Speaking of the Devil

By Jonathan Storment

I want to start a series on Spiritual Warfare for the next few weeks. The series is part review of a great new book I read, and part autobiographical on how helpful I find spiritual warfare terminology as a pastor in a local church.

Full Disclosure: I go to church with Richard Beck, the author of the book I am reviewing. He is a good friend and I am anything but unbiased in this book review. But I think I would love this book even if I didn’t know Richard.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 11.45.32 AMIt is about how a progressive Christian worldview, filled with doubts and disenchantment can revisit those doubts, specifically when it comes to things like spiritual warfare and the Devil. (image)

I went to a conservative Christian college, and both my roommate and I were Bible majors. We were taking a class with a very eccentric and brilliant Old Testament professor, and at one point in the class the subject of the Devil came up.

But this professor talked about the Devil in a way that we had never heard before. He called him The Satan or Accuser, and he hinted around that he might not even be real.

So my roommate actually took this professor out to lunch, and in a whispered conversation he promised him that he didn’t have a tape recorder and he wasn’t trying to trap him, but would he please tell us was the Devil real or not?

You know, the usual stuff you talk about over lunch.

Over the past few years, whenever preacher friends hang out with my family, my wife has started doing something of a practical joke that succeeds in making them feel awkward. She waits until they are nice and relaxed and then she will just bluntly ask them “Do you believe in a literal devil?” She did this at first for her own curiosity. But the past half a dozen times she has done it for the amusement of watching people squirm as they tried to nuance something very complex that has been hijacked by people with an over-active imagination and an emphasis on certain Scriptures.

For some of you this whole conversation doesn’t make sense at all. Of course there is a Devil, Jesus was tempted by someone in the wilderness, after all. The Bible clearly says that Job’s suffering was instigated by Satan, and we all know that he prowls around like a roaring lion. So what’s the problem?

For others, the notion of a literal devil smacks of anti-intellectual rubbish. We love Jesus and are all in on the love and mercy bits of the Christian tradition, but just because the Bible talks about dragons doesn’t mean we have to believe in them to have faith in Jesus.

Sure there is evil, but there isn’t really a personification of evil, especially if he’s got to have a red tail and a pitchfork.

To both of those groups, I would love to introduce you to Richard Beck. Richard is a good friend of mine, and a brilliant guy. And he recently wrote a book about the Devil called “Reviving Old Scratch: Devil and Demons for the Doubters and Disenchanted

Beck is writing to and as one of the people in the 2nd group, the book is part memoir on his journey of skepticism and disenchantment toward realizing that a robust Christian faith must involve spiritual warfare.

Here’s how Beck says it:

Those doubting and disenchanted Christians often describe themselves with a bewildering array of labels – labels such as liberal, progressive, emergent, post-fundamentalist, or post-evangelical. A common thread running through these labels is an eagerness to embrace science, a faith that unapologetically embraces the current scientific consensus in biology, geology, cosmology, and every other scientific discipline.

Now, a scientifically educated and sophisticated faith is a wonderful thing, but scientific literacy has a price. Embracing science can cause us to doubt the spookier aspects of faith.

So what does that mean?

Instead of starting with a picture of a devil in red tights, or Dante’s inferno, what if we started with something more common to everyone’s experience.

Have you ever been trying to write something and just watched the cursor on the blank page staring back at you mockingly? Have you ever been trying to compose a piece of music, and that next stanza just won’t come?

Or have you ever been wanting to spend time with a friend who needed you, but you just couldn’t seem to muster the energy to get up off the couch and make it over to her house.

Have you ever felt that it was more than just writers block or laziness that you were bumping up against in those moments, but something that was actually “tempting” you from contributing to the good of the world?

The comedian Amy Poehler talks about the “Demon Voices” that come in her head when she tries to create, telling her that her ideas aren’t good or worthy of being seen and heard by others. This is what the author Steven Pressfield calls “The Resistance” (He wrote a brilliant book all about it called “the War of Art.”)

At the risk of being Captain Obvious, I think it is important to point out that both Poehler and Pressfield are writing from a purely non-religious standpoint. They are talking about something that happens when you try to do something worthwhile in the world and are describing some kind of pushback that they sense. So when we talk about the Devil, what if we started there?

Here’s how Beck talks about this in his book:

When I talk about Satan or the Devil in this book I’m pointing to that which is adversarial to the kingdom of God. And while Christians might disagree about the exact nature of the forces arrayed against the kingdom, we recognize these forces as real and active in the world, forces that need to be fought and resisted. That struggle and the fight is what I’m calling “spiritual warfare.” In this book, “spiritual warfare” is shorthand for the Christ-shaped pushback against all the forces in the world working antagonistically against the kingdom of God. Pg 9

I’d love to have a Christianity full of rainbows and daisies, full of love and inclusion. But there are forces working against love and inclusion in the world, and some of those forces are at work in my own heart and mind. We call those forces hate and exclusion, to say nothing about everything else that is tearing the world to shreds, pushing the loving and gracious rule of God out of the world.

Hate is the satan of love.
 Exclusion is the satan of inclusion.
War is the satan of peace.
Oppression is the satan of justice. Tearing down is the satan of building up. Competition is the satan of cooperation. Revenge is the satan of mercy.
Harm is the satan of care.
Hostility is the satan of reconciliation.

There is a satan to the kingdom of God.
If you follow Jesus, you know there is anti-Jesus

I want to spend the next few weeks walking through a few key ideas in Beck’s book, but for now I think it’s important to say that this is a book that I didn’t know the world needed until I read it, and now I would like everyone I know to read it. Richard asks some great questions, has some profound insights and really can encourage dialogue between two groups of Christians who often look down on each other.

And he also gave me an answer for my wife when she tries to make the conversation awkward.

Yes Leslie there is a Satan.


About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.