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 (666blacksun.com) 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.