The devil we know?

Old Nick could be alive and kicking around town.

THEY BELIEVE. Not just in God—that goes without saying—but also in His former colleague, a certain fallen angel you may have heard of. The rest of us may scoff, wondering, is this guy for real or what? Haven't we just been conditioned by heavy metal album art, biker tattoos, and the South Park movie to posit some sort of imaginary Devil? Isn't he just a convenient fiction, a figure of speech, a worn-out literary clich鿠Not according to some local authorities.

"We believe as Christians that there is a real and a physical Satan or manifestation of Satan, that he is a real person," says Rick Forcier, state director of the Christian Coalition of Washington. (We're as surprised as you that he took a call from this wicked paper.) The story goes back to the Bible, of course, in Genesis, where Lucifer was cast out of heaven for his ambition and disobedience. From a fundamentalist perspective, Forcier explains, if you believe in the good book, you believe in the Devil, too.

"He's real. He's a person," says Pastor Trevor Harris of the Shoreline Full Gospel Fellowship. Moreover, "He has a well-organized army," he continues, cohorts or minions or "demonic spirits on assignments" for Satan. "They're all over the place," he declares. But, Harris cautions, the devil himself is "not omnipresent" and certainly not an all-purpose excuse for our sins. "The devil never made you do anything," he concludes.

Forcier agrees that while Satan—who infamously seeks to lead us into temptation—is "able to put thoughts into our minds," we're still possessed of free will, and as such are "100 percent responsible" for our actions. Overlake Christian Church's Senior Pastor Rick Kingham puts it this way: "I think it's way too easy for people to constantly put the blame on the Devil, because most of the time the trouble we get into is because of our own failure or weakness."

SO EVEN IF SATAN is among us—at the Starbucks, in line for the ATM, cutting you off on the freeway in his Lexus—that doesn't excuse our moral transgressions.

Like other religious leaders surveyed for this story, Pastor Kingham does his best to finesse the issue of the Devil's existence. "The Bible is clear on who the Devil or Lucifer is," he says, adding, "I don't try to impose my own opinions" in sermons. "There's a large portion of the Christian church that puts a lot of emphasis on demons and on the Devil," he continues with an unmistakable marketing bent, "and then there are those who are more mainline, who wouldn't put as much emphasis on the Devil as on sin in a general sense." (These mainline denominations evidently include the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, which was unable to provide anyone to speak on the record about Satan.) Does the Devil then exist more as a metaphor for evil or as a helpful theological term for personifying man's free will/susceptibility-to-sin debate? "I think it's both," Kingham answers.

For Pastor Joseph Battistone of the Green Lake Church of Seventh-Day Adventists, the figure of Satan usefully serves as "the personification of tendencies within us." He adds, "There is an objective reality to evil," without wanting to specify its exact form. When a parishioner asks if that form can be the Devil, his response is, "Fine, we can do that."

Unsurprisingly, the farther one traverses across the Christian theological spectrum, the less room is accorded the Devil. Up at Capitol Hill's liberal First Christian Church of Seattle (Disciples of Christ), Pastor Peter Cornell-Drury says, "Personally, I'm really not that concerned about whether there's a literal Devil, and frankly, I kind of don't buy it." Emphasizing themes of personal responsibility and free will shared by fundamentalists, he concludes, "I view the Devil as a metaphor, to the extent that it's a helpful device for folks to talk about evil." In this sense, Satan is "a kind of concrete image," in such discussions.

OVER THE FENCE in another theological system, Rabbi H. David Rose of Mercer Island's Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation says that the Devil is mainly a distant textual entity, and even there he's a minor player. "What's quite noticeable in the Book of Job is that Satan doesn't go and do whatever Satan wants to Job; Satan has to apply to God for permission," Rose observes. "In my theology, [the Devil] has no place other than symbolic."

As symbol, however, Satan turns out to be an enduringly viable and potent presence. In most theistic schemes (Devil worship excluded), he's the tempter, the whisperer, the little cartoon figure standing on one shoulder who eggs you on—then conveniently disappears when it's time for you to assume responsibility for your own misdeeds. He plays a necessary role in the drama of free will we stage inside our head. He's an ever-changeable signifier whose exact attributes, powers, and meanings have shifted over the years—and we keep redefining them. As the saying goes, the Devil assumes many forms and goes by many names. Mainly, he's whatever we want him to be, whatever suits our needs.

Accordingly, whether writing sermons, newspaper stories, movies, or music, Satan's lure is inescapable and his currency undeniable. Thousands upon thousands of films, pop songs, and books contain one of his many various monikers in their title (just try searching Amazon, IMDB, or CDNow). He's a staple of motion pictures, plays, and opera—as enduring as any character in artistic creation (which includes the Bible, if you like). Think of Faust and Paradise Lost (or The Devil's Advocate, if you must). He's a trope of literature and everyday discourse. We turn to him like a page out of Roget's. He's part of the vernacular, in the words we speak, in the curses we utter—even in our prayers, as in "protect me from." Figure of speech is right; the Devil is finally no less real than the term itself.

Read the exclusive Seattle Weekly interview with the Prince of Darkness himself.

 
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