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Depicting Evil in Art

Depicting Evil in Art

Depicting evil in art and entertainment is a given if we plan on creating honest work. Encountering evil people, movements and temptations are part of life and a part of the art and entertainment we create. Evil must be understood to be portrayed, but at what cost? If we don’t understand it well enough, the audience will sense something is missing. If we obsess on understanding evil, there are two dangers for a Christian.

Two dangers

First, there is the danger of our hearts becoming enamored with the cunning, attractive and seductive nature of evil – not unlike the original snake tempting Adam and Eve. Second, there is the danger of glamorizing evil and leading your audience toward temptation by overexposing the audience to the seductive nature of evil.

Therefore, the challenge is to research the nature of evil well enough to be true in the way you depict it. You also need to guard your heart from spending too much time and energy focusing your imagination on depicting evil in art. Depict it well enough for the audience to have a clearer understanding of evil, without be tempted to explore more of the seductive nature of sin and evil.

The model of scripture – depicting evil

Scripture does not avoid the reality of evil, and all the tragic actions of evil men and women. Time and again we read of people who rebel against God and destroy human flourishing and human life. In the Old Testament we read of the evil queen Jezebel. Jezebel was so vile that she not only led her people into idolatry, but also killed the prophets of the Lord.

Yet, as Elijah prophesied, when she died, she was trampled underfoot so severely that no part of her body could be recognized except her feet, hands, and head. She was an evil woman and the Bible never shy’s away from telling us that. God hates evil, and he inspired his prophets throughout scripture, to expose the evil deeds of his own people as well as others.

Great art and literature

Great art and literature throughout history represent evil as a consistent thread in the fabric of everything. This is because the great stories echo the most epic true story of all time – the grand narrative of Scripture. It is easy to see from the very first, original sin in Genesis to the final whore of Babylon in the book of Revelation. If you wanted to cut out every part of the Bible that referenced evil, it would require major surgery. In fact, the cross where Christ died is a victory over evil and sin. It is the ultimate moment where we see the consequences of sin, and the hope we have to overcome evil and the evil one. The cross is more glorious because it conquers the evil in the world and in our hearts.

To make squeaky clean art for little children may be fine, but as they grow up, they soon realize there is evil in the world. Artwork and creative expression are gifts from God for us to explain the nature of evil as well as the hope we have in God to overcome evil. It is theologically dangerous to avoid the topic of evil. To pretend evil isn’t significant would be to pretend we have no need of a savior.

Honest depiction of evil

Without the honest portrayal of sin and evil, much of the world will find our artwork, film and dance, unbelievable and irrelevant to the broken world they live in. We cannot skip the struggle. If we pretend evil is not real, or insignificant, the world will reject us. They think we are either dishonest and fake, or simply clueless and living a privileged life apart from the pain and brokenness in the world.

If the Bible is our model, then it is clear we have the freedom of communicating the real evil of murder, rape, war, and the like. Depicting evil in art sets the stage for a powerful savior.

C.S. Lewis depicting evil in art

In the bestseller, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis had a genius idea. Take the time to get inside the mind of how a demon must think and portray their antics and strategies for neutralizing the faith of Christians. It is a powerful tool to wake up Christians and help them realize what subtleties may be leading them astray.

Quite a success, this book still sells over 100,000 copies each year. However, it did not come without a cost. It pushed Lewis into a depression of sorts after writing it. Dr. Robert Banks, a leading scholar of Lewis stated, “Day after day of having the Devil as an interlocutor took its toll on Lewis.”

The tempting nature of evil

No one would accuse Lewis of being some impulsive creative rushing into such a project, and yet the danger was there. Even an Oxford professor, living far from the big cities, found the temptations and dangers at his doorstep. No matter what the reason is for trying to understand and depict evil, there should always be a sense of caution.

Portraying evil has different challenges for different kinds of artists. Visual artists may struggle with this, but it is a more personal and intimate challenge for men and women in the performing arts. There is a deeper need for them to embody and express particular aspects of evil authentically. Writers and directors also face challenges as they imagine how to ‘create the world’ in which evil exists. How much do they include or exclude to make the story powerful without becoming salacious?

Guarding your heart

Creativity does not exempt you from temptation. Whatever you contemplate can have an impact upon your desires and open you up to temptation. Whether you are writer who is writing a documentary exposing sex trafficking or an actor portraying the dark life of the mafia, there is a need to guard your heart.

These dark places include the exploration of psychotic behavior, abusive relationships – both the abuser and the abused. This may include verbal, physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. Works of art may also explore violence, murder, war, deviant behaviors and lawlessness, seduction, genocide, or abortion.

We need to guard our heart. Proverbs 4:23 states, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” We must treat our heart and our imagination with care. Just as we are encouraged to flee from sin in our real life, we must be careful that we are not courting sin in our heart as we portray sin in a pretend way, through our art.

Guarding your imagination

We need to guard our imagination. Proverbs 22:24-25 tells us, “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” We become like those we spend time with. When you are writing about a character or acting a role, you are ‘spending time with that character’ just as C.S. Lewis did when he wrote Screwtape Letters. You may be doing this all for a worthwhile part and for a wonderful project, but that will never eliminate the need for you to care about the impact on your soul.

Avoiding the challenges doesn’t help anyone. Our primary goal cannot be avoidance, lest we avoid living all together. Christ did not die to take us out of the world and condemn the world. (John 3:17) Jesus wants to protect us from the evil one even while we navigate the dangers of this life.

Wisdom in technique

Actors face the hardest challenges when it comes to depicting evil, and some techniques are more dangerous than others. Many of the great acting coaches and teachers were phenomenal at creating powerful performances but they were not so great about creating healthy actors.

Lee Strasberg’s Method acting technique (very loosely based on Stanislavsky) is of particular interest at this point because it takes an extreme toll on its actors. An article in the New Yorker magazine engages this problem quite well. As the author Richard Brody states: “There’s something about modern-day acting—the style that is famously associated with Lee Strasberg’s Method and that gained currency from his Actors Studio and its offshoots—that inclines toward deformations of character. That modern school, which links emotional moments from a performer’s own life to that of a character, and which conceives characters in terms of complete and filled-out lives that actors imagine and inhabit, asks too much of performers.”

Many actors choose to stay in character not only between takes, but for the entire time they are shooting a film, playing a role in a play on Broadway or elsewhere. even when they are not rehearsing or recording. This means they may embody the life of an evil person for weeks or months. Daniel Day Lewis is famous for using this approach, in fact, he doesn’t know how other actors can go in and out of character. He remains in character the entire time he is shooting a film.

Taking your work home with you

As an actor, you are taking your work home with you, but this work is not paperwork. It is contemplation of motives, and the practice of engendering those motives within your own life. This is why method acting can be more dangerous when playing evil characters. The more you allow your mind to consider evil choices, the more you break down the God given, natural aversions we all have to heinous crimes and sins. In fact, the more familiar we become, the less heinous they would seem to the actor.

Many have wondered how much Heath Ledger was affected by the roles he chose, and in particular by the role of Joker in the film The Dark Knight. Even if we look to early Hollywood we can see the effects upon Vivien Leigh as she played Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire. Vivien said that playing such a difficult role on stage and in the movie almost made her go insane. As an actress, she acknowledged the dangers to her personal and mental health.

My wife discusses this in more length in our Arts & Entertainment Institute. It is a very important issue for actors/actresses to understand. Method acting is probably the worst, while Uta Hagen and other hybrid approaches can provide a much healthier approach.

Tending to your heart

No matter the type of art you create, you should care for your heart, and be intentional about it. First, remain anchored in God’s word. As Jesus reminded us in John 15, we must remain in the vine if we want to live a fruitful and healthy life. That requires reading the word and growing in our love for Jesus and the rest of God’s word.

Second, remain anchored in God’s community. Proverbs tells us that wisdom is found in the company of many. We should not make critical decisions all alone. Galatians 6 and other passages remind us that we need to care for one another and watch out for each other. You were not designed to do this alone. When we are alone, we find it easier to rationalize our choices, and to make poor decisions.

Third, recognize your personal weaknesses. It is not the same for everyone and that is why we never give a list of do’s and don’ts. Consider your own emotional, physical, and spiritual fragility. Don’t walk into every situation assuming you have no weaknesses. Psalm 139 reminds us to be like David, asking God to search our hearts and to know our thoughts. We need to be aware. 2 Timothy 2:22 also reminds us to flee temptations and youthful passions. We are to be wise and careful with our heart.

Care for the audience

How does your current project contribute to a healthy or unhealthy view of evil in the world and of God? Does the dark subject matter lead somewhere beyond the morass? A healthy portrayal of evil will create a longing for virtues like justice, love, truth, honesty, and fidelity. An unhealthy portrayal of evil will encourage responses to evil like vengeance, promiscuity, blasphemy, etc.

Redemption and tragedy can both be healthy. When evil leads to redemption, we can easily see how it echoes the stories of the Bible. When evil leads to tragedy it can also be healthy because it demonstrates the consequences of sin. Either way, sin is shown to be the cancer it is.

Freedom in Christ

Christ died to give us salvation and freedom. He conquered sin, and death. We should never use our freedom to glorify evil, but we are completely free to express and portray the evil in the world. The challenge lies in caring for our heart and soul while we are busy creating and embodying our art. God wants you enjoy the freedom; he has given you. Hopefully, if your life has been transformed by grace, you long to honor God in all you do- even when you depict the tragic reality of evil in the world.

Copyright © 2019 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.

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