Monday, May 10, 2010

An Invitation to the Dark Side (so that we may better love the light)

"...this is your hour, and the power of darkness." Luke 22:53b

My own artistic and aesthetic style has found pleasure in the darker side of things. This is not to say that I find no pleasure in goodness or beauty. Quite the contrary: the beauty of Pachebel's "Canon in D" moves me just as much as the sadness of Albinoni's "Adagio". I have found, however, that beauty and sadness (indeed, a beauty in sadness) both have the power to stir and strike the soul. This is an aspect of storytelling that I have often advocated: goodness and beauty without the reality of evil and sadness is mere shallow sentiment and blind optimism, a fragile facade that will easily shatter against the sterner stuff of life. Likewise, evil and sadness without the reality of goodness and beauty is mere shallow cynicism and blind pessimism, a snarling despair with its face too embedded in the mud to see the starlight. Both beauty devoid of sadness and sadness devoid of beauty are a kind of madness that many unfortunately revel in (for an example of the latter, check out the films of David Lynch, if you dare).

Christ and God are both incredibly relevant to the reality of evil and sadness, of "the power of darkness." Any Christianity that does not claim this is a false Christianity. Hope means nothing if there is nothing to despair. Redemption loses its glory when damnation loses its terror. The good becomes banal when evil becomes trivial. All God's love is so much useless sentiment if there is no Sin or Hell to save us from. This is not about putting the latter over the former; actually, putting one over the other is the problem. Our life has beauty but it also has sadness, and any worldview that cannot account (either philosophically or artistically) for all the realities of life is not worth following.

Think about it this way: in the best kind of stories, there needs to be a hero and a villain; and if the story is to have any real power or force to it, then (amongst other things) the hero must be truly heroic and the villain truly villainous. The power of the heroics is felt only in direct correlation to the power of the villainy. The more prevalent the evil and the more desperate the situation, the more powerful the heroics strike us. Think of it in specifically Christian language: the greater we understand the "power of darkness," the greater we understand the meaning (and subsequent beauty) of the Cross. We evil and sadness are allowed to be seen as they are, their contrast with goodness and beauty (viz., the goodness and beauty of God) will drive us closer to the goodness and beauty.

It is hard to talk about this without people immediately assuming that you are referring to childish caricatures and cardboard cutout characters with no substance or depth. We have had our imagination awash with such abominations (sadly, both from Christian as well as secular sources) that it is hard for us to conceive of something truly heroic or villainous without them. Furthermore, the atrocious nonsense spewed from the drooling maw of postmodernism has caused us to see "hero" and "villain" as oppressive categories that must be done away with, replaced with more "serious" roles where no one is hero or villain (and subsequently, no one is heroic or villainous). Such representations in art are always vacuous unless they betray their own principles and allow for real heroics and villainy to slip through the cracks.

The notion that "serious" art cannot allow for unapologetic representations of good and evil is ludicrous precisely because it is untrue (I have dealt with the principle underlying such nonsense elsewhere). Movies perhaps show this best. We would quite easily say that the main villains of No Country for Old Men or The Dark Knight were truly and unapologetically evil,  and yet we cannot claim them to be simple or "cardboard" as characters. Their evil is obvious, but it is also solid; its substance and depth make it all the more a threat. Likewise, the actions of Brendan Gleason's character in In Bruges or the nature of Frances McDormand's in Fargo were truly and unapologetically heroic and good, and yet we would not call them childish or caricatures. There heroism and goodness is obvious, but it too is solid; its substance and depth make it all the more desirable, especially when contrasted with their correlating villains (the same could be said for the heroes of The Dark Knight).

Mainstream Christianity has been too weak and/or silent on the reality of evil and sadness. The world does not want or need a place of sappy sunshine and endless amiability. What is wants and need is an acknowledgment of and answer for the darkness that permeates the actually life that they live. People have the villainous with them whether they want to admit it or not; what they want and need is the heroic. We have gone on for long enough giving them sentimentalism and feel-good solutions. The center of Christianity is where evil and goodness, sadness and beauty, merge with an thunderous collision, and the echoes of that collision are to reverberate in our mouths, with our hands, with our lives. We must proclaim (in story and song and sermon) the entirety of the good news: evil and sadness are real and matter, goodness and beauty are real and matter, and goodness and beauty will win in the end.

-Jon Vowell

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