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A Review of
Reviving Old Scratch:
Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted
Paperback: Fortress Press, 2016
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Reviewed by Josh Morgan.
Christians view and interpret Christ rather diversely. However, there seem to be even wider discrepancies between understandings of Satan. Is he real or a metaphoric personification? Is he a fallen angel or playing a designated role in God’s court? Does he have real power or not? Do Christians need to worry about Satan, or should we have no fear because we live in Christ? Many modern Christians in developed countries seem to avoid the issue, perhaps reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, but not having much more conscious experience with the Devil beyond that.
In Reviving Old Scratch, Richard Beck’s intended audience is the group of Christians who, as he says, are “doubters and the disenchanted.” He taps into sociological frameworks with the latter term, referring to the opposite of enchanted worlds, where we see overt supernatural influence all around us. Disenchanted means stripping the magical quality of things, largely via scientific explanation. A good example of this comes from a missionary living in Africa, where a woman had an emergency delivery. When she returned to her village with her newborn, her health quickly declined. The local Christian seminary students were convinced the neighboring village had put a spell on her and started threatening them to release her. Just then, the village received a physician, who quickly identified an infection and medically treated her. The villagers were skeptical, but trusted the physician. A few days later, she was just fine. Those villagers live in an enchanted world. Few Americans would even have a similar thought cross through their minds in the same situation–we have a scientific explanation and solution. Beck cleverly and aptly summarizes our disenchantment process as “Scooby-Dooification,” referring to the classic Scooby-Doo plot line of a supernatural threat that eventually gets unveiled as a common person creating fear in the guise of false supernatural forces. The disenchantment process of the supernatural is part of the solution of solving a crime.
This disenchanted world makes belief in anything supernatural, including God, difficult. The idea of Satan is even more challenging to many Christians in the developed world. Yet references to Satan and demons are pervasive through Scripture, and many people talk about the demonic as part of the influence of the world and their lives. People like Elaine Pagels have provided detailed explanations on how Satan is more metaphor and personification (a lecture transcript provides a nice summary of her analysis). However, Beck’s foundational thesis is that this isn’t a good enough response to Satan. Rather, there is actually something quite useful, powerful, and important about talking about Satan and demons as real. This is summarized nicely when he stated, “I turned the corner in my faith when I adopted a theology of revolt, a vision of spiritual warfare, a posture of action over theological rumination. I got disgusted with how much time and energy I was wasting on my doubts. It was time to get off my theological ass and into the game” (82-83).
The biggest struggle I have with this text is how to categorize it. While categorizing isn’t always necessary, it can be helpful to clearly know what the book’s purpose is and how to set expectations. While the back of the tome labels Reviving Old Scratch as “Religion/Theology,” Beck doesn’t actually make any traditional theological arguments. He doesn’t try to convince anyone about their theology of Satan. There’s a basic assumption that Satan as a conscious force does not exist, which goes back to the disenchanted audience to whom he is writing. Rather, he seems more to provide many examples of how disenchanted Christians can still find value, meaning, and depth in Scriptural and everyday references to Satan and demons. He basically creates a hermeneutic for modern American Christians. That is fundamentally theological. However, it often feels like the book lives more on the Christian Living than Theology shelf. At times, it feels like a devotional, especially in part because while generally logically organized, the book seems more like a series of semi-related stories than building a logical, linear argument. In the midst of all of this, Beck deserves kudos for being able to reason in an academic environment, but write a book that is accessible and bridges both theology and Christian living.
There were two primary areas where the text made helpful theological insights for me:
Early on, Beck introduces and seems to support the atonement theory of Christus Victor, which refers to Christ’s death as a ransom. Satan holds humanity hostage, and God ransoms us through Christ’s sacrifice. One of the biggest theological problems with this atonement theory is that it almost gives Satan more power than God–God is required to pay Satan. That gives many people pause. I found it odd that Beck talked about this theory, particularly from a disenchanted view. If Satan isn’t a being, how does Christus Victor apply? Beck ultimately argues that demonic power is real, but he never really closes the theological loop on this point. However, his book triggered other connections in my mind. I’ve become a fan of Girardian scapegoat atonement theory, which asserts that it is humans who need a sacrifice–a scapegoat–to feel reconciled. It is the absurdity of Christ’s sacrifice that breaks this cycle. What if Christus Victor and scapegoat theory could actually be describing the same thing, but Christus Victor from a more a enchanted worldview, while scapegoat is more disenchanted and psychological? If Beck is correct about the reality of demonic power over us, but due to the reality of the human condition, not because of a supernatural conscious force, what if God is actually trying to ransom us from ourselves?
From a disenchanted worldview, many Christians struggle with ideas of worship. I’ve heard people say, “Is God really that insecure that he needs us to worship him every week?” I’ve also recently struggled with the purpose of singing and music–what is it really supposed to do? Beck provides some excellent examples about how the purpose of worship isn’t to stroke God’s ego, but it helps us reorient ourselves to refocus our actions. He states, “When life is hard, we must constantly exorcise the demons of despair. And worship, praise, and testimony are how we combat the despair and reach toward hope” (131-132). That fundamentally impacted my experience of worship in the weeks that followed.
Beck’s text is a nice addition to the conversation about Satan and the demonic. It won’t be terribly helpful for those looking for more traditional exegesis. However, his stories bring Scriptural and theological principles to life in a powerful way. He makes abstract, removed ideas, especially for the disenchanted, real, immediate, and relevant. His framings provide good reminders and ways to consider and approach life. I dog-eared a couple dozen pages because of the many good ways he discusses important, timely topics. While some could think a book about Satan could be depressing, this is a quite uplifting, inspiring text. In fact, I ended the book with tears in my eyes from a touching concluding story.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com