Hang around a coffee shop with a group of Christian subcreators, and eventually you’ll run into a conversation wrestling with this question: How can I depict good and evil in my work without actually making something evil? The converse of this question is, of course, how can I depict evil without minimizing its reality?
If you err too far to one side, your work revolts by its ugliness; if you err too far to the other, your work disgusts with its saccharine sweetness. To make matters more complicated, tolerance for ugliness or sentimentality varies as widely as do the individually created souls who encounter the work. So what’s an artist or writer to do? I don’t claim to have the definitive answer to these questions, but I will offer a few thoughts on the subject.
First of all, I’m a believer in radical honesty. Only by being honest with ourselves about ourselves can we begin the fight against the father of lies. What this means for art is that honest artists will have much difference experiences and familiarities with particular evils, and that will necessarily effect their portrayal in art. I think that because of this, some artists are called to create messier worlds than others.
To illustrate this, let’s have a look at two Christian authors whose work I particularly enjoy: Dean Koontz and Elizabeth Goudge. Of the two, Goudge is the more explicitly Christian in her books, though if you know what you’re looking at, Koontz isn’t exactly hiding his light under a bushel. Goudge’s works consist largely of internal conflict against the sinful self, and whenever evil is necessary to the story line, it is more often than not insinuated. This is in stark contrast to Koontz’s work on Christian sainthood, the Odd Thomas series, where the ugliness and horror of evil and sin are depicted in oftentimes excruciating detail.
It would be easy to dismiss the depiction of sin in Koontz’s work as gratuitous, except that it serves the very useful purpose of smacking us out of a sense of scrupulosity. If you only ever engaged with Goudge, you could be forgiven for developing a very optimistic view about the human soul, and you would probably be scandalized by the run-of-the-mill evil we see every day in the checkout line at the grocery store, let alone the truly terrible stuff that’s right in front of us but usually hidden by the veneer of public respectability.
Despite its ugliness, it’s important not to get queasy about sin. How terrible, humiliating, and soul-destroying would it be to go to a medical doctor and have him or her recoil in disgust at our infection? When I worked in healthcare, one of the saddest things I ever heard was someone relating how they couldn’t deal with their mother’s end-of-life care because it was just “too gross”. When we react in the same way to the sins of those around us, or the evils that they suffer, especially if we have no personal experience to foster empathy, we’re really taking part in the same kind of humiliating dynamic. Think for a moment about the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man lying beaten and bloody at the side of the road is going to be difficult to deal with. The violence done to him would be horrifying and probably physically revolting. When I imagine that Samaritan, I see him struggling to carry that wounded man — the blood and filth from his wounds soiling the Samaritan’s clean robes; his shoulder wet with the man’s tears and mucus. There’s no flinching at the ugliness of sin there — just the Samaritan doing what needed to be done to drag the broken man to safety.
The dangers inherent in enjoying work like Koontz’s are obvious. We don’t ever want to get to a point where we are unaffected, or God forbid, entertained by sin and evil. But it’s easy to ignore that works like Goudge’s have their own spiritual dangers. We must beware of letting sentimentality offer us a false sense of safety. In a sense, even the most well-intentioned work can be a source for sin.
Giving artists the freedom to create works that might be outside of someone’s comfort range can be for us an act of trust in God’s providence. God’s hidden hand is working salvation everywhere — and it is His prerogative to connect the souls of whomever He chooses. For that reason, I think it’s important to keep an open mind about the wide variety of depictions of good and evil in Christian art. Different works will resonate with different people at different points in their lives, for many different reasons. It is the spirit of discernment that allows us to look at a work and acknowledge that although it may not be for us at a particular moment, that doesn’t preclude the work from being immensely meaningful for someone else.
I suppose it comes down to prayer and watchfulness, doesn’t it? Whenever I encounter a work of art or literature, I have to be mindful of my own interior responses to that work, and turn away if it causes me to sin, locating the evil in my own heart rather than in the work of art itself.
The same is true for being a writer, and artist — a subcreator of Christian art. If in the course of writing, my work takes me to a dark place, it does not preclude the Holy Spirit from using that work in ways I will never be able to anticipate. Locating my own creative activity firmly in the framework of prayer makes it an exercise of faith in God’s ability to use even broken vessels for His glory.
I suppose then, that my answer to the question is simply to pray, and let God handle the rest.