Adversaries

Satan isn’t who we think he is.  Inheriting a tradition from across centuries, it can be easily supposed that modern ideas help to explain the reality of that tradition.  Sorry, let me try this with more specificity.  The character of “Satan” does not occur in the Hebrew Bible.  By the time of the Gospels, however, he’s there.  We tend to use modern ideas of Satan to understand the enigmatic person of “the satan” in the Hebrew Bible.  Peggy L. Day explored this idea decades ago in her revised Harvard dissertation, An Adversary in Heaven: śāṭān in the Hebrew Bible.  Reading this took me back to those heady days when I consumed Harvard Semitic Monographs like breakfast cereal.  To those of us not from Harvard we pretty much knew what to expect, but we read anyway.  Scholars are like that.

In any case, Day here explores what is sometimes surprising to those who read the Devil back into the Hebrew Bible: the satan is mentioned in only four passages and in none of them is he “Satan.”  In Numbers the satan is identified as a good angel sent to knock Balaam off his ass.  In the book of Job the satan is a member of the divine council and he does his job by accusing Job.  Day shows, by the way, that his accusation is really against God and not the mere human sufferer.  Her outlook on Job is still amazing after all these years.  After Job, the satan appears in the short book of Zechariah to accuse Joshua the high priest of the restoration era.  He’s no Devil here either.  The final reference comes in Chronicles where instead of God tempting David to take a census a satan does.  By this time the reader already knows a satan is an accuser and need not be superhuman.

This monograph raises the perennial issue of how to understand ancient texts without chaffing under the weight of tradition.  The character of the Devil developed over many centuries and, when he appeared, he was only one of many iterations.  The New Testament made Satan “biblical” and later readers tried to explain the Devil (who came from Zoroastrian mythology) as part of the Christian divine economy.  In Judaism he went on to play a much lesser role.  Once Christian writers established this character, he was read back into the Bible, even where the original writers didn’t see him.  Day isn’t the first to have noticed this, but she handles it very well and her book is still thought-provoking after all these years.

May Care

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.

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.

Personifying Evil

Biographies seldom cover millennia. Even if one were to try to uncover all the scant facts on old Methuselah at 969 years, it would still fall short of four digits. So Peter Stanford’s The Devil: A Biography takes the long view. Even with that lengthy perspective, there’s little that might be known about the prince of darkness. Even with a role in the Good Book his appearances are few and details are lacking. What Stanford does, of course, is outline, more or less, the history of Satan. This is no easy task since few ancient sources focus on trying to provide explanations for exactly who this might be.

As with most books by non-academics (and I don’t mean to sound snobbish here) there are some overstatements. Some of the details aren’t so finely parsed. It’s the big picture the author’s after and he does quite well when it comes to the modern era. Not only is there enormously more material from which to choose, there is also a great deal of literature and even headlines available to harvest. All writers that I’ve encountered on the subject make the point of demonstrating that news of what’s happening in the modern world suggests either the Devil exists or that something (or things) is doing a great job parodying such a character. When seeing evil in the highest reaches of the government it’s not so hard to believe.

The thing about the Devil is that he almost died out. In the nineteenth century when the explanatory value of science was firmly kicking in, and industrialization was making our live both easier and harder, the dark lord went underground. Humans seemed capable of making and claiming their own evil, and even the professionals—the clergy and formal religionists—had admitted Satan was most likely a metaphor gone wild. The birth of Fundamentalism, a movement that became prominent only in the 1920s, necessarily resurrected the Devil. The Bible does mention Lucifer, so he had to be real. Since that day he’s learned a lot. Protean to the extreme, he bears many guises. No longer beholden to a demonic tail, cloven hooves, or a pointy beard, he most often appears clean shaven and wearing expensive business suits. Borrowing a phrase from the Good Book, it’s by his fruits that we know him. Stanford’s biography shows its age a little, but when you’re covering a couple thousand years of speculation, being outdated is only a venial sin.

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.

Wall-E of Separation

io9 is a progressive website. Its futuristic stories delight and entertain. When a friend sent me a story on io9 titled “New Fan Theory Asks the Obvious Question: Is Wall-E Satan?” I had to read. Then wonder. People know so little about the Bible. The idea is simple: in Wall-E the people live in an undisturbed paradise until Satan (in the form of EVE’s plant) tempts them to leave paradise and return to an earth they’d forgotten existed. Okay, so the Genesis parallels are blindingly obvious (Peter Gabriel was even formerly a member of a band named with the title of that very book). What’s wrong is that there’s no Satan in the Bible’s first book. I give Katharine Trendacosta credit—she discounts the connection of fat, immobile future humans and paradise. The idea that the snake of Genesis is Satan, however, is about as biblical as original sin.

Genesis never calls the snake Satan. It doesn’t mention original sin. In fact, many (Christians, especially) don’t realize the event isn’t called “the fall” in the Hebrew Bible at all. The gaining of knowledge by the first human beings is painful yes, but can be a good thing. Some Jewish interpretations of Genesis 3 suggest precisely that. The story goes that Eve and Adam were living, stupidly, in the garden. The snake points out that the fruit will make them wise—and it does. They do not immediately die as God said they would. Instead they lose a blissful ignorance and have to grow up. The serpent is never said to be the Devil until the very last book of the Christian revisionist scripture, Revelation. Sometimes a snake is just a snake. That’s the way it is in the book of Genesis.

Christian interpretation, however, took over the story of humanity’s awakening and made it into the fall into sin and evil. Things have been so bad ever since than that we have to elect Trump to start a war that’ll end it all. That’s Christian revisionism writ large. Read Genesis again. Slowly. The snake is not said to be Satan. “The fall” isn’t sinful. In fact, the word “sin” doesn’t occur until the story of Cain and Abel in the next chapter. So, is EVE inspired by Satan to end the paradise of the Axiom, unaware of its true origins? Only in a revisionist history of the Bible. The idea existed long before io9, and, according to Genesis, it was wrong even then.