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…

Game of Thrones

IMG_2763I risk my already flagging street cred by admitting this, but I don’t watch Game of Thrones. In fact, I started to read the first book a couple years back and I just couldn’t get into it. Well, only 80 pages into it. The fault is, I’m entirely sure, my own. I lack some gene or enzyme that makes life without Game of Thrones impossible. Still, I have to admit curiosity. A story on the Washington Post, by Ishaan Tharoor, suggests “The ancient Persian god that may be at the heart of ‘Game of Thrones’” is Angra Mainyu, aka Ahriman. This managed to catch my attention. Zoroastrianism is a religion that seems to lie behind quite a bit of modern religious thought. Although dating Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, is notoriously difficult, concepts from his religious system show up in Hinduism—one of the earliest forms of religious expression about which we know a fair deal—as well as in Judaism and therefore Christianity and Islam. In fact, many of the ideas you may associate with the central tenets of Judeo-Christo-Islamic tradition may go back to Zarathustra.

One of the certainties about Zoroastrianism is that it was a dualistic religion. Good and evil are engaged in a constant struggle for control. The good god, Ahura Mazda (which sounds like a blend between Star Trek and a Japanese auto maker) struggles constantly against Angra Mainyu. Mazda’s website states that the car line is named after the deity (according to Wikipedia, I note, losing the last vestige of cred), pushing his reach even further east. With this incredible pedigree, it is no wonder that George R. R. Martin may have tapped into it. This kind of dualism is ripe for the picking.

My friend K. Marvin Bruce wrote a satire about the Persian gods, in fictional form, that was published a couple years back in Calliope, a small circulation literary journal. He told me he even won third place in a contest for it. The idea was that a disgruntled professor wanted to start the apocalypse (a Zoroastrian idea) by summoning Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu to earth to try to start a fight between the two. It was a fun story, but the point, if I may speak for my friend, is serious. Warring religions stand the best chance of beginning the end of times. We don’t even need the gods to do it, really. Although I don’t watch Game of Thrones, I can’t help wonder if Martin had the same idea in mind. If you want the answer to that, don’t ask me. I’m not even a hundred pages into it, and I don’t have triple play.

Devil’s Food

One figure among the standard repertoire of Halloween characters has never appeared on my list of favorite monsters. I suppose it may be because as a child I fervently believed there was a devil that he never made my A-list. Satan was real, according to my church, in some almost biological, corporeal form. Even as a youngster I knew vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster, and the rest, really didn’t exist (even after I hid under my covers all night once, after putting my head down on a bat that had flown into my bedroom). The devil was, however, biblical. And I never felt tempted to dress up with red horns and pointy tail, carrying a plastic pitchfork. Halloween was always among my favorite holidays, but it was for pretend monsters and ghosts (which might perhaps be real, but which were not diabolical, according to my childhood economy of the spiritual world). The consequences of devil imitation seemed eternal, and even today, in the rational light of the twenty-first century, I can still be given pause even though I know the concept is a Zoroastrian one that morphed into early Christianity’s need for a kind of anti-Christ.

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There are many who still believe in a real devil. Some branches of Christianity (and Islam) teach that a literal devil lurks about in our world. In western culture he is a figure instantly recognizable, although there are differences of opinion in his anti-iconography. Last weekend I visited a fine little restaurant in a New Jersey town that has a reputation for being haunted (the town, not the restaurant). It was a seat-yourself day and the table my wife and I ended up selecting had shellacked cards on top as part of the decoration. There in front of me was the devil. I pondered this. The cards, all captioned in Spanish, had mundane subjects: an umbrella, a musician, plants, a spider (okay, so that last one’s a little scary too), but only one supernatural figure. Perhaps the entire deck, had I seen it, might have had more. No doubt, for a world that postulates a good God, a devil covers, well, a host of evils.

The word “devil” is somewhat loosely applied these days. New Jersey has its own cryptid called the Jersey Devil, which has led to iconic names for sports teams and perhaps a public official or two. But even in the aftermath of 9/11 there were those who seriously postulated seeing the face of the devil in the tumbling debris of the twin towers. For a character of the religious imagination, the devil has managed to impress deeply on the human psyche. I know in my rational mind that I should simply dismiss all of this and get on with the business of enjoying the monsters that will show up at my door later this week. Nevertheless, when the waiter comes out with our food, I look down at the table and decide to pass on the hot sauce for today, just in case.

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.”

The Devil’s Dues

Belief, no matter how inscrutable, must be taken seriously. Although we frequently prefer to privilege that which we “know,” belief is one of our main motivators. Strangely, many who reach a certain level of education begin to denigrate belief as if it were an embarrassing indication of improper brain functioning. Belief is, however, all we really have. A case of this was recently shown in an interview with Justice Antonin Scalia. A piece in CNN Opinion by Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza discusses an interview of Justice Scalia by Jennifer Senior where the topic of the devil arose. Buckwalter-Poza, as she makes clear, is no fan of Scalia, but when Senior began to treat the Justice’s belief in the devil with a condescending kind of incredulity Buckwalter-Poza called time-out. We need to take his belief seriously. Could such a powerful man really believe in a mythological figure? Yes. Belief will do that to you. Just the same, Senior’s non-acceptance of the devil is equally a matter of belief.

The devil is a problematic figure. Despite the certainty with which a recent demonology lecture treated the subject, the devil is scarcely present in the Bible. Indeed, he is somewhat a late addition, cobbled together from Zoroastrian beliefs and fragments of ancient mythology. The Hebrew Bible mentions the devil not once. By the time of the Gospels he has become a fixture representing an anti-God figure, clearly derived from the influence of the Magi (not necessarily the three riding on camel-back that first Christmas Eve). The devil was a convenient excuse for evil in a world where an omnipotent deity was believed to be entirely good. The devil is an escape-clause. Evil can exist in such a world and not be God’s fault. The idea stuck.

Today, sophisticated materialists (which is what some forms of science urge us all to be) have dismissed belief in anything not composed of atoms, electrons, quarks, or strings. Or, more recently, dark matter. The rest is all illusion. Sometimes the sophisticated don’t realize that other intelligent, sophisticated individuals don’t share their worldview. Materialism can’t be proven, and every true scientist knows that any theory is the best explanation given what we know at the moment. It is contingent. Science has a fantastic track record for explaining the physical world. Little in my experience has given me cause to doubt its efficacy. Still, I suspect that there is more to this universe than material. I have trouble supposing that some of that non-material universe is a horned, goat-footed, evil man with a tail and my worst interests at heart, but I can see how someone might believe that. Belief works that way. As much as we might want to eject it from the game, it will always be on the first string throughout the season.

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On a Wager and a Prayer

I’ve been thinking about Job a lot lately. Not my job, but the biblical book. Way back when I was preparing my initial classnotes on Job, I remember a commentator—I forget who—stating, as commentators are wont to do, that people have strong reactions to Job. Either they love it or they hate it. I have enough imagination to consider some people being somewhat ambivalent about it, but I have observed many people over the years revealing powerful reactions to this Wisdom book. One of the reasons, I suspect, is that God doesn’t come off looking particularly good in this story. This was recently reintroduced to my awareness in Steven Cahn’s God, Reason and Religion. The reader, unlike Job, knows the real reason for Job’s suffering. It was a divine wager, instigated by God, that Job would not curse him even if allowed GBH by the Satan. We know, however, and we are culpable for that knowledge. It puts a burden on the reader.

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When God does explain to Job why he shouldn’t question God’s acts, as Cahn points out, the answer rings hollow in the knowledge of the truth. God can’t admit to Job that he was playing fast and easy with his health and the death of his ten righteous children. A roll of the dice and Job is vulture-bait. The book of Job should make us squirm. We base our morality, we are often told, on the ideals of the Bible. If we were Job, who ends the book never knowing about the bet, we might be content. But the author, with a sly wink to those who face life squarely, points out that this is all a charade to justify God’s confidence in one of his many carroms. I suppose that might be small comfort to the pawns.

For Job there is no answer given to why he suffers. He doesn’t even really ask why—God’s right on that count, Job is very good. Yet the reader is not so lucky. How can we gain any comfort knowing that God sometimes lays us on that altar, not for any just cause, but as a wager against the divine prosecutor? No, the Satan in Job is not the Devil. He too is a divine character, an attorney borrowed from Zoroastrian mythology. He’s just doing his job. His Job. He is present to make us feel our guilt. And if Job, who the Bible itself says is perfect, can barely restrain his soul from cursing, how much of a chance do the rest of us have? There are many who hate the book of Job. I am not one of them. A more honest book I have a difficult time imagining. If it comes to justice in this world, however, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Scary Monstrances

I can’t help myself. I’ve always found monsters fascinating. Now that I’m mostly grown up and am expected to have a modicum of respectability, I try to read academic books on monsters so that I can legitimate what would otherwise be puerile juvenility. David D. Gilmore’s Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors was my latest foray into the forest. As I have come to expect, just pages into the book the first reference to religion emerged. This connection between monsters and religion is not Gilmore’s central theme, but it does recur at several points in the book. I especially enjoyed his discussion of Spain’s Pentecostal dragon. The Tarasque, named after its host town, is a medieval dragon that is still feted to this day in some locations. Considered to be symbolic of the sins of humankind, it accompanies either the holy day of Pentecost or of Corpus Christi. This connection between the church and monsters took me back to my first experience of Corpus Christi.

Raised as solid a protester as a Protestant can be, I had a difficult transition to some aspects of Anglicanism. The ceremonial was great, but some of the popish blandishments I could never quite accept. When a member of Boston’s famed Church of the Advent, the rector asked me to be a torch bearer on Corpus Christi. This involved processing outdoors onto Beacon Hill in full drag (or cassock and surplice, as I’m sure the parsimonious will correct me) to accompany the holy sacrament, carried as it turns out, in a monstrance. The idea that looking at a piece of wafer-thin bread on public display could somehow mediate a divine blessing, I never understood. It felt as much a fairy tale as the dragons of Spain. Monster or monstrance?

Gilmore concludes that monsters are people’s projections of their deepest unresolved issues. He may be right. One of his observations, however, struck me. He suggests monsters predate even gods in the human imagination. I tend to think they entered that gray space at the same time. Our minds have always told us that there were creatures out there to fear. Some of them, we hope, are good. Others are clearly evil. Monsters are difficult to explain in a world created by a benevolent deity. It is perhaps no mistake that Zoroastrians conceived of Angra Mainyu as monstrous. Divinity and diabolism could be fused into one being. There is a profound lesson here, for those able to read. Monsters are among the earliest projections of human imagination. And they remain forever with us.

Angra Mainyu; god or monster?