Rick Santorum, Satan and how we should talk about the devil

How should today's Christians talk about Satan?

Digging up a Rick Santorum speech from 2008, in which he mentions "the father of lies," is certainly good grist for the political mill. Satan has long been a favorite subject of popular culture, from the Rolling Stones to The Devil’s Advocate. Judging from that movie, it seems the devil and Rick Santorum might agree on some things about the 20th century.

Some provincial accents in the Christian universe of languages bring up Satan more than others. “Oh pastor, things have been rough lately, the devil is working overtime...” Santorum’s use of the devil in his 2008 speech isn’t that different from the kind of things pastors will regularly say in order to motivate their audience. Politics, like religion, is often about creating a binary choice in order to motivate the listener to align themselves with your agenda.

It’s hard to read the New Testament and imagine that Jesus didn’t believe in a real creature named Satan. Neither is Satan a being unique to Christianity. MSNBC notes that Santorum isn’t alone in asserting Satan’s ontological existence, yet for Americans belief in the devil always seems to lag behind belief in God. Why?

On the one side, I think our secular culture is doubtful about the existence of all spiritual beings, so Satan, angels and demons dissolve in our skepticism even before our notions of a deity. On the other side, there is the fact that we as a culture are fairly optimistic and prefer to identify trouble in therapeutic terms. Destructive human behaviors are often presumed to be attempts at seeking a sort of goodness, rather than expressions of outright rebellion and malice. We like to think of ourselves as presuming the best in others.

The medievalist C.S. Lewis famously doubted our contemporary posture. He declared that we are not so much misunderstood but rather rebels who need to lay down their arms. I think it is in this context that the figure of Satan is best understood - as a rebel leader.

One of the most deeply offensive Christian assertions is that God is a person, even three. We are far more comfortable with God as a power or a force or energy that can be called upon, channeled or harnessed to suit our own personal agendas. Once your maker has a will, takes a stand, holds a position and also populates the universe with other persons, there is bound to be minority reports, conflicts and even rebellion. If God is a person or three, there will be a Satan.

I’m at the age where my kids are getting old enough and free enough to get into real trouble I can’t protect them from. As I drove my friend to the airport today we talked about his fears, that his children might get caught up in traps they may not escape from. I doubt my friend believes in Satan, but I know he knows that we share this world with persons and powers that wish to possess us and use us until whatever goodness we possess is spent.

American pop spirituality likes to presume that all spiritual beings we wish to engage will be helpful and benevolent. If we know this not to be true of human beings, even when we want to say things like “people are basically good,” why should we assume the spirits (if we believe in them) are so benign? The ancients, whose writings we ransack seeking our balms and bobbles, didn’t assume the spirit world was so safe. Why should we?

So how should we talk about Satan? With sobriety and humility, and as a threat whose time is short.

Comments (4)

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Kudos, Paul, on this much-needed expose.

Not too long ago I wrote a lengthy paper on biblical angelology and demonology, and I must say that I do not see where any evangelical Christian can deny the existence of unseen spiritual malevolence. Jesus' and his apostles' ministries were marked by legitimate exorcisms, something that seems to have been explicitly differentiated from their healing ministries per se (see, e.g., Matthew 8:16; Mark 6:13; Acts 5:16). Why, then, should we believe an exorcism ministry today would be illegitimate? Just because we're more "enlightened" about the way the brain works?

Much can be said, of course, about the links between biblical exorcism and the advancements in modern Christian psychotherapy; I will not explore that here. What fascinates me more is how so many people--even some biblically literate Christians--readily discount the possibility of a real-life demonic possession (or even oppressive influence), but they are fully convinced, on the authority of their own dubious "encounters", that poltergeists and other ghostly apparitions are all too real. The irony is that whereas the Bible explicitly affirms one, it seems to implicitly deny the other--and the Bible's perspective is precisely the opposite of our spiritual intuitions! It is actually MORE biblically rational to believe in the sorts of malevolence you see in a movie like THE EXORCIST than to believe in a haunting story like THE OTHERS--at least AS PORTRAYED by such popular accounts. (For my part, by the way, I am inclined to attribute paranormal activity, including the more compelling kind that is "documented" on shows like GHOST HUNTERS to demonic or angelic activity rather than to the spirits of departed humans.)

I sense that this derives from our ontology. We are spiritual creatures--though not MERELY spiritual creatures, since we are persons incomplete without a body, which is different from angels and demons. I suspect that gives us an inborn sense of the presence of spiritual entities beyond our sensory capacities, and that naturally arouses our curiosity. When the Bible talks about angels and demons, we sense in our gut that it is right to speak about other spiritual beings besides us. The big challenge seems to lie in whether we will submit our intellectual curiosities and empirical investigations into the unseen spirit world to the explanatory paradigm of the Bible, instead of leaning on our own wishful thinking.
I wish politicians would only publicly talk about things that directly relate to how they do their jobs.
I must be among the minority. I believe the "Father of Lies" is a real entity and that he is perfectly willing to interfere in our lives wherever and whenever he sees fit. If there is Good, then there is Evil. Both are equally real. I have some personal experience that makes it very hard to take the politically correct position that evil in the world is just a product of misinformation or accidental error. IT has a will and it knows full well when it is deceiving us. The biggest joke of all is how well we have been trained to think that Satan does not exist. I don't care who Rick Santorum is, I applaud the courage it takes to call a spade a spade. And I'm sorry that we are all so smug and self-satisfied that we can assume that anyone who believes in Satan would not make a good President. All it takes to be cast into outer darkness around here is to believe in an unpopular idea-- no matter how true. In answer to the question (how should we talk about the Devil), RESPECT and humility would be good places to start BUT with FAITH that our Almighty God is able to protect us.
But then how could they get elected? The American people want to know. I suspect more people make their choices based on appearances in People magazine and late night talk shows than positions taken on any given issue.

 

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