By LeRoy Lawson
Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016
Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense
New York: HarperOne, 2014
The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015
What should we do when faith falters, either our faith in God or our faith in no God? Either loss is a life-changer. Like most serious believers, I have had my own doubts. I am not alone. Some of my best friends have left the faith. Others claim to have no faith in the first place—but even they have had doubts, in their case about their lack of belief.
Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch tackles a very specific kind of disbelief: What happens to Christian faith when you no longer believe in the devil? That’s Beck’s position. And the devil he doesn’t believe in is the same one I can’t believe in—the red-clad, horned, tailed, pitchfork-wielding, “the devil made me do it” beast of popular imagination.
But he does believe in the Bible’s Satan (literally, the Adversary, the One-Who-Opposes). He also takes the antichrist seriously, though refuses to identify him with a specific leader, political (Hitler, Stalin) or religious (the Pope), but rather with the principalities and powers that oppose the God of love, the Christ of compassion. The opposer: that’s Old Scratch.
Beck believes in the reality of spiritual warfare. There are spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places, and they wreak havoc where we live on earth. He takes it seriously because it came perilously close to defeating him. But it failed.
So how come he writes now as a convinced believer? How did he recover?
And what did the devil have to do with his recovery? It was in prison, where he ministers to convicts, and in church, where he teaches addicts and disturbed individuals (like most of us), that he began to take the Adversary seriously. These spiritual warriors have no doubt that evil is real and the war is serious (deadly serious) business. They believe in Christ in part because they’ve met Old Scratch and realized they couldn’t defeat him without Christ’s help.
Reviving Old Scratch is a provocative read. Beck doesn’t know how to write a dull book.
From the Inside
In Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, the tone is in the title: I will not apologize for being a Christian. Period. So there, you intellectual snobs with your withering skepticism. Take that.
Unapologetic is the author’s answer to atheistic notables like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other rationalists who argue there is no sensible argument for the Christian faith. But that’s because they are looking in the wrong places, Spufford argues back. For them, it’s all about the mind. For me, it’s about the heart, about emotions, about experience as well as mind. Unapologetic, he insists, is not an attack on atheism—though he is not loath to skewer some of its more pompous advocates. Rather, it’s a look at the faith from inside out, rather than outside in.
This is a very different and, to this reader anyway, helpful point of view. For many years I led tours abroad; often those tours included visits to holy places, when we would noisily intrude on worshippers, rather smugly disparaging their illogical behavior while congratulating ourselves for not being like them. In time I became aware that I was judging what I didn’t understand, couldn’t understand from the outside looking in.
Those experiences came back as I read this book. I am not entirely comfortable with Spufford, either. His language is too salty—offensive—for me. But I like the man’s honesty—honesty about his earlier atheism, about his wrestling with the irreconcilables of the faith, about how nearly impossible it is to argue someone into belief. I appreciate an intellectual who can accept the ordinary emotions that constitute most of what we call “life.”
About them he writes, “The emotions that sustain religious belief are all, in fact, deeply ordinary and deeply recognisable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience as an adult.” As far as Spufford is concerned, a strength of the Christian faith is that it neither denies nor disdains these emotions but speaks to them through the One who identified with our experiences and shared (shares) our feelings. “We don’t say that God’s in His heaven and all’s well with the world; not deep down. We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us.”
Unapologetic’s feisty tone gets a little wearisome, I admit. This book doesn’t make my list of all-time favorites. But I did enjoy hearing from a thinker who once denied there is any reason at all to believe but then found his way to belief. I wanted to know what changed his mind. His heart did. That’s not a bad argument.
Principalities and Powers
Rick Perlstein’s 880-page The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan takes us from theology to politics—but we’re still dealing with evil, not personified as Old Scratch but certainly present among the principalities and powers that govern our nation.
The first president I voted for was Richard Nixon, in 1960. Then I voted for him again in 1968 and again in 1972. In 1974, he resigned—as I had become convinced he had to—in disgrace. From that day until now I have remained perplexed, fascinated, disgusted, and dismayed by the Watergate scandal and the whole political scene of the era—and by the cyclical replays of that drama we seem unable to outgrow.
Nixon’s second term should have been the victorious climax to his checkered but remarkable career. He had overcome so many challenges and defeats, been reelected by a landslide, announced the end of the Vietnam War, and seemed to be sitting on top of the world. Then, because of that “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate Hotel, his empire crumbled and we found the emperor had no clothes.
When Vice President Spiro Agnew left office in disgrace, Nixon appointed Gerald Ford as vice president. Then Ford became president, declaring “our long national nightmare is over.” But it wasn’t. We learned to our horror that the CIA had assassinated leaders of foreign governments; we watched in greater horror as South Vietnam collapsed—and that after 58,000 Americans had died to save it from communism. For these and so many other reasons, we lost and never fully recovered our faith in our elected leaders.
While other politicians were acting remorseful, an upbeat Governor Ronald Reagan out in California insisted on seeing the bright side of everything. He preached a gospel of American greatness. He didn’t seem to take Watergate seriously. He famously insisted our problems couldn’t be solved by government because government was the problem. The goodness of the American people will make things right, he proclaimed.
Reagan thought Ford was a nice guy, but he compromised too many conservative principles for Reagan’s taste. So he took him on in the presidential campaign of 1976. Reagan lost, but only barely, and in losing he became the voice of a new conservatism that he would ride to the White House in 1980.
Perlstein writes with objectivity and exhaustive—almost exhausting—attention to detail. I read it during the scary 2016 presidential campaigns, shaking my head at the many parallels between then and now, while reminding myself that my faith does not rest in political solutions. Nor in politicians. Old Scratch may be alive and well—but there is still One greater.
LeRoy Lawson serves as international consultant with CMF International.