The thing about the Devil is that evil is no laughing matter. Darren Oldridge had no easy task limiting the dark lord to The Devil: A Very Short Introduction. He nevertheless does an admirable job packing lots of provocative stuff into a small package. The historian of religion part of me found his short history of Satan in chapter 2 a compelling synthesis of the character’s background. Longer sources get tangled in theological weeds once the New Testament’s over, what with erstwhile saints being recast as heretics over some minute point of doctrine. Lots of ideas about the Devil were floating around in those days, even as they are today. A particularly important point, however, is made early in this book: even during the Enlightenment most intellectuals—including scientists—assumed the reality of the spiritual world. It was only when materialism alone came to reign that there could be no Devil because there could be no spirits.
A vast disconnect continues to exist between “public intellectuals” and hoi polloi. The vast majority of people in the world are religious. Even in, especially in, the United States a great number of people believe in the Devil. Many of those same people can’t recognize political evil when it stands naked before them. Here’s the irony of it all: Oldridge discusses how an evil system, let’s say Nazism, blinded many otherwise decent people to the evil they were asked to perform. Rhetoric that demonized the other, when dispersed over large crowds, has historically had that effect. Today we see “Christians” claiming that a social system of helping those in need is of the Devil. The greatest weapon of the prince of darkness is the sincerely believed lie.
Lies have always been associated with the Devil. When the number of untruths coming from the White House has broken the very meter for measuring lies, those who claim the name of the crucified man who advocated care for the poor shout all the more loudly. Not at the lies, but at those who don’t accept them. Historically, the reign of facts has kept some checks on the Devil. Even Jesus accused Herod of watching Fox—or was it being a fox?—too bad there are no facts to check. Oldridge doesn’t tip his hand as to whether there is an actual Devil or not. Society has, however, no trouble making up its mind. All they need to do is turn on the television.