on 6 September 2000
I wrote a thesis on the Changing face of the Devil in Art and I found this book to be invaluable. Of the many research materials I read this was the most informative, entertaining and enlightening. This book discusses the Devil in Art, Philosophy, Symbolism and a multitude of different religions. This book discusses our need for a Devil and even goes to great lengths to explain his origin. This book is very well written and imensely entertaining on a subject which has always been seen as 'taboo'. I recomend this book to everyone who wonders why Satan is seen as the guy with horns and a pointy beard.
The book claims to be a biography of the devil but is in fact a story of the concept, right from its earliest incarnations in various religions right up to the more generalised concepts of evil today.
Before reading this book, I knew the bits of the bible dealing with the Garden of Eden and the Temptation in the Wilderness. I have also seen quite a few horror films dealing with demons and devils.
The book is not a lurid series of horror stories or a religious book at all. It is a history of the origins of a concept of a devil in the world's main religions but makes it clear that in Christianity, he plays a bigger part. It then goes onto look at the effect that the existence of such a being has in human behaviour. This includes the suppression of witchcraft, the suppression of competing religions and the appearances of the devil in literature. I recall as a student being castigated by a christian friend because I attended a yoga class. He gave me a leaflet suggesting that such an activity was in some way a way of letting the devil in. The leaflet also included dream analysis, hypnosis, astrology and fortune telling as activities to be avoided. The book has helped me to see such leaflets as a particularly fundamentalist line of christianity.
What comes across is the way that the devil becomes less an identifiable being but more a concept of evil. The book gave me plenty of food for thought in covering a surprisingly large area, leaving me hungry to learn more.
I slightly take issue with one comment made in passing though. Peter Stanford wrote about freemasons and said, "The Catholic Church and the Church of England continue to demonise Masons as opponents of christianity". While I cannot comment on the Roman Catholic position on this, it does come as a big surprise regarding the C of E, given that many Anglicans I know are masons. I know that Rowan Williams, when he was bishop of Monmouth, did make a comment that freemasonry was incompatible with christianity. However, he has since retracted this. If he made such a comment, I don't believe that he was speaking on behalf of the entire Church of England.
In what sense can we say that the devil exists as a kind of being, not human but supernatural, at large in the world today? This book tries to get to grips with this question from the point of view, in my case, as an unwilling atheist – an unconvinced person experiencing these ideas, notions and superstitions – and of course, with a full complement of doubts, fears and inadequacies of my own. As a child I attended a Baptist Church run by Mr Coombes, a man with an aura of calm beatification. The devil was never mentioned by him, and my religious education was a blithe mixture of bible stories, a light hand with moral significance and sheer pleasure when we were sent out into the field to catch the sweets by the handful that were thrown for us. There was nothing in my background to suggest to suggest that the Devil existed, but reading this book has completely absorbed me.
The book examines the reality of evil through a masterfully wide range of subjects: the activities of contemporary Satanists, the widespread allegations of satanic ritual abuse, the Devil in Christian thought, in the Bible and beyond. Other faiths, such as Islam, Hindu, etc, have no time for a Devil as an independent force of evil and I’d have liked a little more about the comparison of religious thought.
Integral to the book is the history of how the Devil was perceived by Christians and his role in some of the best known episodes of Christian history. The book also offers an admirable examination of the development of the Devil in popular culture – in art, literature and drama. Section three of the book explores the twentieth century in the light of efforts by mainstream churches to distance themselves from “their own terrible creation”. Freud and Jung have much to say on the matter of the Devil. Attempts are made to recast the theological treatment of evil without the personification of evil himself.
Stanford writes: “The search to understand, quantify and even negate evil makes no pretence to have the answers that have eluded humanity since the beginning, merely to observe the role the Devil has played – and continues to play – in an endeavour to make sense of the inexplicable. The fundamental question of evil remains with us." Open any newspaper if you want proof. On the other hand, why is it that Christianity seems to need a role for the Devil? Do we need him as a scapegoat, or are we intrinsically locked into our human frailties?
This book represents a thoroughly absorbing and masterful discussion of the personification of evil.
on 2 May 2014
A thoughtful, well researched and engaging history of The Fiend.
Peter Stanford explores the nature and possibility of Evil through the many and varied representations of Satan. Is the power of the Devil declining and the seductive nature of temptation losing its charm in an increasingly affluent and amoral age? What responsibility does God have in casting Lucifer into the world to plague us? Is the Devil another face of God? Questions to keep lawyers, theologists and interested readers in lively debate for centuries.