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Speak of the Devil no longer


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 press, and kept me awake for many a night, but when I finally saw a picture of him, he seemed harmless enough, a cheeky little chap, in fact.

Now it appears that the General Synod of the Church of England has voted to retire the Devil, so to speak, even though it is still possible to find priest-exorcists in both Anglican and Catholic churches. I’ve read, however, that they keep a low profile. Not so Orthodox priests, all of whom can perform exorcisms when required.

Whereas for centuries parents and godparents were, during the Anglican baptismal service, asked to renounce the Devil and all his works, now they are requested politely to turn away from sin, and to stand bravely against evil. Somehow the words have not the same ring: something in this watered-down version has gone missing, obviously. The Devil himself, with his horns, pitchfork, barbed tail, and sulphur breath, is apparently no more.

Mediaeval clerics believed that the Devil was everywhere. As God had necessarily to be sought, so the Devil had to be hunted down: no Devil, no God. Peter Stanford, author of The Devil: a Biography, considers the whole Devil business a colossal muddle, so much so that the Devil could eventually be eliminated from Biblical accounts on the grounds that references to him are merely symbolic. After all, says Stanford, take the d away from Devil, and you are left with evil.

Karen Armstrong, author of the acclaimed A History of God, an account of the three monotheistic religions, apparently points out that Christianity, unlike Islam, will never forgive the Devil: there can be no compromise. So there is no forgiveness: the Anglicans have ‘disappeared’ him instead. And when did you last hear the word ‘sin’ uttered? Nana would be sore perplexed.

Gillian Bouras

Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.


Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, devil, Lucifer, Death of God, Anglican, Church of England, sin, liturgy, theology, Orthodox C



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Existing comments

There's a hymn I like especially (my favourite in fact) called "Be Thou My Vision". It incorporates what I believe about God and these lines "Be Thou my battle shield, Sword for the fight" I take to mean "keep the Devil away from my heart". Kinda old-fashioned. Like Nana! If I don't get to sing the hymn in church, I have it on CD.

Pam | 18 May 2015  

Certainly a lot to think about here and as usual the topic is presented in a wonderfully concise and thought provoking way. Well done and thank you for your insights.

maggie | 18 May 2015  

The late Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury, a fine theologian respected by Catholics, Orthodox and others outside his own communion, was very loath to give up old fashioned religious terminology such as "light" and "darkness". He felt it meant something. I think it still does. I am not sure whether modern Liberal Christians are any closer to the truth than the more orthodox they seem to have replaced in large measure in many denominations. The language of the Church was often as much allegorical as literal. That allegory covered a wealth of meaning. Getting behind the allegory was often a lifetime's work. I think many simple believers failed to understand that. That, I believe, is the reason for the "corn flakes packet" language of many modern church prayer books. There is, or was, a whole element of mystery about the Christianity I experienced in my youth. That mystery seems to have gone to a large extent. I regret its passing. It does not augur well for the future.

Edward Fido | 19 May 2015  

A great subterfuge of Satan is to get people to deny his existence, thus giving him more space and opportunity. His existence is an infallible dogma of the Catholic Faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches clearly: "391 Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy.266 Scripture and the Church's Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called "Satan" or the "devil".267 The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing."268 I add: it is true images of Satan are not photos, but mere metaphors of the real thing. Public exorcisms need approval of a bishop, and exorcists require specific spiritual qualities, training, and especially strong psychological balance and insight, nor easily confusing psychological problems with genuine possession. We trivialise Satan at our own cost!!

Father John George | 19 May 2015  

There is nothing PC devil friendly or queasy in Catholic Baptism liturgy: "The celebrant questions the parents and godparents: A. Celebrant: Do you reject Satan? Parents and Godparents: I do. Celebrant: And all his works? Parents and Godparents: I do. Celebrant:Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness? Parents and Godparents: I do. According to circumstances, this second form may be expressed with greater precision by the conferences of bishops, especially in places where it is necessary for the parents and godparents to reject superstitious and magical practices used with children."

Father John George | 19 May 2015  

The great Catholic writer G K Chesterton was a believer in the Devil and yet, in the Father Brown stories for which he is best remembered, evil is seen as working in the hearts and actions of men (Chesterton was too old fashionably chivalrous to have a female villain I can remember). Orthodox Christian belief cannot dispense with the Devil, who is seen as the cause of Evil in the world, but he is seen as needing human cooperation to bring about his ends. I think there are two problems in regard to discussing the Devil in contemporary society. One is the dismissal out of hand by many Liberal Christians of his existence. The other is the tendency of some overly simplistic conservative Christians to label many things which are not sins (more "scruples" in Catholic theology) as such and then to attribute these to demonic intervention. I think we have a case of mass theological illiteracy of both kinds in the modern world hence sensible discussion of the problem of evil is reduced to the ignorant of both sides shouting alternative "corn flakes" and "weet bix" arguments of no real depth or validity at each other.

Edward Fido | 20 May 2015  

It's a devil of a problem.

john frawley | 20 May 2015  

If there was a Devil, I'd expect him to send his emissary, his Anti-Christ, among us in the cloth of a Christian Church. While on this Earth, such an Anti-Christ would aid and abet clerical abuse of minors, and preach Denial of climate change. Thanks Goodness there's no Devil in the first place.

David Arthur | 20 May 2015  

I have had experience with the healing movement. One cannot deny that evil and spiritual sickness is real. one of the dangers associated with some charismatic healers is that they proclaim unreal expectations.without real repentance that involves the whole being. Non believers on the other hand put the whole emphasis on medical science. it is important to remember the motivations of the serenity prayer compiled by Reinhold Niebuhr "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;courage to change the things I can ;and wisdom to know the difference' Exorcism can be seen as appropriate in some situations in this context.

john ozanne | 20 May 2015  

Thanks for a thought provoking article Gillian. I believe evil is intimately tied to free will. Prior to the evolution of self consciousness "and our eating of the tree of knowledge" to use a biblical phrase; before we had moved on as a species and traded "the comfortable captivity of instinct" for free will, we were not then responsible for our "bloodied behaviour" often termed original sin. Interestingly the Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey believes a similar self consciousness scenario possibly occurred with our Neanderthal cousins prior to their extinction. Never the less free will and consequent sin and evil are realities we have to deal with, and if ignored we certainly do so at our peril. I do believe that our anthropocentric way of depicting evil, with horns and cloven hoofs etc. though maybe OK for some people, only serves to blur its cancerous realities for others in an increasingly "cosmic society" I am sure there will be no evil on another planet until we arrive, or unless of course it has already evolved its own, in the fullness of its creaturality, and consequent search for God. Perhaps the Anglican Synod wishes only to paint a more relevant picture, less medieval.

John Whitehead | 21 May 2015  

'Food for thought' article once again... Maybe the Devil is nothing more than the Reflection of the Human Dark Side

Stathis T | 21 May 2015  

Has Stathis put her/his finger on the answer? Are our concepts of both God and Devil nothing more than our creations in our own image?

Ginger Meggs | 22 May 2015  

Stathis the reduction of Satan to mere reflection of the Human Dark Side has no scriptural foundation and as unsustainable as reducing God as a mere reflection of Human Good side,[ Both are beings independent of us though interacting with us, neither beings, in essence, reflections nor projections. from us

Father John George | 22 May 2015  

Leaving aside revelation (or scriptural foundation), why is your view any more credible than mine, Fr JG? Where is the evidence, or the rational argument?

Ginger Meggs | 22 May 2015  

Leaving aside Scripture re Satan is akin to leaving aside astronomy re planets. Reason rigorously applies itself to demonology and ancillary science and praxis of exorcism. The latter relies on psychiatry to sort out Satanic possession, obsession, and local infestation from mere psychiatric state or your "projections." Indeed the latter being the first port of call professionally -but never a reduction for all diabolical "fingerprints". Evidence for my response is within records of bona fide exorcisms after concomitant psychiatric evaluation. From a theological perspective, yours is psychiatrically reductionist and theologically inadmissible giving excessive credence to reason alone!]. Then again if one doesn't have Faith in Revelation, there are phenomena of possession not explicable by psychiatry alone or parapsychology and ilk!

Father John George | 23 May 2015  

These days it has become fashionable in Western religious circles to deny the spiritual and to see religious beliefs as just a “metaphor” for both the lower as well as the higher reaches of the human psyche. The Church of England’s efforts to “retire” the devil are prompted by such thinking. But over the last century a vast body of evidence has been accumulating that we live in a spiritual universe, that we survive death and reincarnate etc. (See “The Conscious Universe” by Dean Radin for a comprehensive summary of this evidence till the mid-1990s as well as the writings of Prof Ian Stevenson of Duke University on reincarnation). Moreover, there is much evidence that demonic spiritual forces really do exist. The far more spiritually wise non-Western cultures have always recognized this and take a variety of precautions to protect themselves against assorted evil entities. Also, there are well-documented cases of possession which are clearly not examples of schizophrenic psychosis (See Ian Currie’s “You Cannot Die”) . And while possessed people may act is evil ways one cannot assume they have been possessed by “the devil”. The evidence suggests that their bodies have merely been taken over by some demonic entity of which there are many on spiritual realms and not linked to a satanic “Mr Big”. And exorcism rituals to get rid of them are rational and justified. But of course demonic possession does not explain most human evil. Most evil cruel acts are the result of a tragic confluence and environmental and genetic factors that have little to do with any malign spiritual agency. Even so flippant efforts to dismiss the devil as merely a myth impede rather than aid our understanding of human evil.

Dennis | 25 May 2015  

Oh Côme on Fr JG, so anything that has a psychiatric explanation is an illness, anything that can't yet be explained is 'possession'? Sounds like a God of the Gaps theory again. If our gods and demons are not our constructions in our own image, how do you explain their masculinity, their misogynist attitudes to women, to foreigners, to unbelievers, their propensity to sanction violence toward outsiders, their admonitions to man to exploit the rest of their creation?

Ginger Meggs | 26 May 2015  

Just because gods and demons aren’t very politically correct it doesn’t mean they don’t exist, Ginger Meggs. And many such spiritual entities are feminine and down through history have often given wayward males a hard time. One particularly unpleasant individual is the Pontianak, a female vampiric ghost of Malay and Indonesian mythology who preys on unfaithful husbands. .Her modus operandi is to kill her victims by digging into their stomachs with her sharp finger nails and devouring their organs. There are also endless moon and fertility goddesses who clearly have a pro-feminine (though not necessarily feminist) agenda. To bowdlerize Hamlet’s famous quote on such matters: “There are more things twixt heaven and earth Ginger Meggs than are dreamt of in the arid little atheistic and politically correct philosophies that people like you seem to subscribe to”. And to quote the Bible “There are many mansions in God’s estate”. Spiritual realms team with all manner of beings, great and small, good and bad, ugly and beautiful, male and female and endless variations thereof. We live in a deeply mysterious universe that has many worlds beyond anything organized religion usually wishes to acknowledge, especially those of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic variety.

Dennis | 26 May 2015  

Mr. Meggs your glib reduction of exorcism to psychiatric leftovers, belies the task of the exorcist to apply his specialist procedures and 'litmus tests' to identify diabolical possession, etc Such are clearly mapped out in the recent revamped instructions on exorcism viz. "Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications" (Latin: De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam) an 84-page document of the Catholic Church,[amended in 2004] containing the current version of the Rite of Exorcism authorised for use in the Latin Church.

Father John George | 27 May 2015  

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