The National Catholic Review
Look beyond surface to find authentic joy

In the Roman Catholic rite for the baptism of adults, as well as in the ritual for the renewal of baptismal promises, a striking question confronts us: “Do you reject the glamour of evil?”

The question, in a parallel with the rejection of Satan, has ancient roots in early baptismal practices. It is a rare case in which even the most staid and proper of modern Christians participates in what we might call an exorcism. It is a rare case in which the church expects even comfortable, bourgeois Christians to renounce the culture that continues to clothe them, even though their original baptism already proclaimed the stripping of old ways. Indeed, it is a rare case in which the church takes up the topic of glamour at all.

Yet few seem to notice the phrase. A search of the most exhaustive electronic database of journals dedicated to religion and theology yields scarcely a dozen hits in which the expression“glamour of evil” appears. Nearly all the articles that reflect at length on the phrase’s import come from publications in Africa. These explore how the church on that continent might adapt the renunciation section of the baptismal rituals in order to “inculturate” Roman liturgies more fully in an African context, which includes lively belief in a very real spirit world. In Africa, Christian salvation can hardly be complete if it does not liberate new believers from evil spirits.

I wonder, though, whether Christians in America, Europe and the urban metropolises of rapidly globalizing capitalism do not need liberation from the glamour of evil just as much, if not more.

The Attraction of Evil

Do not get me wrong. I do not believe that glamour per se is evil, nor that everything glamorous is evil. Suspect, maybe, but not necessarily—not automatically—evil. The problem with glamour is that it is surface. It is the shiny patina, the thin veneer that makes something appear good and beautiful, whether or not it actually is. Yes, that which truly is good may shimmer with a glamorous sheen. Beauty of skin can go deeper than skin deep, continuing down to the marrow. But here is the catch: That which is truly good or authentically beautiful does not need the shimmer of glamour to attract. Evil does.

The deeply and truly good can project its beauty in earthen tones or bold ones. Its surface can be glossy but can also be matte. Its light may occasionally reach our eyes in the pure color of neon, but more often in subtle chiaroscuro. Or it can continue long without attracting notice at all. For the good is self-confident. It is intrinsic. Like the grain of solid hardwood, and unlike veneer, its pattern runs with infinite variability yet utter consistency all the way down. It is authentic. And so, quietly, without fanfare and without pretense, the good is capable of drawing us into relationship.

If we peered into the heart of evil and falsehood, we would be repulsed. Seeing it for what it is, we would naturally, instinctively, move away. The desire it evokes is, in fact, an anti-desire, a desire for distance rather than union—unless it distracts or deceives. That is why evil needs glamour in a way that the good does not.

So often, after all, evil does seem attractive. Literature about good people leading virtuous lives is hard to write. Some people joke—or perhaps they are serious—that they would prefer to go to hell and hang out with the interesting characters of history rather than to experience the infinite boredom of heaven.

If these people are reacting to the self-righteousness of those who are smugly and boringly pious, then it is hard to disagree. They are in fact seeing through another veneer of glamour—religious glamour—now worn thin. This is the falsehood of believers who try to project goodness while avoiding the hard interior work of allowing God’s goodness to purge and forgive them in secret. Along with Dante and C. S. Lewis and, I presume, Jesus, I suspect that the greater population of hell will be boring and petty in just this way. Whether its inhabitants are the many self-righteous or the few horrific criminals, their punishment will, I suspect, be to have their innards revealed as dull to the core because of a lifetime of willful neglect.

Of course I am drawing a stark contrast in order to make a point. A properly Christian and orthodox worldview sees evil as a nothing, not a something. Evil, according to Augustine and Aquinas, is wholly parasitic on the good. I thus speak starkly of “the good” and “the evil” here but do not draw a stark contrast between “good people” and “evil people.” Evil people must still enjoy dignity and goodness in some way in order to exist and function at all. And good people, in order to solidify their virtue, must be ever keen to ferret out their remaining dark corners of self-deception—ever quick to cry out for God’s grace. To name these complexities simply fills out further our picture of why evil needs glamour in a way that good never does.

Consider the celebrities who catch our eye on magazine covers as we go through the checkout lanes in grocery stores. None could rise to such prominence without exercising real God-given talents. Their acting abilities, their athleticism, their musicality, their business acumen—even the marketing finesse that accentuates their glamour in order to catch our eyes—these are goods. And often the best of celebrities are truly generous and caring people.

But would we really want to hang out with most of those on magazine covers as close friends? Be careful: this is a trick question. “Hang out,” probably, because we would like to bask in their celebrity glamour for a while, perhaps taking in the perks of a stimulating party life and then carrying home an autograph or memento. But all that is the continuing allure of glamour.

My question is whether we would want to spend time as close friends with those concerned first with maintaining their image. Close friendship implies something deeper: the reliable intimacy of abiding, trustworthy relationship, with the promise that our friends will hold our best secrets with confidence and meet our worst faults with compassion. If we actually buy one of those magazines, delve deeper into the pages and reflect on the stories, we may not be so sure about the answer. So often we will find stories of betrayal, pettiness, infidelity, jealousy or a loneliness or insecurity from which fame and wealth were supposed to insulate. Would these really be the intimate friends upon whom we would want to rely?

I would never want to deny that underneath some glamour lies authentic good. But I do think we may confidently say this: The more a person (or a culture) pursues surface beauty, shimmering glamour or magazine-cover prominence as ends in themselves, the less reliable will be that person’s hidden qualities.

Fame is not known as a condition that makes it easier for people to be better, kinder, more compassionate or deeper human beings. Ah, but does it make someone happier? That, I suspect, is the rub. That is the temptation. It is why so many pursue glamour. Who needs to be a deeper person if fame and wealth and attention are bringing the pleasures we assume will come with them? Who needs to be kind when fawned over by everyone? All things being equal, sure, I guess I would like to be a “better” person, but all things are not equal. Becoming better takes work. It might even require suffering. The people Christians hold up as the best—the saints—sometimes got there through martyrdom. “No thanks!” we say.

One could pursue a parallel line of inquiry about the difference between superficial pleasures and deep happiness or authentic joy. The confusion of happiness with pleasure surely reinforces our culture’s confused infatuation with glamour as the key to happiness. But I actually do want to defend pleasure—at least the exquisite though subtle and subdued pleasures that one can discover only by rejecting the glamour of evil.

Appearance Over Substance

If a social diatribe were a sufficient response to the glamour of evil, one could lament many more examples of our culture’s preference for appearance over substance. Increasingly, it seems that advertising has come to evoke ephemeral style over the actual qualities of products; politicians fast-track their candidacies through grandstanding rather than through accomplishments at actually governing; recreation is indoors, two-dimensional and virtual rather than three-dimensional and engaged with the real world of woods and neighborhood; the tenuous commitment of cohabitation replaces the lifelong covenant of marriage; “hooking up” takes the place of courtships, and pornography displaces even the slightest intimacy; and young people face incessant pressure to succeed by branding themselves as though they too were products.

Simply to tell a story of cultural decline is itself superficial, however. Nostalgia for the past also tempts us to, yes, glamorize the past. If something is truly new and different about our current situation, it is not that glamour now tempts us but rather that new technologies of media and marketing are perfecting the capacity to project allure and apply patina.

The test of whether cultural critique has integrity is its willingness to scrutinize its own social location. And for me, that location is the academy—or the education-industrial complex, which has a vast capacity to lure. If we are actually to quiet the allure of the glamorous, it can only be by projecting a vision of the authentic good, as well as the deeper but subtler pleasures that attend to the truly good life. But just here, as an educator, I am haunted and somewhat puzzled. How, really, to do this in the classroom?

‘Good Life’ Always Elsewhere

First, the haunting: Of all that I have read over the years about the state of higher education in the United States, nothing has troubled me more than a few sentences in a now 25-year-old essay by Wendell Berry, “The Work of Local Culture.” The essay appears in a book with the slightly jarring title “What Are People Good For?” Anything but technocratic and utilitarian, however, Berry’s implicit answer is that people are supposed to be good for each other.

The work of local culture to which Berry refers is that of storing memories and history and mutual assistance and ongoing patterns of trust, the way soil stores and holds the energy of the past, thus improving the land and making future community sustainable. A living local culture needs a vibrant local economy, though, one in which members across generations offer each other an exchange of useful skills.

For decades, Berry argues, our educational system has been doing the opposite: “The child is not educated to be of use to the place and community; he or she is educated to leave home and earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community.”

The “good life,” in other words, is always someplace else. This is the meta-message of American higher education. It is a message of glamour. More than that, it is the systemization of glamour. If I live in Stearns County, Minn., the good life will be in Minneapolis. If I live in Minneapolis, it will be in Denver or Seattle. If I live in Chicago, then New York. And if I begin to tire of bright lights and a dehumanizing pace in one of those place, I might dream of returning to rural life, but it too often will be a glamorized rural life. Unless…

Finding Authentic Pleasures

In any of these locales, at any turn of hypermodern mobility, joyous authenticity is possible. But this means the farmer must find pleasure not just in crop profits but in the work itself: the smell of the land, the sweat and the tiredness. It means that the urbanite must find pleasure not just in the theater or bar scene but in community organizing, social entrepreneurship and parish life. It means that the community organizer finds pleasure not just in social justice ideals but also in meeting with stubborn neighbors. It means the social entrepreneur finds pleasure in seeing resources and projects fit together for the good of real people. It means parishioners see Christ in each other even when they sing off-key or the homily falls a little flat or the woman or man in the next row is probably voting wrong.

And it means taking time. Taking time does more for resisting the glamour of evil than finding just the right place to do so. As Pope Francis insists, “Time is greater than space.” Instant gratification and quick results are the enemy, whatever one’s locale. Impatience is the wily demon that tempts us to look for a better life elsewhere before we have invested in our towns and neighborhoods. Impatience is the demon who prods young people to hook up rather than court, or young adults to cohabit rather than marry. Impatience distracts married folks even in healthy marriages before they have discovered the subtly exquisite joys that can come only when spouses see each other through inevitable hard times. Impatience values quick profits over quality, turns financial investment into a game of speculation divorced from actual productivity and produces goods without thought of sustainability or environmental costs. Impatience strip-mines.

Ah, but I’m doing it again—critiquing more than envisioning, naming the temptation of fleeting glamorous pleasures rather than portraying the beauty of enduring authentic pleasures. That is the puzzle that follows from Wendell Berry’s haunting warning about our task as educators. Before they leave real places to explore any place, people young and old need time to really know their land and their people and the virtues embedded in their foibles. They need to relish stories of tragedy and comedy that explain how virtue and foible can coexist in ordinary ways that are not so boring after all.

But how do I convey this in the classroom to 19-year-olds itching for adventure or eager to find a career-building job? How do I convey this amid sterile desks using the PowerPoints I need to glamorize my lesson plans enough to compete for my students’ shortened attention spans? How do I convey in an entertaining way—as I am pressured to do—that the constantly entertained life is a ruse?

If the puzzle haunts me, my consolation is that the challenge should be no surprise. That joyous authenticity that is the opposite of the glamour of evil must be comfortably indifferent to its entertainment value. Indeed, it must often be outright self-effacing. So of course: That which is self-effacing is the most difficult and elusive to teach.

Except by living it out, unglamourously.

Gerald W. Schlabach is a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn., and the lead author and editor of "Just Policing, Not War"(Liturgical Press).


Cathy Stepanek | 2/10/2016 - 12:19pm

Sex is alluring. It can be a temptation or a gift. But is it evil? It depends. In the "Glamour of Evil" the photo of a glamorous women in a revealing red dress is unimaginative in its depiction of real evil. Why can't we get past the Plutonian dichotomy between spirit and matter, or Paul's spirit and sarx. After all, modern physics suggests that spirit and matter are just a vibrational continuum of energy.
Why not show a more subtle image of evil. Perhaps a man in a tuxedo standing in his garage trying to decide which of his collection of Porche's he wants to take out for the evening? Is excessive wealth evil? It depends.
Why is a woman always the "fall guy"? Poor Eve. Bring out the burkas.
Real evil is much more subtle.

Lisa Weber | 2/4/2016 - 6:38pm

I have always found the phrase "the glamour of evil" thought-provoking. Perhaps evil has glamour primarily when it is compared to virtue presented as the qualities of being self-righteous, humorless, sexless and boring.

The picture with the article illustrates the glamour of evil with a woman wearing a revealing dress and holding a glass of wine, so there should be a comparable picture illustrating "joyous authenticity." Would it be a woman with a scarf covering all of her hair, no make-up, a plain turtleneck with a cardigan, a long gathered skirt and sensible shoes? That kind of illustration would make the point that virtue is mostly a lack of temptation. Trying to choose an illustration for "joyous authenticity" would provoke an interesting discussion at least.

William Rydberg | 2/2/2016 - 1:28pm

This is a challenging, thoughtful article and I enjoyed reading it..

In my opinion, the author in part may be over complicating because if you treat "glamour" as a noun and search for the definition you will get: "the attractive or exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing or special."

This reality is doubly hard to convey when one works in North American Schools of today, where being whole and "whole" and "independent", etc.. are watchwords of the day. Leaving them to learn on their own, that life is difficult and that there are consequences. But that's why we pray for each other! And why Jesus-God come in the flesh died for us!

Someone no less famous than the Apostle Paul made it clear that due to concupiscence (another word for "glamour"-or 90% of the intent of the phrase, in my opinion), we are all slaves. Either to God or the devil. Our fallen Nature can do nothing else, without much great effort, and God's undeserved Grace*, because we are contingent beings. We seek the good, but settling for what for a time, seems good, can be the enemy of the BEST and an impediment to a right relationship with the Holy Trinity.

Sounds dualistic doesn't it. It's not. Because evil at its base is a privation of what God created good. For God is the one and only Creator-out of nothing.

Which is why the Good News is so unexcelled, for the Christian Revelation taught to us by Jesus-God come in the flesh is that as an undeserved reward, we will in the end, God willing, be fully, incorporated in Christ, the one Divine Nature, the inner life of the God of Israel, the Holy Trinity- the One God. (We don't all flow in to God, for it is a truth of the faith that the Glory of God is Man fully alive-likely the reason St Paul talks of "..what no eye has seen, nor ear has heard, is waiting in heaven...").

Finally, I don't want to oversimplify, because its also an article of Faith that the Devil exists, and he/she takes the fact that we human beings will participate in the Divine Nature negatively and jealously. Read about this in the Catechism (see the footnotes). The mystery of evil is just that, a mystery to us human beings, but not to the Trinity. Who knows all things...

It's real, and it's all Good News, in Christ...

* No time to get in to it here, but the Catholic understanding of Grace is meant here.

IGNACIO SILVA | 1/31/2016 - 2:45pm

Oh yes, it's the woman's fault - Eve, Bathsheba (featured early this week in the daily liturgy). Phew.

KATHERIN MARSH | 1/29/2016 - 1:48pm

Great article. But the accompanying photo is an insult. You seem to be portraying temptation with a picture of a "glammed" up woman. What a tired, worn out, uninspiring cliche.

GERALD SCHLABACH DR | 2/2/2016 - 6:35pm

Thank you for giving the article itself a chance. Critique of the photo choice seems fair to me. Of course that is easy for me to say because I as author had nothing to do with the graphics.

Recently by Gerald W. Schlabach

Signs of That Peace (December 11, 2014)
What Will You Take Up? (February 20, 2012)
Just Policing, Not War (July 7, 2003)