May 092012
 

origin of satanThe Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics, by Elaine Pagels

The title of this book seems somewhat misleading if all you see is, “The Origin of Satan.” The rest of the title is the real story.  Even so, by the end of the book I had a renewed appreciation for that “origin” business, since for me it became a constant reminder of how distorted and manipulated the idea of Satan has become from its Jewish roots.  It’s a good read, and I definitely recommend it for anyone ready to shake off some of the convenient dichotomies in our faith’s popular notions of Satan and evil.

The chapters of this book are:

  1. The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish War
  2. The Social History of Satan: From the Hebrew Bible to the Gospels
  3. Matthew’s Campaign Against the Pharisees: Deploying the Devil
  4. Luke and John Claim Israel’s Legacy: The Split Widens
  5. Satan’s Earthly Kingdom: Christians Against Pagans
  6. The Enemy Within: Dehumanizing the Heretics

Through these chapters, Pagels very thoroughly shows how a fringe idea (of Satan as a rebellious and fallen angel) evolved into a means for some members of the oppressed minority of early Christianity to define themselves in opposition to the evils they experienced and perceived in the world.  She then carefully illustrates how this new doctrine was expanded as part of official Christian theology, and how it was increasingly used as a way to stigmatize anyone or anything that would stand in the way of the emerging ecclesiastical hierarchy and its ambition to exercise worldly power.

As we should all know, this doctrine eventually became the justification for “good Christians” committing all the same heinous sins of oppression and persecution (and with even greater magnitude) against other minorities, both internal and external to the Church.  We became what we hated.  If Jesus spoke truly about knowing his followers by their fruits, then what has history shown us about the spirit of this doctrine?

One take-away for me is that it’s painfully obvious many of us are still playing this bloody game today.  And don’t think that I am merely taking a shot at militant evangelicals and fundamentalists; Christians calling themselves mystics, progressives, or liberals can do it too, and too often these various factions viciously hurl the accusations back and forth at each other.  Let’s also acknowledge the presence of this demonizing tactic in many contemporary Christians’ attitudes toward other religions, nations, political philosophies, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and so on.  I’m afraid that almost any wing of popular Christianity could, if too closely tied to political power, repeat this sad, gruesome old story of “lawfully” abusing those judged as under the influence of the Devil.  I’m also convinced that some of us are actively trying to do just that today, and not only in the USA.

The questions begged by this book include these:  What will it take for us to collectively let go of this temptation, this addiction, of demonizing others?  How do we do it without using the same dehumanizing tactics against our Christian siblings who hold onto this human-made doctrine as if it were a divine law?  How do we more fully express the wisdom and spirit of the Sermon on the Mount?

My guess is that it’s all got something to do with love and the mystical relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit in one’s own heart.  What do you hear emerging from the stillness and silence in your heart?

Jesus Christ, our beloved brother and teacher, and Mary Sophia, our beloved mother and counselor, may your merciful, forgiving, selfless love heal us and inspire us to more freely serve as your vessels in this world. Amen.