Richard Beck, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.
Some time ago I confessed to a group of fellow-ministers that I did not believe in the actual existence of the devil. Some of my doubts had to do with life experience—I had never encountered anything “demonic” that didn’t have at least five more compelling explanations. But mostly my doubt was instigated by the empty, superstitious, and often destructive theology in which angels and demons and “The Devil” take center stage. In the essay, “The Moral Theology of the Devil,” Thomas Merton expands on the dangers of such thinking, and Elaine Pagels, in her book The Origins of Satan, demonstrates the social dangers in which ‘the devil’ becomes a cypher for whatever scapegoat a community wishes to scorn. In Beck’s own words, “We always smell sulfur around those we wish to kill” (xvi).
I explained to my peers that I have been increasingly convinced that the demonic in the Bible is symbolic. It is a language for talking about evils of all kinds. It is a useful language and compelling in some ways, but it has too much baggage and can be too easily manipulated to be helpful anymore. Having laid bare my heterodoxy, my peers gently nudged me toward Richard Beck’s book, Reviving Old Scratch, as an answer to my doubts. Beck is something of a theological celebrity in my tribe and I had not only heard of this book, I had it on my bookshelf. I figured Beck would have something worth listening to on the subject. So, naturally about a year or so after this conversation I finally managed to read this book.
The first thing to note is that this book is readable. It is not a scholarly book, although Beck’s ideas have substance, are well argued, and are informed by scholarship. It is littered with stories, wit, and sometimes just juicy rhetoric. That being said, lets jump into the meat of the book.
The book is divided into three sections. The first section fleshes out Beck’s own criticisms of the language of spiritual warfare and introduces the way that spiritual warfare can be understood as a language of social justice—where “powers and principalities” are political or socio-economic terms. Beck sees justice as an important element in spiritual warfare, but flawed if it’s the only way we talk about the devil. So the second section works through how this language is deficient if it does not name something real underlying the corruption within personal and systemic evils. The third part seeks to “reintroduce Old Scratch” (‘Old Scratch’ being a folksy name for the devil) as a real, corrupting force that works at internal and external, private and public, isolated and systemic levels.
I think this book has two audiences. The first audience are people like me, the doubters and disenchanted. Beck wants to “revive” the idea of the devil because he sees a lot of problems with a theology that can’t speak meaningfully and tangibly about evil, or that can only do so in limited ways. For Beck, the idea of the devil, or devils, or spiritual warfare is central to faith, because if we don’t have a way of talking about evil then we also don’t have a way of responding to it or working against it. This is the audience Beck explicitly addresses himself to throughout the book, partially because he writes as one of these doubters and disenchanted.
The second audience is subtle and implicit, but they’re there to be sure. This audience are the ones who too uncritically and ubiquitously employ the language of spiritual warfare. We might describe these folks as people who do not doubt enough and are too “enchanted” by the world of demons that they develop their own distortion of faith. Throughout the book are really important critiques of bad theologies of the devil.
The major thrust of the book is to develop a meaningful way of talking about and responding to evil. (I guess it’s a good thing for the major argument of the book to be the thing that sticks.) For Beck, this meaningful language involves the devil—something that names the forces in the world that work against what is good.
Interestingly, however, Beck is ambiguous on the question of whether we are talking about the devil as a literal, spiritual being or just a symbol for evil as a personified, corrupting force. In fact, it is this malignant “force” that is the unquestionably real thing. Beck is happy to leave it to the reader to decide whether there is some actual entity behind it, or if that is just the symbolic language that the biblical writers used.
As I hope to show you, that narrow focus on possession and exorcism misses the heart of our battle with the Devil as it is described in the Bible. (xviii)
Across the pages of the Bible, evil and suffering are simply assumed to exist. Suffering exists and we must act—that’s the starting point. Evil and suffering exist, do something! That’s the warfare worldview, and that is the only thing the Bible seems interested in communicating to us [about it]. (81)
The satanic is everything which tempts us away from taking up our cross in following Jesus. This is critical for a theology of spiritual warfare, as the cross of Jesus is the quintessential expression of self-giving, self-donating, and sacrificial love. The satanic and the demonic are all those forces tempting us away from this love. (92)
I don’t know if this force is consciously malevolent, but it is most definitely malignant. And, really, it doesn’t much matter which it is. Because more than anything, the force is real. (187)
The early Christian ascetic tradition liked to talk about demons as these incorporeal entities that were the source of vicious thoughts. Resistance to these demons, however, was the means by which people grew deeper into the image and likeness of God. I think Beck is right that the Christian faith requires a kind of theology of resistance. We are not who God made us to be, and the world is not as God intends. That implies a notion of struggle or revolt. But the ambiguity that Beck holds about the actual existence of literal demons also characterized the ancient ascetic writings. One is not able to tell whether these “demons” actually exist for them, or if demons are just useful symbols to describe evil in intentional and purposeful terms.
As I finished the book I was not yet ready to recant my heresy to my fellow-ministers, and I wasn’t sure Beck himself had become as re-enchanted with the world of angels and demons as he puts on. But I am reminded by this book that faith does not circumnavigate evil—by whatever name we call it. Faith faces evil directly, demands resistance to it, and promises redemption from it.