Mephistopheles

Jeffrey Burton Russell is one of the clearest thinkers I’ve ever read.  I first encountered him in my background reading for Holy Horror, and have subsequently tracked down his books on the history of evil.  In what is a dangerous move for a scholar, Russell admits in The Devil that he believes in some kind of personified evil.  Except for religion scholars employed in seminaries, such thoughts are generally kept carefully guarded as academia has followed the materialist paradigm since it boldly declared that there’s no other way to know the world.  Russell’s intellect penetrates through that posturing and logically lays out what can or can’t be known based on empirical evidence.  And in Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World, he concludes his historical sweep of an idea as old as civilization itself.

This is a wide-ranging book.  The previous three covered long periods as well: antiquity through the Hebrew Bible, New Testament through late antiquity, and the Medieval Period.  Mephistopheles has to cover from the Reformation through the present of the latter 20th century (when it was written).  Finding evil in the modern world is arguably way too easy.  Since 2016 it has become more fashionable to the point that an entire political party can laud it.  Russell writes with the strong conviction that love and the will to goodness can overcome the tendencies of humans to allow hatred, fear, and prejudice to rule.  What seems to be lacking, some three decades on, is the will.  We have given in to our cynicism and elected the worst of our inclinations.

In William Friedkin’s documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, Russell, looking depressed, is interviewed about the reality of demons.  His advice is to look for the good instead.  Nevertheless, having spent years of his life researching how evil appears and reappears, his own fascination demonstrates why we return to the subject time and again.  The world hasn’t righted itself.  His books indicate that there is a way, but we continue to ignore that way, preferring instead to follow the loudest of mouths rather than the warmest of hearts.  Some would personify this into Mephistopheles, the modern, entertaining aspect of the Devil.  Others would claim it’s merely a metaphor.  No matter which may be the case there’s no denying that evil exists.  And if it exists it behooves us to know about it.  And once we learn its identity we must name it.

Bearing Light

Jeffrey Burton Russell knows a devil of a lot about the Devil. I’ve just finished the third of his five books on the subject, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, and I certainly learned a thing or two. As someone who considers himself an historian of religion, being exposed to a concept over several volumes has a way of making me feel humble. The theme of this series, at least so far, is that the Devil is a conceptual way of dealing with evil in the world. In the days of polytheism a single source of evil wasn’t needed, but no matter how you slice it, monotheism implicates God in the fact of evil in the world. The Devil is one way to try to lift some of that burden from the divine shoulders.

Lucifer is an interesting installment because ideas of the diabolical really took off in the Middle Ages. Russell’s previous volume, Satan, became heavily theological and there’s a bit of that here as well. While there’s no doubt some average people in the Dark Ages tried to figure out where Devil came from, the officials sponsored by the church were those whose ideas were written down and preserved. Those ideas, unsurprisingly, were theological and complex. Scholasticism, which began in the Middle Ages, launched what was to become known as systematic theology in the modern era. Among the many topics with which it concerned itself was the Devil, and evil. Ranks of angels, both fallen and un, peopled the atmosphere. Galileo’s perspective would eventually change this cosmology by making it both simpler and more complex at the same time. Lucifer, however, still survives.

One of the stranger developments of the Devil in this time period is as a form of light relief. The idea of plays (which had been around since classical times) also took off in the Medieval Period. In these plays Lucifer and his demons often took on a comical cast. Even when the tone was serious (and what morality play isn’t?) the Devil could be used for laughs. An incredibly rich mythology had been adopted by the church at the time—think Star Wars with more religious characters—that assured the laity that Satan’s doom was sure. Besides, we like to make fun of the things we fear. Think Washington, DC. Now that I’m halfway through Russell’s oeuvre on the subject, I’m curious where his next volume will go. No matter how much you think you might understand evil, as we’re daily finding out, there’s always so much more to learn.

Devil of the Time

There can be little doubt that evil prospers. We’ve suffered through a year of an evil administration and we’ve seen the government increase the suffering of its own people in deference to the wealthy. And ours is only a mild case of evil. Jeffrey Burton Russell, over the course of some years, wrote three sequential books about evil. The first, The Devil, I reviewed last year. Having just finished the second, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, it has to be said that the concept definitely evolves. The period between the New Testament and the fifth century was a rich one for diabolism. The writers of this period became increasingly theological in their efforts to make sense of what is obviously an unjust situation created by a theologically good God. These were inventive writers, if somehow less than convincing.

Russell is a careful explainer. He summarizes the views of the “church fathers,” pointing out where their logic fails. This isn’t some liberal trying to dis the Devil, however. Russell acknowledges that he believes a Devil of some kind must exist. Reason, however, must also be applied. It’s difficult to believe that people in the early Christian centuries were willing to take such leaps of logic. Of course, they didn’t have many options for opting out. God was the great explanation for so much of their world. Fitting an all-powerful deity into logic when there’s abundant suffering in the world requires a certain flair for casuistry. No matter how the equations work out, an all-powerful God can’t be all good, not in this universe. Speculation about the Devil, or Satan, ran logic through its courses. Who was this being, and how did he get to be the way he is?

The theologians argued without any glint of irony. This was serious stuff. The Bible, famously, has little to say on the matter. Early thinkers such as Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine had volumes to say on the subject. None of them came up with a workable solution. Logic and the Devil just don’t fit. Theology is always a struggle since it deals with intangibles. Laws of logic sometimes simply don’t apply. If the feeble human imagination can conjure a good world without needless suffering, one has to wonder, why can’t an almighty deity do the same? Is this a god of limited imagination or, as the classic theological chestnut puts it, one who sees more than humans do? You can ask, but you won’t receive an answer. The Devil, it seems, really is in the details.

2017 in Books

At the end of each year I think back over the books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Since I don’t blog about every single book, I use Goodreads to keep track of my numbers. I pushed my reading challenge at that site to 105 books for last year, and the meter stopped at 111. In 2018 I’m planning on reading some bigger books, so I’ll scale the numbers back a bit, I think. In any case, what were the most memorable books of 2017? It’s perhaps best to divide these up into categories since the number of books has become unwieldy. I’ve written a book about horror movies, and much of this year’s reading has been in support of that. Since my book addresses, among other things, possession movies, I’ve read several tomes on the topic. Noteworthy among them have been the three books by Felicitas D. Goodman that I read over the year. J. H. Chajes’ Between Worlds was exceptional, and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil, was likely the overall best on the topic. Also noteworthy for purposes of my book research were Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic and Monstrous Progeny by Lester Friedman and Allison Kavey.

For books on religion, Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy was an important start. Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture and James William Jones’ Can Science Explain Religion? addressed aspects of the topic that will continue to bear further exploration. God’s Strange Work by David L. Rowe and American Apocalypse by Matthew Avery Sutton stand out in my mind as a memorable treatments of William Miller, and of understanding American religion respectively. Chris Hedges’ American Fascists is remarkably urgent and should be read widely, especially since he has shown where current political posturing will lead if it’s not stopped cold. We will be struggling against a situation like Nazi Germany for many decades to come, and forewarned is forearmed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Much of the fiction I read was excellent. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, Robert Repino’s D’Arc, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, and Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes all stayed with me long after I read them. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Some non-fiction read just as engagingly. The autobiographies by Carly Simon and Bruce Springsteen were deeply engrossing. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleneben and John Moe’s Dear Luke, We Need to Talk were great guilty pleasure reads along with Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, W. Scott Poole’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Mathias Clasen’s Why Horror Seduces. The latter title brings us full circle. I suspect that’s appropriate for rounding out a year. Many of the other books were also quite good; I tend to rate books favorably. Read the revolution—make 2018 a memorable year with books!

Devil of a Time

thedevilOne might be excused for thinking so much about the Devil these days. Displays of lies and evil intentions are on pretty obvious display at the highest levels. Indeed, the current political situation has me reassessing my skepticism about the Antichrist. One of the truly well thought out books on the subject is Jeffrey Burton Russell’s classic, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. The first in a series of books Russell wrote on the topic, The Devil opens with evil. Noting that the Devil defies easy definition, Russell begins rather disturbingly with literary descriptions of acts that can only be described as evil. This allows him to point out that real life events often surpass those that authors can get us to read, intimating that something is seriously wrong with the world.

Having noted that, the emergence of the Devil is not an easy one to trace. Evil has been recognized in many cultures and it has been explained in many ways. Some have personified it, but even that took a long and circuitous route to the dark lord we know today. Bits of Greek philosophy and Zoroastrian cosmology combine with an emerging monotheism among the Israelites and their kin until eventually we have an embodiment of evil appearing. Even so, the Bible has no clear image of who “the Devil” is. This took further developments beyond the New Testament and the image that eventually won out, so to speak, borrowed heavily from classical mythology. Eventually Old Scratch emerges in a recognizable form.

Belief in the Devil still runs high in American culture. I suspect it will run even more so in months to come. At the end of Russell’s well researched study, the Devil comes down to the blatant disregard for the suffering of others. One might think of the mocking of the disabled or the favoring of the wealthy over the poor. Evil may be known by many names but it is easily recognized by those not caught up in its worship. This became clear in the biblical quotations sprinkled throughout the book. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil,” for example. Or “when an ungodly man curses Satan, he curses his own soul.” Mirrors may serve multiple purposes. The vain look into them and see only beauty. Those who believe in the Devil can’t help but know who it is that stares back.