The Devil, You Say

By Kreyche, Gerald F. | USA TODAY, November 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Devil, You Say

Kreyche, Gerald F., USA TODAY

The popularity of the idea of the devil has waxed and waned through the ages. The Pilgrims, for instance, put an "X" on the lower part of doors to hex him. Indeed, the design is still around, but few know its symbolism. Three decades ago, "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary's Baby" brought the devil back into the limelight, but only for a while.

Fundamentalists, who remain firm believers in the fire and brimstone of Hell and Satan, excepted, many today reject the reality of the devil. Scholarly literature, such as the recent The Devil: A Biography, by Peter Stanford, claim that the satanic figure is an intellectual embarrassment to mainline Christianity, whether Protestant or Catholic. The new literature on the devil seems more appropriately an obituary of this "bad angel." Let's examine the more benign uses of the term, a sure signal that the devil is taken less seriously than in the distant past.

My own university, DePaul, has a basketball team nicknamed the Blue Demons. Every now and then, some protests are made that it is shameful for a Catholic university to use a devil as its mascot. Nonetheless, the symbol has stuck. Meanwhile, at parties, hostesses serve deviled eggs and devil's food cake.

Geographical salutes

In matters of geography, the Dirty Devil River flows into the mighty Colorado River. The Devil's Dog Road intersects with Highway 40 just west of Flagstaff, Ariz. Near Sundance, Wyo., there is an 865'-high volcanic uplift called Devil's Tower that was the first U.S. national monument, established in 1906. Adventurous rock climbers scale its heights season after season. Indians there have protested such profaning of the landmark, as they consider it one of their sacred sites. Their mythology explains the seven sisters constellation (Pleiades) as the result of seven Indian maidens being lifted to the heavens when chased by a bear. The land where they stood began to rise, and the bear clawed at it, but they were always just beyond his reach; thus, the columns of rock. The National Park Service, in a spirit of compromise, has tried to limit climbing the site.

Apprentices in the newspaper business used to be called printer's devils. An attractive male often is referred to as a "handsome devil." The Irish still express indignation with the phrase, "The devil, you say!" People even use the term to express impishness, as in addressing a mischievous child as "You little devil."

When about to make a tough choice, we are advised that it may be better to live with the devil we know than the devil we don't know. Those who argue against either a popular or unpopular cause are called devil's advocates. Indeed, the Catholic Church assigns that role to a person whose purpose is to try to prevent canonization of a holy person.

Intellectuals make an oblique attack on the reality of the devil by changing the question, "Does the devil exist?

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