The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment by Dallas G Denery, book review

Denery reveals how lying became the worst sin

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The Independent Culture

When we think about the devil these days, we tend to imagine a slightly comical fellow with red horns and a trident who tempts us to do something naughty. Either that or - as in The Exorcist – he is a terrifyingly evil force with powers practically equal to God's.

Medieval Christians would not have recognised either image. The devil was no laughing matter for them. At the same time, he was less scary than the embodiment of falsehood - "a liar and the father of lies" as John's Gospel puts it. Why the emphasis on the devil as a liar? As Denery explains, Christian thinkers were in thrall for many centuries to the creation story in the Book of Genesis in which the snake - aka Satan - spreads the first known porky in history. Bite into the forbidden fruit and it will be all gain, no pain, he tells Eve.

In reality, Eve is about to get into very hot water. However, she buys the devil's ever so reasonable sounding suggestion and extends the damage by persuading Adam to take a bite as well. An outraged God expels Adam and Eve from Paradise. Man will rebuild his relationship to God over time but it’s never the same. Original sin is with us for keeps.

This conviction that all sin has its origin in the first lie explains why lying was such an important theological issue for preachers and theologians. To St Augustine, no lie, however "white", was anything other than sinful because however justifiable it might seem in purely human terms, all dishonesty springs from the "father of lies".

Augustine lived in 5th-century North Africa. However, Denery notes, as urban Europe became more sophisticated, moral choices and dilemmas appeared more complex. Philosophers struggled to gain a little more legroom on lies than the austere Augustine had conceded, developing elaborate categories of lies, from straight-to-hell shockers to mere failures to tell the whole unvarnished truth. However, Denery writes that while philosophy remained anchored to the bible, thinkers could only stray so far.

The Genesis story, meanwhile, affected Christian thinking on the position of women. After all, the snake invented the lie but the woman bought into it - rather easily in the view of theologians. The false nature of all daughters of Eve was an important argument for churchmen in support of the subjection of women. It is only in the 1600s that Denery finds evidence of bold women writers like Moderata Fonte of Venice turning the old narrative on its head. In her view, Eve was just plain gullible.

The subtitle of this book - "a history of lying" - is overambitious. The focus here is on how Christian theology understood truth and falsehood. It is a pity Denery never discusses the impact of any of these ideas on society. Did all those strictures about lies as the devil’s work make medieval Europeans more fearful of lying than people are today? I wonder.