Thursday, September 22, 2005

Better the Devil You Know

There ain't no denying: we here at Sterne are only interested in facts, and the harder the better. Fictions, hyperbole, superstition and supposition, get thee behind me; we spit on all such hateful nonsense and fiddle-faddle (especially hyperbole). And for this reason, we consider it our especial duty to weigh in against the Father of Lies (and no, I don't mean the PM. Hell is too good for some people).

How relevant is a discussion about the existence of the devil in this modern world of ours? Very, given that we have world leaders who insist on bandying about terms like, "the Evil One" and "the Great Satan", that Intellectual Design is threatening to muscle its way into our classrooms, and that fundamentalist values are becoming increasingly and depressingly prevelant throughout society. I myself was recently told by a previously rational friend that I had become the pawn of Lucifer and was destined to spend eternity having demons probe my nether parts with whatever unpleasant tools come to hand, or something. I object to such assertions, not because I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool sinner, but because I refuse to be associated with such an out-moded, credulous concept of evil.

Now, I'm no theologian - hell, even on good days I can barely spell the word Godd - but let's be perfectly clear: the devil does not exist. And, yes, I can prove that. Sorry, all you black metal fans.

To make things fair, let's chuck reason, rationalism, logic and other such pointless concepts out the window, and base this argument on the source of all that is true and sensible, the Bible. The good book is, as we all know, divided into two parts: the psychedelic, fun-filled, roller-coaster thrill ride of the Old Testament, and the repetitious tragedy with the twist ending that is the New. The former, however - compiled from traditional Hebraic lore at around 650 BCE - contains no mention whatsoever of the devil. He's only introduced in the sequel, which was in need of a villain to spice last chapter up a bit. It's only through mistranslation, misinterpretation and popular misconception that the devil gets a mention all.

Satan certainly puts in an early appearance, popping up first in the Book of Job to prove to the titular protagonist that miserable = holy. However, in the original text, his name is ha-satan, which literally means 'blocking agent', or more figuratively, 'prosecuting attourney'. The devil is in fact one of the oldest lawyers in literature, which I'm sure has only served to bloster some people's preconceptions. Satan is the Adversary in the same way that all prosecutors are adversaries, and like all prosecuting attourneys he operates under the aegis of a judge. He is the duly authorised agent of God, and any cruelty he visits is done only on God's instruction.

Other instances of misreading occur in Isaiah, where the prophet waxes lyrical on the fall of Lucifer from Heaven - in fact an allegorical reference to the political fall of Helel ben Shahar, the king of Babylon, also known as the Star of the Morning; and in Kings, in which the prophet Elijah condemns king Ahaziah to die for consulting the priests of Beelzebub - in fact a corruption of Baal Ze'bub, god of the Philistine city of Ekron. Perhaps the most willful example of misinterpretation, though, is the conflation of the serpent in the garden of Eden, in the original text simply "the most subtle of the beasts of the field", with a Satan hell-bent on mankind's destruction. This is an example of a Christian view of the devil being read retrospectively into the older text, which of course begs the question: in the period of over seven centuries culminating in the composition of the New Testament, how did Satan go from being prosecutor to persecutor?

Whilst Judaism refuses to acknowledge any power that might work contrary to a single, perfect God's plan, there is nevertheless a tradition of evil spirits in Hebraic culture. Most peoples have their own boggins and bugbears, and the Jews were no exception: rabbanical lore and the books of Apocrypha are positively littered with angels and 'sons of God' that are up to no good (usually of the "Come here, baby, and let me beget a host upon you" variety). This was the influence of Zoroastrianism making itself felt upon the Maccabean Jews after their time spent in Babylon. Zoroastrianism, unlike Judaism, has always included beings of spiritual evil within its cosmology, which centers on the struggle between two gods, the benevolent Ahura Mazda and the rascally Ahriman. It's in from latter figure that a good part of the modern Satanic tradition was born.

There were of course other cultural influences along the way - for example the increasing confusion of evil spirits with benignant or neutral daemons - the beings of air which came out of Apuleius' Golden Ass (that sentence reads rather oddly, but never mind) - and the rise in popularity of the Book of Jubilees, with its decidedly naughty Mastema and Beliar. It is the sum effect of these influences on the lawyerly ha-satan that created the New Testament's devil, whose apparent autonomy from God is as radical a paradigm shift in monotheistic Judaism as the incarnation of Christ.

After that it's all just a matter of filling in the back-story, a task belonging to a rather exciteable collection of Christians: St John the Divine decided that one in three of the angels fell with Lucifer during a war in Heaven (and because the Church became a natural home for the maniacally obsessive, it comes as no surprise that a 13th century cleric claimed to have calculated the exact number of the fallen to be 133, 306, 668). St Paul made it clear that Satan (who in subsequent corruptions of Pauline lore became Jesus' quarrelsome younger brother, envious of Daddy's favourite and out to steal the souls belonging to his sibling) was the enemy of Christ; If you weren't with Christ, you were against him, in league with Satan, and soon to take a dirt nap if Paul had anything to say on the matter. St Augustine elaborated further on the the devil's reasons for being a bounder, claiming that he fell for the sin of pride, refusing to kneel to the new teacher's pet, Adam; it was Augustine who had Satan slither into Eden. And of course there's Milton who, as Shelley put it, was the devil's greatest champion. Milton's Satan is a resoundingly sexy figure, full of creativity, anger and pathos, hating the God who created him simply so He could have someone to punish. Cumulative misconceptions may have created the devil, but Milton made him fun. Without Milton, we would have no heavy metal, and what a sad world that would be.

It may seem that I'm coming down a little hard on the precepts of Christianity, but I think it can stand it (and I suspect I'm preaching to the choir, anyway). At any rate, I'm not denying the existence of a God or the prescence of evil in the world (no, these are circuitous, long winded arguments for another day). Belief in something better than oneself - whether it be God, or Science, or Justice, whatever - is in potential a noble thing, and it is a poor man who believes in nothing. It is a poorer person still, however, who wallows in ignorance. Belief in the existance of Satan is nothing more than a crutch for the credulous and the intolerant, such people as insist on a bogeyman to justify frightening themselves into submission or persecuting others for their differences. This is the reasoning of twenty centuries ago, robbed of the excuse of barbarism. If you want to adhere to a religion, that's fine by me, but for God's sake know your religion inside out: its history, its development, and its anachronisms; what's worth believing in, and what's not. Unquestioning acceptance serves no-one, least of all your chosen deity, who presumably wants what's best for the world, or why is He worth worshipping? Doubtless He gave you a brain. Use it.


Armagnac Esq. said...

As a good catholic boy I was of course obsessed by satan.

As a questioner I always struggled with the idea that Lucifer was punished because he challenged god's authority.

CHallenging authority is good. If he was kicked out of heaven due to having instigated a great holocaust on the side or something, that would have made more sense!

Tim said...

and it is a poor man who believes in nothing

How dare you suggest this, sir. I'm going to come around with my gang of German Nihlists, throw a marmot in your bath and pee on your rug. We believe in Nothing!

Mindy said...

these people worship satan but not as a fallen angel.

Jon said...

Armaniac: Challenging a perfect authority should not be necessary, if 'perfect' is an absolute given. It's the fact that God is complicit in Satan's fall that really rankles.

Tim: I was waiting for that one!

Mindy: Yes, but that's just the exchange of one deity for another: not necessarily any better or worse than believing in a Judeo-Christian God, or Thor, or whomever; it's the fundamentalist dogma that identifies actions it doesn't like with the devil that irks me.