Satan: A Biography, by Henry Ansgar Kelly

A much misunderstood good guy with a devilish image problem

Peter Stanford
Wednesday 06 September 2006 00:00

One of the few positives to have emerged from our current obsession with the threat posed by Muslim fundamentalists has been a greater willingness in the West to read, in translation, the Koran - if only to distinguish between what Islam actually stands for and the half-truths of both zealots and detractors. Once you get to grips with the slightly odd narrative style of the book, it offers many thought-provoking contrasts with the ideas that have shaped Christian and therefore European society.

Take the Devil, a key figure in the New Testament as Jesus's terrifying adversary. In the Koran there is indeed a roughly equivalent evil figure, Shaytan or Idris. But he is little more than a minor irritant, a terrier snapping at the heels of humanity. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam believes in one, all-powerful God, source of everything good and bad. But unlike Christianity, Islam has historically had the courage of its convictions and so doesn't try to shuffle off unpleasant events on to a devil figure.

Christianity's development of this figure concerns Henry Ansgar Kelly, a retired academic from California. Though he dresses up his book as a biography - not an entirely original idea - it is more a series of commentaries on Bible texts, followed by exposés of Satan's manipulation by church leaders into a means of frightening the faithful into obedience.

The main thrust of Kelly's argument is that Satan is a much misunderstood goodie. He shows that in his one main appearance in the Old Testament, in the Book of Job, Satan is not God's sworn enemy, but effectively the chief prosecutor in the heavenly court. The Book of Revelation rounds off the New Testament with a horror show of blood and ghouls, but Kelly again demonstrates that the Devil, for all his apparent menace, is effectively doing God's bidding. Come Judgement Day, he is damned to defeat.

Yet in his anxiety to justify his eye-catching revisionist claim, Kelly substantially underplays the evidence that goes against his thesis: principally, the Gospel accounts of a Devil who is Jesus's equal. He is shamefully dismissive, for instance, of Milton's Paradise Lost, with its memorable picture of a magnificent, seductive but ultimately flawed Devil who utterly overshadows God. If Kelly wants us to read his biography, he needs to understand, as Milton did, just how attractive Old Nick can be.

The writer's 'The Devil: a Biography' is published by Arrow

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