American Eugenics: A history and prophecy

This (extended!) essay is the result of research I gathered about the treatment of Americans with disabilities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s a harrowing read from that standpoint alone–but when I consider the rise of Trumpism and its attendant barbarity against the sick, the poor, and the foreign, I think the eugenics movement becomes especially instructive. Present day is not the first time we put children in cages. Nor is it the first time that we’ve abandoned them to die at the hands of a monstrosity that we helped create.

In 1934, the Richmond Times Dispatch quoted the superintendent of a Virginia state hospital as saying that eugenically speaking, the Germans are beating us at our own game.  I learned this from Edwin Black’s, groundbreaking War against the Weak, which is a book I somewhat wantonly paraphrase throughout the next few pages.  I have discovered, however, that once I started looking for this kind of information, I found traces of it in almost any source that discusses disability care from 1860 through World War II.  Martin Luther once said that Perfect is the great enemy of Good.  And the eugenics movement certainly offers proof.  But I’ve also discovered that the pursuit of perfection frequently requires that we deny our own history, where it wages the great harm of burying the illustration of our mistakes.  France and Germany prohibit their citizens from rejecting the reality of the Holocaust.  Yet Americans have forgotten that they—in part through their treatment of the disabled—are the ones who started it. 

To put it briefly, quack science capitalized on global hardship to produce a culture of secrecy and fear that at least tacitly allowed the destruction of over 60,000 Americans.  If this sounds like fascism, that’s because it is.  As the Industrial Age pushed into its prime, cities on both sides of the Atlantic clogged themselves with the working poor.  The British called the impoverished the residuum, which was another word for sewage.  They coined the word, slum, which was short for slumber, because the poor were so tired from their labor, that this was the only activity that went on in their neighborhoods.  In 1840, in the most squalid areas of Manchester, 1 in every 25 people died each year. 

In 1798, the British philosopher, Thomas Malthus published his “Essay on Population,” which established that humans have a tendency to overpopulate, and that unless societies actively worked to prevent such a thing, communities would outgrow their food supply.  In 1851, Herbert Spencer’s Social Statistics posited a number of ways to curb such a tendency, but among them was the abolition of charity, [where philanthropic] men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process but even increases the vitiation.  Spencer also coined the term survival of the fittest, which, in 1859, is an idea that Charles Darwin included in his Origin of the Species.  Critics are in a constant flap over to what extent Darwin applied such a theory to human society, but the author, Richard Weikart, makes a pretty good case that because Darwin believed that the survival of the fittest affects all animals, and because Darwin categorically considered humans to be animals, logic would assume that he had us clamoring along with the rest of them.  That’s what the social Darwinists decided, at any rate.  And by the time The Descent of Man came along in 1871, Darwin himself had ranked the races, and implied that both the lower groups and the disabled folks constituted a breed of evolutionary degenerates.  He declared that people ought to refrain from marriage if they are in any marked degree inferior.  And with this statement, he joined the movement for selective breeding, which, in 1883, his cousin, Francis Galton began to call eugenics.

In the meantime, American Reconstruction transformed into the Gilded Age.  The United States suffered the same urban squalor that plagued Europe, and between 1870 and 1890, 1 percent of the population owned 47 percent of the country’s wealth.  Layoffs abounded; strikes punctured the coal, garment and railroad industry; Jim Crow ground the south; and revolution and oppression sparked an unprecedented surge of eastern European immigration.  In 1893, the United States endured its greatest depression to date, with somewhere between 18 and 20 percent of the population falling to unemployment.  And with so much strife at home, societies reviled the stranger as either a job competitor or simply another mouth to feed.  In the middle of the century, disability schools had attempted to incarcerate mentally disabled people only long enough to train them to survive on the outside.  But as the market depressed, graduates from these institutions had it worse than even the immigrants—and they faced no choice but to return to where they came from.  They joined the students who were never trainable enough to leave in the first place, and the strain reduced the schools to custodial homes.  The higher-functioning residents began assisting the asylums’ staff with the lower-functioning members.  Superintendents started calling their charges inmates.  Educational strategies gave way to medical models of treatment and control.  And theories of that kind were rife with the emerging science. 

As with the plague mentality in the Middle Ages, industrial society viewed the unfortunate as potential contamination.  In 1874, Richard Dugdale published The Jukes, which used a family of paupers to discuss how much poor relief cost the United States.  He asserted that poverty was a product of environment, but he died soon after his book became popular, and eugenicists buried his thesis in a clamor that declared that his work proved that poverty was heredity.  In 1888, Rev. Oscar McCullouch galvanized the claim with The Tribe of Ishmael, which announced that poor people in Indianapolis descended from a single ancestor.  McCullouch, at the time, served as the head of the National Board of Charities. 

As soon as concerns with heredity had become vogue, social theorists had given great attention to the notion that ancestral immorality begets a string of generational catastrophe.  It could manifest itself in a variety of ways, including poverty, intemperance, sickness, and disability—but in all instances, it had to be stopped.  In 1876, the philanthropist, Josephine Shaw Lowell had become New York’s first female commissioner on the State Board of Charities.  She made it her business to convince the public that because of their ability to breed, their faulty heredity, and their questionable morality, mentally-disabled women were born criminals.  Lowell was the first to equate the disabled with what she called moral leprosy.  And it was this idea that, in 1891, convinced the president of the Anthropological Society of Washington to urge the country to quarantine the evil classes as [it] would the plague

Charles Davenport was a biologist who devoted his life to the project.  To my embarrassment, his ancestors were American Puritans—which was a fact he showcased along with his family’s inclusion in William the Conqueror’s Domesday census.  Eugenics attracted him by placing Anglo-Nordics at the top of the heap.  And in 1902 he enticed his cohorts at the Carnegie Institution to fund the establishment of a lab in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, to study the method of Evolution.  Davenport decided that constructing a blood database would be the best way to do such a thing.  And in 1903, he moved the American Breeders Association to widen their focus to humans by creating the Eugenics Committee.  In 1909, this committee formed the Eugenics Record Office, which began to survey schools, prisons, courthouses, hospitals, and asylums for information regarding the hereditary stock of every citizen they could find.  Davenport added urgency to the project by announcing that once the ERO had amassed enough information, it would target and incarcerate all “imbeciles” of reproductive age.  Edwin Black makes the point that Davenport never defined what an imbecile was. 

In 1910, Mrs. EH Harriman used her railroad fortune to purchase eighty acres of land for the ERO at Cold Springs Harbor.  Over the agency’s lifetime, Harriman donations would total over a half million dollars.  With money and a plan, Davenport needed a deputy.  So in 1910, he hired Harry Laughlin, who was a professor in the Agriculture, Botany and Nature department at the Missouri Normal School.  Laughlin took charge of the ERO—and within that same year, he had secured a $21,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.  Rockefeller money would support the ERO until 1939. 

With such elite endorsement, the blood surveys poured in.  Within the next few years, Laughlin used their data to show that there existed a Submerged or Lower Tenth of the national population that, for racial or otherwise congenital reasons, was unfit.  The ERO left unfitness undefined, but in 1911, it compiled a list of qualifying categories which included:  (1)the feebleminded class, (2) the pauper class, (3) the inebriate class, (4) the criminal class, (5) the epileptic class, (6) the insane class, (7) the constitutionally weak, or the asthenic class, (8) those predisposed to specific diseases, or the diathetic class, (9) the deformed class, (10) those with defective sense organs, as the blind and the deaf, or the kakaisthetic class. 

The catalogue—and the numbers behind it—at least implicitly received great support from Henry Goddard, who coined the term moron to define the highest-functioning, and allegedly prolific, imbecile.  From 1906-1918, Goddard served as the director of research at New Jersey’s Vineland Training School for [Disabled] Girls and Boys.  In 1913, Goddard authored The Kallikak Family, which is a hugely influential, but now-defunct study of mental disability and heredity.  In that same year, he altered the Binet intelligence test into an economically-and-culturally biased exam that he administered to immigrants at Ellis Island.  Perhaps because scientists claimed that certain types of imbeciles resembled apes or swine, Goddard believed that he could identify the “feebleminded” on sight.  And with the help of his test, he discovered that 40 percent of immigrants were morons or lower.  In that same year he and a Stanford eugenicist, Lewis Terman, transformed this same exam into the Army Alpha Test.  The document showed that 47 percent of white, and 89 percent of black  Americans were morons.  And although the army never acted on these findings, Princeton University eventually converted the test into the first SAT.

Eugenics held the country’s attention—or at least the elite’s attention.  And through a combination of bad data, flattery, and fear, it seduced the powerful into opening eugenics departments at:  Alama College, Bates College, Brown University, Columbia University, Harvard University, Illinois University at Urbana, New York University, Northwestern University, Princeton University, Purdue University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Stanford University and Yale University.  By 1924, eugenics programs had spread to hundreds of facilities, including a number of high schools.  In 1915, John Harvey Kellogg, brother of the cereal baron, established the Race Betterment Foundation, which received 10,000 visitors in that year alone.  The American Museum of Natural History erected eugenics exhibits in 1915–and again in 1932, where the last exhibit attracted 15,000 patrons. 

In the era between the wars, “Fitter Family” contests opened at state fairs across the country.  And to forge a cooperation between faith and science, the American Eugenic Society hosted a nationwide eugenics sermon competition.  In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt said that, Some day, we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type, is to leave his or her blood behind them in the world; and that we have no business to perpetuate the citizens of the wrong type.  In 1914, John Harvey Kellogg said that, To purify the breeding stock of the race at all costs is the slogan of eugenics.  And in 1920, Margaret Sanger declared that, The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.  

Woodrow Wilson was a eugenicist; Winston Churchill was a eugenicist; the feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman; the progressive governor, Charles Henderson; the sociologists, EA Ross and Frank Giddings; the psychologists, GS Hall and EG Boring; the botanist, Luther Burbank; the inventor, Alexander Graham Bell; the authors, Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound, and Joseph Conrad; the composers Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler; and the theologians, Richard Rauchenbusch and Washington Gladden were all eugenicists of one kind or another.  In fact, one member of the American Association of the Advancement of Science declared that had Jesus been among us, he would have been the president of the First Eugenic Congress.

Indeed there were conventions, where by 1923 at least three occurred on the international scale.  Eugenic agendas emerged in a variety of countries including Denmark, Sweden, Britain, Norway, Germany and Canada—all nations who faced the seduction of science asserting their superiority.  Harry Laughlin used international ties to convince Congress to set up eugenic consulates in Europe.  In 1923, as a member of the federal Committee on Selective Immigration, he personally administered his intelligence tests to citizens of most western and northern European countries.  He asked other nations to send him their demographic data, and eighty-seven of them complied.  The New York Times published Laughlin’s findings in 1924.  And in that same year, Congress passed the Immigration Act, which imposed quotas on the acceptance of lower races.  It was legislation of this sort that would deny entry to Jewish refugees during Hitler’s purges.  And it was eugenicists’ contact with Germany that eventually carried the most import. 

In 1936, the dean of the medical school at the University of Heidelberg awarded Laughlin an honorary degree.  In 1934, The Kallikak Family was published in Nazi Germany.  And when Hitler was in prison before his rise to power, he read Davenport, he studied the works of Leon Whitney, who was the president of the American Eugenics Society, and he all-out reveled in Madison Grant’s Nordic-supremacist The Passing of the Great Race, which, in a letter to Grant, Hitler embraced as his Bible.

In the meantime, American leaders were almost equally enthralled.  When Oliver Wendell Holmes served as chief justice of the Supreme Court, Virginian inmate, Carrie Buck, delivered a child who resulted from a rape.  Her defenders took her subsequent sterilization case all the way to Justice Holmes, where during the trial, an ERO representative declared that Carrie’s child also showed backwardness.  By eugenic standards, both Carrie and her mother were feebleminded.  And with the addition of the child’s diagnosis, Justice Holmes ruled that three generations of imbeciles are enough [where]….the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.  His ruling moved the United States to sterilize 63,000 undesirables by 1963.  It’s worth noting, by the way, that almost half of American sterilizations occurred during the years after the post-war Nuremberg trials declared eugenic operations as crimes against humanity. 

As with Carrie Buck, many of those who endured sterilization languished in institutions.   Asylum living conditions contributed to a mentally-disabled person’s life-expectancy to average around 18.5 years, in 1930.  In 1990, by contrast the life expectancy for a mentally-disabled American was 66.2 years.  In the late 19th century, a New York institution was reported as using water that was drinkable, but still inadequate to quell a fire.  In 1907, a 16-year-old boy at the Illinois Asylum died from burns he received from lying on a radiator for several minutes after having fallen during a seizure.  None of the staff treated his wounds.  At the same asylum, in the same year, an inmate died from a scalding she suffered in a bath.  The institution fired the attending employee.  One of the inmate’s cohorts received rat bites on her face, arms, and abdomen.  And in the same year, at the same place, a patient died four days after he attempted to castrate himself.  All of this information came from an expose that Chicago newspapers conducted after the radiator death.  And this prompts me to suspect that the Illinois Asylum was exceptional only in the sense that it received an investigation at all. 

Historians acknowledge the somewhat ominous fact that between the Depression and the end of World War II, a minuscule amount of patient records exist from any American asylum.  What do abound are descriptions of institutions from the 1950s through the 1970s, when social advocates began to rip the top off such establishments.  Here you find the bed-stacked-to-bed holding pens; the group-shower rooms that consisted of a drain and a hose; the feces on the walls and on the inmates and in the cracks of wooden floors; the patients lying in their own vomit; the bedless isolation chambers; and the cribs designed to confine both child and adult members of the head-bashing, tile-eating population who had generally been reduced to such behavior by the very conditions they inhabited.  When, in 1956, the Portsmouth State Herald published pictures of New Hampshire’s Laconia State School, readers decried the institution as resembling Nazi Germany.  Perhaps some of them were aware of the irony.

The historian, Timothy M. Cook, has found early-century records of state legislations that considered the disabled:  a blight on mankind, in Vermont; anti-social beings, in Pennsylvania; a misfortune both to themselves and to the public, in Kansas; a danger to the race, in Wisconsin.  And in South Dakota, they were a defect [that] wounds our citizenry a thousand times more than any plague.  In 1906, Ohio and Iowa debated whether to make it lawful to euthanize the mentally disabled.  In those same years, Harvard president, Charles Eliot Norton, declared that the unfit should receive painless destruction.  Civil-rights lawyer, Clarence Darrow, decided it was merciful to chloroform unfit children.  And HG Wells wrote that for a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalid dishonour, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence…. They will have an ideal what will make killing worth while.    

In 1915, Chicago doctor, Harry Haiselden, denied treatment to a deformed newborn, and let it die.  He faced a judicial inquiry—and a media circus—but the judge decided that no law bound Haiselden to act differently.  Haiselden admitted to killing other infants—and continued to do so for years after the trial, by either overdosing them with narcotics or allowing them to bleed from an untied umbilical cord.  He offered consultations from coast to coast.  Charles Davenport supported him in the press.  And in 1917, Hollywood released The Black Stork, where Haiselden played himself in a drama that involved his convincing a mother to kill her unfit infant.  The movie script called the baby the monster.  And the death scene showed a raggish depiction of the baby’s soul floating toward the arms of Christ. 

Haiselden called death the great and lasting disinfectant.  Friedrich Nietzsche had already declared that one has observed life poorly, if one has not also witnessed the hand that mercifully kills.  Davenport said that one may even view with satisfaction the high death rate in an institution for [the] low-grade feebleminded.  And joining these men were: 

Konrad Lorenz, zoologist:  Just as in cancer the best treatment is to eradicate the parasitic growth as quickly as possible, the eugenic defense…is of necessity limited to equally drastic measures. 

Henry Goddard, psychologist and author:  It would be better for both [the moron] and for society [for him] to have never been born.

Paul Popenoe, co-author of Applied Eugenics:  From an historical point of view, the first method which presents itself is execution…. Its value in keeping up the standard of the race should not be underestimated.

Arthur F. Tredgold, author of Textbook on Mental Deficiency:  It would be an economical and humane procedure were their existence to be painlessly terminated.

Alfred Jost, German social theorist:  [It is the state’s right] to [inflict] deaths [that are] key to the fitness of life.

Helen Keller, writer and activist:  A human life is sacred only when it may be of some use to itself and the world.  She spoke in defense of Haiselden—and although she believed that physically disabled infants should live, she declared that the mentally challenged should perish.  [A mental defective], she said, is almost certain to be a criminal.

I have gotten to the point where if I mention eugenics, my friends leave the room.  But this research has given me something else besides the nightmares and the alone time—and that is a faith in democracy.  For all the urgings from European and American luminaries, the United States never passed extermination laws.  Although the ERO considered liquidation as an end to the unfit, they knew that society wasn’t ready for such measures.  Even Laughlin agreed that such a program would occur at too dear a moral price.  Much of this hesitation stemmed from the resistance that eugenics had faced ever since its inception.  Galton’s followers decried the ERO’s Lower Tenth statistics as careless presentation of data, inaccurate methods of analysis, irresponsible expression of conclusions, and rapid change of opinion. By the end of his life, Galton himself declined to attend eugenic conferences.  Psychologists, Edith Spaulding and William Healy, published a 1913 study that asserted how criminal tendencies were not hereditary.  In 1919, Walter Fernald discovered that many paroled morons survived well outside of their institutions.  And although from its very inception the ERO had demanded that the US Census Bureau surrender its records, the Bureau refused on the grounds of protecting each citizen’s privacy.  Inquiries such as the Illinois Asylum expose and the Haiselden investigation show that what they disclosed both shocked and divided the public.  And by the 1920s, such dissent moved the American Medico-Psychological Association and the Mental Hygiene Association to de-emphasize eugenics in both their conferences and their journals. 

But by this time, the eugenics movement had attracted fans who were not so democratically inclined.  World War I had all but ruined Germany.  Poverty levels during the war were so high that asylums had no choice but to deny their inmates medicine and food.  In 1922, the German, Gerhard Hoffman, used this precedent to submit an economical rejuvenation plan to the Reichstag, which included the killing of the insane, the exhausted, the mentally disabled and the children who were chronically ill or crippled.  Germany refused to implement what was still an outrageous agenda.  But from his prison cell, Adolph Hitler brimmed with what he learned about controlling undesirables.  There is today, he wrote in Mein Kampf, one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception of [immigration] are noticeable.  Of course, it is not our model German republic, but the [United States], in which an effort is made to consult reason at least partially.  By refusing immigrants on principle to elements in poor health, by simply excluding certain races from naturalization, it professes in slow beginnings a view which is peculiar to the People’s State.  Hitler would soon have more reason to thank us.  The American eugenicists had long sensed that Germany was ripe to take action that the United States would never condone.  For the next decade, the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Psychiatry, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics.  These are the bodies that perpetuated the pseudo-data that endorsed racial purity; supported the campaign to destroy life unworthy of life; and authorized the monstrous experiments in Nazi hospitals.  Edwin Black asserts that American money went to these institutions even during the 1930s, when American workers starved.  And what’s interesting is that the Depression is what convinced many Americans that poverty was not a sign of degeneracy.  It was the Depression, of all things, that provided correction enough to begin a slow healing.  The other remedy was the Holocaust.

Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933.  That same year, under international media coverage, the first concentration camp opened in Dachau.  In 1934, the American periodical, Eugenical News, wrote that we [should] be the first to thank this one man, Adolph Hitler, and follow him on the way to a biological salvation of humanity.  The magazine also endorsed the Nazis’ release of racial trading cards, suggesting only that they use more physical detail.  Also in 1934, Californian eugenicist CM Goethe wrote this to his colleague in San Diego:  You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program….I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.  Within months of that writing, Hitler’s deputy, Herman Hess, announced that National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.

In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws required the sterilization of all racially, physically and mentally unfit Germans.  This was a full year before Laughlin accepted his honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg.  In 1939, Hitler started the T-4 program, which exterminated between fifty and sixty thousand disabled citizens.  It was this effort that prompted the invention of the gas chamber.

In 1934, Jewish-American newspapers and the Federal Council of Churches of Christ demanded that the Rockefeller Foundation justify its support for Nazi science.  As the thirties wore on, Irving A. Folling and Herbert J. Muller published scientific discoveries that debunked the idea of genetic unfitness.  As the Germans started their invasions and proliferated their camps, and as France and England entered the war, the United States became queasy with anything that situated itself with Nazism. 

In 1939, the Rockefeller Foundation finally withdrew its support from both foreign and American eugenic programs.  Charles Davenport had retired in 1934.  And although Harry Laughlin and the Carnegie Institution negotiated about how to continue supporting Cold Spring Harbor, the Carnegies finally walked away in 1940.  The ERO closed that same year—and although Laughlin tried to first sell and then donate his records, nobody wanted them. 

That is the sorry end of it.  In 1943, Harry Laughlin died of epilepsy.  It was a condition he guarded for his entire life—as it was one that could have left him burning to death on a radiator.  Charles Davenport died in 1944, after contracting pneumonia from spending days in a Long Island shed, boiling the flesh from the skull of a beached whale.  The whale had become an obsession of a sort that once condemned another man. 

Catastrophe is Greek for overturning.  And the Hebrew Prophets acknowledge it as the self-destruction and God-given redemption that grants our history its form.  The calamity ends when its obscenity appalls the bulk of its very perpetrators.  And here again, a society’s agony over destruction finally moves them to engage in the very prophetic act of revolting against it.  This makes sense, I suppose.  But what the Prophets don’t say—what I have never found—is the reason why such grace is destined to arrive at the cost of the innocent.

I read once about Danish sailors who, in the days of the galleons, believed that waterspouts were demons.  When they spotted one, they would send a man ahead in a dinghy, to use a black-handled knife to slit the demon’s throat.  It is our nature that we find evil in destruction.  And it is to our honor, perhaps, that we seek even self-destructive means of destroying it.

Do I say that healing depends on the suffering of innocents, because our lot has to become just that depraved before we decide to fix it? Or perhaps I should say that if this is the reason, it doesn’t feel like grace anymore.  That is the question I have—that is the one I have sat alone and whetted.  I am not a Prophet.  But I do know a few of them.  And I have read a Muslim passage where on the Day of Judgment, all the slaughtered infants will rise up and ask why.

If it were up to you, would you row out to see? Would you cast yourself along that worn water, with nothing to arm yourself but an edge of human frailty? I don’t know what would happen then.  And I don’t know if it would be better for us or worse, if in that moment before catastrophe, a voice came out of the whirlwind. 

(Gratitude to Edwin Black’s The War Against the Weak, which provided a great deal of information for this post.)

Meditations on Satan: Part 5

Note: This essay comes from a larger work that narrates experiences I had while I lived alone in a midwestern farmhouse. During that time, I also worked as a caregiver for disabled adults who live at a group home I call Tappan. (Tappan is the name of the house’s street.)  In the next few pages, you’ll read about Silas the Barber.  He is an autistic, semi-violent resident of Tappan, who tried to shave himself, in the bathtub, after irritation and fatigue had diverted my attention elsewhere.  Among other things, Silas tried to shave his head, and he ended up looking as if he had hacked at himself with a cheese grater.

Part V. Threat


Snow fell like a peace. It stuck to everything, deep as the carol goes, and still and even. I imagined it filling the corncrib’s tub, covering red with white, washing the owl carcass the way Dr. Peck hopes for the Devil’s own redemption.

The mice ran amok. The cat brought a live one to my bed, in the middle of the night. He set it loose in the sheets and watched me try to catch it, while he kept an expression that suggested that I really was bad at this. I caught the mouse in a waste basket, took it downstairs to the pretzel jar, and watched it sleep bowed on its head. 

Outside, the tracks in the snow jumbled into causeways and signs: the fine pats and tail of a vole; the press of a deer trail.  Wind blew and the tall weeds bent to trace arcs around themselves. I found that when rabbits jump in snow, they leave a set of tracks that resemble a single, man-sized, cloven hoofprints. And this was the only time that I truly thought of the Devil. I suppose I’d had enough.  And besides, everything around me was so slow and so cool.  It felt like the first winter after the Flood.

It was in late March that the side door blew open on its own. Just beyond, the blue spruces bowed in the wind.  Later that night, a thunderstorm rolled over the fields. In the morning, I found roof shingles in the side yard.  Under the blue spruces, there were two snake skins. They were damp and torn. And something about them was both dark and pale. 

The air was uneasy. I started to wonder what exactly had blown open the side door–whether I should have pressed the frame with a mark. Or whether such intrusions were how the marks appeared in the first place–not as wards but as signs of a break in.  I might have been losing my mind. Summer’s heat approached hard and early.  It seemed nearly to force the buds open.  And the Devil came back, in thoughts that bloomed.   


At springtime, in farm country, they burn the fields. The ash makes for good planting, and the smoke rolls so thick that during the rains, it’s hard to distinguish the land from the air. The technique must be ancient.  It feels ancient. The Earth is so black that the green is shocking.

We know that at least during the springtime of Passover, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane habitually. After the Last Supper, he went there, “as was his custom.”  This shows, says Calvin, that on the night of Jesus’ arrest, he went exactly where Judas would find him. This also makes me wonder if Jesus knew all along that the arrest would happen there–that the garden would be the place where he would come closest to his own fall.

There was, perhaps, smoke around him–or at least the distant tang of it. Calvin says that Jesus had brought only his strongest disciples with him–and that he left even them behind when he went alone to pray. Maybe Jesus thought it would unhinge them to see God become afraid–where although they were able to witness the transfiguration, they were not strong enough to see the agony in the garden. This carries special significance, when we realize that the disciples were allowed to witness the crucifixion.

Jesus knelt and trembled. The air had a primordial sting. This time of year, the first wildflowers were out, with the alertness that new growth suggests. Maybe they were the ones who recorded how Jesus prayed for relief–and how he immediately corrected himself. We must know this information for a reason.  There is something crucial in the fact that the world fell, and nearly fell again, amid not barrenness, but the opulence of a garden.


Online, I’ve found a home video of a dun-colored snake moving along a fence that divides what appears to be a barnyard. There’s a glimpse of palm trees and rainy sky.  The camera never pans wide enough to show the full length of the snake, but judging by the fence, the creature is long, and possibly as thick as a small pole. The camera pans closer to the serpent’s head, and the serpent inches along.  The camera moves closer still, and there’s a white flash of the snake’s mouth, a muffled clatter, and darkness.

After getting over the initial startle, I find that it’s the lushness of the first frames that I dwell on–the true garden and its serpent. I’ve read that along African rivers, snakes will drop from tree branches into passing canoes.  A friend of mine once rented a house in Kenya, where the owner had set up a sign in the yard that said BEWARE OF SNAKES. And the wisdom, I think, is that one must be neither forgetful of, nor fascinated by, the thing that she might find in the apparent safety of paradise.

I happened upon the snake video in the middle of writing this essay. This was around the same time that my research purchases had made my virtual bookstore’s recommended list begin to look really strange. Lately, a friend of mine–a solid, liberal sort–started suggesting that I invest in a crucifix.  And it occurred to me then that I now know more about the Devil than I know about the Church itself. C.S. Lewis says that in many ways The Screwtape Letters was the hardest book to write, because he spent so much time within the mind of evil. And I find this alarming.  Because through even my darkest reminiscence of the farm house, I have had to work very hard to stay so much as uncomfortable. That is, I have felt safe, and even enthusiastic, about the topic at hand.  In short, I have felt the temptation to believe in, instead of against.

I have recently come across the Theistic Satanists. These are a group of cabals that honor Satan, as they perceive him, with a body of rites and creeds that vary depending on the tradition. In essence, however, they accept Satan as a discreet and identifiable force or deity.  That is, they believe not just in, but also for, the aspect we would loosely call the Devil.

Theistic Satanism is a fractious, protean, secretive movement that, aside from its chief deity, is difficult to describe in a nutshell. I suspect that I’m missing some of its deeper thought.  And in fact, I have to say that a great deal of what I have encountered feels uninspired, flimsy, and somewhat given to countercultural flourishes. And still, I’ve discovered one thing strange:  The Theistic Satanists claim to receive an answer. 

Founder of the Church of Azazel and website author, Diane Vera, says that many Satanists “have had profound spiritual experiences involving Satan.” High Priestess Maxine Dietrich, of Joy of Satan Ministries, says that “the closer we become to Father Satan, we find how positive and wonderful he is. . . . Each and every day he fills my spirit with strength and joy.”

And then I’ve found this testimony, from Reverend “Zen.”

“I was amazed that the minute I let go of everything Father Satan immediately filled me with so much love and warmth I was led to tears. It was incredible.”

Finally, I juxtaposed the following two quotes with each other:

First: “In an instant there rose up in me such a sense of God’s taking care of those who put their trust in him that for an hour all the world was crystalline, and the heavens were lucid, and I sprang to my feet and began to cry and laugh.”

Second: “While I still had depression, I asked ‘Father. . . have you left me as well?’ After that, I FELT the most wonderful energy in my life. I believe that was Father’s energy that was every millimeter in my body.  I [had been]depressed.  After that I started to laugh, cry and sing. It was a BEAUTIFUL experience. I rarely cry as I am a ‘cold’ person, but whenever I THINK about Father my eyes get wet, and I can FEEL his love and presence. I still cannot imagine or even ‘rationally’ explain his love for us, for his children.”

The first passage is from revivalist preacher and abolitionist, Henry Ward Beecher. The second is from Theistic Satanist, Rev. Leon.  The level of language is certainly different. Beecher was a 19th century American; Rev. Leon is a 21st century Serbian.  But tell me there isn’t a similarity in excitement, devotion, joy–relief.

Of course, there’s a possibility that these testimonies aren’t real. The speakers may report a dopamine response that comes from intense meditation. If atheists wage such skepticism at God-worshippers, we can certainly aim it at the Satanists. Or, abandoning that, perhaps more incisive is my friend’s idea that God isn’t cocaine.  You can’t just order a mystical hit–through meditation or anything else. Many holy people will suggest that the experience of God is cataclysmically unexpected, both in terms of its appearance and its content.  And if this is the case, the practice of ordering up ecstasy is something that both the Theistic Satanists and the revivalist Christians need to examine very carefully.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Theistic Satanists do experience an authentic encounter. If this is true, I can muster three possible answers for why they parallel true, religious worship.  The first is that, in spite of his constraints, Satan does respond on some level. In this sense, these testimonies do embody true worship.  What’s more is that Satan listens to true worship–as opposed to the Church of Satan’s self-worship–and that Satan embraces his followers in kind. This means either that Satan is more Luciferian and less nihilistic than we thought, or that Satan the Nihilist lures followers to destruction through a false sense of spiritual opulence and well-being.  The safety, in this case, is a ruse. I can’t even begin to speculate on these possibilities, much less decide which one is more probable.  I will suggest, however, that the second description fits Satan’s character as I have perceived it so far.  The only difference is that God has let Satan overtly address those who endeavor to attract him.

The second possible explanation is that religious experience is–or at least can be–a kind of self-hypnosis. At its most hopeful, this scenario means that even the best experiences have doubtful authenticity.  In its least hopeful light, the possibility of self-hypnosis suggests that there is no god at all. Safety, again, is a ruse.  Because if this is reality, we’ve got bigger problems than Satan.   

The third possibility is that the Devil isn’t the one who answers the Theistic Satanists in the first place. Both Rev. “Zen” and Rev. Leon speak of love as an element in their communion experience.  Another Theistic Satanist speaks of “tough love” from Satan. A fourth speaks of how “Father knows when we are not well and he is always there for us.”  And a fifth says his communion with Satan filled his room with a kind of energy, “EXTREMELY POSITIVE AND FULL OF LOVE.”

It’s possible, I suppose, that the presence of love–or at least the celebration of love–is something that separates Theistic Satanist from true Satan worship. After all, it appears that Theistic Satanists don’t worship Nihilism either.  In fact, in their own way, they worship a loving parent.  And I guess this could mean that, in spite of all, our loving Parent–that is the Judeo-Christian parent–responds to them. In fact, I can think of no better joke.

The trouble is that Theistic Satanists worship other things as well. Power is one.  Seth-worshipper and Satanist, Geifodd ap Pwyll describes “Satanism as a religion in which the individual is raised to personal godhood, free from enslavement to any other god or gods.” The First Church of Satan accepts the Nietzsche/Rand stance of worshipping the self, as it strives to reach the top of the social pecking order.  Diane Vera says her Church of Azazel sees “Satan as. . . multi-faceted, associated with science, technology, and the human will to power [emphasis mine].” And the Church Lucifer tells how Satan “would teach us to become as gods who could create our own destinies.” And this hunger for self determination sounds like somebody else we know.


The Devil doesn’t appear at Gethsemane–not personally. Ignatius and Bernard are two Church Fathers who suggest that Satan didn’t want the crucifixion to happen–that Satan realized too late that the murder would undo him. Perhaps this is why he doesn’t fully manifest. 

On the other hand, maybe Jesus own agony does the Devil’s work for him. Matthew 20.38 shows Jesus “sorrowful even to death.”  This idiom also shows up in Jonah 9.9, where Jonah is “angry even to death.” And Calvin likens the condition to being half-dead with the emotion in question.  The sharpness of all this probably comes, in large part, from Jesus’ fear–something, says Calvin, that doesn’t emerge from such a common eventuality as death as much as it arises from the singular prospect of answering for all of man’s sins. In this sense, it is possible that Jesus is the single human who goes to the Devil’s hell.  I don’t know.   But Calvin suggests that the fear is so bad that when the angels minister to Jesus, it’s because “he, who is one with the father, needs visible aid from heaven.” His faith is so shaken that he, who knows all–who made all–must lean on divine reassurance.

For all this soul-threatening grief and terror, it might be that Satan actually does appear in some fashion. After all, this has to be the Devil’s “more opportune time.”  It’s just that, Satan, for all his power, uses his best moment to arrive in lower case. That is, he chooses the form of man. This, I suppose, is another way that he mocks God.

Calvin is one of many theologians who declare that when Satan enters Judas, Satan in no way possesses him. Such a thing would remove Judas from his culpability.  This is why, with all respect to Dr. Peck, possession doesn’t seem to support the Devil’s purpose. In any event, Judas becomes a lower-case satan. And I mean this in the full sense that I unfolded in my previous chapter. [Here I talk about how, in the Bible, the word “satan” refers to a human agent more often than it refers to a demonic persona. This “satan” can pertain to any kind of generic adversary, but my previous chapter shows how it can pertain specifically to human opposition to God’s will.]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have dealt a great deal with the Devil in both the Devil’s proper and common forms. And he describes the seduction toward satanism like this:   “[The Lord of Lies] will say, “I am the beginning, and you, man, are the beginning. You were with me from the beginning.  I have made you what you are and with me is your end.  I am the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega; worship me….You are the beginning and the end, for you are in me. Believe in me.  I have lied from the beginning; lie, and thus you will be in the beginning a lord of the truth.  Discover your beginning yourself.’”

Look at how this parodies the prayer that Jesus offers during the last supper. Here again, Satan parrots God.  In the desert, he offered a twisted version of the Abrahamic covenant; here he offers a mangled prayer of adoption and intercession. This takes Jesus’ most human utterance of love and turns it into treachery–the way Judas desecrated the kiss.  And if this quote rings even marginally true, Bonhoeffer has replicated the blackest Mass I have ever found.

The hook in the recitation is the promise of power. It’s certainly the promise that Judas followed–what allowed Judas both to partake of the Last Supper and to hear Jesus’ own prayer, without abandoning Judas’s own worst designs. This doesn’t mean that Judas considered himself in league with the Nihilist.  So far as I can see, nobody does.  In fact, the great tragedy of Judas is his probable conviction that he sought a kind of good.

Such a thing may be the same for the Theistic Satanists. And still, in light of the Judas question, we can certainly see that their hunger for power is bad enough. Indeed, its likes have nearly toppled everything.  But then, let’s be honest:   The lust for power is also human enough. This is part of the shame that Theistic Satanists show to Christianity–the thing of which all satanists, for years, have perhaps rightly accused the faithful. That is, we must admit that the Theistic Satanists aren’t the only church to seek worldly influence.  Jesus, after all, used the word “Satan” on Peter–not Judas.

This is fair enough, I suppose. But then, I’ve begun to notice that the Theistic Satanists also embrace something else.

The following is an excerpt from a posting by Joy of Satan Ministries High Priestess, Maxine Dietrich:

“There is a secret Jewish ‘priesthood,’ that goes back thousands of years. . . . The Jews are the ones who control the Christian Churches, especially the Catholic Vatican from which all other Christian sects evolved. . . . Anyone who is familiar with the old testament of the Bible should be well aware of the endless wars promoted by the so called’˜Jehova’ WHICH IS JEWISH DOMINATION OVER, AND MASS MURDER, TORTURE, AND GENOCIDE OF GENTILES.”

On another post, Dietrich proclaims that “Fools who insist Satan is ok with the Jews need a serious reality check. The root of all vicious slander against Satan, who is our True creator God, is Jewish.”

Dietrich dedicates her webpage ( to Heinrich Himmler, who “worked relentlessly to rid National Socialist Germany of the poison of the Jewish program of Christianity.” She occasionally refers to Jesus as Jewsus Christ. Her church had 20,000 members in 2008.

The anti-semitic link is unpleasant and truly satanic. But here is something more disquieting:  Except for Henry Ward Beecher’s quotation, every communion testimony I mentioned on that page has come from the Joy of Satan website. That is, the anti-semitic Satanists are the ones who talk so religiously about the safety and the paradise of their father’s love. Here is a spiritual, prayerful movement that does embrace a kind of nihilism–even if it’s a conditional sort. And yet they are the ones who receive the answer. 

God–our god–couldn’t be the one to respond. An overzealous love for the self  is one thing; hatred of God’s own people is another. I don’t believe God wouldn’t bless such a thing.  He would not.  I would rather have a devil exist as an enemy with both eloquence and armament than accept any other alternative.

Judas was probably the only disciple who stayed awake the entire night of Jesus’ arrest. His was an anti-vigil.  Both he and his former teacher would wind up hanging. When Jesus died, those who loved him crowded at his feet, the way there may have been clots of family beneath any crucifixion. Unlike the Theistic Satanists, Judas languished as a man who was not anti-semitic–except for the fact that he nearly undid everything toward which his people had struggled and grown. Maybe something settled beneath him while he hung, ready to press him with a mark.  I don’t know if it loved him.  I don’t even know what “it” was.  And truly, I don’t want to know if it touched him with the sign of Cain, or the sign of the Beast.


The sun, in June, hung straight over head, like something waiting to tumble. My own shadow was short.  The back patio was too hot for anything to rest on it, and I remembered accidentally dropping a baby snake–no bigger than a rubber band–on a driveway in Florida, how it writhed and died before I even knew what was happening. This world destroys without trying. 

The farmhouse’s yard was silent. I was out to get the mail, in sandals, cut-offs and a shirt. The grass was dry underfoot.  The house’s air-conditioner switched on, and flies scattered from its grill.

It felt like I had stepped on a stick–something that could flip up and scrape the middle of my calf. I walked ten more feet before I realized that sticks don’t clamp onto a person’s flesh, that this thing did–that it felt like the bites that the lizards used to give us in Florida. I stood, cold.  The sun was so bright that I couldn’t see the grass for all the spots in my eyes.  I felt sick.  I shuffled my feet back to the house, the way we used to walk in the ocean to keep from stepping on skates.

In the living room, I sat. I found a mark on my leg.  It was red, about two inches long, sort of the shape of an upside-down U. There was no blood, no puncture, no pain. 

The survival manual told me to clean the bite the way I would any other scratch. It also said that snakes can strike up to half their length–which means that this one had probably been two-and-a-half feet long. I must have stepped on the creature; I never saw it.  It could have been a fox snake, a bull snake, a rat snake, a king snake.  It could have been any member of a Seussian litany of serpents. It could have been five feet long, but effectively shortened by the fact that I may have stepped high on its back.  If anyone had been watching, they could have seen it flip up like a snare.

I washed my leg, and the water felt cool. The mark had already begun to fade.  The snake must have been too small or too compromised to gain a purchase. The cat batted at a chess knight.  I ran a finger over the mark.  There wasn’t even a scrape.

I got shoes and stood on the roof outside my study window. I peered over the grass, but saw nothing.  I put on better shoes, and wandered the lawn while holding a yardstick in front of me, as if it were a blind man’s cane. I found nothing.  I knew they were there.  I knew they were everywhere–in the wood pile and the tall grass and the corncrib and the space beneath the shed.  I wanted to see them to, to study them, to stand above them. There is a Babylonian myth that says that if you show a demon a mirror, he will run in terror of his own reflection.  I wanted to pity the snakes.  They had bitten me, finally.  I had bruised them with my heel.  O, death, where is thy sting?

A Trick of the Light

A week later, I spoke to Nellie over tea. I told her about the snake bite.  She peered at my leg and chuckled. She talked about how ten years ago, she found a fox snake in her living room. She lay a paper bag on its side, and watched (with some amazement) as the snake climbed in. She took the bag out to the woodpile, and left it.  A few hours later, her husband came home, picked up the bag–and threw it across the driveway. “Snakes like bags,” she said.

I told her this seemed a little different than her backing over a snake with a Buick.

She laughed. “You get used to them.” She showed me a picture of a black racer wrapped around her topiary hedge like a Christmas garland.

A Jewish legend tells how Solomon’s temple was a portrait of paradise reborn. It attempted to replicate the Garden of Eden with all its fruits and perfumes.  And in a tree, Solomon also had fashioned a golden snake. The Jews have frequently extended a sort of sympathy for Satan and the serpent.  The Talmud says that during the wager over Job, the Devil had the task of “breaking the barrel, but not spilling the wine.” This compassion might stem from the fact that the Jews, for all their suffering, traditionally see Satan as an expression of God’s will.  Satan is the prosecutor, the punisher, the tempter.  The Jews are a very self-censuring people; this is one of the reasons why they’ve historically been such a just people. And far more than mentioning Satan, they mention the Wrath of the Lord (Dt. 29.20, Jer. 4.4, Jer. 21.12, Ezek. 5.13, Ezek. 7.19), the Arm of the Lord (Ex. 15.16, Dt. 4.34, Isa. 30.30, Isa. 51.9), and the Sword of the Lord (Isa. 34.5-6, Jer. 12.12, Jer. 47.6).  Amos 3.6 says, “Shall there be evil in the city and the Lord hath not done it?” Isaiah 45.7 says, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil; I the Lord do all these things.”  He the Lord masters evil.  He the Lord both appoints and banishes evil.  When I was in the basement with Carl, I paused while that carpet unfurled like the blue of the heavens.  I have always wondered why, in that instant, while we were combing my house for a rattler, I noticed such a thing.  And the reason, I think, is because the carpet was both firmament and scroll. What I mean is that the carpet implied intention over everything.   The snake that fell from my door was poisonous.  It could have–in fact, it should have–landed on my head, or my neck, or any other part of me.   I don’t know why it didn’t.  Nor can I give a reason why God placed a garden at the navel of the earth, and why sometime after the last day, he fashioned a serpent in a tree. 

I do know that this stance I’ve discovered is something that accepts Satan. It contains Satan.  It subsumes Satan into God himself.  This way, Satan doesn’t rival God. Nor does he complete God, as if he were a fourth addition to the Trinity.  But if we were to imagine the Trinity as the head and the arms of the cross, the Devil is the rod that is both hammered into the ground and also set up to exalt the Trinity itself.

The Bible is a startling terrain of human history, law, psychology. It sears with an honesty.  Its edges round back into mystery.  It is a landscape of how we struggle with both God and man. It is not factual in any consistent sense; it is an act of witness instead of any kind of detached account.  But its truths about evil are both piercing and wise: How darkness visits each of us through both fear and pride; how it twists God and goodness with lies; how it tempts the apostasy of self worship; how frequently it is too big to see until it climbs off the cross that we hang in our very own churches. Evil receives a deft portrait in scripture–a portrayal so actual that is has nearly as much heat and viscera as God’s own love.  And attached to all its hair, and blood, and breathing, there is the claim that this Satan runs a hunger over us all.  The notion is unmistakable. And this is why, with all of scripture’s genius and accuracy, with both its rigor and its mystery, I am inclined, through both logic and experience, to believe that somehow, beyond the reach of human ken, something we call Satan is.

He appears both more ferocious and less damning than we think; more present and more permitted: prince of a world that bejewels the garment of the universe.  Hateful, yes–the bringer of hell on Earth. But too embedded in the earth to act in many ways supernatural; too fettered to man to work much outside of him. He is lethal to souls and settlements–destructive in ways that are so very unexpected and yet still so very old.  In fact, they are so familiar that when I read them in scripture I can feel a sense of shame. Still, one of the great hopes of scripture is that Satan’s inclusion in the Bible actually shows that he is accounted for by the Bible.  This is the gift of the Prophets–those books that drive people from scripture by repelling them with scripture’s so-called threats. The Bible contains evil–which is to say it confines evil. It includes evil’s own worst reaches within the bounds of scripture, within the master plan–within the Word. Will armies dash infants against city walls? They already have.  Will war devour a portion of the earth? It does so daily, and in its wake, it leaves famine and pestilence and death. Will there arise those who strive to follow the Beast himself? They are already here, and they always have been, whether they know it or not.

I have decided, incidentally, that Satan does not love anyone in return. If the Devil opposes all that is God, and if God is love, the Devil cannot give what he opposes to anyone–not even to himself. This must be another way that he inhabits hell.  His lack of love means that if anyone responds to the Theistic Satanists, it isn’t he. Satan, the Nihilist, probably lacks the inclination; he may also lack the permission; and I suspect that he also lacks the room:  I believe, that is, that something else has taken his place.

Rudolf Otto spent the beginning of the twentieth century writing about the evolution of religion. He agreed, in part, with the Satanist idea that the first religions were a kind of devil worship.  The early cults intuited God’s power and mystery, but little else. But then love broke in to refine them.  This was the birth of true religion.  And it reminds me of the idea that true civilization didn’t begin until a settlement began to care for its weakest members. In any event, the primitive nature of devil worship suggests that the Theistic Satanists are just that unevolved.  This is perhaps ironic, in light of the social Darwinism that so many of them espouse.  But the fact remains that in this one sense, I suppose they are as bestial as they claim.

The trouble is that if the Theistic Satanists are theologically primitive, we can almost expect love to break in. And in fact, it looks like it has.  And if we take the beginning of civilization to be how I just described it, God and his ethic are the great catalyst of civilization. So if this is the case, tell me that God wouldn’t care for humanity’s weakest members.  Tell me he has enough self-interest to refrain from inserting himself among people who hate him–among those who spit on his best offerings, among the ones who call him the King of the Jews.

Love breaks in. Love takes captive even those most armed against it. Love may come in the name of Satan, simply because it is elastic enough and immortal enough to encircle the ones who weep for love even as they seek to oppose it. This is more than a joke; it’s the great breach of expectation that makes so much of the Christ story authentic.  In other words, it is the Gospel itself. 

I have kept a snake skin. I found it on the driveway a few days after I was bitten. I like to think it’s from the creature I stepped on.  The length seems about right. I keep it between two peels of birch–sort of my own way of putting a snake in the garden’s tree. I’ve said before that Satan must exist on account of his usefulness.  Such would follow the Gospel tradition, and the Job excursion and even the strange accounts from Dr. Peck.

The point, I think, is that if you take away Satan, you take away a face of God. You take away the wrath of God–the fire, the flood and the earthquake–and somehow this hollows the still, small voice. We know very little of Satan’s reach, except that he’s often used us to extend himself.  We know nothing exact of his intentions; we have seen him only destroy. In these two ways, he seems to be the part of God that we can, and must, push against–the part that gives us the dignity of risk.  This doesn’t mean we encourage Satan. We can’t accommodate Satan.  We can’t thank, emulate or elaborate on Satan or his aims.  We can’t fear Satan.  We can’t seek to appease Satan, or to draw him out of our community the way we’d let blood. We can only accept that creation has a place for him–as another directive from God. 

I have heard that scripture is dangerous, because one interprets its message according to one’s most basic disposition. If a person wishes the Bible to furnish a portrait of evil, she will find it.  If she hopes, even, for an excuse to do evil, it will oblige her again. But if she wishes to encounter Goodness itself, she will find the scriptures at least equally hospitable.  John Calvin reads the dueling stories of David’s census, and he suggests that both are true. God ultimately ordered the census by releasing David to Satan’s power, for a time.  And this insight, however orthodox, is also quite handy.  Because it suggests that Satan is simply like everything else that happens to be evil: Ferocious, yes–and perhaps best avoided.  But he is also constrained, and even controlled, by reality itself.

As such, he is part of reality itself. He has his reason to exist.  But perhaps that reason is to elicit our very act of avoidance. In many ways, such an arrangement resembles the forbidden fruit.  Yes. Satan now exists as the fruit–lethal, captivating, alone. Avoid this, says the Lord. It is not for you. I have made it.  I will name it. In time, I will conquer it to undo your fall. I will use it to show you ourselves. 

Meditations on Satan: Part 4

Note: This essay comes from a larger work that narrates experiences I had while I lived alone in a midwestern farmhouse. During that time, I also worked as a caregiver for disabled adults who live at a group home I call Tappan. (Tappan is the name of the house’s street.)  In the next few pages, you’ll read about Silas the Barber.  He is an autistic, semi-violent resident of Tappan, who tried to shave himself, in the bathtub, after irritation and fatigue had diverted my attention elsewhere.  Among other things, Silas tried to shave his head, and he ended up looking as if he had hacked at himself with a cheese grater.

Part IV. Conversation


Indian summer ended, and so did my patience with the rooftop snake. The mice came back, so I re-baited the traps.  Their hinges had gotten old, and they snapped shut on their own. In the morning, if I found a closed trap, I would hold it next to my ear and shake it.  I knew I had a mouse if I heard scurrying. Other times, I opened the trap to nothing–and the only sign of any mouse, past or present, was a gnaw mark in the plastic. 

I suspected the mice were coming, in part, from the corncrib. The building stood behind my house, about a hundred yards away, pitted with so much rot that, to discourage entry and accident, the landlord had surrounded it with a barbed-wire fence. The corncrib pitched at a twenty-degree angle, toward my yard.  And whenever the wind blew, I expected to hear a crash. 

So far, I had let the corncrib alone, as if it were something on the periphery of consciousness. It sat in its pen, collecting shadows at twilight.  Lewis told me he once found a bull snake out there that was big around as a rolling pin.

It was on a crisp day after I had lost patience, that I dumped the kibble from my boots, grabbed a walking stick, and hopped the fence that divided my yard from the fields. The prairie grass came up to my shoulders. I couldn’t see the ground.  I stepped on mounds and branches.

Once again I couldn’t tell you why I was doing such a thing. What ever accounts for aggressive exploration? The answer is curiosity, I guess–mystery, a fascination with danger. When I was twelve, I attended a nature camp, where we would wrap milk snakes around our necks and gulp enough to feel them squeeze.

The corncrib was the color of an old dock. It seemed bigger up close, and older.  Bird dirt washed the southern face. I stood near the holes, and they smelled of rain.  The crib’s interior had slats that crossed from corner to corner, so that all of it looked something like the hull of a boat. The light inside made puddles and beams–and for a moment, it seemed as if the light was what had blown the holes into the wood.  All of it appeared as a shipwreck. 

Just before Jesus meets the demoniac of the Gadarenes, he calms the storm for his disciples. They wonder at his authority over natural catastrophe.  Then the Legion story arrives as a means of increasing the challenge to the unnatural.

I found a spill of gravel near the corncrib’s northern end. The stones had gone white in the sun.  The corner nearest the gravel had rotted away, leaving open the slant of the corncrib’s nearest rib. Within the alcove, I discovered a belt of army canteens.  There was a rusted shovel.  I started at a molded rope in the alcove’s weeds.  The alcove’s ceiling was about four feet off the ground. It held all but the head of my shadow. 

I stepped away. The gravel clicked underfoot. Around the corner, there was a metallic smell. Through a spray of grass, I found a metal feed basin, three feet deep and as big around as a baby pool. The sides had rust blotches and dents.  The basin held a reddish soup that looked granular and thick.  An owl skeleton, half clean, bobbed against the far side of the rim. Red flakes caked the sockets.  The water bristled with feather.

I thought of Silas, mute and thoughtful, with cuts all over his head. I left.  I walked just slowly enough to fight my nausea.  I hadn’t checked the corncrib’s alcove to see if there was a mark in the wood.


When I got home from the fields, I took a shower, and settled. In retrospect, I’m sure there weren’t any marks on the corncrib’s wood. I’m sure that rainwater filled the basin, and then oxidized the metal into layers of flakes. The owl could have misjudged an opening in the corncrib, stunned itself against the side, fallen, and drowned in the soup. And as far as the junk was concerned, it was just junk–and old junk, at that.  If anyone had been living out there, it had been long ago. I knew this. 

Still, I no longer wanted my fields to be a sea, or even a wilderness. Discerning the existence of Satan is exhausting and disturbing.  And in the end, you still don’t know if you’ve come across something real, or if you’ve just wandered into the weeds and scared yourself into a blather. Life–as inheritance, wager, and consequence–does show traces of what could be a Satanic agent.  But then, there is a mundane answer to most demonic phenomena.  This is comforting.   And yet, we have to recognize that biblically speaking, the cosmic has a long history of functioning through the ordinary.

Jesus himself was ordinary. Jesus entered history in a time crowded with messiahs. And whether the Romans were killing martyrs or not, they crucified as many as 30,000 people in a single day. Jesus, of course, is both ordinary and not ordinary.  This is my point.  He can, for one, withstand the singular. In fact, Jesus has, from my vantage, an unguessable appearance–except that in a way, he must look seared.  He is the only one to withstand God’s direct light–which is the heightened version of the very experience from which the serpent may have offered us relief. Jesus is also the only human whom scripture mentions as speaking with the Devil himself.  And what’s important here is that he alone remains as the form of man un-fallen.

In light of the scare at the corncrib, and in light of the scare inherent in everything else, this protection is helpful. And it is perhaps a grace that, regardless of such arrangement, we still catch glimpses of conversations that divinity has with the Devil. Scripture affords us these insights from time to time–breaking point of view to do so.  No human recorder witnessed, say, the temptation in the desert, but we receive the scene as an opportunity for wisdom nonetheless. And it is from the safety of this distance that we see how the Devil moves. 

After Jesus waits in the desert for forty days, the Devil approaches. From here, Satan’s first attack uses the same bait he employed in Eden–namely the lure of food–or as Chrysostom calls it, “incontinence of belly.” Adam and Eve ate; Jesus does not.   

The Devil’s second attack also parallels a type of move that we saw in the garden, where Satan forces his victim to test her conception of God. “If he truly loves you, let his angels catch you from this cliff.”  Jesus resists. “If he truly loved you, he wouldn’t lie about the fruit.”   Adam and Eve gave in.

The third temptation is something we have never seen before–at least not in scripture. As Bonhoeffer describes it, Satan discloses himself.  He drops the pretense.  Satan is no longer an inquirer, or even a troublemaker. He is the Prince of the World.  He is perhaps the hole that was once the center of the earth.  What he demands in the desert is complete apostasy. He gives Jesus a view of the earth spread before him.  “Give me your worship,” he says, “and I will give you the world as your kingdom.”  This is depraved. It is a twisted version of  what God promises Abraham, and of what God shows to Moses as a place where his people will dwell.  Granted, Satan offers Jesus a bribe, while God gives his chosen a gift. But the implication is the same:  Your people will become my people. Let us make a covenant.  Whether such an outcome would happen immediately, or through an ordeal, isn’t clear. But what Satan is offering is the very destruction of the universe. 

There is another word for the Devil: Abaddon–The Destroyer.  And the more I think about it, the more I decide that once the Devil has both the will and the opportunity to disclose himself at the height of his power, he is exactly this thing. He is no longer the tempter or the prosecutor or the liar or even the fiend.  He is naked destruction.  He isn’t death; he is unmaking.  And this means that the stakes in Jesus’ desert are as high as anything that the Bible has ever disclosed.

Jesus dismisses the wager with a single command. And Satan, famously, “leaves him until a more opportune time.” I don’t know what Bonhoeffer would say about the Devil’s parallel with the Abrahamic covenant, but I do know that he declares the third temptation to be the very thing that we should pray to avoid–the very thing that Providence’s protective arrangement allows most everyone to avoid. We pray, that is, that when the Devil is unfettered, we do not find ourselves alone in a room with it. 

When he wrote his book on exorcism, Dr. Peck used “it” as the pronoun that best describes the force with which he dealt. There isn’t anything human inside of it.  There isn’t anything as dashing as Milton’s Lucifer or pathetic as Dante’s Satan. Aquinas once suggested that humans most often commit evil when they mistakenly attempt to achieve a good.  Sociologist, Jeffery Burton Russell, interprets this to mean that few humans are nihilists. Few of us truly and entirely oppose life, growth, or love.  A person does not knowingly and consistently embrace a creative evil that goes beyond self interest or energy–beyond any need for vengeance or self defense. Even Himmler took off his jack boots when he got home, because he didn’t want to awaken his canary.  True nihilism is not self love, even at the height of prideful hedonism.  It is more like prideful hedonism’s very own punishment. It rarely–if ever–belongs in the human repertoire. This is what I told myself as I recovered from both the corncrib’s bloodbath and the resurfacing of everything connected to Silas.  We are never alone in the room with It.

The fact of our very survival shows that Satan, as purposeful nihilism, is constrained from humanity. Whatever we can manage to attract, we cannot completely summon this thing through fear, sin or even apostasy. Whatever the nature of possession, the ungod does not fully climb inside of us.

Maybe our fallen-ness is what such a boundary. Maybe our infirmity clothed us, the way Cain’s mark both branded and protected him. I suspect, however, that if Satan were ever given full access to humans, there wouldn’t even be an exchange–not tempting, no bargains, just Abaddon’s voracity. And if this is true, Robert Johnson taught himself guitar.  Luther threw his inkwell at a shadow.  And if Dr. Peck indeed spoke with the Devil, he spoke with something divinely compromised. Because if Satan ever got to a person without restraint, there would be nothing left–where the truest part of the Faust excursion is the brains dashed along the walls where, in the end, the poor man hid.

Even the Devil’s own church doesn’t approach the Nihilist. High Priest Peter Gilmore, of the LaVeyan Church of Satan, told interviewer, J.C. Hallman, that his church is “atheist, even humanist.” The Church of Satan practices a ritual, where they do call to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, just in case something like Cthulhu might be listening. But the group acknowledges the self more than any other entity.  They emulate Satan–in his Miltonian sense–instead of invoking him.  The holiest day for each Satanist is, in fact, his own birthday. And in short, members of the Church of Satan follow the way of Nietzsche (among others), where they strive to depend on no one.  If, therefore, they call to Darkness, and Darkness doesn’t answer, I am not surprised. After all, I don’t think they’re plumbing the deepest pits.  And really, if Satan functions more from nihilism than a need for adulation, Satan wouldn’t answer anyway.

This is the point: If Satan lives, Satan doesn’t answer. Not us.  Not in full.  And this means that the question of attraction–summoning–does nothing to inform either the Devil’s existence or his essence. Theology blogger, Ben Meyers, quotes Barth as saying that we can’t give credence to “the devil, since the devil deserves only an attribute of utter disbelief–we do not believe in him, but against him.” We, in our love for goodness, attempt to hold up the universe. We attempt to stay above the Devil.  And if, in the meantime, we learn anything of Satan’s absolute self, we learn it the way the crew of Moby Dick’s Pequod peers from the decks at the squid that the ship knocks against. It is white as the whale, all cord and hooks–silent, strange, from the core of something we skim across with our ambition and our oaths. We learn that we know nothing–nothing of what lives in the abyss.  So all we can do is give thanks that whales eat squid.


Meditations on Satan: Part 3

Note: This essay comes from a larger work that narrates experiences I had while I lived alone in a midwestern farmhouse. During that time, I also worked as a caregiver for disabled adults who live at a group home I call Tappan. (Tappan is the name of the house’s street.)  In the next few pages, you’ll read about Silas the Barber.  He is an autistic, semi-violent resident of Tappan, who tried to shave himself, in the bathtub, after irritation and fatigue had diverted my attention elsewhere.  Among other things, Silas tried to shave his head, and he ended up looking as if he had hacked at himself with a cheese grater.

Part III. Attraction


During the mornings in the middle of fall, sparrows came to my roof. They pecked the gutters for insects, and the sound of them was like rain. I worked the morning shifts at Tappan.  It was Indian summer, and everything reached with light.

On a Wednesday, just after dawn, I stepped out of the house. I moved to the side before I realized why.  It was a black snake with yellow speckles. It dangled, head first, from the drainage pipe that descended from the roof I like to sit on. The first part of the snake sprawled two feet away from the pipe, so that its head nearly touched the doormat. I stood five feet away, in the side yard.  The snake flicked its tongue in a fashion that was slower than I expected. I tried to breathe normally.  The creature was non-venomous–probably a king snake.  Over the past few weeks, I had taught myself to recognize a variety of locals. I leaned forward, and rested my hands on my knees.  The snake directed itself backward, until it vanished, up the drainage pipe.   

I checked the grass, if only because one snake reminded me that there were others. The roof burst with sparrows.  They rose and scattered before I could even collect what I was seeing. This is what I had hoped for when I’d rented the house:  this astonishment.  Emerson says that no one expected the days to be gods. No one expected any of this.

Over the next few weeks, I sat on my roof at least once a day–motionless, trying to read. I couldn’t concentrate for more than a paragraph at a time, because snakes generally don’t make noise, and I didn’t want that thing to come up the drainage pipe and get too close without my knowing. But I did want it to approach.  I can’t explain why.  According to Carl, I could take a light and a bucket into the basement and bring up snakes like water from a well.  But that was different; it was too direct. Out here, there was space and sunlight.  And I could always go inside, and shut the door.

Dr. Peck died a-tremble. He said once that “evil is so extremely reluctant to be studied.” But we have tried for literal ages, and at length; this essay was supposed to be twenty pages long.

C.S. Lewis says the Devil’s danger is that we either believe he doesn’t exist, or we spend too much time in dark fascination with his powers and his presence. While I sat on that roof, I briefly considered putting birdseed on the shingles.  Occult master, Aleister Crowley, spoke of summoning demons, and said, “it does encourage one–it is useless to deny it–to be knocked down by a demon of whose existence one was not really quite sure.” Crowley was a showman–more of a devil himself.  But I was the one sitting vigil for a snake.  I had considered even attracting a snake–with sparrows, no less.  And a snake isn’t a devil; certainly not. But insofar as this essay is a hunt for Satan, I’ve wondered at what I’m doing, and what I’ve done. 


At the start of his ministry, Jesus stood at the edge of the wilderness, as if it were the first of many seas. The beginning miracle of his adulthood was not his own–not in the way of the others.  The miracle is that the Spirit drove him, the way it had ridden and wrestled so many prophets. It pushed him to both isolation and temptation–which shows, for one, that the Devil’s worst assaults occurred away from humans, and not through them.  Satan, here, was not a human element.

Jesus entered the wilderness, and the heat settled on his back. From the shadows, the Devil called to him with liquid thoughts.  The wilderness sand stretched like a dynasty.  “Have you considered,” said the Father, “my Son?” And this idea, while spooky, is also important–because if possession is a seizure, its other side is offering and provocation. That is, it’s an attempt to summon.


On December 27, 1993, TIME Magazine reported that 49 percent of Americans “believe in the existence of fallen “angels or devils.’” In May 2001, a Gallup poll found that 12 percent of Americans aren’t sure that the Devil exists; 20 percent believe that he doesn’t; and 68 percent believe that he does. In that same year, the Barna Research Group found that Latter-Day Saints are the most likely to believe in Satan as a living persona, with 59 percent of the denomination deciding he is real.  Surprisingly enough, Roman Catholics are at the bottom of the list, with only 17 percent of the denomination believing.

In 1984 the British Board of Film Classification banned showings of The Exorcist, on account of the fact that some audience members went into hysterics. The government didn’t lift the ban until 1999.  When the movie first entered theaters in 1973, Rev. Billy Graham called it evil. Janitors complained about the amount of vomit they had to mop after showings. One person even attacked the screen. A cinema manager in Berkeley, California, claimed he had two or three audience members pass out each day. Most of them were men.

Four centuries earlier, a book known as the Theatrum Diabolorum compiled essays on Satan, where a Reverend Hocker declared that 2,665, 866,746,664 devils exist. These demons included the laziness devil, the courtier’s devil, the wedlock devil, and the pantaloon devil. Two centuries before that, King Charles IV of France built the Bastille as a prison for enemies of the faith–that is, for those where were aligned with the Devil. And in 1826, the last of Europe’s inquisitions ended in Spain, where the church burned a Jew and hanged a Quaker.

None of these ebbs and flows of hysteria is in danger of attracting the Devil with goodness. Short of Peck’s clients, certain saints, Paul, and Jesus, I’ve heard of few people who are.  But this list does show that there has been plenty of belief on which the Devil could possibly feed. And it seems to me that, goodness aside, faith in the Devil must be something that would attract him–if attraction is indeed possible.  Ignatius believed in Satan.  Justin Martyr believed in Satan. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Lactantius, Augustine, Chrysostom, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Ambrose, Cassian and Leo the Great are all Church Fathers who show belief in Satan, even if you give only a cursory look at their writings. Aquinas believed in demons, including their ability to sire monstrous children with humans.  Luther threw things at the Devil, and even enjoyed a legend where he engaged in a debate with a strange monk, until he realized the monk had bird talons for hands. Calvin believed in the Devil.  Edwards believed in the Devil.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed in the Devil. Billy Graham, N.T. Wright, and Marcus Borg believe in at least some form of Satan.  Rowan Williams probably does.  As with his remarks about all manner of international tragedies, Pat Robertson created utter slander in the name of the Devil. Cardinal Jacques Martin writes a memoir in which Pope John Paul II exorcised the Devil in 1982.  And according to The Ratzinger Report, Pope Benedict XVI declares that “Whatever the less discerning theologians may say, the devil. . . is a puzzling but real, personal and not merely symbolic presence.”  Apparently some of those “less-discerning theologians” may be Rick Warren and Jim Wallis. I can find nothing that suggests  that they believe in the Devil–although I have come across a few conservative websites that suggest they are the Devil.

This list is important, because it shows the inexplicable urge to believe in the Devil–to call out to his presence, even in spite of our better selves. This happens even to the point where if we can’t find the Devil, we will paint his likeness in someone else.  God knows that such a scare tactic offers the power to rally a cause’s troops. During the Reformation and the Counterreformation, clergy would perform fraudulent exorcisms as a way of showing their own faction’s power.

If the Devil has ever used a human, we have certainly endeavored to return the favor. We have, in other words, attempted to possess him.  Of this, there is no doubt.   But still, for the purposes for this essay, it bears noting that the factions’ exorcisms were fake. Louden and Louviers, France, were infamous for such charades. And the artifice of all this means, at first blush, that the mere belief in the Devil is not enough to make him appear. It make sense, of course, that he wouldn’t offer himself for use as a religious man’s prop. But perhaps more significant is the fact that he wouldn’t approach the crowds of onlookers who quailed from his power. I don’t think he did, anyway.  At least not in the fashion that anyone expected.


Sometimes, during my two years in the farmhouse, I would cross the cow pastures to Nellie’s house, where she would show me her poetry books and feed me more food than I had ever seen, even on Christmas. Before she noticed the snake in its diamond sweater–decades before–she found a snake sunning itself on her driveway.  She doesn’t remember what kind.  “Long,” she told me.  She had just moved to the country from Chicago. Her husband was at work at the hospital.  So she got into her avocado Park Avenue, adjusted her mirrors and backed over the snake four times.  “I hated them,” she said.  “Hate.” 

She told me how, in Africa, Albert Schweitzer used to cut a hole in his chicken coop. A snake would infiltrate the coop, eat the eggs, and lie there, “like a rosary” (wrote Schweitzer), too stuffed to get out the hole it had entered. Schweitzer would then cut off the head.

Albert Schweitzer loved animals probably as much as he loved humanity itself. A friend once brushed an ant off Schweitzer’s collar, and Schweitzer said, “That’s my ant!” Still, he seems to have killed snakes with comparatively little thought–or worse yet, with thoughtful creativity.

William Sloan Coffin once said that “if you hate evil more than you love good, then you simply become a damn good hater.” I don’t think this problem especially afflicted Schweitzer; snakes are a danger in Africa.  However, it might be the very thing that had driven my neighbor to flatten her visitor. Part of the hatred probably came from fear.  And if this is true for snakes, it definitely resonates with how we react to greater threats.  As far as Satan is concerned, fear of the Devil comes from a lack of faith in God. We don’t trust grace to keep us safe.  And we’ve seen how this doubt in God has granted Satan the advantage a few times before.  The term “God fearing” originally meant “God obeying.”  So it’s not hard to decide what “Satan-fearing” can mean.

Sociologist, Paul Carus, claims that the witch trials started in the era of Constantine. This began the string of monstrosities we committed in effort to fend off the Monster himself. In fact, the Inquisitor manual, The Hammer of Witches, claims that the highest blasphemy is to reject the idea of Devil worship. I’ve read an account of witch hunters who used a rope to raise a pregnant woman to the ceiling, and drop her to the floor. They did this over and over, for the better part of a day.  As late as 1808, when the French invaded Toledo, they opened a dungeon, and found a device that looked like a statue of Mary. The wardens would bring heretics to the statue, move them to confess, and then encourage them to embrace the Virgin in repentance.  An engineer had spring-loaded the statue.  The penitent would throw himself on Mary’s mercy, and her hidden blades would impale him. I can think of few things more Satanic than this.    

If fear of Satan can produce hell on Earth, the solution, for some, has been to disavow the Devil altogether. Friedrich Schleiermacher declares that Satan is “untenable. . . unessential to the Christian belief in God.”  Theologian, Daniel Schenkel, says the Devil simply amounts to a collection of everything bad. And this feels incredibly sane.  In fact, it brings relief.  The trouble is that this stance also brings a large part of the Gospels into question.  We end up declaring that Jesus is real, while the Devil is not. Not as a persona, anyway.  And I don’t know how far it is to go from here to the idea that Satan is simply the dark side of humanity.  And once we get to this point, we start to make evil only as large as humanity. This is a problem that I’ve mentioned before, but it has special relevance here:  It gives us the illusion that because evil comes from us, we can be evil’s master. 

During World War II, the American magazine, The Christian Century, became a forum for theological debate over whether the United States should enter the conflict. There were many who believed that economic pressure and diplomatic stances would be enough to appeal to Germany’s better nature. It was finally Reinhold Niebuhr who declared that this faith in human goodness–this faith in our mastery of evil–was what caused us to wait until the conflict had become a cataclysm. Now, war had become the only way to stop war’s own momentum.  We had no choice but to render evil for evil.  In short, we had condemned ourselves to unavoidable sin.  We had gotten here by underestimating the potential for evil in the Germans. And we had started it all by underestimating the potential for evil that dwelled in the people who codified the treaty at Versailles.  In short, we had flattered both ourselves and our brethren. And if evil appealed to our fear during the Inquisition, here it preyed on our pride.

Fear and pride are traditionally the Devil’s twin knives. The modus operandi points to him.  Furthermore, it seems that if anything would attract him, it would indeed be these things. And still, I can’t rightly tell you if this characterization of the Devil comes from a study of Satan himself or from a study of evil in general. I admit there is a difference; the latter phenomenon, for one, is much easier to prove.  In even the deepest abysses of human history, we have never–as far as I know–encountered something non-human: in spite of the urban myth, the birds still sing at Auschwitz.  Perhaps this is because God is still at Auschwitz.  But we must leave this for another conversation. 

What we know at the moment is that if we attract the Devil at all, we invite a subtle approach–the same way that if oppression is a form of possession, it is sly in how human it appears. Again, I reach an inconclusive conclusion.  I cannot prove that we can inadvertently attract the Devil.  Even concerning fear, even concerning pride, I can only show that they might conjure a kind of devilishness. This is somewhat comforting. But God knows that this devilishness is vicious enough; we can do a convincing imitation of Darkness. And maybe Satan himself knows that if he does exist, that an imitation–even an accidental imitation–would lavishly serve him. This way, he stays hidden.  He doesn’t disclose himself as the enemy.  And yet he still manages to get people to act as the enemy of God. With this concealment, he matches another trait that the Bible assigns him.  That is to say, he lies. 

Meditations on Satan: Part 2

Note: This essay comes from a larger work that narrates experiences I had while I lived alone in a midwestern farmhouse. During that time, I also worked as a caregiver for disabled adults who live at a group home I call Tappan. (Tappan is the name of the house’s street.)  In the next few pages, you’ll read about Silas the Barber.  He is an autistic, semi-violent resident of Tappan, who tried to shave himself, in the bathtub, after irritation and fatigue had diverted my attention elsewhere.  Among other things, Silas tried to shave his head, and he ended up looking as if he had hacked at himself with a cheese grater.

Part II. Invasion


Autumn began, and the mice arrived as the nights got cold. In the kitchen, I baited live traps with peanut butter.  The mice set them off in the middle of the night, and the cat hurried from the bed to loom over them. In the morning, I drove the mice two miles, to a field by a crossroads, and they dropped from the trap’s cylinder, sticky with Skippy.  I loved the mice, because they were a sign that any snakes in my house were hibernating too deeply to eat them. And besides, if any snakes in the fields remained awake, they could delight in a what a friend once called Meeses Pieces.

On a Saturday, I read an old army survival manual that was so moldy that it smelled of wet dog. There was something compelling about a survival manual that looked like it had actually helped a person survive, but the odor was bad enough that I had to read the book outside. I sat on the slope of the house’s lower roof, with coffee and flannel.   From there, I could see the neighbor’s cattle browsing a field that was turning to straw.  The yearlings were shaggy in their winter coats. The wind gusted their hair in the same manner as it moved the field, and the world felt whole–which is the biblical meaning of perfect.

My notes blew down to the patio. I entered the house though my study window, ran down the stairs, and opened the mudroom’s outer door. There was a plop at my feet.  I stepped back.  A small snake, gray with black markings, lay on the mudroom’s floor. It had been on top of the door, like the bucket in the prank. 

I shut the door to the kitchen.  The snake lay still; it was maybe eight inches long. Maybe it wanted in from the cold; maybe it was the snake I saw months ago.  There was something off about its head.  I grabbed a broom, to sweep it out the door. The snake coiled itself.  It shook its tail.  It made no sound, but the the tail ended in a disc instead of a point.

My eyes watered. I found the door behind me. I shut myself in the kitchen, and went online. What I had in my mudroom was a timber rattlesnake–a juvenile. Its rattle forms as it grows.  Its scientific name is Crotalus horridus. I stuffed magazines in the crack beneath the inner mudroom door.

I called my landlord, but nobody answered the maintenance number. My neighbors weren’t home.  I started to phone my parents, in Florida, and stopped. I downed a glass of water.  I called the sheriff.

The deputy arrived with what looked like a tent pole that had a noose sticking out of one end. He stood on my patio.  “You sure it’s a rattler?” he said.

“Timber rattler. Crotalus horridus.”

He squinted. “In there?”

“It’s very small.” Juvenile rattlers are more dangerous than adults, because they haven’t yet learned to regulate how much venom to inject. I’d read this in my survival manual.

The deputy–his name was Carl–opened the mudroom. Magazines feathered from the bottom of the opposite door. There was a closet in the corner of the room. The walls held shelves with yard gloves and boots. The light had burned out over the stairway to the basement.  Carl told me to grab the broom.  He said that if you grab a snake barehanded, you have to clamp both sides and the top of its head–that if you don’t do this last part, the snake will turn in its skin and bite. They are essentially muscles with a mouth. 

We opened the closet. We poked my jackets’ pockets and sleeves. I knocked the gloves off the shelf; he overturned the boots. A scatter of cat kibble fell from one of my galoshes.  I looked at it, and looked at Carl. “Ground squirrel,” he said.  I could say nothing.  When rodents start to horde in your footwear, you’ve lost the war.

He started down the stairs. “There could be another snake down there,” I said. “Bull snake.  Big.”

“I imagine you’ve got a few.” He stood at the bottom of the stairs and pivoted while he looked. He said that food calls rodents, and rodents call snakes.

“What do snakes call?” I said.

“Bigger snakes.” He smiled up at me.

I stomped down the stairs and stood next to him. “That’s fine.”

We overturned boxes, and dirt spread from where it filled them after it had fallen from the ceiling. There was a dead mouse by the water softener.  Wooly bears curled by the window.  A rolled-up carpet leaned in the corner, from where the previous tenant had hoped to refurbish the garage. Carl put his hand on it. 

I told him the possibility was way too poetic. We lay the carpet on its side.  Spider webs matted the fabric. Carl told me to step back.  He set the carpet rolling.  It was blue, with short stubble, like the sort you’d find in a classroom. Something clicked and smelled of musk.  The carpet was a-scatter with lady beetles.  They looked like letters on a scroll.

“Well,” said Carl. “You can’t keep out the bugs.”

The lady beetles flickered their wings and spread.

“Snakes like a sump pump,” said Carl. He stood in the back room’s doorway.  “They’ll live in window boxes, loose siding. You know they like the crack in a door.”  He kicked the dirt and thumped the counter. “Nobody here, though.” 

On the room’s outer doorframe, in the corner between the basement’s last shelf and the backswing of the back room’s door, I noticed a mark about waist high. It was the same as what I’d found on the mudroom door. 

I showed it to to Carl, the way I’d point at a track.  I told him of the same one upstairs, and he gave me a half smile. “Odd things in old houses.”  He said the marks looked like the grooves from a croquet ball, or maybe a dent from an old kind of hand tiller.  He thought maybe somebody’s kid had a fit.

Carl tapped his snake pole on the ground. There was nowhere else to look. He suggested I put a heat lamp in a bucket that I’d laid on its side, and use a funnel to make the entrance of the bucket one-way only. It was a good snake trap–but in the end, I really didn’t want to see how many serpents I could fit in a pail.

After Carl left, I stood in the kitchen and pushed more magazines under the door. The survival manual says that if you receive a rattlesnake bite, you should not cut the wound to bleed it. Nor should you suck the poison out.  It also says that if you are alone in the wilderness, you should not walk for help, that exertion would spread the venom–and that you’d be better off lying down and riding it out, while your body purged itself. I imagined the Gadarenes demoniac in scriptures–the one infested with Legion–wracked on the sand and clutching rubble.

On Monday, the landlord sent Lewis to poke around. He also suggested I invest in a hoe. Lewis and I found nothing.  I showed Lewis the marks on the door frames, and he said they looked old. I thought they increasingly suggested the marks from the rungs on the belly of a snake. 

The day afterwards, I stood in the basement. “One whack,” the landlord had said.  “It’s so cold, they’ll be slow.” The survival manual says that if you kill a viper, you have to stay clear of the head–that handling a deceased snake can prompt its reflex action to make it bite. I imagine this is a good thing to know.  All I had on that snake was a book. 

I never saw the rattler again. They’re rare in these parts.  But even now, years beyond the farmhouse, I step away, when I open a door.

As it happens, I also never solved the mystery of the marks.  No snake could have made them.  I know.  But when I lay in bed, listening for the mousetraps to go off, I sometimes wondered if those dents were deliberate–if they functioned as a kind of ward, the way I’ve heard Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” play from a neighbor’s doorbell. This is improbable.  But the middle of the night is for the improbable.  And still there were other times, when I thought quite conversely, of the how low the marks were, and of the possible shortness of the Devil’s shadow. 


M. Scott Peck was a psychiatrist whom critics considered groundbreaking for his work on human evil. His book, The People of the Lie, identifies evil as a psychiatric condition–an extreme form of narcissism that loves to dominate others for domination’s very sake. The evil mind preserves its own sense of perfection by lying to its conscience and scapegoating everyone else.  It portrays itself as virtuous, and it resides most comfortably in hospitals, families, and churches. It rarely produces a Hitler or a Nero.  It is, in fact, deeply common.  And it is not always curable. 

Dr. Peck embraced Sufism and Buddhism, and he carried much of that influence with him when he converted to an ecumenical sort of Methodism. He studied at Harvard and he lived in Connecticut.  And he maintained throughout his career that the best science leads to the best truth.

When I first began to read a library copy of The People of the Lie, I found a sheet of notebook paper within its back pages. It went like this:

Why not multiple personality disorder:

A) Most MPDs are unaware of other personalities–at least until v. late. Possessed are aware of alien personality.

B) MPD personalities might be aggressive, but they are not evil.

(Possessed people aren’t evil. Many heroic.) 

Step 1. Penetrate the presence: Find the demon.

Step 1-a. In meantime, prepare and bolster victim.

Step 1-b. Assemble good team.

Step 1-c. Speak to the healthy personality or to the demon, but not to both. Say nothing in response to babble or other attempts at confusion.

Step 1-d. Demonic personality will become more repulsive while core personality becomes healthier. This is how to shatter demonic pretense and expose demon.

Step 2. Face the presence. Snake features may present in victim.

Step 3. Expulsion. Prayers to God to expel demon. BUT–core personality must choose to evict presence.

n.b. After expulsion, demon tries to get back in.

Step 4. Begin/resume regular psychiatric therapy. Devil will tempt all to believe ex. was failure.

Voices inside victim’s mind will never completely vanish.

Before he died of Parkinson’s disease, M. Scott Peck published a final book, Glimpses of the Devil: a psychiatrist’s personal accounts of possession, exorcism and redemption. The notebook page I found was a combination of what a reader had taken both from that book and from The People of the Lie. I’ve kept that sheet of paper. I wish its author well.

Dr. Peck started investigating demonic possession in attempt to disprove the phenomenon. Instead, he ended Glimpses with a call for the psychiatric community to open a subfield in exorcism itself. It is probably no mistake that this was Dr. Peck’s final book that he wrote in his final years. His official webpage doesn’t even mention it.  As both a scientist and a theologian, Dr. Peck was voicing a position that could well have ended his credibility. I’m sure he knew this, just as I’m sure he knew that in any event, he would not be persuasive.  “All I hope,” he says at Glimpses’s end, “is that I may have opened your mind.” No person would believe these things if she didn’t encounter them herself. So don’t buy them, he says.  Go and see.

I have given this book to a pastor I know. He has a background in psychology as well as conventional ministry. He’s taken congregants to build houses on the Lakota reservations in South Dakota, where once he grabbed a bull snake by the tail as it climbed up the inside of his drywall. When he returned Glimpses, he told me of a man who once visited his office downtown. The visitor had sat across from him and leaned forward until his chest was almost parallel with the ground. “I am the Devil,” he said.  “I am hate.”  My reverend–liberal, spectacled–sat motionless and asked why the man thought he was such a thing. The man simply recoiled himself and left.  I suspect that if the meeting had gone any longer, my reverend would have had the temerity to ask the Devil about his mother. And this is appropriate; psychology has done a great deal to shorten the Devil’s shadow.  But this is also precisely why Dr. Peck’s account is so disturbing.

Glimpses gives two case studies on Peck’s attempts at exorcism. Both center on women who, in childhood, had suffered abuse at the hands of the church. Both victims felt compelled toward destructive behavior; both heard voices and had secretly suspected they were in fact possessed. One was an uneducated mother in her twenties; the other was a wealthy stockbroker in her forties.  Both signed a contract acknowledging the risk that they might die during the exorcism itself.

Each exorcism involved dialogue and prayer. Dr. Peck and his assistants never used physical measures, except to restrain the victim–which they resorted to in each case, where it took as many as six adults to do the job. Both the mother and the stockbroker adopted voices that were deep and coarse; both spoke from scientific knowledge that they didn’t normally possess; each changed physical features to the point that Dr. Peck tried for years to mimic their facial expressions in a mirror. The stockbroker’s head rounded; her lids became hooded.  Dr. Peck videotaped the proceedings–but the recording shows nothing out of the ordinary.  To this, Dr. Peck throws up his hands.  All of his assistants claim they saw the same thing.  And some members of the team were atheists.

The mother recovered. She continued to hear demonic voices, but she felt they were outside herself and therefore impotent. The stockbroker had spent much of her life trying to remove an inescapable chill, by searing herself with the sun. She eventually died of skin cancer that had spread to her bones.  She was born a Jew and she was addicted to cutting herself with Nazi daggers. Dr. Peck suspects he was never able to set her free.

I don’t know what to say about Dr. Peck’s descriptions. As I summarize his claims, they seem so ridiculous that I’m embarrassed to have written them. But then I’m struck by the conviction that a liberal, scientific academic would muster in order to publish an entire book of this sort. Because the alarming thing about Dr. Peck is that he does not attempt to attract disciples. He doesn’t want converts; he wants company.  In fact, he publishes an account, at great personal risk, to confess an experience–an encounter–that professes no allegiance to doctrine, or rule, or even therapy. He is convincing because he speaks with the authority of one who has met both the impossible and the ineffable.  He has, in other words, the humility of a witness.  And whether or not he has met the Devil himself, I believe he has certainly come across something.

In fact, my only criticism is that Dr. Peck may be too eager to give that something its name. He has encountered a phenomenon he has never seen before–something with symptoms that don’t match anything that psychiatry has previously diagnosed. He calls it possession.  But by doing so, he follows a tradition that healers set in antiquity.  What I mean is that from a diagnostic point of view, Dr. Peck might commit the time-worn mistake of overlooking the possibility that there is a great deal of room between an unknown condition and Satan himself. I’m not a physician; I don’t know.  And even if I’m right, I have to accept the fact that Dr. Peck claims to have exorcised his patients successfully, through at least what was initially religious work.  The young mother found release–and according to Peck, so did hundreds more.   And as a consequence, I’m tempted to suggest that Dr. Peck successfully identified and nullified a medical condition, no matter what name he chose to give it.

But of course, these possessions are the only sicknesses I know of where across age and upbringing, and failure and healing, the other presence–the evil presence–called itself Satan.


In the New Testament exorcisms abound. Scripture says a demonic presence housed itself by the myriad, inside the man we know only by his possessors’ name of Legion. The villagers cast Legion’s demoniac into the wasteland of the Gadarenes.  Perhaps, later one, they knew where the demoniac lived by the mirages that collected around him.

“Go out,” they may have told Jesus, “until the ground sheds form.” God is, in part, reality itself.  Satan opposes God.  So Satan must oppose that very reality. He is the author of unreality.  If you write the Hebrew letters for “Jehovah” upside down, you are making a traditional sign of Satan. He is God’s order in a mutilated form.  And we have seen that as a man-made myth, external presence, or actual possessing fiend, Satan spreads insanity of the very worst sort.

Jesus approached the demoniac as the embodiment of reality. Jesus destroyed unreality by filling it, the way a person would erase a hole. The demoniac, his mind restored, showed his new master’s divinity with his own fullness.

What kind of healing was this? The Bible makes distinctions between Jesus curing the sick and Jesus casting out demons. This separation demonstrates that Jesus’ removal of a demon is not a figurative representation of his purging someone of leprosy, or blindness, or anything so mundane. This distinction would suggest that demons are something wholly other–that possession (and the possessor) are in fact real.

On the other hand, the Bible makes no mention of Jesus healing mental illness either. And if you say that this was because there was little concept of mental illness in the Jesus era, you will simply help this objection’s point. I have no idea if Legion’s demoniac suffered what we would now call a common, mental disease.  I have no idea if Dr. Peck’s patients suffered the same. In other words, I still can’t tell if the Devil can enter us, at will, the way he would slide into a shoe.  But what I can suggest is that the very real healings of the scriptural Devil’s very real woundings are how the Devil himself testifies. That is, regardless of whatever their origin, the power of God definitely and demonstratively replaces these afflictions with a wholeness.

It is further remarkable that when Jesus reaches the demoniac, the Legion know exactly who addresses them. They cannot help but testify.  Even if they exist only in fable–even if Satan is only the name for a human phenomenon–this scriptural Legion levels two very authentic accusations: The first is that whatever the nature of evil, it recognizes Christ before humanity does.  The second is that more people recognize demons than they recognize Christ.


There is an aspect of demonology that includes the idea of oppression, instead of possession. Some, including many Protestant, deliverance ministers, believe that oppression could be a prelude to possession itself. These exorcists believe oppression is the moment when the Devil is at the perimeter of the soul.  Dr. Peck isn’t sold on this idea; he thinks the Devil either has you or he doesn’t. But for those who find reality in such a thing, oppression frequently involves a sequence of bad fortune and temptation.  It is something I find interesting, because regardless of whether a Devil exists, oppression’s trajectory is biblical.

Of the three occasions when Satan appears as a full, cosmic entity in the Old Testament, he speaks only during the first two chapters of Job. At the beginning of this book, God assembles his court around him.  Satan is included, and God gives Satan permission to torment Job. Note, by the way, that in the story of the demoniac, Legion also ask permission–not to torment, this time, but to flee into the swine. Dr. Peck claims that whatever they become, demons remain strangely obedient to authority.  And in fact, the Gospels assert something similar.

Job’s Satan gains permission. He becomes Job’s harrier, reducing him in body and soul, to the point of near destruction. Through all this, he tempts Job into questioning God’s own righteousness.  Satan has removed everything from Job but God himself. And what happens here, says Bonhoeffer, is that even Job starts to turn from God.  Evangelist, John Bevere, preaches many things I don’t endorse. (He believes, for instance, that we are reaching the End Times.)  But his book, The Bait of Satan, makes the point that evil best infects by encouraging its target to feel offense. When we feel the victim, we feel we are owed.  And this entitlement breeds everything from pride to aggression. Satan tempts Job not with paradise, or even godhood, but with deservedness. 

And Job does question. And with these questions, he does fall. And although his seduction doesn’t stem from possession–or oppression–of the Linda Blair variety, it does carry some of the same effects. And we can be only thankful that God didn’t permit Satan to test a legion of Jobs. About The Exorcist, Dominican author, Richard Woods, says the Devil wouldn’t be so stupid as to possess a little girl when he could infest an entire government. And Devil or no, we have seen that when nations feel deep offense, they may indeed embrace the demonic.

In this sense, there is no doubt: Oppression of a sort is a route to real evil.  And unless someone answers that oppression with a Christlike, loving, non-violent resistance, this oppression results in diabolical acts. Millions of dead will tell us so.  The question is whether this means that possession or oppression emerges from the thing I pondered while I lived in my farm house–if it slides along our consciousness the way I once heard a snake within a wall.

If we use the scriptures to decide, there is no question. Satan exists as clearly as any other angel–and his function is to oppress. If, in spite of this, he is only figurative, his mere character encapsulates evil’s essence and domination with such chilling accuracy that it reminds me of the Lovecraft story, where the narrator learns the existence of demons through the realism with which an artist has painted them. Satan, whether literal or allegorical, declares that evil is real.  This might be his true function–and his best testimony.  Because with that reality, we also find our need for redemption.

Job, oppressed and doubly fallen, questions God.  God replies with an unanswerable encounter–something that probably scares Job from his now-habitual doubts as clearly as if it had made him flee his own dwelling. And part of that terror may come from the fact that the meeting itself honors man beyond any conceivable measure.  It shows that instead of inattention, God’s silence throughout the oppression meant that he was in fact listening. This has significant implications that lead to both comfort and danger.  God watched the oppression, and so it follows that God permits oppression.  There is a Jewish tradition that claims that Satan lost his office in heaven for his excessive cruelty to Job. But I don’t believe this is so.  God is the one who said at the beginning, “Have you considered my servant, Job?” He opened the wager.  And I imagine that when the earth first lay full in its form, God also asked the serpent to consider another man.  Whatever happens at the hands of the Devil, it does not spring from the Devil’s initiative. Not fully.  And this could mean that the Devil benefits God.  And if there is any utility in Satan whatsoever, this means that by extension of that utility, he does in fact exist.

Job, beaten first by the Devil and then by the whirlwind, stands afterwards, in ragged silence, glancing from stone to stone, because there is no one else to help him witness. God does not help him rebuild.  Nor does God even say he forgives Job’s sin.  But God did approach, and he thereby granted an encounter that trivialized all the previous oppression.  What I mean is that God spoke, and Job returned to his right mind.


There exist at least a dozen instances of exorcism in the New Testament. Aside from Legion’s appearance in all three synoptic gospels, memorable stories include the exorcised demon who returns with seven others (Matt. 12.45) and the demon who runs off the nonbelievers who try to exorcise in Jesus’ name (Acts 19.13). Aside from what I interpret from Job, there are no instances of exorcism in the Old Testament. 

I’ve read a few theories about the reasons: The one that’s  most commonsensical is the fact that Judaism de-emphasizes Satan to such an extent that exorcism has no reason to appear. In fact, there are only two moments when the Old Testament alludes to the mere possibility of possession:  once to discuss the murderous rage of Ahab (v.), and once to show the murderous rage of Saul (v.). To be utterly thorough, I suppose David’s census could also be a result of possession. But regardless, this is all that the Old Testament has to say on the matter. 

We have more questions, if we consider both testaments. And this is where the other theories come into play.  From the supersessionist’s standpoint, there is the idea that only Jesus had authority to exorcize, and that regular folks didn’t begin such ministries until after Jesus gave them the power to do so. In a different interpretation, Dr. Peck believes that Satan grew in defiance against God as Christ began to enter the world. Ultimately, says Peck, the transformation reduced Satan from servant to beast.  Throughout the bulk of his life, Dr. Peck prayed for Satan’s ultimate salvation. And for all I know, he still does.

Liberal scholars, such as Jeffrey Burton Russell, point to the presence of the Devil in the Inter-Testamental writings and say that in the dawn of Christianity, Jews began to embrace the dualism inherent in the surrounding Zoroastrianism. Why, after millennia, Judaism began to alter its canon with outside influence is beyond me.  Antiquity is a-crawl with demons.  Russell suggests the change came about as a result of how life in the Inter-Testamental period got difficult for the Jews. And I will pause here to ask if, starting with Adam, you can name for me one century when the Jews have ever had a good time.

Instead, Jesus emerges to walk along Legion’s very own sea. Jesus both fulfills and deepens the Law.  He fells adversity and casts out death. He gains a victory that is a routing of anything that is less than love–which is to say, anything less than God. And according to the Magnificat, the triumph began on the very day that Mary received him.

The synoptic gospels each relate tales of Jesus casting out demons. John does not.  But then, John does–in its first five verses, where “the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” Karl Barth believes that the theology in the Inter-Testamental period began to mention demons, because up to this point, God had stopped speaking. The Law and the Prophecies had settled.  And in the silence, the Jews became keenly aware of the ungod, the destructive nothing that stalks the universe. A person who is consumed by awareness of the ungod might well be possessed.  Barth says that Jesus was aware of such things as a man of his time, while he was also thoroughly versed in these same things, as God himself. In every case, the battle between God and the ungod was real. 

And here I return to John–because it gives me the realization that Jesus Christ is himself an exorcism. He drives out the Devil, from the Magnificat onward.   To use the very vocabulary of exorcism, he obliterates the pretense and exposes the presence. His work on Earth increases, from youth past death, until the task is done.  And along the way, the Devil becomes more angry and more apparent.

Dr. Peck suggests that since those days, Satan has fallen into a route–that full-blown possessions are acts of desperation. I wonder if, in the time of Jesus, they were the same, if not worse.   

Dr. Peck says there is no magic here.  Simply enough, the Devil intrudes. Simply, again, love fells him.  “Just love,” Peck says.  “The way to beat evil is to smother it with a pure self.”  He warns that such a thing is dangerous. He calls it a sacrifice.  But as a means of casting out evil, either human or otherwise, such an endeavor seems to reflect the most loving, most real aspect of the gospel itself. Here again, Satan prompts a reaction that points toward God.  And this means that if he is something artificial, he is great artifice indeed.  Because in spite of himself, he divulges the real.


Meditations on Satan: Part 1

Note: This essay comes from a larger work that narrates experiences I had while I lived alone in a midwestern farmhouse. During that time, I also worked as a caregiver for disabled adults who lived at a group home I call Tappan. (Tappan is the name of the house’s street.)  In the next few pages, you’ll read about Silas the Barber.  He is an autistic, semi-violent resident of Tappan, who tried to shave himself, in the bathtub, after irritation and fatigue had diverted my attention elsewhere.  Among other things, Silas tried to shave his head, and he ended up looking as if he had hacked at himself with a cheese grater.

Part I. Presence


I once spent a year looking for the Devil. After that night at Tappan, when Silas sat, delighted and bloody in the bathtub, I began to look beyond evil as it flowers in the soul. Maybe I was looking for the proverbial scapegoat–horns and all–for an outside reason why, despite anyone’s best intentions, evil can become so inhuman, which is to say, inhumane.

As a proper accuser, the Devil had mostly shown me the faults of men. But I still din’t know if such adherence to expectation was a sign that he does, or doesn’t exist. This is what pondered in the middle of the nights, in that year, when the wind was so fierce that I swear it jostled the bed. My thinking went like this:  If the Devil does not exist, we will eventually reach the same conclusion that the mythical prosecutor would have delighted to put in our hands. That is, in line with what the accuser would suggest, we will accept the fact that evil finds its full origin in man.  This is one possibility.

An alternate outcome is the reverse–where the Devil does exist, whether we believe it or not. If this is the case, the fact that we question Satan’s reality might show that Satan hides–that he lies. And as C. S. Lewis suggests, the greatest lie might well be the very suggestion of the Devil’s absence–the idea that as far as true evil goes, man is its only source. Belief in this lie would give us a rather unholy sense of power.  Or it could give us an unholy sense of guilt.  And by unholy in this case, I mean untrue. And by everything else in those statements, I mean that if we decided that we, ourselves, are the great source of evil, we would end up accepting both an elevation and a condemnation that would serve the biblical Satan quite well.

This mystery is why I spent my time lying awake in a fitful bed.  And in some prescient sense it may be why I had originally come to the farmhouse–why I’d followed the road farther from town, to that once-abandoned shack that sat on the edge of what was the closest I could come to wilderness.   


When I first moved into the farmhouse, I stood in the side yard and watched a snake slide through a split in the window screen, to where my mother was cleaning the mudroom. I ran to the window, yelling, but when I got to the mudroom, the snake had gone.  My mother stood, alert and curious.  She likes snakes.  If she found a skin in the yard, while I was growing up, she would leave it on the breakfast table. I told her this snake had been gray, with dark hashes.  We looked through the coats and the garden boots.  In the end, we wrote it off as a trick of the light.

Tradition says that the Devil–the Lord of Lies–is the master of the phantom.  Up until the Enlightenment, much of Europe believed that all illusion came from him. Italian workers, in the 18th century, saw demons in the patterns of coffee stains that they’d left on the plaster walls they built.  They must have talked about this, for us to know it.  They must have told a priest, or the people who planned to move inside.  Maybe they never drank coffee again.

Their first thought must have been that the coffee was a wash that revealed something present in the texture, the way that water shows what’s in a stone. Then the workers learned, with the emergence of optics, that the images came from neither the coffee nor the walls.  And I wonder if, at that point, they gained any relief from the fact that the demons came from themselves. Or perhaps it makes sense that not long after optics, psychology began.

In Iraq, between Kufa and Najaf, there is the Tree at the Navel of the Earth. Locals say that this is what’s left of the Garden of Eden, which began with a spring that has since gone to dust. This ruin, scoured to grains, is a place where your shadow can grow so long that it can startle you.  It can remind you that a desert may bring a death brought on by an excess of light. I imagine that here–in the Garden–looking on Satan would be unconscious at first, as if you’d just looked on him as a means of resting your eyes.  His shadow is perhaps remarkable, because it is too short–as if the sun hit him differently, and earlier. The light that shines on the caster is too old for the present, as if he had saved and re-used it from another time.

At first, gazing at Satan would offer relief from the light. I have to admit it might feel this way.  One of the Devil’s best temptations must be his ability to bestow momentary relief. Such a thing, of course, is another illusion.

When the serpent first spoke in Eden, I think it offered relief from stipulation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that the serpent’s first question to humanity is theological. In the Bible, this is frequently the thrust of Satan’s dialogue.  He speculates with man about God, and with God about man. In the first sense, he is the slanderer; in the second sense, he is the prosecutor; and in every sense, he seeks to diminish one side in the sight of the other.

According to Bonhoeffer the serpent’s Garden speculation goes like this: First the serpent asks if God truly forbade humanity from eating the fruit. The serpent asks if this is what God truly meant, and then the serpent asks why. When humanity responds with God’s reasons, the serpent scoffs.  “No,” he says. “You shall not die.” The serpent declares that what God wants for his children is for them to remain ignorant.  Otherwise, they will become like God himself. And here, the serpent’s creation of falsehood is extremely shrewd.  At first he seeks to clarify; then he begins to lie; then he slanders God as a tyrant.

What I find most interesting about the Eden situation is that in light of most ancient narratives, the suggestion of divine tyranny is absolutely reasonable. The Greek god, Kronos, tries to eat his children.  The Babylonian creators try to destroy their offspring, after the offspring disrupt the creators’ sleep.  The Hittite high god, Alalu, falls to his son, Anu, who in turn falls to his son, Kumarbi, when Kumarbi bites off Anu’s penis. Anu gets his revenge when his swallowed penis impregnates Kumarbi, and makes Kumarbi give birth to all the other gods.

The upshot is that the serpent doesn’t just tempt humanity to distrust God. It tempts humanity to reduce God’s behavior to something that we’d expect from all the other pantheons. The serpent invites us to break the first commandment, in fact, where we fail to put God before all others. And notice that this isn’t a failure of hierarchy as much as it’s a failure of esteem.  The serpent moves us to decide that God is not above lying to his children–that at any moment, God could devour us in an anxious fit. And it won’t be long until such perception invites the very ancient and conventional possibility of our going to war with our parent.

This is how Satan begins. And by following the suggestions that the serpent bids us consider, we allow for the possibility that Satan and humanity raise each other to fulfill the truest, most fractured states that await them in the fallen world. That is, if both do exist, they have helped each other become their present selves.


My farmhouse stood empty for a year, after a tornado touched its backyard. When the tornado came, the landlord’s sister was living in the house–and while she cowered in the basement, the air pressure dropped to the point that the dust rose an inch off the ground. Now she lives in a Florida retirement home, where she’s apparently the star of the Jacaranda Jaguars Nerf volleyball team. 

I learned all of this from Lewis, my landlord’s maintenance man, who came out to the house about a week after my mother left. He was caulking the openings in the seal between the house and its basement, and later that day, he called me onto the driveway, so he could show me what he’d found. He took the lid off an aluminum garbage can.  There were snake skins, maybe nine of them, lying in the bottom of the drum and curling up the sides.  I knocked the can with my knee, and the skins rustled.

“No rattlers,” said Lewis.  He drew out a skin and held it to the sunlight.  “This one’s a bull snake.”  He pointed to the blotches on the skin, as if he were consulting an omen.  The whole of it was four feet long.

I like snakes, but I am only five feet long. Lewis took the time to show me he had sealed every crack. He kicked away the peaberry that had crept toward the house, and the vines clung to him. Vegetation attracts snakes, apparently.  A month later, a neighbor told me that he has horses that won’t walk in whole stretches of the surrounding fields, because they smell so many snakes. His mother, Nellie–an octogenarian who knew Flannery O’Connor–she said, “I saw a snake the other day, and it looked as if it was wearing the littlest, diamond sweater.”

There was no door to my farmhouse’s basement. Its stairs opened to the mudroom, and the mudroom had an oak door between it and the rest of the house. This inside door was the one you could deadbolt.  It was at least three inches thick and it had stain that had aged nearly purple. On its mudroom side, about level with the doorknob, I’d found impressions on the doorframe that looked as if somebody had whacked the wood with something the shape of a honey dipper. The grooves of the indentation were about a quarter inch deep, and I touched them as if they were the rough edges of a thought. 

I didn’t know how hard you would have to hit a doorframe to make a dent like that–especially with a honey dipper, if that’s indeed what it was. Nor was I sure what to think about the fact that the impressions were at hand level, because this means that the leverage you could get for striking such a blow would be next to none.  You could get a better angle if you were supremely short–like a child.  But this only made the possibilities stranger. In the end, I decided the only explanation was that somebody marked the wood before they hung it in the frame. 

In any event, I shot the bolt. I’d heard that in Quebec, they keep a law of hospitality that stipulates how a house with a vestibule may never lock its outer door. You may secure the inner entrance with anything you have, but you must leave the space between as a shelter for the wanderer or the poor. This is a lovely idea that recalls the Mosaic commandment to leave a corner of one’s crops for the hungry.  But I was not in Quebec.  And more to the point, the outside door to this house had two working locks–as if the house’s project had been to keep something both outside and in.

A week after the Silas event, I had started to change my clothes as soon as I returned from work. The laundry machines were in the basement, so I stripped down there, filled the washer, and walked straight to the upstairs shower. I have no idea how old that basement was.  Its floor had water stains and cracked concrete.  Someone had cobbled the walls with brick and gobbed cement, and judging by Lewis’s wads of caulk, the builder had made the walls fast and from necessity, and then let them gape. My landlord had lined them with floor palettes and plywood shelves.  He’d set the laundry machines across from the stairs, near the far end of the basement.  Behind them was a cinder-block wall, and a pitted door that led to a deeper, secondary room.  There was the sump pump back there, and also the fuse box. Someone had mounted a splintered work bench, along whose top had scattered rusted nails, twigs and clods of earth.  I don’t know what was going on back there–or even when.  It’s like somebody was trying to build a golem.

Now, during this week after I’d found Silas, I stood, half-dressed, on the last step of the basement stairs. Dangling from the crevice between the southern wall and the bottom of the house was a snakeskin.

I climbed its nearest shelf and looked. The scales were so round that they resembled grains of wheat. I grasped the skin, and I heard a buzz and a sliding.  There was a long, smooth movement within the crack. I dropped the skin, and it inched along, as it dangled from the snake.

From where I had gotten halfway up the stairs, I couldn’t see the skin anymore. I dashed to the kitchen and grabbed a spaghetti ladle.  The snake had buzzed, which meant it was a bull snake. It hadn’t struck while I tried to pull off its skin, which meant it was a very civil snake.  But William James has a saying that the Devil himself is a gentleman.

I stomped down the stairs, banging the ladle against the wall. The snakeskin was gone.  I lowered the ladle.  I laughed at what I had in my hands. The snake poked from a hole that Lewis must have missed.  I ran up the stairs and bolted the mudroom door.

William James says that the world is richer for having a Devil in it, so long as we keep our foot on the Devil’s neck. Maybe this house was also richer for having the possibility of a snake inside.  I certainly paid more attention each time I opened the medicine cabinet or grabbed a soup pot. 

In Eden, when God revealed the serpent’s malfeasance, he also predicted the enmity between the serpent and man. This is the point, perhaps, where we not only became aware of evil, but also began to preoccupy ourselves with where it lurks, where it comes from, what it is. Maybe this essay illustrates the very point.  These days, when I mention Satan, my friends start to check the time.

A byproduct of the Fall is that we both worry about evil and judge its origin. We mistrusted God once; that’s what got us into this mess in the first place.  And I’m beginning to suspect that the Devil grows every time we mistrust God again. This is, perhaps, both a punishment and a natural outcome.  God has a penchant for obliterating the line between the two; he is, after all, the master of all outcomes. God’s retribution for our mistrust can fit the daily pattern of cause and effect. And if we look at the events in the Garden, we see that the natural progression of that retribution fits Satan and the Fall like this:

In the garden, man gains (albeit imperfect) knowledge of good and evil. And as a consequence, we begin to worry about whether God’s actions are good or evil. We struggle to find goodness in, say, the near sacrifice of Isaac; the suffering of Job; the fact that First Samuel shows how God made David take a census that God himself forbade. And this is to say nothing of Jesus’ own crucifixion. Chronicles 1 revisits the census story, and claims that Satan is the one who directed David.  Scriptures also say that Satan is the one who tormented Job. And just before the crucifixion, Satan is the one who entered Judas. 

I have no interest in disputing canon. In fact, my book endeavors to preserve it. But I think the natural punishment for doubting God’s goodness emerges from how we treat this canon. That is, the worst hallucination that occurs after the Fall is not so much about the serpent, as it is about the nature of God himself. The sin occurs when we judge these scriptural events as something only and truly evil.  Our mistrust tempts us to declare that regardless of scriptural origin, these events are so unjust that they could never warrant a reason. So through addition, revision, or interpretation, we decide that the God of goodness would not commit them.  And as a punishment for removing these events from God’s purview, we decide that Satan can freely pose as God, dominate kings, ruin the faithful, and murder God himself.  That’s a lot of power we just gave to Old Nick.

I suspect that the people of the Book contribute to Satan’s growth even if they don’t carry their insecurities all that far. We cause problem enough, for instance, in forgetting God’s own use of ferocity:  his Flood; his plagues; his own punishments against Moses, Solomon, David, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife, Jonah, Judah, Israel, Zechariah, the Pharisees, Judas; the threats of punishment to the churches in Revelation–and in fact, much of Revelation in general. Honestly. If God loves whom he chastises, he must adore the entire multitude.  But by forgetting God’s ferocity–and by this I mean the arrival of what amounts to punishment, instead of an episode of cruelty–by forgetting, in other words, who God is, we build a repository of what we hope he is not. And this means we both diminish his powers and build the influence of the other’s. Destruction becomes hateful at worst, and arbitrary at best.  So by contrast, then, I suggest that we decide that although it would be foolish to say that all ruin has a discernible purpose, it is perhaps wise to suggest that it will have an answer nonetheless.

I don’t think this posture means that Satan doesn’t exist–or that he exists only through the hallucination of God’s tyranny or weakness. But I do believe that the fruits of hallucination suggest how Satan enjoys influence especially in proportion to how much we award him.  C.S. Lewis claims that Satan is the Lord of the Lie, because a lie renders reality unknowable and unloveable. It makes the world, in other words, into Satan’s own image.

How the Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

I have just navigated some rather unpleasant websites to see exactly which Bible verses the religious right uses to make their case against gays. What I discovered is that I have more well-fitting pairs of pants in my closet than they have explicit scriptures in their arsenal. This makes six (scriptures). And the amazing thing is that I–who am not seminary trained, but just a pretty good reader–can knock out all of those scriptures in about as many paragraphs.

Right away, I can clear up Leviticus 18.22, Leviticus 20.13, Romans 1.27 and Corinthians 6.9. The first two scriptures–which are the only Old Testament scriptures–say the same thing: Men lying with men do something detestable, and should (according to Lev. 20) be killed. This is because, back in the day, idolators could be killed. And idolatry is at the center of this entire debate. When these “anti-gay” laws were written, the Israelites were a little clot of folks who were trying to keep their culture alive among some pretty established pagans. Mainly, there were the Canaanite peoples. And among the Canaanites were the Assyrians, who liked to dissolve the culture of anyone they vanquished by scattering that culture among other members of the empire. All of these Canaanite civilizations included homosexual practices. (Please note that during most of my spiel, I’m going to use the rather clunky phrase of “homosexual practices,”  This is because in much theology of biblical antiquity, homosexuality was seen as a “practice.” instead of a relationship.  That’s part of the whole disconnect that faces us today)  Among many pagan peoples, such as the Babylonians, homosexuality occurred in religious rites. So, while the Israelites were resisting all of this idolatry, somebody codified what’s in Leviticus 18.22. But notice what surrounds the verse. Right before it is a law against child sacrifice. This is something that the Canannites also did; they burned their children to the fertility god, Moloch. Apparently, they beat drums to drown out the screams. Now look at what comes right after Leviticus 18.22: “Do not defile yourself in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled.” In other words: Don’t become Canaanites. A similar scripture exists around Leviticus 20.

Flash forward to Romans 1.27. Here, Paul says that God, in his wrath, afflicted the Old Testament idolaters by making them commit “unnatural,” homosexual acts. Mind you that he’s writing to people in Rome.  More than that, he is writing to Nero’s Rome.  And if you’ve learned anything about that guy, you know that a loving, monogamous, homosexual relationship would function as sort of the oatmeal of his sexual smorgasbord.  But even if we dispense with him, we know that lots of the regular Romans had sacred orgies–many of which were homosexual, if not actually omnisexual. And the Romans, again, were a huge empire that had swallowed a nascent church that was trying to preserve its emerging doctrine among some very well-established, and very well-armed, adversity. Paul says: Don’t become Romans. This is the important thing. Really. The homosexual prohibition was not anti-gay–not in our sense of the word. It was anti-cult. Paul’s laws were a way of maintaining an identity among the threat of cultural obliteration. They prevented a person from falling away from the church by entering pagan vices–which is what I Corinthians 6 describes. Pauls’ admonitions functioned, in fact, as ritual laws–which are distinct from moral laws–which is to say that they rattled in the same bin with the soon-to-be defunct Old Testament rule against eating from a pagan’s sacred grove.

It is true that, if you’ve been swallowed by an empire, and if you maintain your religious identity in the face of other rituals, and then, if you also impress others with your love and your goodness, you may impact those who jumble up against you. In the case of Rome, you might even convert your conqueror. But it’s very worth noting that when these insulating, ritual laws start to limit your own potential converts, it’s time to reflect and adapt. The early Christians did this with diet and circumcision–two subjects that receive far more attention in the Old Testament than homosexuality ever did. Paul himself was wise enough to know that these practices neither added nor subtracted from a person’s devotion to God. He proclaimed (ironically? appropriately?) that what matters most is love. And unless our gay brethren start, say, setting children on fire, I think we can solve the gay-rights issue by following Paul’s own example.

Now. The last two anti-gay scriptures are about Sodom and Gomorrah. The first is Genesis 19, which describes the event. But have you read this story? It’s like something out of Cinemax. It starts with hospitality. Abraham and Sarah host two angel-like “men of God.” Then the men go to Sodom to stay with Lot, who also hosts them. The Sodomites–who, in this case, are all men–bang on Lot’s door and demand that the angels come out so they can get gang raped. And Lot says, “No! These men are my guests!” This is important. Note that he doesn’t say, “No! That act is detestable,” or “No! Are you crazy? These men are angels!” But when the Sodomites insist, he does say another thing: “Here, crazy rapers. Take my daughters. They’re virgins. Go to town.”

Few people in this story come out looking good. That’s something to remember about the Bible. It’s self-censuring; it admits that its very heroes behave badly. Folks like the ancient Egyptians made a point of not recording their failures. Not so the Israelites. This is one of the things that makes their literature so whole. So: Lot offers his daughters up to what is literally a rapacious orgy. The Bible doesn’t comment. The Sodomites go after the angels instead, and all hell breaks loose. Lot and his daughters head for the hills (that’s where the phrase comes from)–and look at what happens next: The daughters get Lot drunk, and they rape him while he’s asleep. Now, even if we leave Sodom and Gomorrah aside as little ash-heaps, we’ve got nearly enough sexual sins in Lot’s own family to field a bingo card. But notice again: The Bible doesn’t judge. As a result of the rape, each of the daughters starts a line of peoples–the Moabites and the Ammonites. Later, these races do have a checkered past with the Israelites; everybody wars over the land of Canaan. But still, Ruth herself is a Moabite. And she, of course, is part of the line that gave us Jesus.

The point is that there are sex crimes galore in the Sodom and Gomorrah story. Most of them go without comment from either the characters or the narrator. Instead, the focus is on hospitality. Hospitality–the ancient rule that requires you to shelter even your archest enemy–the rule that echoes in all the Mosaic laws that provide comfort for the stranger–it’s this rule whose infraction makes the Sodomites most wicked. And one could argue that by our denying comfort to the gay community, we are doing the same. In fact, I’ll push this further: If a society pressures a person to have sex in a way that she would not choose–be that with an individual or an entire gender–that’s rape too.

Finally, we come to Jude 1.7, which says that settlements like Sodom and Gomorrah, “giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh” will face destruction. “Fornication” is from the Greek fornix, which was the name of the underparts of bridges where prostitutes did their business. Sodom and Gomorrah were famously wicked places (that’s why the angels were there in the first place), so it stands to reason that they would have prostitution. In any event, fornication does not mean gay sex. Strike one. So let’s look at “strange flesh.” Another way to translate this is “the flesh of strangers.” Again, I point you to the sin of inhospitality. Don’t like the hospitality angle? Then here are other questions: Is this “strange flesh” a man’s flesh? Is it an angel-man’s flesh? Is it not a beloved’s flesh, but a hot-piece-of-ass flesh? Is it flesh that you’re going to share with a crowd of buddies? Is it flesh that you’re going to “go after,” even if it’s unwilling? Really, we don’t know any of these answers–but we do know that the Sodomites were of Canaanite flesh, which is to say of pagan, ritually-irksome flesh. (See Genesis 13.) That’s strike two.  And as long as we’re being persnickety about scriptures, let’s take a look at Ezekial 16.49.  It says this:   “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”  And that, dearies, is the end of the ballgame.

And actually, that’s also the end of my argument. Really. That’s it.  But here is one more thing–a scripture that Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson put in our arsenal: Jesus speaks to his disciples in John 16. “I have much more to say to you,” he admits, “more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you in all truth.” The Bible couldn’t predict every struggle that we’d face over whole millennia of faith. Bishop Robinson proclaims that it couldn’t anticipate stem-cell research, or abortion, or gay rights, or even abolition. But it did mention a guide, a Spirit, which, at our best, might find reflection in our conscience. It is a kind of faith to trust your conscience. I’d say it’s a kind of prayer.

So: Use it to judge dogma. Use it to judge scripture. Conscience isn’t foolproof. Bonhoeffer writes about how it can become a trap. But when a heterosexist finds that a loved one is gay, and when that heterosexist starts revising his idea of who gay people are, he is reacting with conscience–which is to say that he is reacting with an intellect that’s informed by love.

In spite of all this, there are those whose consciences say that gay people will go to hell. There are those who say that allies of gay people will go to hell. But knowing the friends I have–the friends whose courage I admire–the friends I love–I would bet my soul that such a thing is not true. It is not true. And if my detractors say that my obstinacy only furthers my own damnation, I say that they, of all people, should recognize faith when they see it.