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Speak of the Devil no longer

  • 20 May 2015

Picture an ancient scene: Nana, my maternal grandmother, is reading the newspaper while my sister and I amuse ourselves with our toys and puzzles.

The old woman, as I thought of her, lowers the newspaper, eyes us solemnly, and intones: ‘Oh girls, the sin in this wicked world.’

And we titter behind our hands, thinking her not only old, but odd. But of course she was right. Decades later, now that I am older than she was then, I think that things have gone mightily downhill in the sin department. And have certainly become far more complicated.

The Devil continues to find work for idle hands, Nana would have said, and post-modern sin would probably have defied her imagination.

While a staunch believer in Christian charity, Nana nonetheless belonged to a strict and black-and-white world. There was right and wrong, good and evil, God and the Devil: The Bible elaborated on these matters. So did Nana, given half a chance. And she really believed that one day the righteous would be safely, safely gathered in, to a world where there was no more sorrow, no more sin.

The Death of God debate, which raged on and off when I was at university, would have shocked Nana beyond measure had she known of it. I knew of it, but can’t claim that I understood it way back then, and I have only a very hazy idea of it now, but know that people like Blake, Hegel and Nietzsche had all grappled with the idea that an increasingly complex society and the concept of a transcendent deity were incompatible. But God, like the supposedly doomed novel, for example, is still very much with us.

Now it’s the Devil that is in trouble. In a traditional society, the imagination is a literal, pictorial one. My three sons were raised Greek Orthodox in a Peloponnesian village, so that when my youngest, aged about eight, was in serious strife for throwing a stone at a classmate, he looked at me sorrowfully, and said, ‘The Devil made me do it; he pushed me with his tail.’

He was quite clear about the matter. While I, at about the same age,  had been in a state of continuing and  hopeless confusion between the Devil, who had various other names such as Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub and Mephistopheles, and the ‘false gods’ of the Old Testament, chief of whom was Baal. Baal had an extremely bad