Giving the Devil his due

August 6, 2014 by  
Filed under newsletter-lead

DevilEngland, 14 July, 2014: Church of England is nothing if not polite. And in polite theological circles, it is best not to mention the “D–evil” word. The death of God had been announced in liberal theologies in the early Seventies. But the Devil, if never admitted to have actually died, had been sent to a home for superannuated fallen angels by the middle of the 18th century. So it is perhaps a matter for little surprise that, against the apparent objections of only a few, all mentions of the Devil are to be removed from a new alternative form of the baptism service. No longer do the Devil and all his works have to be renounced. The battle is now against an impersonal “power of evil”, not against Satan himself.

On the other hand, it is a notable event, for the Devil has been present throughout the drama of history as Christianity has portrayed him. Next to God, he has been the leading member of the cast. He fell out of favour with God shortly after creation, and it was he who entered the serpent and tempted Eve. The life, death and resurrection of Christ significantly reduced his power within the world, but his final defeat by God will only come at the battle of Armageddon at the end of history. So his removal from baptism does suggest that he is being written out of the Christian story.

It is a surprising development, too, because the Devil has recently returned to centre stage in conservative Protestant and Catholic churches. There has been a notable increase in reported demonic possessions in conservative Christianity, and a consequent growth in exorcism and deliverance ministries. Pope Francis has declared his belief in a personal Satan. The Devil has been at the core of the moral panic about the imagined sexual abuse of children within Satanic cults. And in conservative circles, there have been increased (though unwarranted) suspicions of demonic influence in the growing New Age movements, particularly modern witchcraft (Wicca) and neo-Paganism.

In fact, the Devil has been centre stage within popular Western culture for the past 40 years. When, in the 1973 film The Exorcist, a voice inside the possessed girl, Regan, announced, “And I’m the Devil! Now kindly undo these straps”, he was announcing, in Terminator mode, that he was back. The girl in whom the Devil had taken up residence spoke with a deep contralto voice, screamed obscenities, vomited and levitated, rotated her head 180 degrees and walked like a spider. Audiences were horrified and appalled, yet captivated and fascinated.

The re-emergence of the Devil in popular, if not in elite, culture is part of a new Western engagement with an imaginary enchanted world. He belongs to a new world of supernatural beings, both good and evil. He takes his place alongside vampires and fairies, witches and wizards, werewolves and wraiths, shape-shifters and superheroes, angels and demons, ghosts and dragons, elves and aliens, succubi and incubi, hobbits and zombies. Not to mention the inhabitants of Hogwarts.

This modern enchanted world is one of multiple meanings, where the spiritual occupies a space between reality and unreality. It is a domain where belief is a matter of choice and disbelief willingly and happily suspended. And in this new realm of limbo, the Devil finds a new space.

As the revised Anglican baptism service suggests, belief in the Devil is now very much a matter of choice, even within the Christian Church. It was not always so. For the better part of the past 2,000 years, it was as impossible not to believe in the Devil as it was impossible not to believe in God. To be a Christian was not only to believe in the salvation that was available through Christ, but also to expect the punishments inflicted by Satan and his demons in the eternal fires of hell for those not among the chosen. The history of God in the West is also the history of the Devil, and the history of theology is also the history of demonology.

For some forms of modern conservative Christianity, marginalised within Western secular and liberal theological thought, the Christian story of the Devil is very much alive still. The belief remains that the Devil is active and will remain so until finally consigned to an eternity in Hell at the end of history. The existence of the Devil and his capacity to act in history, nature, and human lives, remains for many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, a satisfactory explanation of natural misfortune and human suffering.

And the modern world often does seem at times to be so evil and human actions so wicked that only a supernatural explanation can suffice. That Satan and evil always seem to be winning the battle against God and the good has always been only partially and paradoxically mitigated by the Christian conviction that, at the end of the day, he has been carrying out God’s will. Christianity has always wrestled with the apparent contradiction between a God who is both all-powerful and all-good, and yet appears either unable to control the Devil or unwilling to do so.

Still, the story of the Devil is one that had lost its central role in Western intellectual life by the middle of the 18th century. By then, for an educated elite if not for the masses, the Devil was no longer a matter of fact but of fiction, and even occasionally a folkloric figure of fun. For some, the Devil became merely a metaphor for the evil within us. For others, he became merely a personification of an impersonal force. It was no longer a valiant struggle against sin, the world and the Devil but rather, as the new baptism service has it, a matter of “standing bravely” and opposing “the power of evil”. For others, it was a convenient excuse for men, as Daniel Defoe put it in 1727, to “shift off these crimes on Him which are their own”.

It was the rise of secular scepticism about the Devil that made possible his effective elimination from liberal Christian theologies. His relegation to the darker corners of the Christian mind was perhaps the most important consequence of the growth of liberal Protestantism from the beginning of the 19th century. Yet, ironically, this very marginalisation of the orthodox Christian story of the Devil in the modern West has allowed for a proliferating of “lives” of the Devil in modern popular culture.

The Devil still exists within the Christian story, but also beyond it, an objectification of the often incomprehensible evil that lies within us and around us, threatening to destroy us. The spell of disenchantment has been broken. The Devil now has new domains and new borders. Hedged in by the traditional Christian story on the one side, on the other by modern secular agnosticism, he “prowls around, looking for someone to devour”, yet again, both delectable and dangerous, fascinating and terrifying, familiar and alien, in a newly enchanted world.

Philip Almond is professorial research fellow at the University of Queensland and author of ‘The Devil: A New Biography’ (IB Tauris)

– telegraph

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