Powers & Principalities: The Devil Is No Joke

By Johnson, Luke Timothy | Commonweal, October 7, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Powers & Principalities: The Devil Is No Joke

Johnson, Luke Timothy, Commonweal

In the seventh letter of his 1942 epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis nicely captures our benignly modern view of the devil, While giving tactical advice to his apprentice devil, Wormwood, concerning the spritual seduction of a man referred to as "the Patient, mentor devil Screwtape writes that "out policy for the moment, is to conceal ourselves," and notes that "the fact the 'devils' are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you."

"If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind," Screwtape continues, "suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook way of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you." Though Lewis's goal was to set evil within the terms of Christian apologetics, by portraying the demonic realm in such individualistic and anthropomorphic terms, he unfortunately perpetuated the modern caricature of evil. Lewis's Screwtape is oddly attractive, his correspondence downright cozy. As a friend of mine recently observed, "Who doesn't like Screwtape?"

And who doesn't like Meryl Streep? In The Devil Wears Prada, Streep's representation of the dark side is stylish, witty, and attractive; and the "devilish" harm she wreaks is limited to the dramas of advancement and retreat in the small war of corporate competition. As in many other recent movies and novels where the Devil makes an appearance, evil in The Devil Wears Prada is personified less as a cosmic power battling God for sovereignty than as a small-time dealer in individual favors--and the source of humorous mischief. As a rule, evil's capacity for mayhem in our popular culture is limited to the kind of comic jape the cross-dressing comedian Flip Wilson made famous with his character Geraldine, who always caused gales of laughter when she coyly declared, "The Devil made me do it."

It seems we moderns enjoy a good laugh. In comparison, the perceptions of the first Christians regarding evil and its workings were far grimmer, more along the lines of Pope Benedict's much-commented-on remark regarding yet another round of revelations of clerical sexual abuse during the recent Year for Priests: "One might think that the Devil could not stand the Year for Priests," Benedict conjectured, "and therefore threw this filth in our faces."

The New Testament's extensive language concerning malevolent spiritual forces is never humorous. The terminology varies--some texts speak of the Devil or Satan, others of demons or unclean spirits, of powers and principalities, the Ruler of the Power of the Air, the Dragon and Ancient Serpent--but taken together, these terms point to a conviction, broadly shared by the writers of the New Testament, that a cosmic power, lesser than God but greater than humans alone, inhabited the world and worked against human good in a manner that was anything but comic or quaint.

At the personal level, Paul speaks of Satan as a constant threat, one lying outside the community yet capable of causing damage within. More cosmically he envisages "powers and principalities" which, though conquered by the death and exaltation of Christ, remain capable of opposing believers, who must continue to do battle "against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12). Similarly, Peter pictures the Devil as a ravening beast out to destroy unwary believers, and counsels them to "be sober and watch, because your adversary the Devil goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet 5:8). Luke envisages Satan as the arrogant ruler of a kingdom counter to God's own, capable of granting great power to those willing to worship him, and commanding a vast army of demonic spirits. John declares that "the whole world lies under the power of the evil one." Finally, the Book of Revelation imagines the world caught in a cosmic battle between Christ and Satan, the great beast waging ceaseless war against the saints in unholy alliance with the corrupt power of an empire that buys and sells human lives and brands them with its mark.

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