The Terror of Goodness

aslanRecently in one of the classes I taught we talked about (among other things) how hard it is in literature and in movies to portray goodness.  This is not to say that there are no good characters, but getting across the stunning nature of goodness is more difficult.  For instance, to portray the evil of the orcs in the Lord of the Rings movies, all you have to do is make the actors spend more time in the makeup trailer, adding an extra fang here or a bit more ooze there.  But to portray a truly good character (from the book) like Faramir…well, you change the character so he’s not so good.  Why? Because goodness is hard to portray and doesn’t play well on screen.  Even comic book superheroes are now angst-ridden and conflicted about doing good.  Probably the film pinnacle of a character who is a good man is Forrest Gump, and he has to be portrayed as mentally challenged or else the audience won’t believe someone can be that good. In fact, “good” characters in movies are often depicted as smarmy people no one wants to be around.

Our class discussion was prompted by Lewis’ observation in Mere Christianity that “some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are only playing with religion.”  We tend to think of evil as the most terrible thing in the universe, but the real terror is encountering absolute goodness; that is why everyone in the Bible who encounters an angel falls down and must be reassured with the angelic words, “Be not afraid.”  The awesomeness and terror of goodness: that is why it is so hard to accurately represent it in art.  For this reason, Lewis chose to use a lion for the absolutely good Narnian character of Aslan.  As Mrs. Beaver replies to Susan when she expresses concern for her safety at meeting a lion, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” The lion Aslan is both attractive and terrifying, like actual goodness.  Now that I think about it, not only is goodness difficult to depict, it is probably not something we want to depict because facing goodness shows us our own badness.

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