Wednesday, August 26, 2009

a narrative approach to a theology of evil

Lots of stories are happy stories. Yet we live in a dark world. Babies get hurt. People grieve. Relationships break. This raises the question as to the presence of evil. Are there bad forces, outside humans, that contribute to human pain and destruction? If so, how should their presence shape human behaviour? Here’s a short story, a dark story, that I wrote for our Grow evening service, trying to get my head around evil and being human. I’m not sure if it works, or if I like it, so I’ll post it here.

The advertising catches your eye. The Bible Horror puppet show. Human puppets performing avant garde interactive theatre.

Intrigued you purchase your ticket, score your ice cream and settle in.

The scenes unfold. The early acts intrigue. Moments of awe-inspiring creativity and star-studded destiny are interspersed with hints of a darker human horror, of cold campfire stories of incest, forced rape, planned assassination.

Intrigued at first intermission, you contrast and compare the puppet costuming in the crowded foyer.

The Job act makes for even more disturbed viewing. A son of God storms the stage and stalks the earth. Cast as accuser, waving divinely sanctioned permission slips, he plots evil. Women are stabbed and flesh of sheep and settler is burnt. Amid the smoke and in a climactic moment of horror, a destructive tornado whips sand into a frenzy, killing family and friends gathered for a family feast.

Appalled, sickened by the violence, you stumble through the second intermission. Only to realise, with a sickening stomach, that the horror has just begun. Appalled, you watch the final Revelation scene unfold.

A dark star crashes.

An abyss opens and smoke billows. Locusts emerge, chasing screaming humans across the stage. Scenes of torture ensure, humans writhing, screaming for mercy.

Toes curled in horror, chilled by the seemingly random violence, you suddenly feel a breath on your shoulder. Hair standing on end, deeply unsettled, you feel a presence settling beside you.

“Don’t worry,” the voice breathes. “I own the theatre.”

You turn, appalled by the seeming callous indifference of a threatre owner to the escalating scenes of horror.

The voice continues. “In this theatre, the ending belongs you to me.”

Eyes widening in disbelief, you suddenly see movement. The puppet show has a puppetter. Dimly lit, high in the scaffolds, joker-like, a figure huddles over his puppets – the locusts and random tornados – skillfully manipulative, seemingly intent on wreaking destruction.

The voice continues, quiet, careful. “It’s interactive theatre. The actors can all make choices. So can the audiences.”

Puzzled, you turn. “So if you don’t like anything, just yell. Some call the yells prayer. Others describe them as acts of repentance or moments of protest. Still others hear them as howls of lament and protest or describe strength found in bread broken and the chant “My God, My God, why have you forsaken us.””

“Whatever the name, however the actions, this is interactive theatre. Actors and audience can always change this play, force the joker to move. That’s the rules in the Bible horror picture show.”

The voice fades as the final curtain fall begins.

A note of explanation (ie. Biblical shaping). This story is not written to explain the presence of evil. (That is the role of metaphysics.) Rather, it is written given the reality that evil exists. The story is thus an attempt to make sense of that reality in light of two Bible passages, Job 1 and Revelation 5.

The first mention of a “Satan” figure in the Bible is in Job 1:6-7, in which a son of God, called an “accuser”, seeks permission to test human character. This is granted, although limits are placed on the investigation.

A second Satan-type figure is depicted in Revelation 5. A star falls and is given to keys to unleash destruction. Again limits are in place. In addition, this scene is changed by human voices, the prayers of the saints, those who yearn for evil to be cleansed.

It is the the outplaying of that Biblical data that I sought to make sense of by expressing it in story form.

Further links
For a sermon on God and human tragedy, go here.

Posted by steve at 10:44 PM


  1. What if the theatre owner was more present with the victims? Calling the audience to participate?? i don’t know if that just makes it easier to stomach and is a way to justify pain

    Comment by Jo Wall — August 27, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

  2. thanks jo. i was writing trying to capture that sense of my reading ancient scriptures. and it does seem to me that God does watch as these things unfold in Job and in Revelation.

    i can see your suggestion working if i included a “crucifixion” scene and then i realised that the person beside me had left blood stains on the seat. but that seems quite twee.

    or perhaps a lamb keeps getting run over by a puppet and their dying bleat becomes a call to action? yet that doesn’t sound very plausible.

    hmmm. appreciate the comment – you’ve helped me keep thinking (as you usually do)


    Comment by steve — August 27, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

  3. Hrmm. At first blush, I don’t like it.

    The Theatre Owner seems too darkly sinister or even grimly sleazy (like they’re watching a snuff film perhaps?).

    The Owner doesn’t seem to particularly dislike or at least explicitly denounce the puppetry element of the show, which seems to add slavery elements (lack of control among the actors) to the already obvious evil of the events unfolding.

    Perhaps I’d need to hear this in context with the greater flow of events in the service intended. I understand this isn’t intended as an explanation OF evil, but I think that people probably don’t need all that much extra help engaging with or comprehending the vileness in our world or the scriptures. I think that unless there is that element of apologetics then the theatre owner risks being fairly befouled by his own play. After all, were I in the position of the observer, I’d probably let the owner know what I think of him and his foul play and leave quickly.

    Cool story though for its intention (however gross the topic).

    Comment by Iain — August 28, 2009 @ 1:57 am

  4. Thanks Iain.

    1. Do you think an apologetic for evil is a modernist overhang? post-Auschwitz, isn’t evil in humans and beyond human understanding a given, and the question is whether that leads to fatalism, protest, or slapping in another video game?

    2. I reckon that the Job and Rev texts do portray God as a observer.

    3. story not meant to be a sn*ff film reference

    4. i thought about giving actors puppet wires and scissors. but that felt too forced. instead i gave the actors free will and tried to make the pupetter control locusts and tornados.

    you’re prob right – although i was trying to synthesise memorably a range of biblical data, i prob simply made it more complex/wierd.

    peace and out

    Comment by steve — August 28, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  5. Hi Steve,

    Yes I agree with your take on God as-seen-in-Job.

    I wonder how God-in-Job contrasts with God-in-Christ? I think I like God-in-Christ, but I am not too fond of God-in-Job (Job’s God seems, when pressed, a little “high and mighty”).

    And yes, it’s a bit of a tricky tangle to try to weave a story out of. I’m all for storytelling though, so I totally commend the idea.

    Comment by Iain — August 29, 2009 @ 12:18 am

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