Nashville, TN: One week after demanding the ouster of Dr. Russell Moore over his campaign-year criticism of Donald Trump (see here), a growing number of Southern Baptist leaders are now lobbying to remove (posthumously) the credentials of John the Baptizer, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
“Everyone calls him ‘the Baptist’,” said Kentucky pastor Cletus T. Ottweiler, “But I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t represent our values!”
According to reports, the reason for the proposed action stems from a Scriptural paper trail that links Moore’s political statements to those of John and several Old Testament prophets.
“We thought the problem started with Dr. Moore,” said former governor and SBC pastor, Mike Hucklebee. “But after consulting the Bible, we found the trouble goes MUCH deeper! Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah…— All these guys were WAY out of step with the people they were supposed to be representing. At some point ‘the base’ just gets sick of it. I mean, how can you hope to change a culture if you offend the most powerful people!?”
“Thankfully,” said Dallas pastor Mack Graham: “none of those Old Testament guys were officially listed as ‘Baptists’. So we’re focusing on Russell and John right now.”
In defense of John’s ministry, one source went so far as to say that “Among those born of women, there is no one greater!” Yet several high profile SBC pastors have dismissed this as the exaggeration of a close family member.
**The present post is an exercise in satire. For related (and probably funnier) material, see The Babylon Bee**
And in much of the Christian tradition, that character is unquestionably the devil.
In recent days, I’ve been focusing my energy on a non-blog-related project: a book on the atonement. And the present chapter has to do with Satan. This sounds like a strange topic for the Christmas season. Yet the Scriptures connect it explicitly with Christ’s coming. As 1 John writes:
“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (3.8).
Yet while belief in God is quite common throughout our culture, belief in Satan does not rank nearly so highly.
As the late Walter Wink put it, the demonic is “the drunk uncle of the twentieth century.” We keep them out of sight. And we don’t talk about them at dinner parties. As he goes on:
Nothing commends Satan to the modern mind. [He is] a scandal, a stone of stumbling, a bone in the throat of modernity.
As evidence, a recent Barna survey indicated that around half of American Christians do not believe in the devil as a living being. Rather, they tend to see him as a mere symbol for profound evil.
REVIVING “OLD SCRATCH”
In response to this, Richard Beck, in his new book Reviving Old Scratch, describes the modern experience somewhat like the plotline from an episode of “Scooby Doo.”
STAGE ONE: At the beginning of every episode, whatever evil that had transpired was blamed on some sort of ghost or goblin. The supernatural was everywhere! And it was up to no good. Beck calls this Stage One, or the period of “enchantment.”
STAGE TWO: Yet after some investigation by Scooby and the gang, it was invariably discovered that the “ghost” was really “Old man Cringle” with a fog machine, a bed sheet, and some fancy voice modulation. Beck calls this Stage Two: the age of “disenchantment.” And as he argues, it has much to commend it. After all, science has shown that many ancient superstitions were just that.
STAGE THREE: Yet in Stage Three (not included in the Scooby Doo episodes), Beck argues that we need a kind of “re-enchantment” if we want to account fully for the pervasive nature of evil in this world. In his view, this is not a simple return to a belief in a demon behind every bush. But nor is it the peculiarly modern (white, wealthy, and western) superstition of full-fledged naturalism.
In his own way, C.S. Lewis proposed something similar. As he wrote:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which [we] can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.
The unhealthy interest is encountered in various forms. One is the tendency we all have to demonize our opponents, detecting whiffs of sulfur in their presence. Case in point:
Or as Beck writes:
We always smell sulfur around those we want to kill.
A second form of unhealthy interest comes when Christians use Satan as an excuse to cover their own faults.
Along these lines, I recall once being in a meeting in which serious allegations (and serious evidence!) were brought forth regarding misconduct. When confronted, one leader responded that “This is just Satan getting angry because we’re doing such good work!”
Sometimes sulfur masks our own scent.
Thirdly, Satan can be wrongly used as a tool to terrify people into compliance, as seen in the Christian cottage industry that springs up around Halloween to scare the “heck” out of unsuspecting sinners as they wander through a warehouse version of the afterlife.
Such moves confuse a love of Jesus with fear of torture.
Finally, an excessive interest in “the devils” can lead to a dualism that puts God and Satan on (almost) the same level. This is not the biblical portrait. For as Luther wrote of Satan–and perhaps enacted by hurling his ink well at the devil–“one little word shell fell him.”
LOVE IS AN EXORCISM
Yet while “excessive interest” carries pitfalls, unbelief does too.
It does nothing to stop the march of minions. For as Wink notes: Disbelief in Satan did little to prevent him running roughshod across corporate boardrooms and bloodstained battlefields throughout modernity.
What is needed, Wink suggests, is a kind of exorcism, though not the kind from horror movies. In his words:
The march across the Selma bridge by black civil rights advocates was an act of exorcism. It exposed the demon of racism, stripping away the screen of legality and custom for the entire world to see.
The best “exorcism” of all is accepting love. It is finally love, love alone, that heals the demonic. “How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke, “who at the last minute turn into princesses that are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave?”
In the end, Wink’s work (and even the above quote) shows forth certain faults. In particular, he demythologizes far more than I would, and his views on Christ, creation, and atonement are hardly biblical in certain respects.
Nonetheless, he did do the academy a great service by restarting the conversation on evil powers, and by showing how spirituality interlocks with political, psychological, and social forces of all kinds.
If you’re interested in reading more, try the following:
And as J.D. Vance describes it, his is a memoir of a family and a culture that is (at best) on life support.
Hillbilly Elegy chronicles the plight of America’s working class whites through the saga of his own family, which was transplanted from Appalachia to a dying factory town in the Ohio Rust Belt.
The book skyrocketed to #1 on bestseller lists as it became apparent that Donald Trump had somehow swept these so-called Blue states. And while there are many reasons for this unexpected victory, much credit (or blame) went to the demographic Vance describes.
His memoir shines a light on Rust Belt poverty from the inside—and from the perspective of one who has both deep affection and scathing criticism for the culture of his youth.
Like many hill people, Vance’s family left the “holler” to take well-paid factory work up north. Yet as times changed, the steel communities like Middletown, Ohio began hemorrhaging both jobs and hope. And with the addition now of rampant opioid addiction, the hemorrhaging continues.
As a boy, Vance never knew his father, and his mother was a prescription drug addict who rotated boyfriends and husbands more frequently than others rotate tires.
He was raised by “Mamaw”—a foul-mouthed, pistol-packing grandmother who got pregnant at age thirteen, and who had a soft spot for F-bombs and Jesus Christ (both the Savior and the curse word).
Despite her faults, Mamaw saved J.D., and he eventually went on to the Marine Corps, to college, and then to Yale Law School.
AN INDIGTMENT OF ENTITLEMENT
What I expected from the work was more an indictment of the Rust Belt’s failed economy: factories shuttered, jobs outsourced, pensions lost.
I anticipated stories about hard-working men and women who fell afoul of a changing world.
And there was some of this.
But more frequently, Vance pulled no punches in acknowledging the crippling laziness and entitlement that has besieged his friends and family. As he states:
This book is about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it (p. 7).
People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness … the rhetoric of hard work conflicts with the reality on the ground (pp. 57–58).
To many analysts, terms like “welfare queen” conjure unfair images of the lazy black mom living on the dole. Readers of this book will realize quickly that there is little relationship between that specter and my argument: I have known many welfare queens; some were my neighbors, and all were white (p.8).
We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach (p. 147).
At the root of this problem were not just economic forces, but the wholesale breakdown of the family.
Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world. … Virtuous fathers are in short supply in Jackson [KY], but they are equally scarce in the lives of my grandparents’ grandchildren.
When it came to motherly influence, Vance says things were not much better:
“I was nine months old the first time Mamah saw my mother put Pepsi in my bottle.”
As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”
In this environment, Vance claims that a stigma is often attached to those who try to better themselves. Thus they are “too big for their britches” and are ridiculed by friends and relatives.
Another takeaway was the role that religion plays within this culture.
As Vance describes it: “[Here] in the middle of the Bible Belt, active church attendance is actually quite low.” And in the steel mill town that he grew up in, it was “about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco.”
Most folks are nominally “Christian,” yet the faith is full of contradictions:
Mamah always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew (p. 189).
For Vance personally, his own faith was ignited (momentarily) when he went to live briefly with his adopted father. This man had been divorced by Vance’s mother, and had now found God with a new family.
I devoured books about young-earth creationism, and joined online chat rooms to challenge scientists on the theory of evolution. I learned about millennialist prophecy and convinced myself that the world would end in 2007. I even threw away my Black Sabbath CDs (p. 95).
In my new church … I heard more about he gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any character trait that a Christian should aspire to have. … Dad’s church required so little of me (p. 98).
As Vance describes it, this was “evangelical” theology. Yet for those of us who study such things, it is frustrating to note the way in which mindless fundamentalism has become synonymous with “evangelical.” Perhaps, as many now argue, the label is beyond repair.
Likewise, the result is easily predictable:
[I didn’t] realize that the religious views I developed during my early years with Dad were sowing the seeds for an outright rejection of the Christian faith (p. 99).
In the end, Hillbilly Elegy is an eye-opening look into a culture that (till recently) had gone mostly unseen by those of use who don’t live in it.
It is both love song and lament, both thank-you and Dear John.
Yet for those who want to understand what’s happening across the Rust Belt of this country, it is a required read.