Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Satan

The above image, a still from The Exorcist, has become iconic. It is this view of "evil" that, much more for worse rather than better, seems to pop in to people's brains when talk turns to the Prince of Darkness (whose angelic name, "Lucifer", means "Light Bearer"; no irony there . . .). For reasons that should be obvious, this kind of Classic-Comics nonsense doesn't impress me much; even the make-up, and the voice-over by an aged British character actress, is kind of campy.

Dealing with questions of evil are serious, life-and-death questions. Simply demanding a Biblical verse to support this or that position means nothing to me. As I have said on many occasions, one can use all sorts of verses, whole books even, from the Bible to support pretty much any theological position one wants. I would be far more impressed if my interlocutor - quite apart from calling me a moron - had expanded a bit more than citing the number of time the English word "Satan" had appeared in the Bible.

"The Satan" is actually a title (I do hope I'm not boring anyone with this business) and appears in the earliest-written bit of Biblical literature, the long poem Job as an advocate in the Divine Court. By the time of the Gospel's - as much as 1500 years later! - this title has morphed in to an interchangeable proper name, along with "the devil" and "Lucifer" to refer to the leader of a band of spiritual beings who sole purpose seems to be keeping people from living their lives according to God's will.

This, of course, explains nothing more than the literary function of a character in a story. Examining what this means for we who believe is certainly important; for one thing, it doesn't mean little girls puking split-pea soup on priests or masturbating with crucifixes. "Evil" is hardly captured by these images; even the most dedicated traditional Christian, shivering in his theater seat during the first run of The Exorcist would have to admit that, as an examination of the question of evil, both the book and film fall short in any number of ways.

Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has done a four-part study of "diabology". Titled, in order, The Devil, Satan, Lucifer, and Mephistopheles, the study considers the emergence, growth, and development of the western understanding of evil, personified in the character of a supernatural being variously given these titles and names (I read the second for an undergraduate history seminar; I own the fourth, but look forward to getting all four, plus some other of his books). At the heart of these books, as Burton Russell makes clear in the preface of each, is his understanding of the reality of radical human evil, usually presented by a newspaper clipping of some horrendous event.

To me, addressing the question of evil by restating a two-thousand-year-old persona of ambiguous origin and traceable intellectual development across time, space, language, culture, even religion doesn't really mean all that much. Burton Russell's work shows that, even those in the West who take the Bible seriously and addressed the question of evil via an examination of the Devil and his minions changed radically over time. One can address the fact of evil without recourse to a supernatural being. Indeed, repeating "Satan" only restates the problem.

So, I guess I'm a moron because I find the problem of evil to be something to take seriously. While considering scriptural understanding of a particular supernatural entity is a good place to start, one needs to do so within the context of the larger theological structure one uses to interpret not just the Bible as a whole, but particular passages. Far too often, giving the name (or title; whichever . . .) "Satan" as an answer seems to preclude any thought or notion of the efficacy of Divine grace, the power of the death and resurrection in the life of the Church, and reduce human agency to not quite nothing.

This is why, for the most part, I just can't get behind the whole idea that Satan, or the Devil, or Lucifer, or whomever, rules legions of similarly fallen angels as the source of human misery. Sin? Salvation? Grace? Divine power? Once one falls back on some anti-God as the source of human misery, these notions become irrelevant.

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