The Death of Satan

Andrew Delbanco

This is the kind of book, whether fiction or nonfiction, I try to stock my tbr pond with, one that doesn't answer all my questions or claim to, but opens new doors enabling me to find my own answers and make conclusions.This is a book about how our perceptions of evil have changed over the course of our history.Delbanco begins by describing how the Satan of colonial times was a very real presence because he was close within the narrow world of our forefathers.Being a part of each individual, Satan, sin, and evil was personal and frightening.Responsibility for control of sin and evil, always present, was forced on the individual.Gradually these burdens on the self were softened by time and liberal ideas in circulation during the time of revolution here and on the continent.The sense of evil with the most impact in our early history was, Delbanco explains, slavery.Its nature and opposition to it presented a basic conflict of good versus evil.The watershed event seems to have been the Civil War.Emphasis on God's providence had already become less influential.The war quickly gave preeminence to the idea that evil was more a matter of chance.During those years the weakened idea of Satan and sin as causes for payment for a life less than good began to give way to sin less substantial because religion had lost authority within society.The shift away from the church has continued, accelerated as the sense of evil became more and more to be perceived as outside the self and therefore something less people could believe in.The 2d half of the book Delbanco devotes to modern times and how the concept of evil migrated from the church into greater society, with little theological flavor to speak of.Surprisingly he spent little time discussing the wars or the totalitarian horrors of the early and mid-century.Emphasis is placed on the ecological warnings of Rachel Carson and the nuclear concerns of John Hershey and others.In our secular time evil is represented as the Holocaust, pollution, racial discrimination, nuclear weapons, and poverty.I noted the book predated 9/11 and probably wasn't timely enough to include the genocides of the mid-90s.Or even some novels focused on evil, like those of Cormac McCarthy.He explains that the emphasis on the above as evils has resulted because "our language has been evacuated of religious metaphor."But he cautions that human beings can't manage without any metaphor at all.In fact, Delbanco says he suspects the concept of sin may be bred into human nature and therefore necessary for human happiness.He stops short of saying religion, or Christianity, is failing because there is no hatred to offset a religion of love.He does say that evil has failed because it's become a social force rather than religious.Meanwhile, at last report, Islam is flourishing.

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