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CBS's "EVIL": Learning to Live in the Midst of Tension

In a post-Christian society, old questions are framed in new ways. Historically, the problem of evil is a major barrier to thoughtful Christian belief. It is given major attention in Christian apologetics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states the problem like this: “The epistemic question posed by evil is whether the world contains undesirable states of affairs that provide the basis for an argument that makes it unreasonable to believe in the existence of God.” The problem can be described experientially or theoretically. It is not a question to be taken lightly.

But this is not the post-Christian or postmodern way of describing the problem. Here the question takes a Nietzschian turn. Here the question is “Does evil exist?” Ron Rosenbaum in his article in The Spectator asks, “Is Evil Over?” He writes,

"Is evil over? Has science finally driven a stake through its dark heart? Or at least emptied the word of useful meaning, reduced the notion of a numinous nonmaterial malevolent force to a glitch in a tangled cluster of neurons, the brain?

Yes, according to many neuroscientists, who are emerging as the new high priests of the secrets of the psyche, explainers of human behavior in general. A phenomenon attested to by a recent torrent of pop-sci brain books with titles like Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Not secret in most of these works is the disdain for metaphysical evil, which is regarded as an antiquated concept that’s done more harm than good. They argue that the time has come to replace such metaphysical terms with physical explanations—malfunctions or malformations in the brain."

While such atheistic reflections have traction in certain university classrooms, it is less common within popular culture where the idea of evil remains a dominant theme and interest. Evil is the backdoor publicly acceptable way to discuss the existence of a nonmaterial spiritual world—a haunted reality. In the corridors of DIY spirituality it remains a hot topic. It is an existential onramp to spiritual discussions among post-Christian neo-pagans.

Within the public social imagination, these questions are explored in the horror genre. Filmmaker Scott Derrickson, director of Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Sinister (2012), notes, “A lot of Hollywood films are escapist in their nature. They offer the audience a temporary denial of the difficult realities of life and the darkness that exists in the world. In the horror genre, the great potential of it is that it forces us to reckon with what we are afraid of. It forces us to admit an experience—that there is evil in the world and in ourselves. There’s evil in nature. We’re not in control. It’s the genre of non-denial.” Horror films then challenge our imaginations to ask big questions—often in unsettling and uncomfortable ways.

There are economic reasons for horror film’s box office success. They can be made on smaller budgets so that hits create a substantial profit margin. It is not uncommon for horror films to make ten times their production costs. Often when the film industry has had a successful year at the box office, it is tied to the success of a horror film. The New York Times reports that 2017 was the biggest box-office year ever for horror movies, bringing in a total of $733 million in ticket sales in just that year. Big in 2017 were the film It and Get Out. Both set records, It being the first horror movie to earn $300 million and Get Out the highest grossing film.

I am personally not a big fan of the horror genre, but I am aware of its cultural significance. In this regard, Derrickson’s Dr. Strange and Exorcism of Emily Rose are certainly worthy of reflective viewing. Sometimes we need to enter into places that make us uncomfortable in order to enter meaningfully into the wider cultural conversation.

In this light, CBS’s new television series, Evil, deserves our thoughtful consideration. The show is the brainchild of married team Michelle and Robert King, best known for being the writers on the TV series, The Good Wife. Here they directly explore the question: What is the nature of evil? The outcome is a provocative series that studies through narrative drama the intersection of science and religion. It is more direct, thoughtful, and unsettling than God Friended Me, which started with the same aim.

The story centers on an open-minded but skeptical lapsed Catholic psychologist Kristen Bouchard who begins working with Roman Catholic priest-in-training David Acosta and blue-collar non-practicing Muslim technology contractor Ben Shakir. The Kings fall on both sides of the debate—Robert believes in the demonic, while Michelle doesn’t. What emerges is an honest and balanced debate about the nature of reality. Neither sees reality in black and white categories, making them exemplars of what I have described in my book The New Copernicans as an “open immanent” perspective. Robert states, “I think it works as both metaphor and fact. Exorcists we’ve talked to talked about how difficult it is to distinguish between mental illness and what they would call demonic possession. Because demonic possession can be mixed in with mental illness, and the reverse is true too.” Michelle adds, “Given that we created two characters that have very different ideas, it is important to me that they listened to each other respectfully, and that they feel comfortable expressing those opposing viewpoints. It feels like there’s not a lot of listening going on in the world.”

There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who say, “We must take a stand,” and those who say, “Let’s take a walk.” The Kings invite us on a walk with people who are in the midst of questioning.

This is an uncomfortable liminal experience that too few Christians are willing to enter. Christians want to preach. We want quick and easy answers. In today’s post-Christian society this attitude is a showstopper.

Believers today need to learn to embrace ambiguity, to hold to their convictions with an open hand, and learn from others whose perspectives on reality and religion differ from their own. To put it bluntly, Christian believers need to get back to believing in the supernatural. Douglas Balzer writes in The Empowerment Pivot, “The 21st century world is quickly coming out of its 18th century rational hangover, and the church had better catch up. Western society—beyond the walls of the church—is currently pivoting away from exclusive rational thought to embracing mystery, spirituality, and the paranormal.” A 2011 British study reports that two-thirds of Americans claim to believe in some form of paranormal such as extrasensory perception, hauntings, and witchcraft.

Robert and Michelle King capture the ambiguity of the post-Christian spiritual experience captured in novelist Julian Barnes’ admission, “I do not believe in God, but I miss him.” God and the Devil haunt many spiritual seekers we meet today. We should join them on their pilgrimage with an understanding heart and listening ear.

Spiritual and cultural discernment demands tension and uncomfortable unsafe places. Critics will demand we take a side—either on the side of science or spirituality, empiricism or mysticism. But most people live in the midst of the tension—a both/and not an either/or perspective. We need to join them there.

The tension of the horror genre is decried in a recent Geico ad. “If you are in a horror movie, you make bad decisions. That’s what you do.” My question is whether it is time for Christian believers to join those who are huddling behind the chainsaws in the garage? It is here that the fear and haunting can move us together to deeper reflections outside the comfort zones of our daily lives.

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