He is the evil one, the adversary, the prince of darkness, the Father of Lies. Among his many proper names are Satan, Lucifer and Mephistopheles. Skeptics dismiss him as "Old Scratch"; the Rolling Stones knew him as "a man of wealth and taste." But in every language he answers to his generic title: Diabolos, El Diablo, the Devil.
Throughout most of Western history, the Devil was both familiar and feared. Jesus was tempted by him. Saint Anthony wrestled with him. Luther mocked him but trembled in his presence. For the Puritans of New England, Satan was never just a metaphor for evil: he was Evil personified, an intimate cosmic presence transcending individual sins and sinners. In Milton's "Paradise Lost," his story achieved the status of a Western classic.
Then came the Enlightenment, with its sunny view of human nature and distaste for the supernatural. Almost overnight, the figure of Satan vanished like a nightmare from the moral imagination of the West. (Voltaire proclaimed "Paradise Lost" "a disgusting fantasy.") Sin, too, gradually disappeared from public consciousness. In today's post-Enlightenment, postmodern culture, words like good and evil are often deemed too judgmental for public discourse. Even from pulpits, sin receives only mumbled acknowledgment. And Satan? Today's upbeat brand of preachers rarely mention him at all, except as a quaint figure of speech.
Is Satan dead?
To many, the question may seem frivolous. Yet a culture that now sees angels everywhere may be ready to confront history's most celebrated angel, the Devil. According to a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, two out of three adult Americans do indeed believe that the Devil exists. For a fourth of them, however, he is merely a symbol of man's inhumanity to man. Among Christians, only the born-again reveal a robust sense of the Devil's presence. Sixty percent of born-again believers report that they have been tempted by the Devil and half as many say they have met someone whom they thought was in Satan's control. Many see the Devil's hand in social problems. "Satan is the enemy of families, of children," says the Rev. Jerry Falwell. "The drug problem that is destroying so many children is a program straight from hell."
In contrast, only 26 percent of Roman Catholics say they have been tempted by Satan and 31 percent of nonevangelical Protestants insist that there is no such thing as the Devil. Social class is a factor. "Look at the parking lot outside any church," suggests Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow. "If you see Lexuses and Cadillacs, you won't hear Satan preached inside. If you see a lot of pickup trucks, you will." Education plays a crucial role as well: college graduates, the NEWSWEEK Poll shows, are twice as likely as Americans with no higher education to deny the Devil's existence. The secular university, after all, is the Enlightenment's most enduring achievement.
It may be hard to be good without God, but evil, it seems, has no need of Satan as an explanation. The evidence of persistent evil is manifest everywhere: in the mass graves in Bosnia, in the broken bodies in Oklahoma City and--as the world recently paused to remind itself-in the twisted wasteland images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 50 years ago. Europe, Asia, Africa--wherever we turn, the century now drawing to a close has witnessed evil on a scale unmatched by any other. In an earlier America, evidence such as this would have immediately evoked a name, a face and an explanation: Satan's powerful dominion over a sinful, fallen humanity. Today, evil is experienced as random and ordinary, devoid of cosmic significance. "Shit happens," we say with a shrug.
Now comes a powerful new book of cultural criticism to remind Americans of what they have lost. In "The Death of Satan (274 pages. Farrat, Straus and Giroux. $23), Andrew Del-banco, a professor of American literature at Columbia University, laments the loss of the sense of radical evil that the Devil once embodied. Like the poet Wallace Stevens, he believes that the demise of Satan in modern American culture is "a tragedy for the imagination." Although evil remains "an inescapable experience for all of us," Delbanco argues, "we have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes." Faced with serial killers, maniacal despots and ruthless genocide, we first look for psychological, sociological or even genetic explanations. But even though Hitler may have been a sociopath, the tepid terminology of the social sciences cannot capture-much less explain--the depth of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot: their names bespeak an inhuman appetite for evil that sends the secular imagination reaching for old religious metaphors. "We feel something," Delbanco writes, "that our culture no longer gives us the vocabulary to express."
In demanding a cultural conversation about evil, Delbanco wants to broaden the revival of moral concern in contemporary political discourse. The renewed emphasis on virtue, the call-most recently from black Americans-for moral responsibility, and the political debates over family life and values: all are promising prologues to a reconsideration of evil itself. But there are real social risks in raising the figure of Satan. Both the left and the fight in American politics routinely demonize each other. And as the bombing in Oklahoma City revealed, there are armed anti alienated factions within the body politic who regard the federal government itself as a demonic presence.
Delbanco is an odd and reluctant advocate for the Devil. He is an academic, is Jewish and identifies with "secular liberalism." Much as he dislikes the "fundamentalist demonizing," Delbanco is equally critical of the "liberal psychologizing" that tries to explain evil away. "The idea of evil," he insists, is something "on which the health of society depends. We have an obligation to name evil and oppose it, in ourselves as well as in others." This view, he readily acknowledges, runs counter to the moral relativism of secular intellectuals who hold that evil exists in the eye of the beholder. It also runs afoul of the postmodernist tendency in higher education to explain all formulations of good and evil as authoritarian and repressive categories imposed by a society's ruling caste.
But evil is and always has been a mystery that transcends personal morality and social taboos. Children die, the innocent suffer, good men are corrupted. Crimes like the Holocaust literally cry out to heaven for an explanation. Evil on this scale is never banal (as Hannah Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann), and its existence has always been a powerful argument against belief in a good, all-powerful God. But evil also subverts the human spirit, confounding the complacent moralisms of the confident skeptic. "My dear brothers," warned the French poet Charles Baudelaire more than a century ago, "never forget, when you hear the progress of the Enlightenment praised, that the Devil's cleverest ploy is to persuade you that he doesn't exist."
In short, human beings experience evil as primordial, something that exists outside as well as inside themselves. It is something so persistent and pervasive that only myths like that of Satan can capture it for the human imagination. Delbanco is not arguing for a return to a literal belief in Satan. What he does suggest is that secular American society lacks a profound and coherent sense of evil such as our American forefathers experienced when they took the Devil seriously.
Outside secular intellectual circles, there are many pockets of society where the Devil is still an invasive presence. "I want to be certain that the Devil gets identified as the Devil and not simply taken for this or that psychological tendency," author Flannery O'Connor said of her work 40 years ago. In her domain--the fundamentalist, largely rural South-as in many of the nation's small towns and inner-city neighborhoods, wrestling with Satan is never just an intellectual exercise. It's spiritual warfare.
The Rev. Howard Creecy Jr., a black Atlanta pastor, has been teaching a course on spiritual warfare to ministers of the Progressive National Baptist Convention for the last six years. When his audience ballooned from 45 to more than 400 clergy, he had to take on another teacher and divide the class. The real Satan is "no pitchforked, arrow-tongued, redhead Devil," Creecy says. "The church has always been better informed than the world about what Satan is and how he manifests himself and invades our lives." For Creecy, Satan's legions are no different now than they were in Biblical times, though the way they inhabit youth-through drugs and violence-is very modern. "If you look in the eyes of your son or daughter who's been in the streets for years, you don't recognize them," Creecy told a recent class. "Well, the deal is, they are full of legions of demons, and they are living in the inner-city graveyard of this cultural crucifixion that is going on."
Among Pentecostals, the nation's fastest-growing Christian movement, the Devil is regularly engaged through exorcisms and other ritual forms of"deliverance" from his grasp. In the world of Christian fiction, the hottest novels are those by Frank Perettie, a Pentecostal author whose spiritual thrillers dramatize the supernatural warfare between angels and demons in small American towns. "The Oath,"just published, is the fourth in a series that have sold more than 5 million copies since 1986.
But apart from the spiritual warriors, the Devil has become a bit player in the wider evangelical world. In the latest issue of Leadership, a magazine for Protestant pastors, a discussion of topics ministers preach from the pulpit shows that Satan gets the silent treatment. Building a happy home and raising healthy-minded children are hot subjects, especially in suburban megachurches where the emphasis is on attracting new members. "They don't want to talk about things that make people squirm," says Leadership editor Kevin A. Miller.
At the christian booksellers convention in Denver earlier this year, the accent was on what Jesus-not the Devil--can do. A check of Christian publishers' lists showed that under "S" there were hundreds of titles for "success" and "seasonal" and almost none at all for "Satan" or "sin." Jesus T shirts abounded, but only one referred to the Devil: SATAN IS A POO-POO HEAD. Reassuring angels were everywhere--in books, on cheap earrings and expensive gem-embedded pendants. But demons were limited to alarmist tracts warning against seduction by New Age cults.
"For Pentecostals and other charismatic Christians, the Devil looms too large," says theologian David Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. "For evangelicals he is too weak." In books like Peretti's novels, Wells observes, the Devil is overpowering, leaving little room for human sin and weakness. On the other hand, says Wells, "we evangelicals are feasting on the crumbs under the psychologists' table and trying to make a meal of it. You hear it in the language, where being good is translated into feeling good. We're getting a Christianity that is more interested in wholeness than in holiness."
Among American Catholics, Satan remains a vestigial figure, even among conservatives. Although Catholics pledge once a year to "renounce Satan" while ritually renewing their baptismal vows at mass, some trendy priests ask that they renounce specific social evils like war and racism instead. "In the last 30 years, says Lawrence Cunningham, head of the theology department at Notre Dame University, "I've heard only one sermon on Satan. I remember it because it remains a unique experience."
Perhaps as a reaction to fundamentalism, mainline Protestants have effectively exorcised the Devil from their working vocabulary. Among Methodists and other socially conscious Protestants, it is enough to wrestle with the world--and maybe the flesh--without conjuring up the Devil. "Alas, we have become, in our Protestantism, more virtuous than the myths that taught us virtue," writes author John Updike, one of the few serious contemporary novelists to dare give the Devil fictional flesh. To many feminists, Satan is a bogey created by patriarchal religion. As pioneer feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a descendant of the Protestant theologian Lyman Beecher, put it: "The Devil is a necessary component in male religion because a God without an adversary is inconceivable to the masculine mind."
Most scholars locate the origins of the Devil in the dualistic religion of ancient Persia. The Persians imagined the world as a battleground between two equally powerful antagonists: a Prince of Chaos and Darkness, who struggled against the Creator of Order and Light. The ancient Hebrews had their Satan ("Accuser" in Hebrew), but he was merely a member of Yahweh's heavenly court who roamed the earth testing the fidelity of God's chosen people. Only in the last two centuries before Christ did the Devil emerge among Jews as a powerful figure in his own right. His biography was developed in apocalyptic Jewish writings that told of a world fallen trader the dominion of a powerful opponent of God. Eventually, these apocalyptic sects identified the Devil with the serpent who tempted Eve in Eden, and with the fall of the "Son of the morning" ("Lucifer") described by the prophet Isaiah. When the Messiah came, it was believed, he would vanquish Satan and inaugurate a new era for Yahweh and his faithful remnant.
As Delbanco argues in "The Death of Satan," the Western understanding of evil owes as much to Saint Augustine as it does to the idea of the Devil. As a young man, Augustine was a first-class sinner: a womanizer, gambler and brilliant debunker of the virtuous. He was also a Manichaean, believing that the conflict between good and evil that he experienced within himself reflected a real war between rival cosmic forces. But after his conversion to Christianity, Augustine rejected his sinful ways both as an offense against God and as self-hatred. Evil, he wrote in his "Confessions," "has no being of its own," but exists only as the absence or perversion of the good created by God. In other words, evil on the cosmic scale is like an entropic black hole in the orders of creation; on the personal level, it manifests itself in acts that deny or negate what a human being is or ought to be.
In the imagination of Dante and other classic Christian artists, Satan came to personify this evil as the power of opposition and negation. He is, according to Christian tradition, a pure spirit created good by God who rebelled of his own free will and now preys on a fallen humanity. He is a liar and seducer of immense intelligence who makes evil look like good. Milton's Satan nicely captures the Devil's despairing sense of permanent isolation from God that is the heart of evil: "Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell." In sum, evil in the classic Christian sense is the negation of the good that God permits, that the Devil wills and promotes, and that human beings freely choose when they sin.
All this and more was the legacy that the Puritans bequeathed to American culture. How is it, Delbanco wants to know, that "Americans lost the sense of evil." And what, if anything, should be done to get it back? Only by re-examining what happened to the original Puritan consciousness, Delbanco argues, can we begin to understand our own troubled ambivalence in the face of evil.
Those stern New Englanders, Delbanco observes, were seized by a profound Calvinistic sense of personal iniquity. As radical Protestants they saw themselves as sinful creatures whom only a gracious but angry God could save. Pride, lust, envy--these were the internal signs of Satan's presence in the self, and no one could tell just by looking which among them God had rescued from the elusive Devil's grasp. "This peculiarly calm self-loathing," Delbanco writes, ". . . was the opening mood of American civilization." But the mood was of short duration. In Delbanco's telling, "the disassociation of the Devil from the self marked the beginning of his end as a significant cultural symbol" in American life.
Like other scholars of puritan culture, Delbanco points to the Salem witch trials of 1691-92 as the turning point in Satan's cultural influence. In a period of four months, 18 women and a man were charged with witchcraft and hanged. But the reaction to the trials, even among the hapless women's judges, was so great that the Devil and his hunters quickly became the subjects of social satire. Why? As Delbanco retells the story, the trials were the culmination of a cultural process-evident in Europe as well-by which the elusive and invisible Satan became all too palpable as a physical presence. "The Devil, once he is visualized and given voice," Delbanco observes, "tends to run away with the show." In other words, by demonizing fellow citizens as witches, the Puritans turned Satan from "an attribute of the serf" into a fantastic external figure of superstition--"something that educated men could not believe in." By the beginning of the 18th century, Delbanco concludes, "the Devil, like an old actor whose declamatory style has become comic, was losing his audience."
But Satan died to American culture for another reason as well. As mobility and commerce took hold in American society, the vices once identified with Satan--pride, cunning and serf-assertion--became virtues required for survival. "This installation of ambition as the one common good was the great transformation of nineteenth-century American life," Delbanco writes. "There could be no place for the old Devil in this new world, whose religion was pride of self."
Looking at the present from the perspective of the past, Del-banco sees that Satan, "always receding and always sought after," has provided two very different functions in American history. Sometimes Satan has been used to demonize others--immigrants, Jews, Catholics, rival political or ideological movements. At other times, the Devil has been a potent symbol for our own capacity for evil--as in the rhetoric of Lincoln and of Martin Luther King Jr. "Since the experience of evil will not go away," he concludes, "one or the other of these ways of coping with it sooner or later always comes back."
But will we recognize him? Without a transcendent God, the Devil has no meaning and evil is just a metaphor for very bad luck. Like God, the Devil cannot be seen, only imagined. In Milton and Melville, Dante and Dostoevsky, the Devil found writers worthy of his stature. In these classics of the religious imagination, evil disturbs us because it is both repellent and alluring. If the Devil has died to American culture perhaps it is because we no longer see in his myth the image of our own worst inclinations. But evil, if the Devil is to be believed, is more than personal sin. At times, evil so thoroughly triumphs in an individual, a society or a culture that it assumes a personality of its own. In moments like these, we can truly speak of the Devil.
In a Newsweek Poll, 66% of adult Americans-and 85% of evangelical Protestants--say they believe the Devil exists
28% think the Devil is a fallen angel; 31% view the Devil as the source of evil; 24% as a symbol of man's inhumanity to man
37% say they have been tempted by the Devil; 61% of evangelical Protestants say they have been