Saturday, May 13, 2006

Sympathy for the Devil

I was raised in a Mennonite church in the sticks. Contrary to conventional imagination, it wasn't some child-labor commune involving a bunch of male bigamists or a bunch of intermarried cousins. It was a little white church with plain, arched windows and pews so hard that my butt usually fell asleep while I was sitting through the sermon. I have fond memories of falling asleep on my Memmy Gold’s lap, feeling her soft hanky on my cheek, hearing her voice singing “In the Garden,” and smelling her hand cream and Wrigley’s spearmint gum. It was the best part about church.

I was a fairly serious youngster and was very impressionable, as kids who want to be good tend to be. In fact, I was serious enough that I interviewed our minister for a 3rd grade report and distinctly remember being chafed at by my peers when I took my kid’s version of The Living Bible to school.

Well, those days are long gone, I’m afraid, and now I've pretty much slid from agnosticism to atheism. Some of my more pious friends have been praying for my “immortal soul” and I appreciate their positive energy and their concern.

I bring up this tender topic only because it relates to Robert M. Price’s The Reason-Driven Life, a book that I had the privilege to copyedit. Written by a former Born-Again Christian, it explains a bit about how fundamentalists have taken passages from the Bible and massaged them into a fear-driven mantra they use to keep people--people like the former Bender's Mennonite Church congregation--in line. Here's some of what Price writes about:

** For starters, ha Satan is not a proper Hebrew name but a title meaning “the adversary.” The “devil” (or ho diabalos in Greek) means the same thing: “the [mud] slinger,” “the caster [of aspersions].” But there is no suggestion of Satan being evil.

** Fundamentalists have decided that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was Satan, even though there is no real biblical connection. There are several mentions of the serpent (2 Corinthians 11:3; 2 Corinthians 11:14b) but not to Satan being the serpent. Serpent = Satan was a mental leap fundamentalists made...and if you make it that far, you’ll read how that happened, below.

** Satan’s original Old Testament role is as God’s special agent for testing (tempting) God’s favorites, to see if they are really worthy of the faith he has placed in them. (See Job 1:6–12; 2:1–8, Zechariah 3:1–5, and 1 Chronicles 21:1 for instances in which “Satan” is doing the Lord’s bidding by testing his favorites.) In this regard, Satan is much like God’s FBI sting operative, setting up Congressmen, mayors, etc., about whom some suspicion gathers. Everyone is fair game for testing, including Jesus.

** In the New Testament, Satan maintains his primary role as God’s investigator and evaluator. This is what he is doing when he tests (or “tempts”—same word in Greek) Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism (Mark 1:12–13; Matthew 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). Note that Satan has “demanded” to test God's favorite, as is his prerogative.

** Good vs. evil first entered the biblical stream during the Jews’ exile, when they first embraced the idea of one supreme being. But they had a hard time figuring out how one true God could be in charge of both good and evil. Cyrus the Persian, a Zoroastrian, explained that in his religion, two nearly equally matched deities, Ahura Mazda lord of light and Ahriman lord of darkness, are pitted against each other in a cosmic historic struggle. And whammo, Satan turned into the lord of darkness. Satan as the owner and creator of snakes and scorpions in Luke 10:18 is a vestige of the Zoroastrian influence, but it's how Satan went from being an owner and creator of snakes to being called The Snake himself.

** The New Testament never mentions the circumstances of Satan’s fall. And its only two hints do not fit the familiar version very well at all, implying that the version we’re now familiar with wasn’t around when the New Testament was written. There are a couple of passages people erroneously use, like Luke 10:18, which depicts Jesus saying that he saw Satan going down in defeat as they drove him from the field: “I saw Satan fall like lightning!” But there is nothing in the passage to suggest he is saying, “before Abraham was, I am, and I witnessed the primordial fall of Lucifer thousands of years ago.” Revelation 12:7–12 explicitly places the heavenly skirmish between Michael and Satan, each with his loyalists, at the end of world history (“the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short,” RSV), not those early days.

What I'm working on today: Lover Awakened by J. R. Ward (a vampire romance)

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