The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy
by Philip Tallon.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Cloth, 266 pages, $74.

While preparing an anthology, I once spent several months researching the “problem of evil.” I remember learning about genocides. Not enough people know that the first genocide was perpetrated not on Jews, but on the Armenians. Among the more recent genocides (the phrase should haunt the mind), I did considerable reading about the gun-free Rwandan massacres, learning some of the 800,000 individual stories that swell into a sea of statistics few dare to chart, a sea further swollen by ongoing genocide in Sudan. And that sea feeds into an ocean, as I discovered in the Black Book of Communism—one hundred million people killed in a century, ostensibly for an idea, an atheistic massacre of human beings on a scale that dwarfs all past religious, colonialist, and tribal violence.

More recently I’ve come to work on a project bringing trauma aftercare to hurting women and children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where remnants of the Rwandan genocidaires are now one of multiple factors contributing to the creation of a whole new category in the catalogue of human evil. War rape, ranking so high on a scale of brutality that I will not tell my children what I do during the day, terrorizes yet more millions of innocent people. And with international commerce, some of this violence is funded by my purchase of a mobile phone.

The cries of “Never again!” ring more hollow with each fresh genocide, but a select few atrocities still trigger an inexorable public cycle of inane emotionalism, misdirected recrimination, and nebulous calls for action, seasoned with predictable faux-rhetorical questions and ritual belittlement of belief in God’s existence, goodness, or power. Questions about the relation between God and suffering are always in order, but one might be pardoned for suspicion of the latter element when public voices float questions that have endured for millennia as if no one had considered them before, let alone offered responses. Today, atheism is less unsettling in many circles than overt acknowledgment of human depravity and impotence.

In The Poetics of Evil, Philip Tallon offers something approaching a polar opposite to such media-driven populism. He turns to theodicy—the philosophical and theological attempt to defend God’s goodness in the face of horror. As with many academic disciplines, theodicy has become arid and constricted and increasingly disconnected from popular discourse. Tallon here expands its scope, exploring in particular the question of what art and beauty can show us about God’s goodness in the midst of evil, and suggesting that artists can reveal elements of reality we might otherwise overlook.

On one level, such an assertion is obvious. My colleagues return from assessment visits to Goma, the capital of Congo’s North Kivu province, talking in the same breath of the horrors they encountered and the beauty of the land and its people. Such beauty—any beauty—is a phenomenon that calls for as much explanation as does suffering, but the intellectual taboos of modern thought have undermined our ability to address the question of beauty, for this would also demand a discussion of value.

Tallon begins enticingly with a discussion of Mozart and Bach (and theologian Karl Barth) before turning to a critical survey of the development of theodicy, the functional divorce between theology and aesthetics, and the beginnings of a proposed reconciliation. Written in conversation with major figures, this section necessarily requires a level of sustained attention, but it is not overly technical and becomes a helpful introduction to the field for the lay reader. Among other highlights, I was pleased to see him draw on the fascinating pairing of Dorothy L. Sayers and Hans Urs von Balthasar in developing an unapologetically Christian aesthetics to escape problematic themes in Oscar Wilde and Immanuel Kant, not least their contribution to the segregation of aesthetics from meaningful conversation with science or morals. Sayers deserves broader recognition as a thinker, and Tallon highlights her important work, drawing on Christ’s incarnation, in the recovery of aesthetics within epistemology: “new knowledge is made available to us through creative expression.”

Tallon then turns to three aesthetic themes—harmony, tragedy, and horror—as illustrations of his argument for reconnecting beauty with justice in thinking about these issues. The theme of harmony, rooted signally in Augustine and dominant in the medieval period, was the prime target of Enlightenment and later thinkers, and not without reason. As Tallon puts it, Augustine essentially taught that the world is wholly good when seen in perspective of God’s ultimate purposes, for “in the big picture, all good and evil are integrated in the perfect work of art.” This is the view that drew out the famous response from Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov. Tallon successfully reclaims significant elements of this classic theodicy before turning to tragedy and horror to address remaining critiques.

His discussion of the tragic vision, while appreciative, offers some surprising conclusions. But it is toward the end that the book’s pace picks up as Tallon turns to the recent emergence of the horror genre to introduce a new theme. No one will accuse him of not taking evil with complete seriousness. The thinness of contemporary Christian and secularist responses is marked by contrast. While one is left wistful for more overt direction for dealing with individual examples in the genre, Tallon is evocative in his suggestion that horror offers a necessary pointer beyond the walls of the world: “Horror demands eschatological resolution.”

Aesthetics has generally been a minor discipline in philosophy and theology, and while Tallon does reveal untapped resources there, among its several virtues is that the book is careful not to claim too much. He writes with a refreshing balance of confidence and humility, achieving a nuanced but not fussy tone that avoids the pugnacious insecurity that sometimes plagues attempts at apologetics.

It is worth mentioning an aesthetic criticism. Tallon’s argument is ill-served by his publisher, which chose a design with tiny type and narrow margins that impedes comprehension. Erratic spacing and typographical errors further distract the reader, leading to thoughts of the embattled nature of contemporary publishing and the sad attrition in editorial jobs. It is not unreasonable to expect a publisher to make a book on aesthetics (particularly at such a price point) pleasant to read, and most of these infelicities could have been easily addressed. One hopes that future editions will benefit from its publisher responding to the pressures of digital publishing, as have many competitors, with a renewed focus on the printed book as artifact and experience. As it was, I longed for an electronic copy to ease my eyestrain.

But the flaws in presentation only serve to highlight the force of the argument, and the book is to be commended for contributions that should help this academic discipline escape its self-imposed abstraction and offer resources to help cultures deal with tragedies and resist atrocities. Given their clear shortcomings in the face of real suffering, intellectual arguments about evil are insufficient, but they are inevitable and perhaps necessary. Even when we join Chesterton and others in assent to the most enduring response to severe suffering—God’s response to Job in Job 38 and following—we still seek reasons. A plausible argument can undergird hope.

More atrocities were perpetrated during this writing. One (relatively) small-scale massacre of innocents in Connecticut earned more comment than the ongoing stream of murdered teens in Chicago and the raging torrents in Congo and Sudan. We soon learned their names and faces. Perhaps a revival of aesthetic considerations can help us recognize and respond to the individual tears and terrors that mere numbers hide. As Tallon suggests in his introduction,

By opening the door to beauty, we must also admit ugliness. By straining to hear the harmony of creation, we must also attend to the discordant clashes that seem to echo throughout the world. Aesthetics deepens and enriches theodicy as a discourse by giving us more to hear, both of God’s goodness and of human suffering.

We differ from Syria, Sudan, Congo not in kind but in degree and defense, in our willingness to look at and name evil, and in our ability to cultivate families and communities that can resist depravity, replenish cultural reserves, and connect with a vision of ultimate justice that inspires action. Tallon quotes Elaine Scarry (On Beauty and Being Just) saying that “beauty prepares us for justice . . . the fact that something is perceived as beautiful is bound up with an urge to protect it, or act on its behalf.”

Whether or not beauty will save the world, there is no doubt it wants saving. Ugliness, moral and otherwise, requires an answer, and Tallon points us to “a bloodier but more satisfying beauty.” Speaking for myself, I find it all too easy to maintain dispassion in the face of evil done to others. Often it is only after an encounter with beauty and order, with memory and meaning, with goodness and mercy, that I can get beyond cynicism or resignation or my own selfishness to respond with compassion and empathy and begin to do the good that lies within reach.

In our twenty-first century, stories of suffering still flow into statistical oceans that show no sign of receding. Yet it is still true, as William Langland’s Piers Plowman saw in the fourteenth century, that “All the wickedness in this world that man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea.” And we still have hope that the Spirit of God moves over the face of the waters.  

Peter L. Edman is associate editor of the University Bookman and an editor with the Restoration Ministry unit at American Bible Society.