Father Ronald Knox, a Roman Catholic priest in England who wrote detective stories in his spare time, claimed that it's stupid of modern civilization to stop believing in the Devil when the Devil is the only reasonable explanation for modern civilization. Like all celebrities, The Evil One goes in and out of fashion. He's ignored at times, but he can often become an obsession.
In 1692 the locals in Salem, Mass., executed 19 townsfolk just for consorting with him. Later he grew so obscure that merely mentioning his name could mark you as hopelessly passe. At the moment, however, he's on a roll.
Last year a movie, The Devil Wears Prada, put him into the fashion business, precisely where a sensible demon would look for recruits in the 21st century. This month brings a remake of The Devil And Daniel Webster, a famous 1930s short story and 1940s film, with Anthony Hopkins and Jennifer Love Hewitt (she plays the Devil). The poor farmer of Stephen Vincent Benet's original tale turns into an unsuccessful writer who sells his soul in return for prosperity.
And then there's The Castle in the Forest, the recent novel by Norman Mailer. The Devil has always hovered over Mailer's feverish imagination. This time Mailer's narrator is an assistant demon who brags that he turned Adolf Hitler into a world-dominating villain by distorting his childhood.
Like the rest of us, the Devil probably enjoys good reviews and winces at criticism. The 16th century was ruined for him when Martin Luther blamed him for absolutely everything: "The Devil begat darkness; darkness begat ignorance; ignorance begat error; error begat free-will" --and so on and on through every sin the verbose Luther could remember.
The 17th century was better: John Milton not only made the Devil the star of a masterpiece, Paradise Lost, but treated him as a proud executive with the nerve to defy God, the dictatorial chairman of the board. In a 1997 film, The Devil's Advocate, Al Pacino played the Devil, a lawyer named John Milton who was busy corrupting a young litigator.
As a favourite excuse, "the Devil made me do it" lasted a long time. In the 1980s, I asked a distinguished German historian how he explained Hitler. "I can't. Maybe he was the son of the Devil." H.H. Holmes, possibly the first urban serial killer in America, murderer of many women and children during the Columbian White City Exhibition at Chicago in 1893, said it was all the Devil's fault. Before his execution he claimed: "I was born with the Devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing." In 2003, when Erik Larson wrote a book about Holmes and the fair, he called it The Devil in the White City.
In 1563, the Devil apparently flew over the Thames River in London. Those of a scientific bent thought it a meteor shower, but Christians of the day found it more natural to recall what Jesus observed: "I saw Satan like lightning falling from heaven." Today a phenomenon of that kind would make us think, at worst, of flying saucers and alien abductions.
From the standpoint of minor demons trying to rebrand the Devil for a new century, emphasizing his relevance, there's good news from the Vatican. The last pope didn't even believe in hell, and in America Billy Graham long ago abandoned his youthful sermons about eternal damnation. But Pope Benedict XVI believes it's wrong for the church to overlook the Devil's influence. When he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he said Christianity's problems included the loss of the sacred identity of the priest, a diminished sense of original sin, permissiveness (particularly birth control) and ... neglecting the power of the Devil.
The Pope believes that a literal (not symbolic, not allegorical) Devil wants to bring mortals to sin: "Whatever the less discerning theologians may say, the Devil, as far as Christian belief is concerned, is a puzzling but real, personal and not merely symbolical presence." Father Pedro Barrajon, a professor at the Athenaeum Pontificium Regina Apostolorum in Rome, not only believes in the Devil but sometimes defeats him through exorcism -- a cure approved by the Pope. Barrajon knows when people are Devil-beset and require exorcism: They show a deep aversion to holy objects such as the cross. "Also an aversion to the word 'God.' When it is spoken, such people get very nervous."
The recent spate of pro-atheism books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, etc. will be regarded by the Devil, should he exist, as excellent disinformation for his side. Reading a couple of them, I reflected that while I believe in something that could be called original sin, I don't believe in the Devil. How can you believe in him if you don't believe in God?
On the other hand, I wouldn't like to see the Devil forgotten. He's essential to understanding literature, for one thing -- consider Dante, Christopher Marlowe, Goethe, Thomas Mann and Isaac Bashevis Singer, for starters.
I suspect that Henry Ansgar Kelly of the University of California harbours similar views. He's the author of the recent Satan: A Biography (Cambridge University Press), in which he notes "the unjustifiably bad press" Satan has had over the centuries. Kelly plays the role (as one English critic has noted) of spin doctor for His Infernal Majesty. He explains that in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the Devil is not nearly the total villain we consider him today. He didn't acquire a really bad reputation until about 220 years after the birth of Jesus, when Origen of Alexandria began describing the Devil we now know. Satan wasn't even mentioned as hell's proprietor till centuries after Christ.
Mayor Carolyn Risher of Inglis, Fla., (pop. 1,400) isn't having any of that. Five years ago (guided, she said, by God's hand) she became briefly famous by issuing a decree officially banning Satan from her municipality. Prayers were distributed along with her proclamation. Even so, Steve Morris of the local police acknowledged that he hadn't noticed any reduction in crime. Moreover, public copies of the decree were themselves stolen from where they were posted. Mayor Risher had no trouble figuring out who, or what, inspired that crime.