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Book Corner April 2010

On Evil
by Terry Eagleton.  New Haven:  Yale University Press.  2010   Pp. 176

Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl


In recent preaching classes, students have been struggling with the Lucan text on Jesus healing the demoniac possessed with a ‘Legion’ of demons.  Why these struggles?  It is apparent to us all in our discussions that there are a wide range of views on the nature of evil is, its relationship to sin and the ways contemporary people understand evil.  While the culture manifests its interests in evil through films such as “The Exorcist” or “Fallen,” the pew-sitters and preachers are waging their own interpretive wars around the topic of evil.

Eagleton’s work is a delight to read because of the lucidity of both his prose and his thinking.  He is a professor literature and cultural theory at three different universities in Great Britain and the United States.  Given his interests, the work draws on a cross-disciplinary approach which uses literature and political and social theory.  The introduction to the work describes it as addressing evil as “a real phenomenon with palpable force in our contemporary world.”  (Cover).

The various ideas about evil are sorted out across three major chapters:  “1.  Fictions of Evil; 2.  Obscene Enjoyment and 3.  Job’s Comforters.”  Eagleton’s argument in this book is:  “that evil is not fundamentally mysterious, even though it transcends everyday social conditioning.  Evil as I see it is indeed metaphysical, in the sense that it takes up an attitude toward being as such, not just toward this or that bit of it.  Fundamentally, it wants to annihilate the lot of it. But this is not to suggest that it is necessarily supernatural, or that is lacks all human causality.” (16)  This statement alone is laden with signals of upcoming discussions Eagleton hosts on the topic of evil.

Eagleton’s various vantage points on discussing evil include  Shakespeare’s witches, novels, alcoholism, the Holocaust, psychoanalysis and religion.  One statement I found particularly telling:  “The modern age has witnessed what one might call a transition from the soul to the psyche.  Or, if one prefers, from theology to psychoanalysis….Both are narratives of human desire—though for religious faith that desire can finally consummated in the kingdom of God, whereas for psychoanalysis it must remain tragically unappeased.” (17)

Eagleton’s many memorable quotes offer various definitions of evil throughout this work.  One of my favorites is:  “Evil is a kind of cosmic sulking.” (117)  This work should be read by anyone who takes to the pulpit and seriously wishes to delve into the nature of evil. Eagleton offers more than enough materials to prompt further reading and reflection on the reality that inhibits, inhabits and taunts us all.