Some of us prefer taking our monsters neat. With Old Scratch, however, we have a slippery, protean beast. This is amply demonstrated in W. Scott Poole’s Satan in America: The Devil We Know. Not only the Devil, but vampires, demons, and the human minions known as Satanists and witches populate this study of American culture. The Dark Lord is difficult to pin down. This is true even concerning his obscure biblical origins. As I’ve noted before, there is no Devil in the Hebrew Bible. By the time of the Gospels he’s alive and well and on planet earth. Or at least what passed for planet earth in those days. Tempter, father of lies, prince of the power of the air—he was a pretty ambitious fellow, seeking like a lion those he might devour. Those were early days, however, and Poole focuses specifically on his development in American culture. It is, as he shows, a rich culture indeed.
Beginning with the colonial era, with the Matherses, Jonathan Edwards, and their ilk, and bringing the figure up through fairly contemporary times, Poole shows us how the Devil defines America, in many ways. Please don’t misunderstand; Poole does not say America is evil or Satanic, only that our culture has had an undying fascination with Satan. Not everyone agrees, of course, with who he is or how to interpret him. Although theologians have largely left the Devil in the dust, polls tend to show about half of the American population believes in the Beast (yet another character in the mixed martini of evil Poole serves up), or more properly, Satan. It really might help to have a diabolical score card here: is the Antichrist the Devil? Is he the same as the Beast? What about demons? As a child I was taught there is only one Devil, but lots and lots of demons. Legions of them, in fact. There can be only one morning star, one Lucifer.
One thing we can say for certain about Satan, at least in the context of Poole’s study, is that he is evil. Not that some haven’t had sympathy for him. Popular culture has helped to keep the character alive. Sometimes comically, sometimes with dead seriousness, novelists, cartoonists, film-makers, and playwrights come time and time again to the font of the inexplicable evil we all seem to sense, in some sense, exists. The evidence is all around us. Whether conceived as an external agent of supernatural origin, or as some inborn tendency for—at least some—committing atrocity, we do have to explain evil. Satan has been a convenient way of doing so for centuries. But, as Poole intimates, it might be a defense mechanism. Perhaps we need to take a closer look at ourselves. Perhaps trumping our exceptionalism in the face of a world in need is a symptom that requires a serious exorcism.