Coming this Thursday, I am going to start a series of posts called "Tables in the Wilderness," which will be twelve reflections on faith and art, in particular the art of Story and storytelling. They'll be snippets, mostly, lengthy as they are, as this is all going to be part of a larger work. The outline thus far is looking fairly good, with twelve total posts planned. One of them will address Satan, though it is to come rather late (it's planned for number eight as of right now), but I already started working on it yesterday evening. In a sense, I felt a bit drained creatively once it was finished, so I'm pulling an easy out and just posting a portion of it here for you to read and pick apart. Sorry, sometimes I need to protect my creative mental space and I just can't scrounge up enough to make it through Wednesday and Thursday unless I skimp a bit on the originality here. Tomorrow, look for a reflection on God's will, Thursday, for the first part in this series about faith and art, which will focus on Story. For now ... What’s happened to Satan?
One year at a local church’s Fall Festival—one of the valiant, though often unfortunate, attempts to reclaim All Saints Day from the awful, pseudo-holiday of Halloween—I was greeted by a young man dressed up as the devil. At least, his conception of him. Pitchfork in hand, horns on his head, a cape on his back, and a defiant look of satisfaction on his face. He seemed rather pleased with himself, dressed as we was, in the midst of the church atmosphere of harmony and joy.(I learned later that he had not volunteered to attend the party, but was dragged there. He came from a broken home and I imagine that his costume was really more to do with his pain over the turmoil in his family than anything expressly malicious.)
“And what are you supposed to be?” I asked him, while at the same time encouraging yet another child to throw their fishing line—string with a clothespin affixed to a stick—over into the sea—a blue sheet with cutout fish taped to it—to see what they could catch—candy attached to a fish cutout that a very kind, very bored volunteer would time and again place into the expectant clothespin, then give a little tug and put up a playful fight before letting go to the victory shout of the child.
“I’m Satan!” declared the boy, in a way that sounded horrifically of triumph.
I was amused. “You are most obviously not.”
I persisted in reassuring him that he absolutely, most certainly, was not Satan. Finally he conceded that he was only dressed like him, thinking that this was the response I wanted, but I continued in my assurance that when I had said he wasn’t Satan, I had been speaking of the failure of his costume, not just about who he really was. He was perplexed and asked me to explain. Isn’t this how Satan looks?
What stories had he been told?
“No,” I said to him, crouching down to look at him plainly. “Satan doesn’t carry around a pitchfork or wear little horns on his head. It seems in the Bible that Satan is very pretty and looks like an angel, because he was once one himself.” There was a girl dressed up like an angel standing near us, throwing her fishing rod line over the sheet in eager anticipation. I gestured to her, “Satan most likely would look exactly like her costume. But do you know what the difference would be? How you could tell without a doubt that it was Satan?”
The boy thought. I could tell he had taken every word I had said very carefully into himself. This needed to be his answer, the answer that made the most sense to him as a child. Children know the answer, inherently, but they don't all say it the same way. At last, he said, rather seriously, “Satan can’t be happy. Not happy like she is.”
The girl had been rewarded with a significant supply of cutout fish and candies. I imagine the poor volunteer behind the sheet had at last grown weary with the repetitive act and had decided to both bless a child with a proper bounty and bless herself with a depleted stock of candy, promising a swift close to the evening. It couldn’t have come at a better time. The girl erupted into the most genuine, true laughter, known only to a proper child—at any age of life—and the boy had indicated that it was this happiness that Satan could not have.
We could nitpick here about the difference between happiness and joy, but he meant joy and it wasn't the occasion to correct his word choice. He understood; that's what mattered.
“Yes.” I affirmed, quietly and keeping the serious tone that he had set for the conversation. “Satan likes to pretend that he’s better than he actually is. But you can always tell, if you look hard enough, when he’s just lying to you.”
I realized then how sad it was that this little boy was trying to do the same thing, just from the opposite direction. He was trying to make himself worse than he was for the sake of recovering from the neglect in his family, the dissolution of his childhood grasp of human certainty. I wanted to scoop him up into an embrace and nearly did, until I noted that he had a different plan in mind.
Upon this revelation, action must be taken!
He removed his horns from his head and offered them and his pitchfork to me, stating simply and confidently, “I don’t want to be Satan anymore.”
I received them with the same look of earnest conviction that he had offered them to me with. “Alright, what shall you be, then?”
This was not satisfactory and I wasn't about to let it go. Rightly understanding evil was one thing, understanding evil and then letting evil win by disappointing a child’s imagination was another. Satan loves to truncate good imagination, to shame it. He loves the literalists and hates all good metaphor.
The boy was still wearing his plain red cape. There was still a game to be had yet. I became suddenly very secretive and leaned forward, whispering, “Aren’t you a superhero--the superhero--here to investigate why all the candy has been taken into the sea?”
His claim to the liberated candy spoils and his triumph over the “wicked” volunteer, who had imprisoned the candy along with the fish, and who was then brought to honest repentance for her thievery and rewarded with some candy of her own, transpired quickly. He was a very effective superhero. I believe he gave himself a name, but I can't remember it now. But I imagine he named himself well.
This was a defeat of Satan, but it was a defeat of Satan because he had been named rightly, acknowledged, and then laughed away through the triumph of love and good imagination.
What’s happened to Satan?
René Girard’s wonderful work on archetypical violence that I mentioned before nonetheless dismisses Satan in the process. Satan there is a metaphor, not in the true sense described previously, but in the cumulative sense. Satan is a way of describing evil, which is a non-energy, a negation of the good in so far as it is a negation of existence. Satan doesn’t have form or individual character. He is not a he. He is a personification.
Former Bishop N.T. Wright, whom I have had the privilege of sitting down with and talking about this, among other things, holds a similar position. Satan is a good way of describing evil in its most reducible form. He’s a good front man for the wrong.
But is there such a thing as a big bad, as it would be called back in the days of Buffy? No. Not at all.
Scripture does not seem to maintain this interpretation, nor was it particularly popular to feel this way until the modern age. This is a problem for us, especially when talking about the stories of the Text with children. Children can understand ambiguity, they can understand walking on water, they can understand a story that is both…and, but they cannot understand the ridiculous. If there is no Satan, in a personal sense, in a form of corporeal somethingness, then Scripture appears to lie and lie rather poorly.
What or who or how did something encounter Jesus in the desert and tempt Him?
If it was not Satan, if it was instead this great mechanism of symbolic mimetic violence, as Girard would describe it, then why did Scripture bother with assigning him a name and a form? Throughout the Text, ambiguities are celebrated. Double meanings, meanings that are more than even just double, are easy to find, but misdirection is not employed, except by characters in the stories themselves and as an audience we already know the secret before it all really begins. And children are taught early, if they are taught well, to know the difference between polysemous meaning and misdirection.
The Bible, if it is from God in any inspired sense, is True. And Truth is something that never resorts to misdirection. Misdirection is the game of Satan.
Children know this.
-- From the forthcoming post about Satan, due a couple months from now.
The rest of the post, when it's finally up, will deal with the problem of how Satan is represented in the church when he actually is talked about, how we can talk about him well without turning him into an equal with God, and how to do justice to the Word with its limited mention of him while at the same time acknowledging his actuality.
As always, I would love your thoughts.