The Electronic Church’s Aesthetic of Evil

by S. Dennis Ford

Dr. Ford is coordinator for religious affairs at Virginia Polytechnical Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 28, 1981, pp. 1095-97. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There have been at least three major explanations for the presence of the ugly in art: 1. The transformational theory. 2. The educational or didactic theory. 3. The pleasure theory. The electronic church so often both depicts evil and implicitly denies its seriousness, the pleasure theory best articulates the core of the electronic church’s aesthetic and sensibilities.

I admit to being both fascinated and repelled by my own attraction to these stories. Stories that display the presence of evil possess a strange form of "beauty" that Plato described in The Republic:

Well, I said, once I heard something, and I believe it: Leontios, Aglaion’s son, so it was said, was going up from the Peiraeus under the north wall outside, and saw dead bodies lying beside the executioner. He desired to see them and felt disgusted at the same time, and turned away. He resisted awhile and covered his face, but the desire was too much for him. He ran up to the bodies, and pulled his eyes open with his fingers, calling out, "There, confound you! Stare your fill at the beautiful sight!"

The allure of evil requires an explanation that the allure of the good does not. I used to think that the electronic church’s fascination with evil was merely an extension of commercial television’s preoccupation with crime and violence. A newslike exposé on young runaways offers a seemingly serious form of entertainment, whether it appears on "60 Minutes" or "The 700 Club." Or perhaps the prevalence of these stories attests to Milton’s conviction that sin is more interesting than virtue. The adventures of a runaway capture a larger audience than would the daily routine of the local honors student. More theologically, however, the confessional mode, the darkness before the light, is certainly a legitimate and perennial part of the sin/salvation motif of the Christian tradition. Evil both calls for and justifies the actions of a merciful God.

However, these explanations do not fully explain the phenomenon. I suggest that the presence of such accounts in the church’s programming indicates nothing less than an aesthetic of evil. By this I do not mean that the aesthetic is evil in itself but that attention to evil is an integral part of the electronic church’s sense of what is beautiful.

Evil functions in the electronic church in a way analogous to the functioning of "the ugly" in art. Certain works of art -- the lurid descriptions at the beginning of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the studies of degradation in Hardy and Zola, the "Old Courtesan" and the "Ugolino" statues by Rodin -- Contain incontestably ugly features. The "ugly" is not accidental; it is part of the artist’s aesthetic in the same way that evil is a part of the electronic church’s theology. Thus, I find the discussion of the "ugly" in art helpful in formulating my own understanding of the electronic church’s sensibilities.

The first of these is what I will call the transformational theory. According to this theory, the ugly is indeed present, but it remains only so long as it is not transformed by the total context provided by the work. In isolation, one aspect of a picture may be ugly, but when seen within the context of the picture as a whole, it becomes part of a larger beauty. This sort of beauty is all the more beautiful precisely because it is capable of encompassing and harmonizing occasional discords. The ugly is either temporary because capable of transformation, or is rendered relatively unimportant by the larger context provided by the work as a whole.

A variation of the transformational theory attempts to shift attention from the ugly itself to the skill with which it has been captured or conveyed. A certain subject matter may be horrible, may even be repulsive, but we can nevertheless admire the mastery and skill of the artist. A formalist criticism would argue that we can judge the form of a work, the technique and style of the artist, but we cannot judge the appropriateness or beauty of the subject.

The transformational theory of the ugly in art has its counterpart in the aesthetic of the electronic church. Whether it is about something as trivial as a baseball injury or something as serious as international terrorism, whether it is conveyed through an interview or a news report, evil is typically presented by the church in the context of a larger Christian hope. Taken in isolation, starvation in Africa is deplorable, but only so long as it is not transformed by the Christian relief fund. The country is facing moral decay, but we can change it. A family is desperately poor, but they have found genuine faith and reassuring peace. In the aesthetic of the electronic church, every condition of evil is either potentially transformed, and thus temporary, or insignificant in light of a Christian context. All things, even apparently evil ones, contribute to God’s glory.

Where evil exists in a way that is not immediately transformable, attention can be shifted to the sacrifice and dedication of those who are nevertheless working to aid the poor and afflicted. If a nation is unchristian, we can nevertheless admire those who attempt to evangelize its people. If a natural disaster occurs, we can rally behind those who bring relief and aid. Evil in these instances provides an occasion for, and proof of, Christian faithfulness. Many remember the steadfastness of Job; few remember the details of his burdens. Mother Teresa is honored not because she has materially changed the political and economic conditions of India but because she has dedicated her life to the poor in an exemplary way. If the world lacks beauty, there are nevertheless beautiful, saintly people who mitigate the stubbornness of evil. The presence of evil is thus "explained" in a way analogous to that whereby the ugly is explained in art. Therefore an unspoken transformational theory shapes the sensibilities of the electronic church.

The second major theory explaining the ugly in art is the educational or didactic theory. This theory justifies the presence of the ugly because of its reflecting or teaching value. Yes, there are ugly aspects in art, but these are present only because they reflect a corresponding ugliness in the real world. Ugly things exist, and an art that failed to depict ugliness would be false or unrealistic.

Occasionally the ugly will be exaggerated in art (I think of certain scenes in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, for example), but even exaggeration is justified in light of its educational purpose. Through exaggeration, we can learn something about the nature of war. Augustine may have exaggerated his sinfulness precisely so that his subsequent salvation would seem all the more miraculous.

If we translate that theory into the context of the electronic church, it can certainly be admitted that stories of alcoholism and broken marriages are realistic. I come away from watching "The 700 Club" with the same sense that I have after watching the evening news: I’ve learned something about the real world. I cannot be expected to give to world missions or a united relief fund unless I am first educated about existing needs that I would not otherwise encounter. Just the knowledge that teen-age pregnancy is epidemic reassures me that my Christianity is not escapist but is firmly grounded in the real world and its manifold problems.

At least one variation of an educational aesthetic is peculiarly Christian. Occasionally an account or story is morally educational in the sense that the presence of evil is interpreted as a sign of God’s displeasure. In this instance, the electronic church will prophetically interpret our nation’s loss of economic and military pre-eminence as a sign that we have been unfaithful to God’s commandments. Evil as an indication of God’s disfavor is literally instructive; it has a pedagogical or instrumental value. Evil serves to correct an otherwise deviant path -- individual or collective. Evil’s reflection of the world, as well as its morally instructive value, contributes to the electronic church’s adoption of an educational aesthetic.

Translated into the context of the church, bounded by a commercial on either side, evil is no longer threatening. Abstracted from associated odors and filth, such accounts satisfy my curiosity. Indeed, I can satisfy this curiosity and be self-congratulatory too because I am watching a Christian, rather than a commercial, network. What in real life may be repulsive becomes an opportunity for voyeurism and novelty. The confessions of a former cultist depict a life that is new and different, an exciting change from my routine existence.

This last theory, pleasure in the ugly, best articulates the essential aesthetic of the electronic church. For each of the classic explanations of the ugly in art, there is a corresponding explanation of evil given by the electronic church. These explanations constitute its aesthetic.

What concerns me is that the first two theories, the transformational and educational theories, deny either the permanence or seriousness of evil. Depending on the theory employed, evil is either transformed by a larger Christian context, slighted in favor of focusing attention on a saint, or justified in terms of an educational or moral function. In each instance, the presence of evil is neither intrinsic nor recalcitrant but is instrumental and thus short-lived.

The third theory, on the other hand, is hardly conceivable -- because of the disparity it suggests between pleasure in beholding evil and our own self-images. No one would readily admit that the study of evil is pleasurable. Nevertheless, because the electronic church so often both depicts evil and implicitly denies its seriousness, the pleasure theory best articulates the core of the electronic church’s aesthetic and sensibilities.

Because of this aesthetic core, what otherwise might be conducive to genuine concern and action is frequently transformed into mere titillation. The prominent place evil assumes in the stories broadcast by the electronic church indulges our need for this strange form of "beauty" without granting us an enabling vision.