All mention of the Devil has been expunged from Christenings - so is Satan now a harmless caricature of his former fearsome self?
Nonsense, says John Walsh. Far from being sidelined, old Lucifer has never been stronger
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Thursday 17 July 2014
The scene: the Great Room of Pandemonium; the awesome capital of Hell. A terrifying figure is seated on a high throne, pointy chin on leathery hand, planning ever-more-ingenious ways in which to wreak devastation and suffering on mankind. Holy wars. Non-religious territorial wars in Europe. Tribal beheadings. An epidemic of child abuse by children's entertainers. Revenge killing. Revenge porn. A new series of Britain's Got Talent. The figure permits himself a wintry smile of exultation at his utter, abysmal badness. The doors open, allowing a foul-smelling cloud of brimstone to enter. In the distance, screams and pitiful groans can be heard. Through the acrid fog a serving-demon glides over to the throne and quakingly proffers a message on a tray to the Dark Lord of the Underworld.
"Terrible news, eminence," says the messenger. "You've been dropped by the Church of England."
The great head slowly swivels to direct a basilisk glare upon the quaking servant. From the unspeakably cruel mouth a sound emerges, growlier than the lowest basso profundo at La Scala, rumbling into words: "I have been dropped by... WHOM?"
"The General Synod of the Church of England, sire. You know, in the UK? The Queen, Justin Welby, Rowan Williams – those people. They've changed the wording in their Christening services so godparents no longer say, 'I reject the Devil and all rebellion against God.' They just say, 'I will turn away from sin' and 'I will reject evil.' Look, it's in today's Independent."
The Satanic brow darkens, the pitted skin tightens, the appalling teeth start to gnash. It is always easy to tell when the Dark Lord is a bit cross.
"These puny churchmen think they can ignore ME?" he seethes, red eyes incandescent. "These milktoast divines, these hymn-singing eunuchs, these canting rural deans. Have they forgotten the POWER I wield in the UNIVERSE?"
"They don't regard you in the way they used to, Master," says the servant. "They're saying, 'For many people, the devil has been turned into a cartoon-like character of no particular malevolence...' "
"WHAAAAT?" screams the Devil.
"Others say, 'Words like sin and the Devil don't help because people just have no idea as to what they mean.' I'm sorry, Master, but there it is. They don't reckon you any more."
The Devil has already forgotten the attendant demon. He lifts his face to the ceiling as though his revenge on humanity is written there in letters of fire. "They cannot airbrush me out of history," he growls. "They cannot pretend I'm not a major force in people's lives. Not after everything I've done for humanity. But I'll teach them a lesson they'll never forget. They haven't heard the last of me." Down the corridors of Pandemonium there echoes a familiar sepulchral cry of "Bwuh-huh-huh..."
Making work for idle hands: a scene from 'Paradise Lost' by Milton (Alamy)
Where would we be without the Devil? Where would the story behind any religion be without the bad guy? If Christianity meant Church leaders urging its adherents to imitate Christ and follow morally exemplary lives and nothing more, how boring would that be? If wrongdoing and sins were regarded as unfortunate mistakes on a human being's otherwise blameless pilgrimage to Heaven, would we feel any compulsion to be good? But if we think that wrongdoing and sins are choices we make, put into our heads by a malevolent being who wants us to screw up our lives and end them imprisoned for eternity in pain and penance, might we strive not to give in to his nasty influence?
The Devil is a handy tool for religions because they can intimidate children with it. Children may not be equipped to understand concepts of virtue and transgression, but they understand the idea of a Horrible Person who's trying to get them into trouble. You can alarm them by explaining about the Nasty Place where the Horrible Person lives and where they will be punished forever if they don't play nice.
Growing up Catholic, I was disturbed by the idea of Satan. It wasn't pleasant to know that there was somebody or something watching your every move, longing to make you do something that would land you in trouble.
Once, aged about eight, I drew a crayon picture of the Devil, with hairy legs, horns, a tail and long, simian arms – and to show that he was a figure of fun, I gave him crossed eyes. I thought myself very brave. I'd show him. The Devil couldn't scare me. He could, frankly, go to Hell. I pinned it to my wall and went to bed.
At 5am, I was awake and fretting. The Devil could, like God, see everything, couldn't he? What if he'd seen my picture and it had really pissed him off? Would he take some ghastly revenge? Was I asking for trouble?
Elderly Catholic faithfuls dress up for a Mass in San Salvador (Getty Images)
Eventually, I scrambled out of bed, whipped it off the wall and consigned it to a bin – just to be on the safe side. As Voltaire said on his death bed, when asked if he renounced Satan: "This is no time to be making enemies."
Whenever I was naughty, my devoutly Catholic mother would say: "That's the Devil inside you talking." It was an early introduction to fundamentalism, only with the twist that it wasn't a personal God inside me but his opposite. Thanks a lot, Ma. And, of course, it sounded as if my mum assumed that I was incapable of independent thought and being used as a conduit or ventriloquist's dummy – like (I later realised) Regan, the possessed kid in The Exorcist.
I eventually ceased to believe in the Devil, or Hell or Sin or Divine Grace or lots of other metaphysical baggage, when I was 16 or so – just as the Western world turned against simple-minded beliefs in magic and religion in the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the onset of Darwinism a century later. But you cannot expunge the vivid imagery of Gods and demons so easily – not while the world goes on murdering, raping, pillaging, arsoning, stealing, lying and breaking people's hearts. The Enlightenment was followed by the Counter-Enlightenment – a fascination for, and cultural embracing of, ghosts, vampires, monsters, ghouls, demons and everything Satanic. In the wake of rationalism, Newtonian science, astronomy, microscopy, lexicography and the triumph of reason, the main cultural response of mankind was Gothic art and literature.
Read more: Devil vows taken out of Christening services
It's not hard to understand why this happened. It's the revolt of the imagination against bourgeois decency. "Once virtue becomes the deadly dull stuff of thrift, prudence, temperance, submissiveness and sexual repression," wrote Terry Eagleton in a review of Richard Davenport-Hines's Gothic, "the Devil has much less trouble in drumming up a fan club. Satanism is in this sense just the flipside of suburbia."
Goethe's Faust and Matthew Lewis's The Monk together kick-started a passion for books in which the Devil appears in quasi-human form to confound and bamboozle the living. James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824 – a stunning precursor of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 60 years later) introduced readers to the Satanic "Gil-Martin" who causes murder and mayhem in the guise and identity of a Calvanist zealot, Robert Colwan. Lermontov's The Devil, Hawthorn's The Scarlet Letter, Baudelaire's Litanies of Satan, Ibsen's Peer Gynt, Flaubert's Temptation of St Anthony, Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, Huysman's La-Bas (the book that was to corrupt Wilde's Dorian Gray) and Bernard Shaw's Devil's Disciple all used the figure of Satan.
A child dresses up for The Day of the Dead in Mexico (Getty Images)
In the 20th century, the highpoint of literary Satanology was Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, written in the 1930s but not published until 1966. A surreal, unclassifiable fantasia, it switches between Satan's visit to Moscow in the Stalinist 1930s and the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate at the time of Christ's execution. Its central tenet is that Satan runs the world as an all-powerful tyrant, but also suggests that evil is instinct in human nature and an inevitable part of the world that humans have created.
Marianne Faithfull gave the book to Mick Jagger. It famously inspired him to write "Sympathy for the Devil" and led to rumours that The Rolling Stones had become devil-worshippers. But it also inspired 250 composers to write songs or musical pieces and has prompted no fewer than 500 theatrical productions around the world.
More recently, Satan has been co-opted by writers of horror, science fiction and fantasy. Robert Heinlein, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Terry Pratchett and Anne Rice were among dozens of genre writers who gave the Lord of the Underworld a new life. Philip Pullman's celebrated His Dark Materials trilogy had a quasi-Satanic slant, in re-telling Paradise Lost from a new perspective, congratulating humans for committing original sin. In the new century, you can find the Devil most readily as a character or presence in comics and video (especially role-playing) games, from Ghosts 'n Goblins to Mega Man X8.
So is the General Synod right that the Devil doesn't exist for us today, except as "a cartoon-like character of no particular malevolence"? Are the bishops justified in making us think only in abstract terms about "evil" in human society, one with no human face? I'm not sure.
Look on the internet for images of the Devil and you'll find pictures of the 9/11 cataclysm bearing the words, "Can you see the Devil in these pictures?" Well, no, actually – I can see a plane, a tower, a conflagration. To see the Devil, you need to visit the footage of Osama Bin Laden talking about the event with a kind of gleeful scorn about the gullibility of the hijackers he sent to commit the atrocity.
He reminds us that the Devil's main occupation isn't to wreak havoc in the world, but to encourage humans to do so.
He's the eternal winder-upper; the bad influence; the serpent in the Garden of Eden; the tempter of Christ in the wilderness; the loader of the gun for someone else to fire. Whenever you hear of gullible young zealots being radicalised and strapped into bomb-vests or sent out to fight a holy war, that's where the real spirit of the Devil still resides.
The capacity for evil lives within all of us. The men who encourage it to flourish in the hearts of the young are incarnations of the Devil indeed.
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