Saturday, April 9, 2011

An Atheist in Church-The Devil

For those who do not know since returning to the United States I have now been going to a church for five weeks. The church is an Assemblies of God church. Click here to see a previous blog explaining why I have gone back to church and my initial reactions to it. I have to admit going back to church has been a bit harder than I expected though that is in large part due to the style of the church I am now attending. I find the services focus far more on emotive responses than intellectual ones. I find the sermons can be quite repetitive involving more times of jumping around and singing then actually teaching. The sermon is littered with “repeat after me…” and “tell your neighbor this…” and “tell your other neighbor…(exact same thing).” It’s just a hard service for me to get through as I find very little of it to be intellectually stimulating. Due to this fact there have been no big messages for me to respond to rather I have merely noticed little things, like one phrase or various actions that trigger thoughts and thus ideas for blogs.

In this blog the issue I want to discuss is the devil. Now the devil has not played a central role in any of the sermons that I have listen to yet there has not been a service where the devil has not been mentioned or referenced. Each time the devil is referred to it disappoints me because it really deflates whatever point the pastor was making and makes it very difficult for me to take him seriously. There are few beliefs in the Christian faith that are harder for me to respect then the belief in the devil, especially the way in which Christians use him to explain away such complex issues such as evil or suffering. Now the devil is a helpful belief for the church in that it can be used in whatever way best suits the church for any given situation so in that sense I understand why the church has taught Christians to believe in the devil. First the devil serves as spiritual scapegoat to get God off the hook for any potential responsibility for the bad things that happen in the world. Overall that’s a pretty poorly put together belief and crumbs fairly quickly under the acceptance of other Christian doctrines such as God’s omnipotence. Then, historically the devil was often projected onto other people so as to justify the church’s oppression and abuse of various people groups. Today the devil is still projected onto other people creating constant war metaphors the church uses when talking about non-Christians and their overall view of those outside of their faith.

This church has used many war metaphors during prayer and the sermon that I find very repulsive. In one sermon the pastor was talking about the Israelites conquest of Canaan and described the “home of the Canaanites” as the “home of the devil” which had to be conquered and cleansed. The second he said this I lost all respect for what the pastor had said that day. He seemed completely happy to describe these people, the Canaanites, who were real human beings as nothing more than demons. This of course made it easy to explain why God commanded their complete genocide and freed his congregants from having to question the morality of the God they were choosing to worship. It was literally sickening to me how receptive the congregation was to this message as they clapped and cheered for their pastor’s hateful ideas. It made the church members appear completely heartless or more likely completely conditioned to demonize the Canaanites and other peoples that God commanded slaughtered. It was this conditioning that produced a type of dangerous mindlessness, which resulted in the heartlessness of the pastor’s widely accepted message.

Each week the devil is also referred to in connection with any personal suffering or troubles the people may be having. Whether during worship, prayer, the sermon or the alter call the devil makes an appearance as the congregation is told that the devil no longer has any power over them if they are under the blood of Jesus and for those who are not all they must do is accept Jesus to be freed from the devil. The oddity to me of these statements is that they seem to demonstrate the exact opposite of what they say. The pastor’s constant mention of the devil’s powerlessness over them seems to displays that this devil continues to have amazing power over them. The devil appears to have taken over their imagination and grown into a giant of sorts given credit for numerous events and happenings both globally and individually among the church members. He’s gained such a great amount of power that the church has to be reminded weekly that God has conquered the devil and as Christians they are free of this devil. The devil becomes this odd character who is both powerful enough to cause destruction and suffering on the earth and to the individual but is also powerless and impotent when it comes to anything that actually upsets God’s ultimate plan. Again this allows the congregates to credit God with all that is good and blame the devil for all that is bad without really thinking those ideas through.

I have studied the history and development of the Satan character during my time in school. I have enjoyed seeing where he came from and how he was shaped and changed by the various cultures and time periods he spanned. The fact is that Satan did not exist in a majority of the Hebrew bible and then by the time he comes along he is actually a good angel working for God. He is then slowly morphed into an evil being that serves as the main opposition to God. As Satan becomes stronger and more evil he is projected backwards into biblical stories he never existed in, like the Garden of Eden, and he is used to explain things (existence of evil, suffering), which even if he were real he ultimately cannot explain.

When I was a Christian I believed that the devil existed but he never played a large part in my faith certainly not to the extent he plays in this church’s faith. He was merely a being who had rebelled against God and failed. For me he served more as a warning for those who would do likewise rather than an active being that had to be fought against. So even if I had been in this church back when I was a Christian I am sure I would still be tired of the constant references to Satan but now as a non-Christian they are particularly annoying. At their best these mentions of the devil are laughable but at their worst they are covers for a hateful “us vs. the world” and “we’re better than everyone else” mentality that is diluted just enough to become a part of those listening to it without them even realizing it. This message usually lays dormant not affecting the Christian who is carrying it but given the right circumstances this foul message will rear its ugly head often with horrible consequences.

Sadly the devil has become part of my weekly life due to this church. The power they give this literary character truly amazes me even as they claim he is powerless. Whether they admit it or not their view of the devil does affect them and he does so for the worst. Christianity does have many good messages and ideas to offer but Satan is not one of them. I can only hope that at least some of the people in the audience come to see these based on reason and the genuine concern for other people.  

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