WE DON’T KNOW HOW TO
TALK ABOUT EVIL ANYMORE
A symptom of the moral/cultural change that has taken place in our country is the difficulty people have nowadays with concepts, language and imagery that are traditional expressions of religious faith. In the common conversation of today we’re more likely to hear lines from famous movies or popular TV shows than the scriptural quotations and Bible-inspired clichés that once peppered everyday speech.
This unease is especially acute when we’re talking about some evil act or horrific wrong — of which there are always plenty to talk about, the bombing at the Boston Marathon being only one recent example. Where years ago it would have been common for someone to note the hand of Satan in a tragedy like that, now such an attribution would be unusual, at least made in public.
Maybe we can blame it on the late great comic, Flip Wilson, whose “Geraldine” character had a ready excuse for every misdeed: “The devil made me do it.” That all-too-human deflection of personal guilt was all-too-easy to identify with.
But today we have a devil of a time with satanic or demonic references. They make us all squirmy with their seemingly unsophisticated implications.
This discomfort was on display in a small flap over a commentary on The Christian Post by Dan Delzell pastor of Wellspring Lutheran Church in Papillion, Nebraska. Titled “Americans Are Influenced by Jesus and Satan,” Delzell’s essay noted how moral conflicts inherent in marriage breakdown, turning away from faith, loss of pride in national identity, and other vexing current situations demonstrate an ongoing contention between Christ and the devil.
“Jesus loves Americans, just like He loves all the people of the world,” Delzell wrote. “Satan hates everybody. Jesus died for the sins of everyone to rescue us from death and hell. Satan is a schemer who loves death and wants people in hell.”
He went on to illustrate further:
“Jesus leads people into the light through the Word of God. Satan works to get people to doubt and reject the Bible. Jesus knows that the Scriptures are absolutely true. Satan knows the same thing, but he doesn’t want you to know it. So he works hard to plant seeds of doubt in your mind concerning God’s Word, just like he did with Adam and Eve.
“Satan doesn’t want Americans to understand our Christian heritage as a nation. Jesus knows how this nation was founded largely upon Christian principles and biblical values. Just look at all the references to God and His Word that are on the walls of the government buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C.”
This was all too much for Dakota O’Leary, who describes herself as a “freethinker, and often sassy, scholar of theology and literature.” Writing on God Discussion, a blog/journal for people interested in spiritual matters but who don’t necessarily subscribe to a specific faith, O’Leary observed:
“When things go wrong in this country, as they often do, many conservative publications love to blame liberals. When that fails, the fault of the cultural issues of this country has a simple cause to hardline fundamentalist Christian conservatives — it’s Satan’s fault.”
She offered a (somewhat simplified) recounting of Delzell’s points:
“…Satan loves to kill unborn babies, hates marriage between a man and a woman, and Delzell says that Satan convinces young people that they are incapable of restraint, and, more to the point, that Satan doesn’t want Americans to recognize the Christian heritage of this country.”
O’Leary equated Delzell’s argument with a graduation speech given in 2008 by then-Senator Rick Santorum at Ave Maria University in Florida. She reposted a mocking comment on that speech by the conservative-bashing website, Right Wing Watch:
“Santorum told the students at Ave Maria how lucky they were to be living in a time when God’s Army is more needed than ever because all of the major institutions in society were under attack by Satan.
“The audio of Santorum’s remarks is still posted on the Ave Maria website and the bulk of his speech was dedicated to explaining how God had used him, his political career, and even the death of his son Gabriel in the fight to outlaw abortion in America.”
All of this O’Leary said helps to explain the exodus from “religious fundamentalism” which she maintains is taking place.
Writer/stand-up comedian, Ed Brayton, also made sport of Delzell’s portrait of Christ and Satan contending for America’s soul. Writing on Freethought Blogs, Brayton dismissed Delzell as…
“always good for a chuckle or two. On first read, his new column might appear to offer a classic fallacy of the excluded middle because he claims that you’re either influenced by Jesus or Satan, no other possibilities in between. But since neither of those people/entities actually exist, it’s more like a fallacy of the excluded reality.”
Adding pettiness to atheism, Brayton ranted:
“I love the fact that his writing appears to be aimed at about a 4th grade reading level — very short, declarative sentences, all offered without a shred of evidence or rational argument. But I love the idea of being under the influence of Satan. Can you be arrested for driving under the influence of Satan? Is there a breathalyzer test for it?”
Setting aside the condescension and ideological biases on display, the writings of O’Leary, Brayton and Right Wing Watch reflect the cultural challenge posed by religious language these days, particularly as it pertains to the reality of evil.
Even without getting into considerations of faith, talking about evil is a drag. It forces you to be so — well, so judgmental. We’re uncomfortable enough confronting other people’s lifestyle choices. True wickedness brings us completely to a halt. We tend to cast about desperately to make some sense of it.
“Now don’t forget, those Tsarnaev brothers had a hard time adjusting to life in the United States. And there’s all that strife in Chechnya. You have to take those things into account.”
When it comes to addressing the figure of Satan, things get even murkier. Not only are we thrust right into the thick of Judeo-Christian moral tradition, we also run smack into all that lingering medieval imagery of devils, fallen angels, and the host of other nasty beings that populate video games and fantasy fiction.
Yet, evil is real. Very real. Too real. Sometimes it’s so extreme as to be unexplainable by the measurements of skeptical, scientific modernism. You don’t have to picture a half-reptile/half-bat winged creature to recognize that a spirit of malevolence can be so strong, so pervasive that it seems to have a life of its own. How do you explain the depredations of a Lenin, a Mao, a Pol Pot, or that universal icon of evil recognized even by the Left, Hitler?
On those occasions when we’re able to track the progression of some criminal monster from youthful misbehavior to full-fledged iniquity, all we end up with is a story of a process. We can never quite get our hands on those — you should excuse the expression — demons driving him.
The traditional language of religion actually offers us an advantage, here, quaint as the words might sound to us today. When a person of faith uses the name, Satan, you know what he’s talking about, even if you can’t be sure what that person thinks the devil might be like, and even if you don’t believe Satan exists.
Long usage promotes common understanding. And understanding promotes moral clarity. And — Lord knows — we could do with a whole lot more of that.
…and Ed Brayton’s snide little burp…
…and the Right Wing Watch coverage of Rick Santorum’s graduation address (no doubt assuming he made a fool of himself as right-wing religious nuts always do)…
Talk about awkwardness with religious language — check out a TV weatherman’s verbal gymnastics trying to avoid thanking God for a disaster averted…