A PASTOR FROM South Africa was finishing his first year as a full-time pastor in the U.S. He had served churches in the two countries, so I asked him to compare the role of the church in the U.S. with its role in South Africa.
"I am still trying to come to terms," he said, "with a culture where Mother's Day and Father's Day are more obligatory days of church attendance than is Good Friday.
"In South Africa," he went on, "we have experienced so much suffering and evil that Good Friday is a pivotal day for us. We cannot understand the hope of Easter apart from confronting the pain and agony of Good Friday. But in America people come to church on Palm Sunday and again on Easter, with no services in between. Yet the church was packed on Mother's Day!"
My friend was troubled not only that so few people attend church on Good Friday, but that U.S. churches and church-related institutions often do not consider Good Friday a holiday. Why is Good Friday so unimportant for mainstream Protestant Christianity in America?
My friend's words haunt me, for they point to an impoverished set of cultural and ecclesial resources for grappling with evil. While in recent years many Americans have not had as much firsthand engagement with massive suffering and evil as have South Africans, we are aware of the images of massive horror within our own country and around the world: school shootings and other mass murders, racial violence, civil wars, and on it goes.
Yet we have difficulty naming and identifying, much less explaining, the significance of these events. We have lost the vocabulary for describing the realities we confront. As American cultural analyst Andrew Delbanco puts it in his provocative book The Death of Satan, "The repertoire of evil has never been richer. Yet never have our responses been so weak. We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world." Why?
Delbanco proposes that we have undergone an extensive process of "unnaming evil," a process that goes back at least a couple of centuries but which has "accelerated enormously" over the past 50 years. He traces the loss of the language of Satan, of evil and even of sin, from the American cultural vocabulary.
To be sure, Delbanco does not offer an oversimplified narrative. He describes diverse intellectual, cultural, social and theological forces that converge to diminish evil as a part of America's imaginative vocabulary.
Delbanco believes that this process of "unnaming evil" has left us deeply troubled. "Despite the monstrous uses to which Satan has been put, I believe that our culture is now in crisis because evil remains an inescapable experience for all of us, while we no longer have a symbolic language for describing it."
Delbanco offers a powerful analysis, yet I am troubled by one part of his conclusion: In what sense is evil an "inescapable experience for all of us"? …