Even if you have no pretenses to any kind of religious thought, it doesn’t excuse the fact that human beings, even the most vanilla of us, are capable of the most sickening acts. We lay aside our fairness and brotherhood quite easily. The monster lurks perpetually within.

Perhaps you have heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment. If not, I invite you to watch this video excerpted from a documentary on the subject. The video contains nudity and obscenities, but then those obscenities are always lurking beneath the surface of our lives:

If we can draw any wisdom from this experiment, it is that even the most upright of us is capable of atrocities given the right circumstances.

We can talk all we want about the hows and whys of acts of terror and evil, but it is just a cover for the greater problem: that each of us is capable of those same atrocities. We should not deceive ourselves about the ease with which we  commit small atrocities daily. Nor should we convince ourselves that the larger acts of evil, the ones that grab the news headlines, are not bubbling in our hearts.

Again, someone addressed this:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
—Luke 13:1-5 ESV

Asking why asks so little of us. Labeling others as monsters is easy, because it makes us feel better about ourselves.

But it is all  a lie. We are, each of us, monsters.

And unless we repent of our monstrous proclivities, we will all likewise perish.

The Church and the Halloween Alternative Party


Holy Pumpkin--sortaOkay, so color me one of those people who doesn’t get the Halloween Alternative Party that churches throw.

Some call it a Harvest Party/Festival, which is particularly amusing when it happens in churches in the cities or suburbs, both of which are famous for their agricultural base, right? Such references to fecundity also leave me scratching my head. How many see the connections with Christian “harvest festivals” and the various pagan festivals that also celebrate the fertility of the harvest? I mean, if we’re working that hard to distance ourselves from Halloween, enough to throw a distinct celebration, why are we linking ourselves to another pagan festival?

I’m not a fan of Halloween. That it has become big business and an opportunity for adults to wear risqué clothing only makes it worse. I mean, when I was a kid, Halloween was about as scary and wicked as Charlie Brown getting nothing but rocks during his trick or treating.

I’ll admit, though, that Halloween is more focused on shock value than it once was, and that kids are more likely to dress up as zombies with their livers hanging out than fairy princesses or “sheet ghosts,” so the trend IS downward. (Though I also will add that a downward trend marks most everything in our culture, even in the Church.)

If you’re in a particular denomination that fancies itself highly attuned to the spiritual world, you’ll likely hear church leaders offer reasons why your denomination/church eschews any association at all with “the devil’s antics” on Halloween. You’ll hear the obligatory history of Halloween. You’ll have the associations clearly drawn for you. You’ll drink the Kool-Aid. And you’ll feel the compulsion to ensure your kids avoid the pathway to hell that is Halloween.

And thus is born the Halloween Alternative Party. Like everything in modern American Christianity, the idea that we Christians might be left out of secular “fun” just doesn’t sit well with us. No one wants to be a party pooper, while at the same time that burning American Christian need to Christianize secular activities compels us.

The only problem, as I see it, is that the Halloween Alternative Party still looks and feels a lot like Halloween.

HalloweenHalloween Alternative
A fun time with othersYesYes
Tainted CandyNoNo
Other treatsYesYes
Elements of the harvest (pumpkins, etc.)CommonlyCommonly
Other themed decorationsCommonlyCommonly
Scary/evil elementsCommonly, but varies widelyLess commonly, unless the church sponsors an evangelistic “Hell House,” and then all bets are off
The majority of participants purposefully celebrating the demonicUnlikelyNo
Kids in costumesYesYes
Adults in costumesCommonlyCommonly
“Noticeable” teen or adult females wearing costumes highly noticed by teen and adult malesUnlikely outside of adult partiesOh, the stories…

So yes, I’m baffled. If there’s a genuine distinction between the two, I’m missing it. If it comes down to one being a slightly less scary version of the other, is that enough to distance ourselves from what are being sold as the genuine dangers of Halloween itself?

The comments are open. Please set me straight.

Like everything in modern American Christianity, the idea that we Christians might be left out of secular “fun” just doesn’t sit with us. No one wants to be a party pooper, while at the same time that burning American Christian need to Christianize secular activities compels us.