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.

Omen, O Man!

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Of the unholy trinity of late-60s to mid-70s horror movies Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), the last always seemed the least effective to me. Having recently read about the Devil in American popular culture, and having a rainy Friday evening alone, I decided to give it a try again. Based as heavily on Hal Lindsey as it is, once one outgrows dispensationalism it is hard to be frightened by the idea of biblical end times. Everything from making up verses in “Revelations” to utterly bogus Holy Land geography (Megiddo is north of Jerusalem, not south—did the writers not even own a map?) contributes to a set of untenable tenets, even among the bibliterati. The film relies mostly on shocks and startles to earn its horror stripes, and after you’ve seen the movie once, these lose their power in subsequent viewings. Nevertheless, on this rainy May night, so close to June 6, I noticed new ways in which the movie undermines its own message.

The premise, of course, is that Damien, the son of the Devil (who apparently has a thing for bestiality), is plotting to take over the world through the means of politics. Having been watching the events of the past few months I have to wonder how the Devil could improve on progress through such channels. But I digress. His step-father Robert Thorn, US ambassador to London, discovers his “son”‘s identity and tries to kill him. With a strong anti-Catholic bias (the Antichrist is born in Rome, the seat of the church, and is protected by Roman clergy) the film nevertheless spawns sympathy for the Devil. As a child, Harvey Stephens hardly appears diabolical. Maybe it’s just because my brothers and I also spilled goldfish from their bowl once, but it seems to me he acts just like most little boys do. Who really wants to go to church at that age? As the movie approaches its climax, he’s represented as the biblical good-guy.

Thorn has to confirm Damien’s satanic identity. Like Delilah, he creeps up on the sleeping boy and cuts his hair. Convinced by a man who introduces himself “I am Bugenhagen” that he has to stab the boy, Thorn in a white car outraces police (so there might be a bit of prophecy here after all) to sacrifice the child on the altar. The movie casts Damien as both Samson and Isaac within a few short minutes. Apart from the film’s use of violence against women’s bodies (Thorn won’t allow an abortion, Kathy seems to have a penchant from falling from high places in slow motion, Baylock gets a fork in the neck) it actually seems ambivalent about the evil of the boy. An unfortunate birthmark does not a devil make. We’ve made it through the change of the millennium and many other hazards, yet dispensationalism is still with us, as is its anticlimactic Antichrist, Damien. He’s less scary than the real politics of an entirely secular age.

Devil’s Workshop

SatanInAmerSome 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.

The Devil, You Know

I’m the first to admit that I’m behind the times. Too much of my free time is spent reading weird news or going to used book sales to keep abreast of what’s happening in the adult world. If it weren’t for my wife sending me news stories via the internet, I would still be wondering why Gorbachev isn’t helping to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. Since I’m captive to a religious worldview, I was interrupted in my calculations by the news that Ted Cruz is, allegedly, Lucifer. My research had me on the trail of Santa, since the simple transposition of two letters would give us the title of the Zoroastrian prosecuting attorney. And, I figured, it was fairly safe to out St. Nick when Christmas is still eight months away. Hopefully I’ll still find something in my stocking come December. I kind of figured that when we found the real devil he would be a Republican in any case. Even as I write this, Cruz is out of the race. I thought the Devil never gave up.

I wonder where else in the civilized world would politics be such a joke. Can you trust the opinion of a man named Boehner? It’s easy to change your name—just ask anyone who came through Ellis Island. They’re laughing at us, folks. Seriously, they are. I don’t get much email, but I’ve had two international missives asking me what’s going on over here. It’s a good thing I don’t know, otherwise I’d have to try to explain. You see, the Bible doesn’t say much about Satan at all. In the Hebrew Bible there is no devil. By scraping together the few references to “the Satan” and morning star, some have said the alleged Ted Cruz of ancient times was clearly in the Bible. Somewhere between the Testaments he showed up. By the time Jesus was old enough to climb temple towers, he was there. In the meantime the Zoroastrians had come down from the North Pole…

Then there’s the fact that when he’s not wearing a conservative suit and announcing a female running mate, the Devil is described as looking like Pan. Goat horns, goat feet, but always the torso of a man. And he’s red, just like the Coca-Cola red of Santa’s suit, and states like Texas. It’s a good thing I don’t read any more conspiracy theories than I already do. You’d probably find me tootling away on my pan-pipes waiting for a bus in the Port Authority. No, there’s a reason I stay away from the real news. It might interrupt my fantasy world. And, I’m afraid, it might actually be more entertaining. And don’t worry about my Christmas—I plan to have an eleventh-hour conversion, just in time to have a chimney installed in my apartment. If I can only be sure I get it done before February.

There's something political going on here...

There’s something political going on here…

The Devil Made

Some things you just don’t mess with. Just in case. For a variety of reasons, not least of which is lack of biblical support, many Christians no longer believe in Satan, or “the Devil.” As I written before, the Hebrew Bible has no such diabolical character and he seems to have been devised from an old Zoroastrian dualistic belief system when he finally does appear. In other words, Satan is not among the core beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nevertheless, according to an Associated Press story the Satanic Temple is petitioning to have a statue of Satan placed on the capitol grounds in Oklahoma City. The action was prompted by the placing of a Ten Commandments monument in this public space, and, invoking the freedom of religion clause, the Satanic Temple has decided to play tit for tat. Either religion is free, or it’s not.

Backer_Judgment_(detail)Although the Satanic Temple claims to be sincere in its beliefs, the group’s website indicates that it understands religious belief in a metaphorical way, and that it wishes to parse superstition from religion. This envisions revising Satan as an “icon for the selfless revolt against tyranny,” according to the AP story. The commissioned monument includes a Baphomet-style Satan (goat head and beard, wings and pentagram—you get the picture), that features—sure to raise the ire of Oklahomo sapiens—children gathered around the dark lord. It will double as a seat where individuals may sit on Satan’s lap, although I’m not sure what they might be asking for. Various representatives of the Sooner State say they’re all for religious freedom, but Satan just has no place in the conservative breadbasket of the nation.

Provocation occurs on both sides in this trial of wills. Justice can be realized without Moses’ top ten on every courthouse lawn. The Code of Hammurabi demonstrates that. People are capable of enacting justice without God, or the Devil, telling them to do it. The triumphalism of religion is the heart of the issue. In a world daily aware of those outside the neighborhood, finding that other religions exist and thrive is an affront to the “one true faith,” whatever it may be. It may be that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have no problems with the ten commandments. Other religions might. Leading with having “no other gods before me” starts the conversation off on an awkward tone. The solution may be as simple as amending the commandments to add just one more. If we can see our way to doing that I have one that I’d like to propose: “thou shalt not let thy religion cause childish behavior.”