People are basically good, right? It’s a truism drilled into us by any number of self-help books, magazines, talk-show hosts, and pop therapy. When, from time to time, people do terrible things to each other or themselves, we are assured that just the right combination of education, medication, and therapy could correct the ignorance, illness, or faulty social conditioning that led to the act. But do we really believe that to be true? Or do we recognize there is something more sinister at work in human nature?
By profession, I’m a Christian theologian and I often have conversations in which these questions arise. They are made more difficult by the loss of vocabulary that has traditionally addressed the problem. In the past, Christians across confessions could use words like sin, evil, and even demonic, taking for granted a broad cultural context that would make those words understandable to all involved. Not so today—even in socially and theologically conservative Christian churches, the language of therapy has replaced the language of sin. Since Karl Meninger’s 1973 exposé, Whatever Became of Sin?, the problem has only intensified.
So let’s ask Meninger’s follow-up question: What ought to be done about it? If, as I suspect, there’s something askew in the notion that people are basically good, how do we say so if the vocabulary of sin is lost? However surprising it may be to hear this coming from a theologian, I find that some of Hollywood’s most popular, current films could re-educate us on the traditional, rich, and incisive language that Christian cultures once used to describe the human condition. Hollywood can teach us how to speak about sin—and indeed how to be sinners again.
Let’s start with Heath Ledger’s interpretation of The Joker in The Dark Knight. The Joker is, as he says, chaos. There is no greater good, no twisted virtue, no dysfunctional childhood, or genetic malady that can explain The Joker. He can be described but not explained, precisely because explanation requires order and The Joker has none. He is an illustration of a human being completely given over to the demonic. “Some people,” says Alfred, “just want to watch the world burn.”
The other villain in the story, Two Face¯who, once a man of the law, later abandoned it—captures the fear of many that the law, which grounds and maintains our civil society, is ultimately capricious in the end, subject to the whims of chance. Lawlessness, under a thin veneer of social respectability, is the real bedrock of human life.
“There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.” These words could well have come from The Joker or Two Face, but they come from another Hollywood villain: Lord Voldemort. In J.K. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter, the mark of a Death Eater—a follower of “He Who Must Not Be Named”—is the refusal to recognize or to be bound by any moral categories. In contrast, the true hero is one who recognizes the powerful temptation that such a worldview offers and resists it, opting instead for the path of love embodied in the sacrifice of Harry Potter’s mother. To be sure, the line separating the two is often difficult to discern. If Severus Snape teaches us anything, it is that appearances are often deceiving because the line separating good from evil runs not between human beings, but through them.
The Harry Potter story tells us that while good and evil are separate moral categories, in real life they aren’t always easy to distinguish. Professor Quirrell—the bumbling, good-natured Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher—is, we find, actually a servant of the Dark Lord. Delores Umbridge, temporary Headmistress of Hogwarts who is not so subtly modeled after Baroness Thatcher, shows how vicious evil can lurk behind the banal and the bureaucratic. Hagrid, the lumbering giant suspect because of his race, is a faithful and loyal friend. Sirius Black, so long a figure of contempt, is at once noble and too irreparably damaged to be Harry’s role model.
Still, such complications ought not to mask the fact that, for Rowling as for Christopher Nolan, the real world is a world of virtue and vice—a world of sinners and saints and scores of people somewhere in between—not a world that sees people as basically good.
These are admittedly some extreme examples. Very few (though, tragically, not few enough) human beings surrender to evil to such a point that it consumes them, turning them into a Joker or Two Face or Voldemort. For most of us, Snape, Quirrell, and Umbridge may well be nearer to the mark. Good films in Hollywood show sinners of all stripes who are more complex, more familiar, and more frightening. And there are sinners who sin precisely because they have been corrupted along what seemed to be a virtuous path.
To be truly wicked, C. S. Lewis said, one must have at least one virtue to make one great. However counterintuitive that notion might seem to be at first glance, Hollywood again gives us multiple examples that demonstrate its truth. Think about Saruman as played by Christopher Lee in The Lord of the Rings. (Set aside for the sake of argument the fact that he’s an angel and not a human being.) So driven is he to rid Middle Earth of Sauron—the very same good vocation as that of Gandalf—that he becomes consumed by it. Through his courage, insight, and determination, Saruman becomes at once Sauron’s ally and rival as he succumbs to the power the Ring. Lewis’ friend J. R. R. Tolkien has it right: Studying the enemy’s methods too much will, whatever the original noble motivation, reproduce him in us.
Then there’s Ian McKellen’s Magneto in the X-Men films. Here is a man driven by a quest for justice for those like him. He has survived the Holocaust and various other expressions of human evil on a grand scale and has concluded that justice for mutants will not be found in Charles Xavier’s naive dream of co-existence between mutant and human, but in mutant rule, by whatever means necessary. Soon Magneto does exactly to humans (and in fact, to other mutants) what he claims to abhor about human rule. Magneto failed to heed Nietzsche’s words, “He who fights against monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process.”
My favorite and final example is of Michael Corleone, the one Corleone son destined not to go into the family business in The Godfather. “Just lie here Pop. I’m with you now. I’m with you,” says Michael to his father Vito as the old Don recovers from a failed assassination attempt. In the course of this moving scene, Michael turns from the lawful, safe life he was leading to the criminal, dangerous family business. But far from simply being motivated by evil, it is his love for his father and his family, his courage, and his unswerving loyalty that turn him into a killer, into the next godfather. As Godfather II closes, Michael, having expanded and consolidated his power, has destroyed the one thing he loved most—his family. His brother, Fredo, is dead at his command and his wife, Kate, has left him. “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” asked Jesus. Michael Corleone knows the answer too late.
So are people basically good? Perhaps the temptation to think so is just another remnant of sin in the world, somewhere between pride and deception, because it just doesn’t square with the world as we experience it. And we find a truer expression, not always in our churches, but in the stories of our day—including those found in cinema. The only language that does justice in expressing to this condition is the language of sin. Human beings are sinners. That’s the bad news. The good news is that only sinners can be saved.
Tim Perry, Ph.D. is associate professor of theology at Providence College and Theological Seminary in Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada.