Friday, March 13, 2015

The Devil, the Demons, and the Scandalized American Media

Amanda Marcotte has written an article for Slate.com entitled ‘Why the Fringe Fundamentalist Belief in Demonic Possession has Real-Life Dangers’.  If one was looking for examples of how much pejorative flashing-red-light verbiage one could put in a sentence, this would rank close to the top.  Her choice of a picture of Pat Robertson just below the title goes far towards completing the circuit of associating traditional Christianity with utter loopiness.  What follows is a series of accounts of so –called Christians doing awful things to other people and blaming it on the existence of demons or the devil.  ‘All this may seem too outrageous to believe,’ writes Marcotte, ‘but the sad fact of the matter is that there are many pockets of evangelical Christianity that believe that bad or sinful behavior is caused by demons literally possessing or oppressing people and therefore need to be exorcised.’  Marcotte’s strategy is that of guilt by association – all Christians who believe in a personal devil and in the activity of demons are, by association, just as dangerous as the crazy people and extreme examples she cites as her evidence.  It’s a rather crude attempt at literary shaming, intended to put all Christians in their place, or in this case, in their marginalized discredited fundamentalist box.

Marcotte's caption to this picture in her article:
Pat Robertson has been vocal about his belief that people can be possessed by demons
Yes, I'm sure it's shocking, if not sensationalist, to discover that there are conservative Christians who are mentally unbalanced and who say and do outrageous things.  But I'm guessing that there is a comparable percentage of people from a secularist perspective prone to do and say similar outrageous things.  This is a symptom of our common humanity, not of being a 'fringe' and thus discredited religious minority.  Marcotte's attempt to discredit 'Fundamentalist' Christians because of their belief in demonic possession reveals more about her attitude towards Christianity than it sheds light on the particular beliefs of some marginalized (by her) 'fringe' group.  I can only assume that she simply isn't aware that almost all Christians (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal) for almost all of Christian history, beginning with Jesus Himself, have believed in the reality of personalized evil.  This is not just a case of intellectual snobbery or bigotry on Marcotte's part, it's actually a reflection of a significant amount of sheer ignorance, smack in the middle of a topic she is presuming to lecture the rest of us about.  Just because a very large segment of the population doesn't share one's secularist presuppositions doesn't give one the right to subject them to ridicule by association.  I'm pretty certain she would not appreciate it if the same tactics were being used on her.  It rather exposes the fact that, at least in this case, while she appears to know exactly what she wants to say, she doesn't appear to have a clear grasp on what it is she is talking about.

Assumptions that seem to inform Marcotte and others in her circle.

What Marcotte and I can agree on is that there are a lot of ignorant people out there who take swags of what they heard at church or saw on TV and scraps of what they read online here or heard from friends there and construct the world-view in which they live.  This is done, for the most part, without thinking critically about the ideas they are embracing as true.  Religious people do this all the time, but - and here is the surprise - so do non-religious people.  Non-religious people are just as prone to credulity as those who profess religion.  What Marcotte seems to imply, and where I disagree with the whole thrust of her article, is that if an idiot who professes to be religious says or does something injudicious, then the religion itself must be the problem.  And while I have observed this level of prejudice against Christians on Slate.com before and have come to accept that when it comes to reporting on these sorts of issues this website is more concerned with creating propaganda than it is with wrestling deeply with issues, I have not gone the next step and impugned all journalism because this particular journalist refuses to acknowledge that she wears the rose-colored glasses of a particular secularist world-view and assumes, rather blithely, that she sees clearly and can speak for and to everyone. 

Jesus dealt with the devil

I believe in the devil and in the demons.  I believe this because my Church, over a long history, has experienced these things to be real.  I believe this because my Lord, Jesus Christ, confronted the reality of the devil and the demons again and again during the course of his ministry.  And I believe this because the evil that is being experienced today by so many people in so many places seems more than the sum of its parts.  And I believe this because I have witnessed, when praying for someone, the terrible presence of a power that was seeking the destruction of the person for whom we were praying.  I’ve been asked on a number of occasions in the classes I’ve taught in Ethiopia and Kenya – ‘Why don’t people in the West experience the reality of the spiritual world the way we do?’  My only answer is that the devil and the demons may show their power to cow people into serving them over here in Ethiopia and Kenya, but in the West, they don’t need to do much of anything.  The culture does such a good job of marginalizing and ridiculing and discrediting Christianity and making people content with lies, why would the devil and the demons want to step in and cause a useless distraction?

Jesus dealt with demons

The Apostle Paul urges Christians to ‘Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.’ (Ephesians 6:11-12)  The Apostle Peter warns, ‘Be sober, be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brothers and sisters throughout the world.’ (1 Peter 5:8-9)




It’s only been in recent years and amongst the secularized Western elite that questions have ever been raised as to the reality of personalized evil.  For the entirety of Christian history, Christians have seen their calling as advancing the gospel of salvation into the territory of human hearts controlled by the evil one.  The devil is seen as a usurper who destroys those whom he deceives.  The Bible reveals that God did not abandon the captives to their fate but launched the rescue mission we now describe as the incarnation, the passion, the resurrection and the ascension of Christ.  Jesus has broken the devil’s power and the Church is called to occupy his former territory in Jesus’ name.  It’s an awesome calling, and one that too many in Christ’s Church have forgotten.

But the devil is not going without a fight, and it is terrible and bloody and ugly.  The saints all bear witness to this fight, and it continues to the present day.  In the face of such anti-Christian screed produced by the likes of Marcotte, it would be good to remind ourselves of what a clear-eyed Christian perspective on the evil one actually looks like.  St. Anthony the Great, the Coptic monk who lived for 105 years, was known for his particularly violent battles with the demons.  This is what he says in a letter about the demons:

St. Anthony the Great
I want you to know, my children, that I cease not to pray to God for you night and day, that He may open for you the eyes of your hearts to see the many hidden malignities which the evil spirits pour upon us daily.  I want God to give you a heart of knowledge and a spirit of discernment, that you may be able to offer your hearts as a pure sacrifice before the Father, in great holiness, without blemish.  Truly my children, they envy us at all times, with their evil counsel, and hidden persecution, and subtle malice, and spirit of seduction, and their blasphemous thoughts, and their hardening of heart, and their many griefs which they bring upon us at every hour, and the faintings which they make our heart to faint daily, and all the anger and mutual slander which they teach us, and the self-justifications in what we do, and the judgments which they set in our hearts, causing us…to judge our fellow…and the contempt which they set in our hearts by pride, when we are hard-hearted and despise each other, when we are bitter against each other with our hard words, grieving at every hour, accusing each other and not ourselves, thinking that our toil is from our fellows, sitting in judgment on what appears outwardly, while the robber is all within our house [i.e. the devil is in us]; and the disputes and divisions wherein we dispute against each other until we establish our own way, to appear justified in the face of each other. 
St. John Climacus' Ladder of Divine Ascent
The evil spirits make us jealous for works which we are not able to accomplish, and cause us to faint in tasks in which we are engaged, and which are profitable for us.  They make us laugh when it is time for weeping and weep when it is time for laughter, and simply turn us aside at every time from the right way…  But when they fill our hearts with these deceits, and we feed on them and they become our food, then God is patient with us and He comes to us to bring us back again…  Therefore weary not of praying for the goodness of the Father, if perchance His help may come upon you, that you may teach yourselves to know what is right… 

In truth, my children, I tell you that every person who delights in his own will, and is subdued to his own thoughts, and takes up the things sown in his own heart, and rejoices in them, and supposes in his heart that these are some great chosen mystery and justifies himself in what he does – the soul of such a man is a lair of evil spirits, counseling him to evil, and his body a store of evil mysteries which it hides in itself: and over such a one the demons have great power, because he has not dishonored  them before all men… 
St Marina the Great
For they know that our perdition is from our neighbor, and our life also from our neighbor….  For this cause, therefore, he who sins against his neighbor sins against himself, and he who does evil to his neighbor does evil to himself; and he who does good to his neighbor does good to himself….  Therefore, let us rouse up God in ourselves by support of one another, and deliver ourselves to death for our souls and for each other; and if we do this, we shall be manifesting the very substance of God’s compassion for us.  Let us not be lovers of ourselves so as not to become subject to the power of evil spirits.

St. Anthony, Letter VI, quoted in Thomas Hopko, The Lenten Spring (Crestwood, NY:  St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), 77-79.


And so closing our circle: Yes, Amanda Marcotte brings with lurid force the stunning revelation that there are some certifiably loopy people out there.  And some of them are Christians.  Shocking, I know.  And wonderfully distracting from what turns out to be the real issue.  That there is evil, and there are demons, whose raison d'etre is our destruction.  But what may surprise is that their context is not abstract; rather their context is relational.  Hell will result from our relationship with our neighbor, says Anthony; as will salvation.  It’s there that the devil intrigues and the demons play. And while the means of our deception and destruction may be legion, the preferred method of the hour, at least in my experience, is simply that of being right in one’s own eyes.  Works every time. (Even on Slate). Sadly.

As Jesus Himself taught us to pray: 
Deliver us from [the] evil [one].

St. George