Mallory, can we talk about the Devil today? I was thinking about the Old Scratch because of Scalia’s constant need to advocate on his behalf, and I’d love to know a little more about how he fits into Christian theology. Why is God supposed to have created him in the first place, how did it go pear-shaped, did God not know it was going to go pear-shaped, and what is the etymology of “pear-shaped”? Also, is the Devil to blame for things like the Holocaust, and does he talk to us and try to influence us, and why does EVERYONE talk about The Screwtape Letters constantly?
I believe the preferred nomenclature is Ol’ Scratch, as the Devil is a very folksy person. Down-to-earth, you might say (just a little hell-geography humor, there). I’m going to do my very best to unscramble the Luciferian saga of the Bible from the early bits of The Silmarillion, but I can’t promise I won’t get mixed up at some point, especially if I start talking about the music of the spheres.
A lot of what we think of as canonical Devil traits have been developed out of post-Biblical literature — Faust and Paradise Lost and The Inferno (the Sayers translation, please) and so on. The Christian Old Testament isn’t generally as focused on the Devil or Hell as the New; there’s the serpent in the garden in the book of Genesis, of course, but that creature isn’t associated with the Devil for hundreds of years. I think the Book of Revelation conflates the two, but that’s simply ages later. (Which, incidentally, may have something to do with the fact that the Devil never really looms as large in Jewish theology as it does in Christian cultures)
The earliest mention of the Devil in the Bible that I can think of comes from the book of Job (which is actually one of the oldest books in the Old Testament, even though it’s buried somewhere toward the middle, which I think is rather unfair), and there’s very little of the Devil that we know today in him. He’s God’s weird, murdering ombudsman, and spends the entire narrative trying to convince God that Job (and by extension, humans) don’t really love him unless they get what they want. And that’s it! He doesn’t get punished or thrown out of heaven at the end. He’s like Ralph and Sam, that wolf and sheepdog who spend a whole episode trying to kill each other, then punch out their time cards at the end and have a coffee break together.
Then there’s Ezekiel 28, which starts out as a rebuke to the King of Tyre but…you know how sometimes when you’re in a fight with a current romantic interest, and things escalate emotionally, and all of a sudden you’re a foaming, raging harridan trying to tear them to shreds for all the shit your last romantic interest did to you, only you don’t realize it until you hear yourself shouting Previous Romantic Interest’s name and most egregious faults? It’s kind of like that. It starts out reasonably enough:
By your wisdom and understanding
you have gained wealth for yourself
and amassed gold and silver
in your treasuries.
By your great skill in trading
you have increased your wealth,
and because of your wealth
your heart has grown proud.
But it pretty quickly devolves into “okay, who is this really about” territory:
You were the seal of perfection,
full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
You were in Eden,
the garden of God;
every precious stone adorned you:
carnelian, chrysolite and emerald,
topaz, onyx and jasper,
lapis lazuli, turquoise and beryl.
Your settings and mountings were made of gold;
on the day you were created they were prepared.
You were anointed as a guardian cherub,
for so I ordained you.
You were on the holy mount of God;
you walked among the fiery stones.
You were blameless in your ways
from the day you were created
till wickedness was found in you.
Through your widespread trade
you were filled with violence,
and you sinned.
So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God,
and I expelled you, guardian cherub,
from among the fiery stones.
Traditionally, it’s been interpreted as Lucifer’s origin story: a creation of God that was once as bright and as beautiful as it is currently The Worst. This was a pretty serious influence for Paradise Lost, which focused on Lucifer’s envy of humans and his desire to rule creation in his own right as his fundamental sin.
And then, of course, there’s the New Testament! You have your book of Revelation with its lakes of fire and bowls and lamps and beasts and so on; very devilish. He’s very much the Dark Link to Jesus’ Regular Link, always promising him dominion over the earth and roaring like a lion and filling innocent passersby with demons.
I mean, the development of the character of Satan had, I think, a lot to do with the rise of dualism in the Roman world — this widespread belief that the world was ruled by two equal and opposing forces, one good and one evil. The basic Christian worldview (this is a gross oversimplification, obviously, see also: Cathars) is that the divine creative force that is God is the first and final supernatural power in the universe; the Devil is never God’s equal in the way that, say, Rhita Gawr is the Dagda’s.
Depending on how materialistic (I don’t mean that in the consumerist sense, obviously) a society one lives in, it can be more or less helpful to visualize the Devil as a metaphor for the constant, inchoate pervasive existence of evil or as an actual, sinister, embodied presence. The point of the Devil has always been, at least it seems to me, the following: evil exists, it is pervasive, it is intelligent, it is random and persistent and targeted, it can come to entirely dominate a human being, but it is not the reason the universe exists and it is not the ultimate authority.
Modern Western society, for obvious reasons, is less focused on evil than others have historically been! This is, I think, why talk of the Devil can strike us as “silly,” when to someone from another place and time it’s not silly at all: we spend a great deal of time and energy on self-improvement, on increasing our personal wealth, on staving off death, on nebulous and pleasant spiritualism. (This is not to say any of us should START thinking about the Devil, this merely serves as helpful cultural context.)
Oh God, I need to wrap this up. I think part of the reason The Screwtape Letters is so popular (and I give C.S. Lewis a great deal of [deserved] shit, but it’s a legitimately interesting book) is that there has been very little written about the Devil by a materialist in the last hundred years. The twentieth century did not see many writers taking both the Devil and modernism seriously (they were too busy inventing Imagism and Beat poetry). So something like this:
I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism, and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics.
At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect. a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the enemy. The “Life Force,” the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits”—then the end of the war will be in sight. But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of some¬thing in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.
Is memorable mostly because there aren’t a lot of other writers making any sort of attempt to make sense of the Devil (or the existence of concentrated evil or what have you) in a modern context. Thus endeth my begrudging acknowledgement of something good C.S. Lewis has done, and also my rambling attempt to contextualize over 2000 years of belief in a blog post.
What should we talk about next? You tell me. Don’t tell me I spent most of college reading St. John Chrysostom for nothing.