By Tom Krattenmaker
The devil has been getting his due. Amid multiple mentions by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and milestone-anniversary re-releases of an iconic book and movie examining the devil’s work and wiles, people are talking this fall about a being called Satan.
With the devil casting a larger shadow over the culture, some age-old questions are sparking debate. Who or what is the devil? Is he real? And is Satan still relevant in an increasingly post-Christian and post-modern American culture?
If you answered “no” to those last two questions, C.S. Lewis might say the devil made you do it. A British literary giant who died 50 years ago, Lewis is revered by millions of American Christians for books such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. That last one explores the ways of the devil, and it’s the book Scalia mentioned when he stunned his New York magazine interviewer last month with comments that have since gone viral.
After informing journalist Jennifer Senior that he believes in the devil, Scalia said, “You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the devil? … Have you read The Screwtape Letters?”
57% of Americans believe
Screwtape has been re-released in a special annotated edition this fall to mark the anniversary of the author’s death (a death that occurred on the same day as the Kennedy assassination), and a stage adaptation is touring the country. The book imagines a senior demon schooling a neophyte through a series of instructional letters. As the mentor advises, a key to infiltrating people’s thoughts, turning them away from God and getting them absorbed with themselves is to convince them of the non-existence of Satan and all he stands for.
The devil must be disappointed, then, by data showing a great many of us are convinced he’s real. A survey released in September by the market research firm YouGov finds 57% of Americans believe the devil exists. Other evidence shows that many, many of us are fascinated by Satan, too. Perhaps no cultural work demonstrates that better than the enduring popularity of the devil-possession movie The Exorcist, which was a box-office sensation when it came out in 1973. New this fall: a special 40th anniversary re-release of The Exorcist for Blu-ray.
As happens with so many conversations about religion in today’s polarized culture, renewed talk about the devil reveals some gaping divides and misunderstandings. Consider the response of one well-known atheist to the New York magazine comments by Scalia (who raised the devil again earlier this month during Supreme Court oral arguments about prayer at government meetings, asking, “What about devil worshipers?”).
What did Scalia mean?
Hemant Mehta, who goes by the handle “Friendly Atheist” and who generally eschews flame-throwing, could not contain his disgust that a Supreme Court justice would call the devil “a real person,” as Scalia did. As Mehta wrote, “Scalia believing in the devil? Not as a metaphor, but as a physical being? Seriously?! It’s frightening to me that anyone would believe that.”
Scalia, however, probably did not mean what Mehta thought he meant. When serious-minded religious people say they believe the devil is a “real person,” they don’t mean a physical being that prowls the planet sporting horns and a tail. In the Christian vernacular, “person” can mean an unembodied being that interacts with people and plays a role in the cosmic scheme. In a more liberal theological vein, it could be thought of as a force or pattern.
In this sense, is it really such a stretch to acknowledge the reality of the devil? Even those of us in the growing legions who live and speak in secular ways, and who would never be caught dead saying we “believe in the devil,” might admit that a bit of the devil lives and works in us. This we see when we do something cruel and selfish, or when we dehumanize other people on the basis of their belonging to some category different from our own.
There’s an old saying that when you speak of the devil, he is bound to appear. In that case, he has been showing up a lot lately. But, come to think of it, when hasn’t he?
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is author of the book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.