Philip Almond / Religion

The Devil Rides Out Again

So what is behind the re-emergence of the Devil in popular Western culture?

The Devil Rides Out Again

The Priest: ‘Well then let’s introduce ourselves, I’m Damien Karras.’
The Demon: ‘And I’m the Devil! Now kindly undo these straps!’
The Priest: ‘If you’re the devil, why not make the straps disappear?’
The Demon: ‘That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Karras.’
The Priest: ‘Where’s Regan?’
The Demon: ‘In here. With us.’
The Exorcist (1973)

With these words, the Devil re-emerged in late twentieth-century Western culture. The Exorcist was a film that reminded audiences of the numinous Other that had been present in Western consciousness for more than two thousand years. It told of a being that represented the dark side of the Holy, one that had been personified as the evil one, the Devil. Audiences were horrified and appalled, yet captivated and fascinated.

The Exorcist was the beginning of a re-engagement with the demonic in film, television, literature, and music that has lasted into the twenty-first century. It caused an increase in apparent demonic possessions in the conservative mainstream Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant, and provoked the growth in exorcisms and deliverance ministries. It influenced the moral panic about the imagined sexual abuse of children within Satanic cults. And it contributed to increased (though unwarranted) suspicions among conservative Christians of demonic influence in the growing New Age movements, particularly modern witchcraft (Wicca) and neo-Paganism.

The re-emergence of the Devil in popular, if not in elite, Western culture is part of a new Western engagement with the imaginary enchanted world of preternatural beings both good and evil – of vampires and fairies, witches and wizards, werewolves and wraiths, shape-shifters and super-heroes, angels and demons, ghosts and dragons, elves and aliens, succubi and incubi, hobbits and the inhabitants of Hogwarts, and zombies. And it is imbedded in the re-emergence of a set of esoteric and occult technologies of the self (both from the East and the early modern West) that serve to enhance meaning where neither science nor matter-of-fact knowledge are useful – astrology, magical and spiritual healing, divination, ancient prophecies, meditation, dietary practices, complementary medicines, and so on. The modern enchanted world is one of multiple meanings where the spiritual occupies a space between reality and unreality. It is a domain where belief is a matter of choice and disbelief willingly and happily suspended.

Whether we believe in the Devil or not is now a matter of choice. It was not always so. For the better part of the last two thousand years, it was as impossible not to believe in the Devil as it was impossible not to believe in God. To be a Christian was not only to believe in the salvation that was available through Christ, but also to expect the punishments inflicted by Satan and his demons in the eternal fires of hell for those not among the chosen. The history of God in the West is also the history of the Devil, and the history of theology also the history of demonology.

For some forms of modern conservative Christianity, marginalised within modern Western  ‘secular’ thought, the Christian story of the Devil is very much alive still. The belief remains that the Devil is active and will remain so until finally consigned to an eternity in Hell at the end of history. The existence of the Devil, and his capacity to act in history, nature, and in human lives, remains for many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, a satisfactory explanation of natural misfortune and human suffering, mitigated by the paradoxical conviction that, at the end of the day, Satan is carrying out God’s will, and that, at the end of history, he will be defeated and eternally punished for doing so.

But this was a story that had lost its central and paradigmatic role in Western intellectual life by the middle of the eighteenth century. By then, for an educated elite at least, the Devil had become a figure of history – one of the past rather than the present or the future – and not a participant within it. The biography of the Devil had become fiction not fact. The history of the Devil had become merely the history of an idea. And as a result, it became intellectually possible to write ‘quasi-secular’ histories of the Devil like Daniel Defoe’s The History of the Devil in 1726, or ‘secular’ histories of witchcraft like Francis Hutchinson’s (1660 –1739) Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft in 1718, histories that recognised the significance of ‘the Devil’ for Western intellectual history, while not endorsing any actual role in history that he was traditionally understood to have had.

Thus, it is only from that time on that it becomes possible to tell two stories. One is the traditional Christian story that sees Satan as a key player in cosmic history from Creation, through Fall and Redemption, to Last Judgement, followed by the consignment of the Devil along with the damned to Hell for eternity. The other is the secular history of how the idea of the Devil within that theological context has been historically created, constructed and re-constructed over a period that stretches  from the ‘birth’ of that idea in the centuries before the Christian era, to its elaboration in the story of the Fall and Redemption in the early and medieval Church, to its central role in magic, witchcraft, and possession in the classical demonology of the medieval and early modern periods, to its place in the history of Christian apocalypticism, and finally to the ‘death’ of the idea in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Ironically, it was the rise of the secular history of the idea of the Devil that made possible his effective elimination from liberal Christian theologies, his relegation to theological irrelevance being the most importance consequence of the growth of liberal Protestantism from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Yet, ironically, too, the marginalisation of the orthodox Christian story of the Devil in the modern West has allowed for a proliferation of ‘lives’ of the Devil in modern popular culture. The Devil still exists within the Christian story, but also beyond it, an objectification of the oft times incomprehensible evil that lies within us and around us, threatening to destroy us. The spell of disenchantment has been broken. The Devil now has new domains and new borders. Hedged in by the traditional Christian story on the one side, and on the other by modern secular agnosticism, he ‘prowls around, looking for someone to devour’ yet again, both delectable and dangerous, fascinating and terrifying, familiar and alien, in a newly enchanted world. ■

The DevilPhilip C Almond is author of the new book The Devil: A New Biography and is Emeritus Professor of Religion in the University of Queensland. His previous books include The Witches of Warboys: An Extraordinary Story of Sorcery, Sadism and Satanic Possession (2008), England’s First Demonologist: Reginald Scot and ‘The Discoverie of Witchcraft’ (2011) and The Lancashire Witches: A Chronicle of Sorcery and Death on Pendle Hill (2012).
Image courtesy of Alex Hammond
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