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The Devil Rides Out Again

“Well, let’s introduce ourselves. My name is Damien Karras,” said the priest.
The Demon: “I am the Devil, too!” Please undo these straps now!
“If you’re the devil, why don’t you just make the straps disappear?” asked the priest.
The Demon: “Karras, that’s way too obscene a show of power.”
“Where’s Regan?” asked the priest.
The Demon: “Come on in.” alongside us.

The Exorcist (1973)

With these words, the Devil made a notable resurgence in late twentieth-century Western culture. The Exorcist served as a film that prompted viewers to reflect on the enduring concept of the numinous Other, present in Western consciousness for over two millennia. It depicted a figure embodying the darker aspect of the divine, traditionally personified as the evil force, the Devil. Audiences experienced a mix of horror, shock, fascination, and captivation.

The Exorcist marked the onset of renewed exploration of the demonic across various media platforms like film, television, literature, and music, extending its impact well into the twenty-first century. It led to a perceived increase in cases of alleged demonic possession within conservative mainstream Christian denominations, sparking a rise in exorcisms and deliverance ministries. The film also played a role in fueling moral panic surrounding the supposed sexual abuse of children within Satanic cults. Moreover, it contributed to heightened (though unjustified) suspicions among conservative Christians regarding the influence of the demonic in emerging New Age movements, especially modern witchcraft (Wicca) and neo-Paganism.

The resurgence of the Devil in contemporary Western culture, though less prominent in intellectual or privileged circles, reflects a renewed fascination with a fantastical realm inhabited by supernatural entities, both benevolent and malevolent. This realm encompasses a wide array of beings, including vampires, fairies, witches, wizards, werewolves, wraiths, shape-shifters, super-heroes, angels, demons, ghosts, dragons, elves, aliens, succubi, incubi, hobbits, the inhabitants of Hogwarts, and zombies. This resurgence is intertwined with a revival of esoteric and mystical practices aimed at self-improvement, drawing from Eastern and early modern Western traditions. These practices include astrology, spiritual and magical healing, divination, ancient prophecies, meditation, dietary regimens, and alternative medicines. In this modern enchanted world, spirituality blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, providing individuals with a realm where belief becomes a personal choice, and skepticism is willingly set aside.

The contemporary landscape grants individuals the liberty to decide whether to embrace belief in the Devil. However, this was not always the case. For much of the past two millennia, disbelief in the Devil was as unthinkable as disbelief in God for Christians. Being a Christian involved not only accepting salvation through Christ but also anticipating punishment by Satan and his demons in the infernal fires of hell for those deemed unworthy. The narrative of God in the Western context intertwines with the story of the Devil, with theological exploration encompassing demonology as well.

For certain segments of contemporary conservative Christianity, which often feel marginalized within modern Western secular discourse, the Christian narrative surrounding the Devil remains deeply ingrained. Many still hold the belief that the Devil is actively involved in the world and will continue to be until ultimately condemned to eternal damnation at the culmination of history. This belief provides a framework for understanding natural calamities and human suffering, with the conviction that, paradoxically, Satan is fulfilling God’s will and will ultimately be vanquished and punished for his actions.

However, this narrative lost its central significance in Western intellectual circles by the mid-eighteenth century. At that point, for the educated elite at least, the Devil transitioned from a present and future figure to one of historical significance, relegated to the past rather than viewed as a current or future participant in human affairs. The Devil’s biography shifted from fact to fiction, and his history became more about the evolution of an idea than an actual entity. Consequently, it became feasible to produce quasi-secular accounts of the Devil, such as Daniel Defoe’s The History of the Devil in 1726, or secular examinations of witchcraft, like Francis Hutchinson’s Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft in 1718. These works acknowledged the Devil’s importance in Western intellectual history while refraining from affirming his traditional role as an active agent in historical events.

Henceforth, two distinct narratives emerge regarding the Devil. One is the traditional Christian account, which depicts Satan as a pivotal figure in the cosmic narrative, spanning from Creation and the Fall to Redemption and the Last Judgment, ultimately culminating in his eternal damnation alongside the damned in Hell. The other narrative is a secular examination of how the concept of the Devil evolved within theological contexts throughout history, beginning from its emergence in pre-Christian eras, its development within early and medieval Church doctrines concerning the Fall and Redemption, its significant role in medieval and early modern demonology, its association with Christian apocalyptic beliefs, and ultimately its decline in relevance by the eighteenth century.

Ironically, it was the rise of secular historical inquiry into the concept of the Devil that facilitated his gradual removal from liberal Christian theological frameworks. The marginalization of the orthodox Christian narrative surrounding the Devil in modern Western society was primarily driven by the ascent of liberal Protestantism from the early nineteenth century onward. However, this marginalization paradoxically led to a proliferation of depictions of the Devil in modern popular culture, expanding his presence beyond the confines of traditional religious discourse. While the Devil remains a prominent figure within the Christian narrative, he also transcends it, representing the embodiment of the inexplicable evil inherent in humanity and the world, posing a constant threat of destruction. The era of disenchantment has ended, allowing the Devil to establish new domains and boundaries. Caught between the constraints of traditional religious narratives and modern secular skepticism, the Devil continues to exert his allure, simultaneously captivating and terrifying, familiar yet alien, in a newly enchanted world.

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Renuka, a storyteller at heart, weaves threads of imagination and insight to create tapestries of narratives that resonate deeply with readers.

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