In a conversation with a pastor friend of mine who is also a screenwriter, we talked about human nature, hypocrisy, and what makes for a good villain.
“We reserve our harshest judgment for hypocrisy. We think hypocrites are weak and petty and so it’s hard for us to relate to them since we think we would never be one. And since a hero story is only as strong as its villain, a hypocritical bad guy won’t do. We won’t care about a hero’s story unless he faces a worthy enemy. The most compelling villains are driven by an ideal that justifies everything they do, no matter how monstrous. In their own story, the villain sees him or herself as a hero, the champion of a righteous ideal.”
This is what makes baddies like Christopher Nolan’s The Joker and Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men so chilling and terrifying—they are idealists. Chigurh is arguably the character in the story with the strongest conviction of right and wrong. The purity of his devotion to his ethical ideal—twisted though it may be—is what makes him one of the most frightening villains in recent memory. This bears out in real life, too, in a world of terrorists who believe they are messengers of God and cruel despots who imagine themselves to be the saviors of the people they oppress. Hitler was convinced that he was doing the world a favor by zealously carrying out his final solution. The terrorists of 9/11 gave their lives to a cause they believed was righteous.
Robert McKee explores these motivations in his book, STORY (considered by many to be the bible of screenwriting):
“Human nature dictates that each of us will always choose the ‘good’ or the ‘right’ as we perceive the ‘good’ or the ‘right.’ it is impossible to do otherwise… The choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is no choice at all.
Imagine Attila, King of the Huns poised on the borders of fifth-century Europe, surveying his hordes and asking himself: “Should I invade, murder, rape, plunder, burn, and lay waste… or should I go home?” For Attila this is no choice at all. He must invade, slay, plunder, and lay waste. He didn’t lead tens of thousands of warriors across two continents to turn around when he finally came within sight of the prize. In the eyes of his victims, however, his is an evil decision. But that’s their point of view. For Attila his choice is not only the right thing to do, but probably the moral thing to do. No doubt, like many of history’s great tyrants, he felt he was on a holy mission.
Or closer to home: a thief bludgeons a victim on the street for the five dollars in her purse. He may know this isn’t the moral thing to do, but moral/immoral, legal/illegal often have little to do with one another. He may instantly regret what he’s done. But at the moment of murder, from the thief’s point of view, his arm won’t move until he’s convinced himself that this is the right choice.
If we do not understand that much about human nature—that a human being is only capable of acting toward the right or the good as he has come to believe it or rationalize it—then we understand very little.”
The terrifying truth that emerges in all of this—of particular interest to my friend both as a pastor and as a screenwriter—is the fact that monsters rarely recognize themselves as such, which means it is possible for any of us to become the fiend without ever realizing it. It all comes back to the story we are telling ourselves.
In 1956, author Leon Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the discomfort felt by a person who must hold two or more conflicting ideas at once. In his book When Prophecy Fails, he tells the story of a UFO cult that believed the end of the world would happen on a certain date. When the day came and went, the cultists, unable to dismantle everything they had believed, learned instead to accommodate it by telling themselves a new story in which they were “spared” in order to evangelize the lost.
Aesop’s fable about the wolf unable to reach the grapes he desires is another classic example of the way cognitive dissonance invisibly shapes the story we tell ourselves. Faced with his inability to reach them, the fox tells himself that he didn’t want the “sour” grapes in the first place. I want the grapes/I can’t have the grapes proves to be too uncomfortable for the fox to hold in his mind, and so he pursues “dissonance reduction” by rewriting the story. The fox—and all of us like him—outfoxes himself, and in him we see how easy it is to become masters of subtle unknowing, not allowing ourselves to know certain things about who we are and what we want.
(Worth noting, I think, is the fact that rather than knowing his own limitations, the fox in essence blames the grapes by later calling them “sour and undesirable anyway.” The Roman fabulist Phaedrus’ version of this fable closes with this pointed advice: “People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves.”)
Grapes are one thing, but as the stakes get higher, the tales we tell ourselves get taller—and more destructive. I think this is especially true when it comes to our own hypocrisy. When we fail to live according to our own convictions, it’s a devastating blow to our idea of who we are. Sometimes it’s too much for us to know this, and so without realizing it we may choose not to.
The ugliness of our own selfishness, the pettiness of our pride, the vulgarity of our lusts, the vindictiveness of our lack of mercy—when we stub our toe on the knowledge of our sinfulness, we more often than not start rearranging our mental and emotional furniture to accommodate it rather than calling the landlord in to remove it. We do this when we judge others, or when we cast ourselves as a victim in our story, or think of ourselves as enlightened martyrs on a stage of fools, blaming those around us as we shift the focus ever away from the log in our own eye.
But it is always the flaw in ourself that we don’t see that most enslaves us, so that we will never know the freedom we restlessly long for as long as we choose blindness. In the shadows of our unknowing our brokenness binds us and carries us away into sadder and sadder stories.
I met a young man once who left me a message after hearing my song “Remind Me Who I Am”. His wife was a stylist and hairdresser for a tour of one of the biggest names in secular music. It was an exciting and intoxicating opportunity that they were both excited about for her. But after several months on the road immersed in that lifestyle, she called her husband to say that she no longer wanted to be married. She felt too tied down and longed for independence. She told him that God wanted this for her and that it was God who was leading her to divorce him.
This was a profound rejection that wounded the young man deeply. The God component was very confusing, too, since she told him that not only was she rejecting him as her husband, but God was too. He told me that “Remind Me Who I Am” was very meaningful as it helped reaffirm God’s love for him as he was healing.
I was sad for him, but I was just as sad for the young woman. I doubt she ever imagined becoming the kind of person who would callously discard another human being like excess baggage, invoking God’s name to do it. I’m sure this was not the dream she dreamed for herself on her wedding day. Somewhere along the way her own unhappiness and the personal cost of marriage became more than she wanted to bear, and to escape it she had to betray herself, acting against her own cherished interests and beliefs, telling herself a story in which God—who is grieved by divorce—told her to end her marriage.
How far will she run before the truth of what she’s done not only to her husband but also herself catches up to her? She will need great love and forgiveness in order to feel safe enough to come face to face with herself and be healed by grace.
Presidential hopeful John Edward’s dramatic fall from favor is the stuff of bad daytime melodrama. His affair with a woman while his wife was dying of cancer is one of the great cautionary tales of our time. With his reputation and all that he devoted his life to now a desolation, when did he finally wake, surprised to find himself in this kind of story? Is this the man that he wanted to become? At what point did his pride and loneliness consume the good man he dreamed of being? Can that good man be recovered? It makes me think of the words the soon to be martyred Sir Thomas More shares with his daughter in the 1966 film A Man For All Seasons:
“When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then — he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
I would add that if there is hope for any of us to be found again, it can be found in the supernatural grace and unconditional love that restored the prodigal son.
In the stories of both the young woman and John Edwards we miss the point if we merely shake our heads and “tsk, tsk” them with contempt. I remember someone referring to Edwards as the worst kind of human being, “a snake.” But to demonize him or anyone is to make them a scapegoat for our own sin and refuse to know the truth about ourselves: that all of us are vulnerable to becoming the kind of monster we now judge.
We can only judge from a position of self-righteousness, and self-righteousness just so happens to be the prerequisite blindness of a monster in the making. A villain lives in the shadow of our hearts, looking for the opportune moment to overthrow us when we are looking elsewhere.
Pastor Andy Stanley has said that we need to always be asking ourselves a very important question, “a question that very few people pause and ask because it’s very threatening. The question is: ‘am I being completely honest with myself?’ Here’s what I know about you, because I know it about me, too: you are an expert at selling yourself on something that you really want. You may not be able to sell anything else in your life—you may be a terrible professional salesperson—but when it comes to selling yourself on something you really want, you are very, very good at this! And so we have to always ask, ‘am I being completely honest with myself…’”
But even this may not spare us. It is commendable to look long and hard in the mirror for the villain in ourselves, but a mirror tells us only what we allow it to. No, what’s needed is a different kind of mirror altogether. I believe the mirror we need most has been given to us by God, in tandem with his word and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, in the people he has surrounded us with. I’m speaking of the mirror that arises from our deepest unions. My community, my closest friends, those whose authority I submit myself to, my family, my wife—it is the people that God has placed in my life who provide the truest reflection of my character. When I listen to them, their words and love become the guardrails to keep me from careening off the edge of my own life.
The proverb goes that “the wounds of a friend can be trusted,” and so I try my best to give my friends permission to wound me with the truth, pointing out the ways I’m living inconsistent with what I believe. In this way, they help me tell a better, truer story.
For the past several years I’ve been grateful to have a mentor in my life who has loved me well, kindly wounding me with difficult truths about myself. Among other things he has helped me see that I’m an angry man. I used to say that I struggled with anger, or that sometimes I got angry, but George has helped me change my language and to understand that I’m simply an angry man. Period. Sometimes my anger expresses itself more clearly than other times, but it is more or less always there—even in the ways I control it! This understanding disabused me of a lie that I told myself and often believed: that I had overcome my anger because I hadn’t lost my temper in many years.
Anger runs deep in my family experience, and having grown up in abusive circumstances, I determined that I would be different. And I was. I didn’t have angry outbursts like I witnessed when I was growing up, or if I did they were few and far between, and of course always justifiable. The older I got, the more I believed I had mastered the anger that ran through my family blood line. And in some sense I had. But the deeper truth was that I was still an angry man and that it found other ways to get out. I was at times judgmental, critical, demanding, controlling and always ever self-righteous.
I didn’t want to know this about myself, but the truth always emerges. God lovingly confronted me as friends, family, and circumstances converged to help me see what was broken in me: the selfish tangle of ambition, lust, pride, and desire to control that stokes the fiery passions of my heart. I remember well my horror the day I woke to the realization that I had become—in my own way—the kind of man I never wanted to be. It is a difficult thing to look in the mirror and see the monster staring back at you.
In the midst of my painful discovery I remember telling Andy Gullahorn that I felt like all of my sin was always leading me to this moment, this difficult season in my life. Andy, who has walked through his own trying seasons of brokenness and come out the other side a better man, spoke these healing words to me: “well I believe that it’s leading you to the moment beyond this moment.”
I am now grateful for that season in my life and the way that it exorcised many devils in me. I’ve been spared of becoming the kind of man I never wanted to be. The deliverance is ongoing.
At the end of the film “The Dark Knight”, The Batman says, “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Choosing to be in transparent community with others who we give permission to tell us the truth—whether in mentorship, friendship, or matrimony—can feel like a kind of death. But it is a hero’s death in that it leads to the dismantling of the illusion of our own self-righteousness. Yet the greater story we believe as Christians is that death always leads to new life. In the community of our deepest unions we find ever-increasing freedom from our own brokenness that would otherwise enslave us.
May God rescue us when we are our own worst enemies, and when—refusing to die to the delusions of our own bad storytelling—we “live” long enough to see ourselves become the villain we never wanted to be.
May God ever grace us with loving truth tellers whose words like a lighthouse keep us from crashing on the rocks of our own jagged brokenness and guide us instead to safer waters and better adventures.
And if we wake one day to find a monster in the mirror, may God surround us with people who will love us back from the edge of our own shame and restore us into fellowship, gently reminding us that we are being led to the redeeming moment beyond this moment. May ours be a Cinderella story where when the clock strikes midnight and the glittering illusion of our righteousness disappears we find we are loved not for who we dream of being, but for who we really are.
Am I being completely honest with myself? Am I giving others permission to be a mirror in my life? Do I blame them when I don’t like what I see? These questions help unmake villains.