Friday, February 22, 2008

satan complete

Another book completed: T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley: the birth of satan. As with the Ondaatje novel, I was enthusiastic to begin with but tired of this book about half way through. It was wonderful to learn about the latest findings in Biblical research, especially as told in such an entertaining or "engaging" (Spong's word) style. However, beyond the Hebrew Bible and into the chapters on foreign, intertestamental and New Testament sources, I started to lose interest. The most fascinating part of the book are the sections on the very, very beginnings of the satan idea.

book cover

The authors' conclusions are not outstanding or original: frequent and annoying notes acknowledge this. The full text of the concluding pages is available online - Postscript: Is Satan Real? - with the final two paragraphs here:

Finally, we return to the perennial question: Is Satan real? The theological and scriptural arguments for and against the existence of Satan are as vast and as formidable as are the variations in personal beliefs concerning Satan. Yet whether Satan is to be taken as a metaphor, as a symbolic, or literal being, Satan is real in the sense that evil is real. Indeed, the fearsome red demon who pursued so many of us in our childhood nightmares pales in comparison to the real and palpable evil at work in the world today in the form of murderous regimes, maniacal serial killers, and suicide bombers.

When we dismiss the biblical Satan as a primitive or outdated concept, when we effectively edit him out of the theological equation and ignore the truths of the stories about him, we run the risk of missing the great lessons the biblical writers were trying to impart. They did not try to explain away evil, for evil was then, and is now, a reality that cannot be denied. And yet, in the final analysis, the Bible reassures us that God is on our side, that the Devil can be resisted, that love wins out in the end.

I want here simply to review the very few references to Islam, besides the mention above of "suicide bombers" who, in their more terrifying and immediately threatening forms, have tended to emerge out of the Islamic world.

There are two mentions of the Qur'an. In the first (p.109), the story of Satan's fall in verse 2:34 is characterized as preserving a tradition established in a first-century C.E. work titled Life of Adam and Eve in which "Satan is banished because he refused to genuflect before the newly created Adam".

According to that work, Satan said: "I will not worship one inferior and subsequent to me. I am prior in creation; before [Adam] was made, I was already made. He ought to worship me" (Life of Adam and Eve 12:3). The Qur'an also preserves this tradition ...

And when We said unto the angels: Prostrate yourselves before Adam, they fell prostrate, all save Iblis. He demurred through pride, and so became a disbeliever.

2:34 Pickthall

The second mention of the Qur'an (p.173) is in the section reviewing Satan's function as The Father of Lies:

This satanic function grows along with Satan himself through history. This is the Islamic shaitan who tampers with the Qur'an, inserting "satanic verses" that lead the weak from the path of sound doctrine.

For me, the most important reference to Islam arrives (at p.170) within a list of candidate conspiracy theories and I will quote it at length as it also provides a good example of the authors' entertaining style [my bold emphasis]:

We have also noted that the apocalyptic style of thinking is not only ancient. It persists, even thrives, in pockets of contemporary culture. Modern sociologists use the term "subversion theory" to describe the patterns of thought that collect the discarded pearls of medieval heretics and secret societies, and rites and symbols from pre-Christian European, ancient Mediterranean, Near Eastern, and Indo-Aryan religions, and arrange them along the thinnest strings of logic in order to fashion the jewelry of folk belief.

If the subversion theory is advanced in communities or individuals suspicious of the government, its Satan and demons are an international network of elites who purportedly control the powers that seem to be. The identity of this cabal of elites varies according to the social prejudices of the theory's adherents. Anti-Semites suspect an international Jewish conspiracy. This, by the way, is the cruelest irony: that a narrative pattern invented by ancient Jews would be reversed to make its original composers into the enemy. Right-wingers suspect a Communist or atheistic conspiracy while left-wingers fear a military-industrial complex. Protestant John Birchers fear the Vatican, and hysterical Roman Catholics fear the Freemasons. Some middle-class Americans coping with the enormous economic and cultural changes of the late twentieth-century have imagined that a network of Satanists and sexual deviants seek to abduct their children from shopping malls or violate their children in day care centers. Many Westerners see an international Islamic conspiracy dedicated to destroying Jewish and Christian culture, while some Muslims fear the reverse. There is and will always be enough evidence of human chicanery from all these alleged perpetrators to keep such theories afloat. There are also the U.F.O. enthusiasts who warn us about the advance corps of aliens that have already begun to infiltrate our atmosphere. The "thickest" subversion theories manage to combine two or more of these stocks into a hearty stew of paranormal paranoia, such as in the X-Files movie where the aliens are in league with a government elite.

However amusing this list might be - and surely "paranormal paranoia" is its most felicitous phrase - it does tend to trivialize genuine, rational concerns about real and present threats. I don't think that "chicanery" adequately sums up what Iran's current President is threatening to do to Israel and, in a different arena, I don't think that parents are unwise to hesitate before delivering their children into the care of "celibate" priests. The authors show no inclination to discriminate between an exaggerated or "hysterical" fear and a well-grounded concern for the safety of those dear to us.

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