Starbucks has started serving their Pumpkin Spiced Latte which can mean only one thing; Halloween is coming.
It’s the rare moment in the year when we have the opportunity to think explicitly about the battle between good and evil, an enduring theme in today’s culture. Just tune in to an episode of Netflix’s hit show Stranger Things. The eighties setting of the show is deeply nostalgic, but that’s not what keeps many of us hooked for five seasons, and eagerly awaiting a sixth.
Stranger Things has the traditional formula of brave heroes fighting a big scary monster. The heroes are kids on bikes. The scary monster is the Mind Flayer, straight out of Dungeons and Dragons with no redeeming qualities. It seeks only to control and destroy. At no point, even in later series, are we invited to feel sympathy for the devil.
And yet Stranger Things is a form of escapism because most of us, most of the time, aren’t faced with pure evil from another dimension. Some of us may have encountered something truly strange and scary, but probably only once or twice in our lives. How often can we say that we’ve been in the presence of pure evil?
Looking back at the twentieth century we tend to see evil in the form of human dictators. Bending entire nations to their will, they send those who won’t comply to camps to be forgotten, exterminated, or worked to death. Multiple TV channels are filled with documentaries about these years. We’re fascinated by how a culture can descend into evil totalitarianism. Just watch today’s news to see how this can unfold.
Those who have experienced such evil can be surprisingly philosophical about its nature. In the 1940s and 50s, the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn witnessed horrifying evil in the Soviet Union’s forced labour camps. He wrote about his experience in The Gulag Archipelago. One might think he would declare Stalin and his supporters to be the evil ones, but the truth is far more troubling. He wrote:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Perhaps the real battle of good vs. evil is closer to home than we first imagined. Solzhenitsyn realises this with despair; the heart is where the battle is truly fought, from moment to moment in our daily lives where we decide whether to love or to hate; to build up or to tear down; to curse or to bless. It’s far more subtle than we often realise.
And it’s nothing new. 2,000 years before Solzhenitsyn penned The Gulag Archipelago, Jesus Christ gave his followers a blueprint of how to address this tension of good vs. evil. The Lord’s Prayer stood as testament to his own epic battle with the forces of evil and contains the line ‘lead us not into temptation.’ He knew the battle was mostly within ourselves. To win that battle, Jesus didn’t tell his followers to go out and fight demons. He taught that we should ask ‘our father in heaven’ to ‘deliver us from evil’.
The battle between good and evil continues to wage on; between kids on bikes and the Mind Flayer, between countries at war over rights to land, and in our own hearts day to day. But perhaps if there’s any saving from evil to be done, it needs to be done from outside of ourselves. We can’t do it on our own; the line cuts too deep.
For as Solzhenitsyn cries out; “Who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
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