The Ancient Modern
On the Relationship of Good and Evil in Religion and Fairytales / Joshua Alan Sturgill
I have been pondering what seems to be a major literary motif, but one I have never known to be a subject of particular examination. I was thinking specifically of two things I’ve read recently, one a quote from St. Paul and the other the opening narrative of Sleeping Beauty.
St. Paul makes the cryptic comment in Romans 5 that “…prior to the Law, sin was in the world, but when there is no Law, sin is not reckoned…” And, in the classic fairytale, we are told that a beautiful princess was born to royal parents, and the good fairies come at her christening to give her gifts. The bad fairy is not invited, but intrudes on the ceremony to offer her own kind of gift.
Revealed in both of these instances is something I consider a universal principle: evil is formless, and must wait for good to appear before it can manifest or act. Evil clings to the good. In Paul, it isn’t until the Law is given (an act of goodness) that sin can reveal itself. And not until the princess appears does the evil fairy have an opportunity to harm her.
I would also suggest a few corollary principles. First, the greater the manifest good, the greater the evil can be. A small evil responds to a small good; a great good can call out a great evil. Second, only good has positive form and potency. Only good can Act in the ultimate sense. And, from this follows: “one should be cautious in pursuit of any good.” The greatest hero will be pursued by the craftiest villain; conversely, the worst villain is a corrupted hero.
In the Christian tradition, this theme has its most extreme expression in the idea of the anti-christ. If the Law brought about the appearance of sin, then the evil done under the Law will be as limited as the Law. It will only be a moral evil. However, the infinitely greater expression of goodness—the Incarnation—must bring about an infinitely greater expression of evil. Evil done after, or against Jesus will be an ontological evil.
For every Revelation, there is an equal-but-opposite Develation; for every Christ—an anti-christ. The bad fairy may cause mischief in her way. But her real chance to do harm only comes when the Child of Promise is born to the childless king and queen. The future of the kingdom is now at stake. And, remembering the original tale, the bad fairy’s first “gift” is death. We might surmise that until Christ came, Satan could not carry out fully his intention to destroy the Image of God.
Until the princess, the future of the kingdom had not been revealed. Until Jesus, the true nature of Humanity had not been revealed. Evil, like liquid, adapts to and mimics the shape of its container.
In each of the examples, we are considering that the fullest expression of good is the opportunity for the fullest expression of evil. But, it is also the exhaustion of and defeat of evil; good has more dimensions, more skills, more tricks than evil. In Sleeping Beauty, the bad fairy says the princess will prick her finger and die. (Death is, ultimately, the only “gift” that evil can confer.) But the last of the good fairies has not bestowed a gift. When the curse has been pronounced, the good fairy steps forward, not to overturn, but to transform the evil. One kind of death is substituted for another, and a death of decay becomes a death of preservation until the evil is past.
In this way, the ultimate expression of evil is, at the same time, its ultimate defeat. The bad fairy has no more resources. Satan can do no more than kill—whereas Christ can resurrect. I find many examples of this motif in literature, but we might also see it in history or daily life. Nations attract unwanted attention when they become prosperous. A debate cannot commence until a truth or opinion has been defined. Envy doesn’t appear until someone does something noteworthy. Heretics do not arise until the articulation of dogma.
These examples, especially the more historical or philosophical ones, bring me back to the idea of an anti-christ. We should seriously consider that anything and everything so-called “Christian” since the Incarnation is caught up in an extraordinary battle. There is only one Christ. Everything else is substitution or conflict. I wonder if much of what we take for Christianity in our time—the denominations, the publications, the seminary classrooms—are merely systems of rejection or replacement. The Cross is horrifying; whereas most “church life” is insular and banal.
Are we hiding from the explosive gentleness of God in a kind of sleep suggested to us by evil? Not fairytale evil, but the daily pedestrian evil of simply not paying attention, not asking why, and for whom, we are working, and therefore, not “knowing ourselves” as the Oracle advises? Outside of the Christian tradition, this evil might be expressed as pointless political debates, myopic liberalisms or conservativisms, or simply mild addictions. Atheists and Evangelicals are, in some sense, equally near and equally far from God.
As a final thought, I will add that I don’t think anything or anyone can be against the Good—ultimately. God is not a “thing” to be opposed. At most, we can mock our own or other’s ideas about Him. Contempt may escalate to the point of killing those whose ideas are different from our own. But this killing will only be a kind of sleep—if we truly belong tothe good. And, Jesus frequently warns the religious not to presume that they so belong.
Evil depends on the good to express itself; it also depends on good’s patience in order to give time for this expression. Evil is, by nature, a limit, and so, limits itself. But good remains, unchanged; it bears the sleeping kingdom in its arms. Good is beyond the farthest, severest reach of Evil.