Why aren’t we able to create or sustain heartfelt images of goodness?
Everything I have ever learned about writing or story-telling, either in classes or through the media of our age, emphasizes that there is no plot worth telling without a crisis, a climax, or a great trial. The characters of depth – the roles which actors clamor over and are in turn praised most consistently for portraying – are the ones who are dark, twisted, and complex. Genius, we are taught, is displayed through intricate articulations of the hardships, disappointments, and perverse things of this life. In short, you cannot have a good story without having a great evil.
Goodness is most often thought of and therefore portrayed as flat, dull, and even insincere. The tales which tell of good things or redemption typically hold off to depict these values until the very end and we are left with the iconic, and perhaps now ironic, “happily ever after” which no one actually dares to maintain for anything longer than a fleeting moment. The evil may be vanquished and overcome in the final minute or on the last page, but I would wager that most of these yarns were only able to show the good in contrast to a more complete vision of the bad. A triumph can mark an end but it rarely, if ever in our stories, becomes a genuine beginning.
It is natural for our anecdotes and legends to mirror the experiences of our lives and the sad truth is that evil, sin, and injustice are an undeniable part of our existence. It is therefore little wonder we glance askew at happy tales, thinking that these must either be shallow in message or that they couldn’t possibly be the whole or real story. This reality, we assume, must involve hypocrisy, tragedy, and the truth of our depravity laid out naked and bare. Even through our occasional sappy tears at “feel good” plots we undercut the happy endings of our times, ever aware of the foibles of humanity. The climactic marriage scenes, you think, could easily follow into divorce; the sports triumphs may lead to tales of drug abuse, injuries, and public disgrace; the redeemed man will more likely than not lapse back into the problems and addictions of his past.
But what of redemption that lasts? How can we claim that salvation is transformational and the ultimate fulfillment of our existence if we cannot even sustain images, characters, and tales of goodness without dabbling in evil to keep things interesting or “real”? I am not an advocate of smoothing over the difficulties of this world or the truth of our own flaws and sinful natures, but it certainly seems that we should consider more intentionally how to restore a proper sense of the the good in the sagas we write and tell.
If we all acknowledge that the need to depict evil in our stories stems from our daily reality, then why is it that we attribute such imaginative mastery to those who craft these dark characters and plots? The hard thing is not to tell of what we already know but to tell of that which we do not know, or rather, of what we can only see in part. It is a much higher calling to depict the good – with the penetrating and rich qualities this ought to entail – than to merely replicate the bad which we are constantly mired in.
Evil, even in its most startling forms, requires little creativity or inspiration to conjure up. We find it every time we read the news, step outside our front door, or examine our own hearts. Perhaps this is why we see so few examples of genuine goodness in our art, because “the good” is what demands true talent, imagination, and hours of reflection to fashion and bring into being.
I don’t necessarily advocate the perspective of artists like Thomas Kinkade who seek to depict life as they think it would have been without the introduction of original sin into the order of creation. Neither do I think it possible to achieve complete perfection or holiness in this age, either in our lives or our creative endeavors. But what I do promote, and what I earnestly desire a new generation of artists and writers to undertake, is a concerted effort to depict what life can and will be like through the active and complete redemption of this world. These efforts will be incomplete, perhaps some will even be false or misguided, but why else have we been gifted with the power of the baptized imagination if not to envision something beautiful and whole amidst the destruction and brokenness of our present reality?
I am daily convinced that our redeemed imaginations are to be used as a means of communicating hope to this world. God’s goodness as a rich and constantly unfolding actuality, not merely as a foil for the more compelling evil or as a line tagged on to the end of a story, is what we all hunger for. May we ponder anew how to be vessels that introduce this true good into the world through the stories we tell, the characters we devise, and the images we create.
I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the LORD.
~ Psalm 27:13-14
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
~ Romans 12:21
This essay was originally posted April 8, 2011 on my tumblr blog.