The Quest for the Historical Satan by Miguel A. De La Torre and Albert Hernandez (review)

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In 2001, the mayor of Inglis, a small town in Florida, issued an eviction notice to "Satan, ruler of darkness, giver of evil, destroyer of what is good and just." The town placed a written proclamation that commanded "all satanic and demonic entities to cease their activities and depart," on new posts at each of the village's entrances (1-2). In 2003, Army Lt. General William Boykin famously characterized the War on Terror as pitting the United States—a "Christian nation"—against Islam, proclaiming that "the enemy is a spiritual enemy . . . the enemy is a guy named Satan" (15). More recently still, in 2010, the television evangelist Pat Robertson credited an earthquake that devastated Haiti to an eighteenth-century pact with the Devil. Satan, it seems, is alive and well in Christendom—particularly in the United States. And this is the starting point for Miguel De La Torre and Albert Hernandez in their Quest for the Historical Satan. The book is at its best as a history of how ideas about personified evil have developed in the Western Christian worldview, and in its treatment of how these ideas have come to inform the interaction between peoples. These, of course, are far from new themes. However, where other scholars have identified this ongoing problem—for example, Regina Schwartz found monotheism's insistence on a fundamental opposition between good and evil to be the foundation of intolerance—De La Torre and Hernandez endeavor to posit a solution by asking "how should Satan be imagined?" (16). From this starting point, they set out to demonstrate that ideas of Satan have historically been quite malleable, and claim that "rediscovering how Satan was originally envisioned and developed can provide modern-day Christians with insights for comprehending the ambiguities of right and wrong and perhaps for living a more balanced moral life" (11). The authors, both professors at the Iliff School of Theology in Colorado, have set up the text as something of a personal quest, one in which their own religious sensibilities play an important role. Hernandez, a historian, identifies himself as "a deeply religious man who grew up Roman Catholic in the Cuban exile community of Miami" (x). There he saw the pernicious effects of ideology as Cuban immigrants divided themselves into factions over the issue of Communism. By contrast, De La Torre, an ethicist, was raised within a "hybrid spirituality" where it was possible to be "a good Catholic boy who prayed the rosary by day and a faithful Santeria devotee by night" (xi). As part of his Santeria practice, he offered sacrifices to Elleggua, the trickster santo. Later, though, De La Torre became a Southern Baptist, dismissing his previous Catholicism as idolatry and all the santos he had venerated as demons—in his new life, Elleggua became Satan himself (xi). Over time, he admits, he came to reject this view as well, reconfiguring himself as a "Baptecostal Catholic Santero" (xi). De La Torre's spiritual journey is central to the character of the volume, for just as he feels comfortable holding a faith that borrows from multiple traditions, he thinks that a Christian understanding of Satan could learn much from the Santero image of Ellegua— that is, construing Satan not as the incarnate of evil, but in the context of a trickster figure. Hernandez and De La Torre begin the work with an overview of the state of Satanic involvement in the modern American imagination. They describe Lucifer's appearances in various aspects of popular culture, but usefully they also describe how Satan is construed in Catholic, Christian "Fundamentalist," "Liberal Christian," and even Satanist circles. The second chapter, titled "The Birth of Satan," takes the subject through Satan's "conception" in the Hebrew Bible; his "childhood," during which he appropriated various Persian (Zoroastrian) ideas during the Babylonian captivity; his "adolescence" as described in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha; and his "early adulthood" in the New Testament, the early Church fathers, and the Qur'an. Chapter 3, "Satan Through the Ages," demonstrates how early Christians used their conception of Satan to comprehend the deities of their pagan oppressors. This theme is further developed in the next chapter, "Satan Comes of Age." Here, the...

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