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Wonder Woman, naïveté, and original sin

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

This is not a review of Wonder Woman, but a reflection on a profound set of questions the movie raises in a thought-provoking way. What is the nature of humanity? Are we “basically good,” as I heard a fellow Education for Ministry participant state? Or are we fundamentally corrupt? Are there other options?

Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana Prince, faces this question in the film. She had been told as a child that mankind is good, but corrupted by an outside influence. As she begins to discover the brutality humans are capable of, especially during wartime, she struggles with whether she should help humanity, and this remains her fundamental temptation up to the movie’s climax. What should she do, since she sees that humans are a mixture of good and evil? I will not give more away than to say she decides to help. How she gets there is fascinating, but to find that out you will need to see the movie.

I was left pondering the question afterwards. I’m with G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy:

Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin — a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.

Scripture is also clear: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But there seems to be resistance to the idea from progressive quarters. People are good, and it is only the structures around them, or their education (or lack thereof), or their family origin that cause them to behave poorly. If we fix those problems, we fix people.

This naïveté explains much of the shock caused by examples of great evil such as 9/11. The close approach of such startling evil is like the striker on a large bell; it sets us ringing. It breaks through the defenses we have built, and for the briefest of moments we reflect, and ask, “Is that evil inside me?” Is this not the existential center of the issue? If we admit that humans are not basically good, we will then have to admit that neither are we. Or, more specifically, neither am I.

And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

There is really good news here. When we get to the point of admitting we share in the “human propensity to f*** things up” (in Francis Spufford’s memorable wording in Unapologetic), we can than see that things are not as bad as we thought they were.

It does not change the fact that God created us, and pronounced us good. Broken is not the same as destroyed, and dead is no obstacle for the one who can bring the dead back to life.

Second, God has done what is necessary (and sufficient) to bring us to the place where we will again be basically good — in our heart, at our very roots, in every way. This cannot be said often enough. God knows we are messed up and loves us still. When we are in the middle of denying that we have sinned, he loves us. He has, is, and will finally do all that needs doing to set us and all the creation right.

Third, the more we admit we’re all broken, the more we find ourselves with time on our hands. We spend so much time and effort hiding our brokenness and our evil, from each other and from ourselves: we will waste no more time constructing masks to hide behind. We will be able to give ourselves to one another and to God’s service because we will know, even though we are messed up, that is okay. That is God’s basic  modus operandi: to use that which is weak and imperfect, and accomplish his good plans with it.

Finally, you will be free. Freedom is one of the many gifts God is giving us — not freedom to do whatever we want but to be who we were created to be. Strangely this has the net effect of letting us “get over ourselves.” As N.T. Wright has pointed out in The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, a key element in our brokenness was our rejection of our God-given vocation. Our hearts long to return to what we were made for — a key part of which is the care and protection of the creation — and we will be “happiest” when that is the task we are about.

Accepting that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart does not compel us to conclude that humans (and ourselves) are therefore worthless. Rather, it launches us toward that end for which we were made. It grounds us in the love of God. It frees us to be who we truly are. And we will find we have little time for anything other than the worship and work God calls us to.


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