Look Out Below

Demons are seldom what you think they are.  Bernard J. Bamberger’s Fallen Angels: Soldiers of Satan’s Realm isn’t so much about demons as it is about, well, fallen angels.  A classic in the field, it was published in 1952 and has been periodically reissued when interest revives.  There are many aspects of this book that deserve development in a place like this blog, but I need to suffice with a few.  I won’t take much of your time, I promise.

First and foremost, Bamberger, who was a prominent rabbi, presents the seldom heard Jewish perspective on the topic.  The Devil really had more explanatory value for Christians than for Jews, and it is no surprise that he appears rather abruptly in the New Testament.  There are, of course, plenty of antecedents for him both in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, but the idea, and character, grabbed his main hoof-hold in Christianity.  This dualism has periodically been a source of embarrassment, but in general it has served the Christian narrative well.  We seldom see the Jewish outlook on it.

A second noteworthy feature of this book is its wide survey of these ideas in both what is now termed Second Temple Judaism and that of Late Antiquity.  The fallen angels seem to be there in the Good Book, but close reading of the texts suggests other meanings.  Judaism has never felt the compulsion that many Christians feel toward having the one, correct outlook.  Spend a little time with the Talmud and see how dialogical the search for the truth can be.  With no Pope or supreme human authority to declare the rightness of one outlook, the search must remain a process of discussion rather than an ex cathedra pronouncement.

A third, and for now final, observation is the sheer number of characters that pick up the baton of evil in both early Judaism and Christianity.  Even Islam.  A bewildering number of names for lead fallen angels and other demonically sourced characters populate these pages.  Since Judaism tended not to buy the fallen angel narrative, other sources for demons were considered.  Few doubted that they existed in the early days, but whence exactly they came was an open question.  Bamberger explores the options here and, beyond his book many others also exist.  That evil exists in the world seems patently obvious.  Religions of all stripes ask what’s to be done about it.  Some delve into its origin myths.  In the end, however, it is how we choose to respond that matters most. 

If It Itches

The problem, or rather a problem, of growing up Fundamentalist is taking things literally.  I suppose we’re all born naive realists, learning only later that things aren’t what they seem.  One of the dynamics of finding something new to say about demons involves an unconventional method of research.  Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted is a case in point.  Being part of a series called “Theology for the People,” this book is not an exploration of literal demons or the Devil.  Well, it kinda is and kinda isn’t.  It is an engaging and often insightful treatment of the question of evil and what to do about it.  Evil is a question, but most of us, at least pre-Trump, could recognize it when we saw it.

Beck is a professor of psychology.  This meant that at several points I found myself pausing to consider some of the points he was making.  Some parts didn’t work for me—welcome to the world of reading—but others were eye-opening.  One thing that all books about the Devil seem to have in common is the observation that evil is clearly present in our world.  Governments, and Beck uses Rome as an example, easily become oppressive and harmful to the weak and powerless.  As a volunteer in a prison ministry, Beck knows whereof he speaks.  When governments are run by the unstable (think of the one with a toothbrush mustache or any other who declare themselves geniuses) oppression follows.  Evil not only bobs in the wake of oppression, it is oppression.  Beck has a Christian anchoring—call it theology—behind this, but it clearly works even without that.

Getting over my literalism, I know that academic books about demons or the Devil come with more serious titles and more hefty price-tags.  The value of a book, however, has to do with more than the cash you shell out for it.  Beck does a service by offering a theology that isn’t too theological.  I’ve known many candidates for the ministry who lost their compassion by getting tangled in the weeds of theology.  Even to the point of making sarcastic remarks to someone who wanted to help them when they fell on the ice.  I know myself, and I have to learn to trust those who practice theology in ways that I do not.  This may not be conventional research, but it is important reading.  Old Scratch, after all, is not just in the details.

Long Journey

Although it may be only a venial sin, overwriting is nevertheless an offense.  As a professor I read many papers from students who had great difficulty clarifying what they were thinking only to disguise it with too many words.  I have finally finished Andrea Perron’s House of Darkness, House of Light.  Because academics too often dismiss personal testimony, I feel compelled to consider it.  Now over 1,300 pages later, I have discharged my duty.  Ed and Lorraine Warren, despite being famous, are difficult to assess in book form.  Yes, they (ghost-)wrote ten books, but they never had permission to include the Perron story that stands behind The Conjuring.  The eldest daughter took on the task herself and even seems to be aware of (in the acknowledgements) a dubious talent for overwriting.  What the Warrens saw as demons, she sees as ghosts.  Who has the right to decide?

I wish the author well in her writing career—those of us who write tend to be natural boosters of others—but it would’ve been nice to have had a more condensed version focusing on the events in the Harrisville house.  One interesting thing caught my attention here: according to Perron the Warrens called by phone after the Perrons moved from the offending house and tried to talk Carolyn, the mother, into a book deal.  Offering a healthy income from the proposition, they gave a hint of what other writers have claimed—they had the business angle firmly in mind.  I’ve read enough from people who actually knew the Warrens to believe they sincerely believed they were helping people.  They also had to make a living, and ghost stories tend to sell well.  Some use that as evidence that they were only trying to make money.  I’d remove the only, without dismissing the financial incentive.

It’s nearly impossible to read a very long book and feel that you haven’t come to know the author.  Also, it’s difficult to dismiss material written, even if overwritten, so sincerely.  We live in a world that we don’t understand nearly as well as we think we do.  Call it old school on my part, but I believe in extending the benefit of the doubt to eyewitnesses, particularly when there are several of them and they have a decade to observe closely what many others never get a chance to see.  This set of three books is a window into a realm over which the drapes are usually drawn.  For those willing to do some hard mining, there’s something of value here.

How Many, Now?

One thing you can say for the Bible—it’s been interpreted six ways to Sunday.  This point was brought home to me in reading Michael Willett Newheart’s “My Name Is Legion”: The Story and Soul of the Gerasene Demoniac.  Part of the Interfaces series, now apparently defunct, it takes an unusual biblical character and explores it.  Them, in this case.  The story of the Gerasene or Gadarene demoniac is one of the more famous episodes in the Synoptic Gospels.  Jesus and the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee and the possessed man runs out at them.  He has superhuman strength, and he lives among the tombs.  Jesus asks the man, or the demon, its name only to receive the reply “Legion.”  He then casts the demons into a herd of swine that drown themselves in the lake.

Newheart approaches the story creatively, first by considering the Gospel of Mark as a book, and then treating his version of the story via narrative criticism.  This was pretty good, and I learned quite a bit from his analysis.  The book then moves on to psychological criticism.  I have to admit that this approach is one I haven’t ever used and, like many reader-response methods, it can seem somewhat arbitrary.  That’s not to suggest it shouldn’t be utilized, but rather to note that results could be uneven.  Your psyche’s not my psyche, savvy?  Subjective approaches may be all that we really have when considering an ancient text, but I always tend to look at things historically.

This book caught my attention because I’m researching demons.  You can’t really ignore a book with this title if you’re trying to figure out how the New Testament looks at them.  In any case, the historical method seems to me the only way we can really engage the question of what the ancients thought demons were.  I don’t want to say too much or you won’t have any reason to buy my next book.  (That’s a joke, by the way, before anyone suggests I’m exploiting my readers.)  Newheart doesn’t really raise the question of what demons are.  He does briefly mention The Exorcist, but it isn’t his main interest.  The character of Legion, however, is difficult to place if we can’t really say what demons are.  I did find the allusion to the Roman occupancy to be worthy of consideration.  The demoniac, however, may have begged to differ.  It couldn’t have been easy being an unnamed character in the Good Book.  And demons are often not what they seem.

Yes or No

Reading about demonic possession is enough to scare you away from ever using a ouija board.  In fact, I’ve never played with one; growing up my strict religion would’ve prevented it in any case, and already as a child I’d been warned of the dangers.  During my research for Nightmares with the Bible, I’ve been reading quite a bit about ouija.  Originally a species of divination, the ouija, or spirit board, became popular during the growth of Spiritualism.  Spiritualism is a religion based on the idea that the dead still communicate with the living, ensuring believers that life continues beyond death.  It still exists, but not with the numbers that it boasted in the early days.  Among the solemn admonitions of Ed and Lorraine Warren (about whom I’ve posted much in recent months) was that ouija boards opened doorways for demonic entities.  Some of their stories are quite scary.

Image credit: Mijail0711, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever else you can say about America, a fact beyond dispute is that if something can make a buck it will be marketed and sold.  So it was with ouija boards in the 1970s.  I remember seeing them on the shelf with other games at local department stores.  Even then I knew they weren’t a toy and I wondered how anyone could be promoting them for general consumption.  At Grove City College—that bastion of undergraduate conservatism—stories circulated about how students (usually coeds) were attacked in their locked rooms after playing with ouija boards.  This is, I was later to learn, a staple of collegiate urban legends.  At the time, however, I took it very seriously.  

Thus it’s strange when I find out that others my age were more curious about them.  Recently at a party with friends around Valentine’s Day, the question naturally came up of how some of us met our spouses.  One of the women mentioned that before she’d met or even heard of her future husband (who has an unusual surname) a ouija board spelled out his name.  She later met and married him, not on the board’s recommendation, but she remembered that years before she’d been given a hint.  Now these friends are not cheats and liars—they’re not even Republicans.  They’re people we trust.  On our drive home that night my wife mentioned she’d used a ouija board once, with friends, back in her high school years.  She asked the name of her spouse (long before we met) and came up with Sam.  I’m no Sam, but when we first met in grad school I was still going by my stepfather’s surname and my initials were S-A-M.  Coincidence?  Probably.  My future wife did not pursue me; indeed, it was the other way around.  Even so, there in the dark on the nighttime highway I felt a familiar frisson from childhood concerning a form of divination that seems to know more than it should.

The Desert

Now, I’m fairly certain Athanasius of Alexandria didn’t have access to CreateSpace, or even an Amazon Prime account.  He did write the classic Life of Antony (or Anthony), which I took the opportunity to read recently.  I’m not going to go into this life with great detail—Athanasius does that, in as far as he can—but the reading of this book raised the perils not only of demons but of easy self-publication.  As usual, there’s a story behind it.  Antony was famous for being an early monk who fought demons so effectively that they feared him.  His story wasn’t written in English, seeing that the language had not yet evolved.  When I tried to find an affordable copy that I could access quickly, I found the edition pictured here.  It was fairly obviously a conversion, likely from a PDF (based on my own so doing, in the line of duty).  A minimal cover was applied and it was offered cheaply on said Amazon (with free shipping).

Those who work in publishing know how to spot a print-on-demand title.  That means the book is printed when it’s ordered, or, printed a few copies at a time so that the overhead of offset printing (how books were traditionally made) can be avoided.  Self-publishers can name themselves a press—this one Beloved Publishing—and anything in the public domain can be reproduced and sold to rubes like me.  When a scholar, erstwhile or while, approaches a book s/he wants to know certain facts about it.  Who was the translator?  What was the original language?  When was it written?  Who was (in this case) Athanasius?  Some of this I knew simply by dint of studying ancient texts for most of my adult life and having attended and taught in seminaries.  Still, an introduction of some sort would have been appreciated.

This edition appealed to me because the Life on Antony is a short book.  Most mainstream publishers bulk books like these up with hefty introductions and notes and charge four times as much for it.  They usually put in other works too, since this one weighs in at less than a hundred pages, even with loose typesetting.  Sometimes you just want the contents, with minimal introduction.  So let it be with Antony.  Or so I thought.  This edition, which has a few quirks, contained Athanasius in English, which is what I needed.  The translator remains unknown.  It is print-on-demand.  It is also affordable.  In case any readers of this blog wonder why I sometimes tend not to engage with the contents of the books I review, I would point out that this is what my own books are for.   A guy has to try to make a buck somehow, now and again.  (Antony forgive me!) 

Troubled Trilogy

The quest for the truth is never-ending.  New information keeps emerging and our poor brains have evolved to survive the perils of weather and wild animals, not to receive all available information.  It’s the fear that I might’ve missed something that has me going back to a place I’d rather not go.  Andrea Perron’s account of what happened in Harrisville, Rhode Island is the only real published source by eyewitnesses that’s readily available.  Her three-book account, however, is a deeply personal ramble that isn’t easy for the fact-finder to follow.  A couple of months ago I posted on volume one, intimating that I would probably have to go back and read two and three.  There’s a compunction about completion that humans have.  An economist once told me not to measure a venture by sunk funds.  The same applies to books, I guess.

In my ongoing research into demons, and particularly the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren, I felt I had to continue with the troubled trilogy.  Volume one barely mentioned the Warrens.  Volume two finally revealed some of the story.  It took 260 pages to get there, but finally, an eyewitness account!  It has plenty of gaps, of course, but it is, as they say, different from the movie.  You have to understand that a certain sector of the internet was buzzing like flies in January over The Conjuring.  Based on a true story, it was a sympathetic treatment of the Warrens’ work that it was hoped would give credibility to the demon-hunting duo.

House of Darkness, House of Light in total is well over a thousand pages long.  I know, I know—“caveat emptor.”  Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that long books owe it to their readers to deliver on the promises.  I want my haunted house books to be scary.  Or at least moody with a gothic sensibility.  I do understand the desire—the compunction—to approach life philosophically.  Were I ever to put my life out there on display, beyond the occasional forays on this blog, I would hope to do it in a way that left readers wanting more, not less.  Biography is a dicey subject.  Autobiography even more so.  The traditional publisher steps in with an editor firmly in hand.  I know because I’ve been doing this for about a decade now.  The writer and the editor, like the farmer and the cowman, should be friends.  It’s tough, painful even, when someone takes a pen to what you’ve carefully crafted.  The results, when they work, give the reader what s/he wants.  The quest may indeed be never-ending.  At least trilogies have only three parts.