Culture At Large

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

Paul Vander Klay

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.

It’s hard to read the New Testament and imagine that Jesus didn’t believe in a real creature named Satan.

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.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, Politics