By DAVID CRUMM
Who preaches about the evils of the Devil these days? Perhaps fire-and-brimstone Fundamentalists? You’ll recognize that stereotype from TV and movies, even if you’ve never actually witnessed such a Bible-thumper in action.
So, is the Devil an endangered spiritual species? A lot of adults in the U.S.—about 60 percent in various polls—still say that they believe there is a Hell and they believe the Devil is real. But, the Devil’s identity definitely is shifting—fading into a fuzzy cloud of vaguely spiritual ideas for most Americans.
But not everyone has dismissed what Richard Beck describes as “Old Scratch” in his new book, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. Beck is not alone in talking seriously about Lucifer. The list of popular voices warning about the evil works of the Devil currently includes:
- C.S. LEWIS—He’s been dead for more than half a century, but his books still are extremely popular with Christian readers. In his books, Lewis often refers to the Devil and wrote one of his most popular fantasies, The Screwtape Letters, about Devils at work in our everyday lives.
- CHURCHES CONNECTED TO AFRICA—Many mainline congregations across the U.S. have celebrated the work of Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee and have hosted showings of the powerful documentary about her struggle for justice in Liberia: Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
- SOCIAL JUSTICE ACTIVISTS—As Beck points out in his book, politically radical theologian William Stringfellow argued that we can’t hope to defeat entrenched evil in our world without recognizing the reality of Evil incarnate—which he often called Powers and Principalities, a phrase from the New Testament. Like Lewis, Stringfellow died decades ago, but his work still influences various Protestant leaders as well as the Catholic activist John Dear.
- AND, SPEAKING OF CATHOLICS—Pope Francis has sparked headlines around the world in newspapers and magazines for talking more about the Devil than any of his recent predecessors.
POPE FRANCIS’S WARNING
“If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it. … The devil is always crouching at our door, in front of our heart, and wants to come in. Woe to us if we let him enter; then he would close our doors to anyone else. Instead, we are called to open the door of our hearts to the Word of God, to Jesus, and so to become his children.”
In an interview this week about his new book, Beck said: “In the U.S. and in much of Western Christianity, the Devil has been marginalized. But in Africa, South America, Asia—and in marginalized communities around the world where charismatic Christianity is thriving—talking about the Devil is very common.
“People may be startled by how much Pope Francis talks about the Devil, but that’s because he is pastorally connected with the poor in Latin America and around the world. Through their eyes, he sees the spiritual struggles they are facing everyday and he talks about this in the terms they use themselves.”
Francis isn’t condescending, Beck says. He understands that privileged Western Christians may have forgotten how families living on the world’s margins are waging daily, life-and-death struggles often with deeply entrenched Evils.
“This is a real problem Francis understands,” Beck said. “The skepticism of the West about taking the Devil seriously can leave us unable to be pastorally relevant to the marginalized around the world. That’s one reason I wrote this book. If you truly care about people living on the margins, then you’re going to need to learn how to talk about the Devil again with some authenticity and integrity.”
In fact, that’s the basic message of Beck’s book. In just shy of 200 pages, he takes us on a whirlwind tour of contemporary, Western Christianity’s tendency to either push the Devil off stage entirely—or to turn Old Scratch into a vague notion about occasional poor choices we make in our lives. When we ignore the real and serious nature of Evil in the world, Beck argues, we are cutting ourselves off from a vast and growing sea of Christians for whom the Devil is a daily threat.
This next paragraph requires a “Spoiler Alert”: No, in this book, you’ll never quite pin down Beck’s own conclusion about whether the Devil is a real-deal Spirit lurking somewhere in the cosmos. He waffles on the metaphysics of Old Scratch. This book isn’t Dante’s Divine Comedy with a neat geography of Hell we can pin up on the wall.
“In this book, it’s true, I put the Devil in brackets when it comes to questions about the literal existence of a spiritual creature called the Devil,” Beck said in our interview. “But there are good reasons for not dwelling on that question. It can become a dark distraction from the more important issues I’m exploring with readers.”
Beck offers several good arguments to support that choice.
One “dark distraction” is spending a lot of time “regaling readers with tales of mysterious demonic possession. I don’t do that in this book. Those dark and scary stories can encourage people to become overly preoccupied with unhealthy ideas about spiritual warfare. Remember what happened back in the 1980s and 1990s with all of that obsession with spiritual warfare? That kind of fascination with Satan isn’t helpful.”
Beck also points out that painting horrific pictures of a super-hero boogeyman who jumps around possessing people—like the Exorcist novel and movies—also can lead to demonizing people who Christians identify as “enemies.” In his book, he uses the late anti-gay crusader Fred Phelps as an example of spiritual warfare gone tragically awry.
And, there’s a third danger of too much belief in a literal Devil. “You can wind up claiming, ‘The Devil made me do it!’ And that can become an easy way to avoid moral responsibility.”
Or, in other words, Beck said, “If we get too caught up in saying the Devil exists as a monster in the world, then it becomes easy to say that the evil that we witness in the world is being done by monsters—and we have no responsibility ourselves because, of course, we’re never the monster in that scenario.”
So, is Beck simply waffling on defining what “reality” means when he talks about Satan?
“No, ultimately, I think it’s a false dichotomy for someone to argue that either Satan exists as a literal being who we can locate somewhere in the universe—and arguing that, if we don’t believe in a tangible being, then there is no evil in the world at all. That’s a false choice,” Beck said in our interview.
‘SUSPICIOUS OF OUR OWN VIRTUE’
“I’m saying in this book that it’s healthy for us to recognize that evil is real in the world,” Beck said.
“When I lecture to students about social psychology, I say: You need to be suspicious of your own virtue. What can happen in our lives is that we start to assume that we are the virtuous and good people in the world. Then, suddenly, you wake up and discover that you’re married but you’ve started an affair. Or, without stopping to think about it, you’re deeply involved in professional malpractice that’s going to wind up hurting a lot of people. It’s healthy to be suspicious of our own virtue. If we see ourselves as vulnerable to evil, we’re more vigilant in the choices we make.”
Toward the end of the book, Beck offers some personal examples of confronting Evil, or the Devil, or Idolatry—temptations that can shift a person’s “allegiance to any of these powers over my allegiance to the kingdom of God.” Ultimately, the problem manifests itself in “making it hard for me to love people.”
“For example, after 9/11 my patriotic buttons got pushed, making it hard to love some people. As a San Antonio Spurs fan, when Ray Allen of the Miami Heat hit a three-pointer at the end of regulation in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, I had a hard time loving some people. Ray Allen in particular. When a kid hurts my son with a dirty hit in a football game I have a hard time loving some people. At my university when other departments get funds or resources that my department should rightfully have I have a hard time loving some people. When my candidate loses a Presidential election I have a hard time loving some people. When someone spreads a vision of Christianity that is very different from my own I have a hard time loving some people.”
In the end, Beck said in our interview—that’s why it’s important to recognize that we really do face temptation on a daily basis in small and large ways. Like Stringfellow or Pope Francis, Beck said, we should not dismiss the notion that Evil is real.
“So, if I’ve done my job in this book,” Beck said, “I hope people feel energized about the call to say, ‘Get thee behind me Satan!’ I hope they feel excited about following Jesus. I hope people realize that engaging fully in the life that Jesus calls us to is really a life of struggle—but ultimately we can see it’s a joyous struggle.”
Care to read more?
VISIT BECK’S EXTENSIVE WEBSITE—He calls it Experimental Theology. If you scan down the right-hand margin of the website, you will find that Beck has organized his archive of columns on many themes, including:
- The Theology of Johnny Cash
- The William Stringfellow Project
- On the Principalities and Powers
- Moral Psychology
- George Macdonald
- Game Theory and the Kingdom of God
- And, Theology of William James