Monster, Wretches, "Bad People" … and Me.

Monster, Wretches, "Bad People" … and Me. January 5, 2008

Guillermo Del Toro, the new king of monster movies, is about to unleash Hellboy 2.

But according to, his mind is already busy with visions of what might be his his next big project. No, it’s not The Hobbit, and no, it’s not that Tarzan project he was talking about a while back.

Here’s a hint: For Kenneth Branagh, it was a big mistake.

Can you guess?

Personally, I’ve had this particular monster on the brain lately…

…as I’m writing my own story about a monster with a conflicted conscience. Cyndere’s Midnight, the sequel to Auralia’s Colors, will be a variation on “Beauty and the Beast” stories… it’s as much concerned with the beastman called Jordam as it is the beautiful heiress Cyndere.

It’s hardly a new theme, but so many of my favorite storytellers on the page or the big screen find moments of insight in tales of spectacularly bad creatures who might not yet be doomed.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mike Leigh’s Naked, Tolkien’s tales of Gollum, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood… all of these show monsters who are caught up in the conflicts of good and evil within their wicked hearts. And it’s a common theme in comic books as well: Will Batman and Wolverine and Spider-man learn to use power responsibly, or give in to those vengeful urges? Some find redemption, some fail.

And then, of course, there’s that great story in the scriptures of a mass murder, Saul, and what happened when the tide turned on his own heart’s battlefield.

Stories like these speak to all of us at some level, because we all know our own monstrous hearts, to some extent. We all know that we have the capacity for insidious deeds, whether that be in the form of murder, or even in the form of casting self-righteous judgment on others.

I read a lot of scary stuff as I peruse what often passes for “Christian film reviews.” And one of the scariest things I’ve ever read in Christian media’s engagement with the arts came from an activist who was bashing away at the latest Harry Potter movie.

Here’s the passage:

Watching 6- and 7-year-old children walk out of the press screening for the new “Harry Potter” movie (as well as the many reviewers and others with witchcraft symbols on their clothes and S&M dresses) is always an opportunity to reflect on the malignant corruption of our culture. Aside from the fact that these children are exposed to ugly creatures, fantastic violence and worthless incantations, this movie has some dialogue that sounds like it comes out of Stuart Smalley’s Daily Affirmations on “Saturday Night Live.”

Namely, when professor Dumbledore sits Harry down and tells him, “You are not a bad person. Every person has light and darkness. You have a choice.”

Imagine saying this to Cho Seung-Hui after he had his killing spree at Virginia Tech this spring. Or Adolf Hitler.

Contrary to Dumbledore’s idiotic aphorisms, there are bad people.

(And this is the perspective of an activist whose latest press releases identify him as a “world renowned Christian theologian and cultural leader.”)

Such a statement contradicts some of the most important lessons from some of our greatest storytelling… from myth to scripture. It basically calls The Lord of the Rings a lie, saying that Gandalf should have told Frodo to kill Gollum, instead of encouraging the qualities of mercy, grace, and love. But Tolkien insisted that Frodo’s victory, if a victory it was, came in his care for that miserable wretch. This seemed like folly, but it “created a situation” (to use Tolkien’s words) that allowed grace to transform the world.

Looking at popular myths born on the big screen, I am convinced that the lasting appeal of the original Star Wars trilogy came not through its special effects, but through its subversion of the us-versus-them story to which we’d become accustomed. We were startled to find a hero who wasn’t going to blow the warlord to smithereens at the first opportunity, but instead dared to kindle a glimmer of conscience within the monster.

Imagine what evils might have been prevented had love and light been cultivated and encouraged in the hearts of men like Cho Seung-Hui and Adolf Hitler, before they became deluded and hardened their hearts in hate. These were, to the day they died, men made in the image of God, men with “eternity in their hearts.”

Or, if it makes things easier for us, we can always just write them off the “monsters” as “bad people”… evil from birth, with no conflict of good and evil taking place in their hearts. We might just abandon them to their badness. Won’t it be nice when they invent some kind of DNA test that will let parents know whether their child is one of the “bad people”?

Rather destructive historical movements have begun on ideas just like that: “Here’s how we know the good people from the bad, and now let’s exterminate the bad.”

God makes it pretty clear in the scriptures: All have sinned and fall short. He might have decided, then, to just write off all of us “bad people.”

Instead, his grace allows for the possibility of redemption… even in the hearts of monsters like Saul.

I think we need stories about monsters… especially those that remind us how sin has made us all monsters, and that our hope must come from grace and forgiveness that can fill our hearts with light and give us daily comfort and strength as we seek to overcome the influence of evil within our own hearts.

I look forward to seeing what Guillermo Del Toro does with his next few monster movies. Sometimes, when we learn to view a monster with compassion, we find hope for ourselves, and learn how to better love our enemies. We stop holding ourselves up as the great hope for the world’s salvation, and start to recognize that we too live in a state of grace, saved by someone who took compassion on us.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

John Newton, who carried slaves across the sea, wrote those words, haunted by God’s grace and forgiveness. He was a monster, and he knew it. Love cut through and saved him.

Am I to believe that a “renowned theologian” would argue that such grace should never have been shown to Newton in the first place? I think there was a conflict of good and evil in John Newton’s heart. I don’t think he was one of those “bad people.”

I choose to believe differently.

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  • mrmando

    Hm. So when Dumbledore says “You are not a bad person,” he really means “There are no bad people”?

    And because he says this to Harry, that means he’d also say it to Cho Seung-Hui or Adolf Hitler? What exactly makes Harry Potter the equivalent of those two? I must’ve missed the part in the movie where Harry kills a large number of innocent people in cold blood. In fact, throughout the books Harry repeatedly refuses to kill, even when it might be both morally justifiable and the most expedient way to guarantee his personal safety.

    I guess you could say whatever you like to Cho after his killing spree, but he wouldn’t hear you: He shot himself, remember?

  • nathanshorb

    Going along with grazor’s comment, looking at the full article, I don’t agree with his general outlook and attitude toward matters, but I think I would agree with his overall general premise. Maybe I’m being overly gracious, but I think I agree with what he is TRYING to say, that is, without the parts relating it all directly to Harry Potter.

    But he really ruins it with the line about Cho Seung-Hui and Adolf Hitler. Is he saying they are beyond hope? Outside the scope of God’s grace? And what’s with singling them out as the bad guys? Wouldn’t his conservative worldview include all of us in that category?

    I think it’s that line alone that reveals, or at least implies, a total misunderstanding of the doctrines of depravity and grace, which completely confuses what he’s trying to say.

  • shadowofmyself

    Incidentally, Dumbledore never said that. It’s an inept paraphrase of a conversation between Harry and Sirius Black in the fifth movie. And, while the movie as a whole was a disappointment, I love this moment–because it’s well-written, well acted, emotionally true, *and* clearly reflects a Christian view of human nature.

    There are definitely things in the Potter franchise than can be critiqued, but I agree: this isn’t one of them. And since he specifically complains about the quality of the dialogue, he ought to quote it precisely.

  • yankeh

    I heard a lecture by a philosopher named Richard Kearney once that was excellent. He touched on some of the issues you’re thinking about and, even though I haven’t read it myself, I suspect you’d find this book enriching:

  • bobbinthreadbare

    Excellent post, wonderful thoughts. Thanks for the food for thought. Many thoughts.

  • facesunveiled

    I basically agree with you, thought I’d phrase it a little differently. The situation is not that there are some “bad people” out there (and thus “good people” as well); the reality is that everyone is a bad person–downright horrendous, really–but we all have been, or have the potential to be, redeemed. When we ignore that reality in either direction (thinking we’re good or that “they” are beyond hope), we deny what the gospet is all about.

  • grazor

    While IMO TB is not a theologian/ cultural leader and the article wasn’t great logic or theology, I think cutting it off where you did doesn’t represent the point of the article (the article is about how “kids these days” are narcisistic which HP makes worse, but God can change that – the end states “without God you cannot choose the good”), which is something you agree with at the end of your post, just in different words. That is to say, I don’t think TB is advocating abandoning monsters, but that we are monsters until we are saved. He is trying to state a spiritual truth (that without God we cannot do good – ie nothing that will please God or win our salvation) in such a way that it strikes a chord with the “culture warriors”, which leaves out an explanation of good works here on earth as well as wrestling with indwelling sin even after we are saved. However, while you would both agree of the need for God’s saving grace, I doubt he would give much credence to God’s use of common grace to bring us around, which I think is where your strength lies.

    I think it is how you go about encouraging that grace that is the difference. Using a hammer, bullwhip, the point of a gun, or a megaphone to tell of depravity, need, and Answer is not effectual in truly encouraging grace (either particular grace or grace in our own lives, although God can use it). Finding ways to interact with the culture, being genuine, seeing them as created in His image, prayer, and being loving without giving up our core beliefs, those are more what I see as the right way (if you think about it, the only time “REPENT!!” was used on non-Christians was in Jonah – the rest of the time it seems to be used on His people).

    Thanks for the blog, the critical views of movies (I’m still intending to see New World and some others you mention in your book), and the movie book. Maybe after school I’ll get to reading about Auralia. I hope this makes sense and I didn’t misunderstand you or TB – I’m sick and I’m tired, which generally doesn’t help.

  • Pine Cone Boy

    Wow, Jeffrey… you’ve floored me once again.

    Two other stories I’d add to your list are (duh) Beauty and the Beast (any film version) and the more recent Sweeney Todd.

  • clrussell

    **Imagine what evils might have been prevented had love and light been cultivated and encouraged in the hearts of men like Cho Seung-Hui and Adolf Hitler … men made in the image of God, men with “eternity in their hearts.”**

    My thoughts exactly and I shall stop here, otherwise, I’ll just depress myself. :-(

  • Tia Nevitt


  • I wrote a paper for Dr. Rendleman’s foreign film class last year on the terribleness of Branagh’s Frankenstein. It happened to be very fun to write. Also, I really appreciate this whole post, especially your response to the harry potter passage.

    -Maryann Shaw

  • Jeffrey, I wonder sometimes if the perspective of the “Christian activist” you quote aren’t more monstrous than the creatures you’ve cataloged.