Becki and I just finished watching the blandly-titled but thoughtful Wonderful World (***1/2 out of 5), starring Matthew Broderick.  He plays Ben Singer, a world-weary, has-been children’s singer/songwriter, and he is a regular raincloud, dispensing doom and gloom wherever he goes.  During the course of the film it occurred to me that his character was unhappy because, in his estimate, the world was not as it should be.  He saw money as the driving force in America and found Uncle Sam’s – or rather, “the Man’s” – bottom line lacking.  It is hard to charm children with celebratory songs when you are living in a world that depresses you at every turn.

In Joshua Wolfe Shenk’s book Lincoln’s Melancholy, the author talks about how some have argued that depression may be the most realistic response man can muster to living in a world such as the one we inhabit.  Spouses cheat on one another.  Corporate corruption is rampant. People kill one another.  The Cain and Abel drama echoes endlessly in the canyon of human history.  When we survey the world and see things such as these, if we are quick to judge and not careful to discern, depression really is the only realistic option.

C.S. Lewis was probably not the first to write about this, but I remember his line of reasoning.  He suggested, if I recall correctly, that our most twisted wants and needs and attitudes may be rooted in some good even if they have flowered into something hideous and unbearable.  In Wonderful World, Ben’s cynicism is not merely a wet blanket draped over the whole of the world.  Rather, it is a judgment of sorts on the world, rooted in good.  Yes, he is a wet mop of a man in many ways, but he is deflated by the very notion that the world seems to be satisfied with its sorry state.  He is negative because he believes in the potential of the world.  In one particularly telling line, Ben and his roommate are discussing human nature, and his roommate argues that it is easier to appeal to peoples’ darker impulses than to the good in them.  It is easier, that is, in Star Wars vernacular, to give in to the dark side than it is to suffer electrocution at the Emperor’s hands for some greater good.

We live by the lowest common denominator even though we have such potential.  We would be golden in every respect if we were not so intent on rolling in mud and excrement.  We do it to ourselves, we do – or so Radiohead sings.  But there is good in us because we are made in the Image of God.  Granted, we are not always motivated by goodness – maybe not even most of the time.  But we have the potential to be immeasurably good to one another if we choose to follow through and live under the banner of God’s love.

Even the pursuit of money that Ben Singer despises so much is rooted in something good, at least in my estimate.  It is a fundamentally good thing, after all, to be able to provide for one’s family, to have shelter from the storms, etc.  Money is a necessity in this world, and also a gateway to security, to life’s little luxuries (i.e. sushi, wine, tickets to concerts or films) that remind us of the transcendent beauty and joy in the world God has created, and also to opportunities of all shapes, sizes, stripes, and colors.  We can want money for perfectly good reasons, and there is a measure of joy to be had in it.  But when that good is twisted into something darker and altogether different, it begins to look a lot like the housing crash of 2008.  When money is allowed to become an end unto itself rather than something that is subject to higher ends, it has the potential to become a cancerous thing.  People say money is the root of all evil for this reason, no doubt.  But money can remedy a wide variety of ailments, so it cannot be argued that it is essentially evil.

Perhaps it can be argued that even murder might be a bent, twisted form of the Good.  In snuffing out the life of another human being, a murderer may believe he or she is dispensing justice or ridding the world of a person it would be better off without.  Obviously, the end does not justify the means.  But it seems to me that, at least culturally, we affirm all of these notions about murder.  Why else would we flock to films where heroes deal fatal blows to treacherous villains?  We applaud vigilante justice any time we applaud a Batman film.  I should know.  My wife loves Batman.  If she has her way, our first child will be named Batman Johnston. Batman is that rare hero who is as dark as many of the villains he dispatches from this life.  In this sense he is truly post-modern, straddling traditional notions of good and evil, light and dark.  He is admittedly a twisted version of a good thing.  Granted, I am not sure any of this really applies if we go back to Batman’s roots.  “Biff,” “pow,” and “thwock” are hardly the sounds of murder.  But from Tim Burton’s 1989 incarnation of Batman through Christopher Nolan’s most recent adaptation of the character, Batman is a decidedly dark figure.  He is a bent, twisted version of a good thing.

On that note, I think C.S. Lewis is right about the distorted goodness that flowers into evil.  I think, had he lived to see Star Wars, he would have known just as Luke did that there was goodness in Darth Vader.  He would have prayed for Vader’s redemption.  In Christ, we too can remove our asthmatic breathing-helmets and wheeze before the Lord, our scars exposed, the old man within revealed for what he is.  We too can be redeemed.  When the good in us misbehaves, it is God’s desire to straighten the crooked and make us young at heart again.  We come to Him as children, and His Kingdom is our home.

Art: “Skulleidoscope,” by Chad Thomas Johnston, May 2010.