Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Evil in Stories

    The "problem of evil" is a major area of philosophical work for anyone interested in moral monotheism.  I'm currently reading a book by a Jewish scholar, David Birnbaum, Summa Metaphysica I: God and Evil.  Since I'm still working my way through Birnbaum's argument, it's too early for me to comment on his approach to theodicy.  But the depth of the problem is well illustrated by two quotes Birnbaum uses to introduce his book.
    First, Hosea 2:21-22: "I will betroth you unto Me forever; I will betroth you unto Me in                righteousness and in justice, in kindness and in mercy."
    Second, from Germaine Tillion's Ravensbruck: "In 1942 the medical service of the Revier [Ravensbruck death camp] were required to perform abortions on all pregnant women.  If a child happened to be born alive, it would be smothered or drowned in a bucket in front of the mother.  Given a newborn child's natural resistance to drowning, a baby's agony might last for twenty or thirty minutes."
     The pathos of this horrible contradiction seizes one's heart and mind and won't let go.  What happened to God's covenant promise during the holocaust?  Why is there evil in God's world?  Why is there such horrendous evil in God's world?  Philosophers, such as Birnbaum and I, try to give intellectually and emotionally adequate answers to such questions.  A few weeks ago I debated an atheist friend of mine, Bernie Dehler, at Portland State.  Bernie argued that if one believes in evolution, the problem of evil is insoluble, so we should all be atheists.  I argued, and I'm sure Birnbaum would agree, that the problem of evil is terribly important, but evolution is irrelevant to it.
    What does this philosophical problem have to do with stories?  In the hands of a master--Dostoyevsky, for example--a novel's characters may directly address theodicy.  It would take a superlatively great writer to work really hard philosophical theory into a story without having the philosophy ruin the story as story.
    I don't expect to write a new Brothers Karamazov.  But the question of evil won't go away.  Any good story, that is, a story that offers some vision of the good, will indirectly reflect on the general problem of evil.  Where does evil come from?  How can characters resist it?  Is there any real hope for goodness in the world?
    Conflict in a good story inevitably becomes conflict between good and evil.  It may be internal to the soul of some character; and the character might win (a redemption story) or lose (a damnation story).  By the way, it is possible that someone write a good story that is a damnation story, if the story communicates that fact.  The conflict may be between the "good guys" and the "bad guys," but the more simplistically we apply that model the more likely the story will be a lousy story.
     The great story, the story of Christ, is the story of good triumphing over evil.  In one way or another, all my stories fit into that one.

No comments:

Post a Comment