The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil

By Brian Lowther

Before I came on board with the Roberta Winter Institute (RWI), two of my colleagues spent a half-year establishing the RWI’s conceptual framework. One of the results of their work is a document called the RWI Handbook. This document includes things like the development of the mission statement, some interviews, a list of the RWI’s key ideas and many other helpful things. It provided for me a concise overview of the RWI and served as a springboard for all of my subsequent efforts. Also, the handbook includes notes on about fifty relevant books. These notes are so good—and include so many incisive gems—that I thought, “Why don’t I build on them and turn them into occasional blog entries?” 

The book for today is The Death of Satan: How Americans have Lost the Sense of Evil, written in 1995 by Andrew Delbanco, the Julian Clarence Levi Professor of Humanities at Columbia University in New York. 

My predecessors summarized the book in one sentence: “How Satan has vanished from the Western worldview and why it matters.” 

Delbanco himself describes his book as “a kind of national spiritual biography." He examines American life and literature starting with the Puritan period. Then he walks the reader through the colonial times, the Civil War, the Victorian period, the Progressive era and up to contemporary postmodern society. The whole time he explores how Satan gradually transforms from the embodiment and explanation of evil, into something much more trivial, a "relic of a perished past, a ludicrous ham actor," or as Ralph Winter liked to point out, “a cartoon character in red tights carrying a pitchfork.”

The book illustrates well the idea that Satan's greatest achievement is to cover his tracks:

So the work of the devil is everywhere, but no one knows where to find him. We live in the most brutal century in human history, but instead of stepping forward to take credit, he has rendered himself invisible.

In other words, we are extensively unaware of exactly what Satan is doing. Delbanco isn't attempting to probe Satan’s activities, or how we can sabotage them. His goal is simply to document the gradual loss in American culture of the belief that Satan exists at all. 

When Delbanco talks of the devil, he is referring to a malevolent force in human affairs. While it is clear in the Bible that Satan is actively tempting us to sin and working to harm our relationships at every level, I can't help but wonder, where else is he at work? Can his influence be felt in the rest of creation? Perhaps in the animal/microbial world? These questions are explored in depth in the comments of this blog entry.

Posted on March 28, 2012 and filed under Top 10, First 30.