Reviving Old Scratch (2016)

In the words of the great Pat Benatar, love is a battlefield (93).

Richard Beck, in Reviving Old Scratch, seeks to reintroduce language of the Devil and demons—as well as of angels and spiritual warfare—into the twenty-first-century American Christian’s lexicon. Citing Barna Group research that says 40% of Christians don’t believe in Satan as a living being, Beck divides Christians into two groups: enchanted and disenchanted. The former believe in literal beings called demons and angels. The latter are the result of what Beck calls the “Scooby-Dooification” of the world. Taking his cue from the old Scooby Doo cartoon, Beck narrates the typical episode: a monster is seen a mine, say, and the villagers are scared away from the mine; Scooby-Doo and Co. show up to investigate; and it turns out that the monster was just a local tycoon in disguise, scaring others who might wish to benefit from the mine. The monster was just a rich guy protecting his interests. Such is the worldview of the disenchanted: there are not any demons or devils, just injustices that need to be righted. It is to this audience that Beck writes.

Beck begins with the claim that “Satan names that which is working against God and God’s kingdom in the world” (8). Satan is a “relationship” that is antagonistic to the work—namely the work of the Cross—of Jesus. In Scripture, ha satan merely means, as Beck points out, “adversary.” And so Peter is called Satan because he attempts to block Jesus’s path to the Cross. Beck notes that “if anything should convince a Christian that Satan exists—as a person or personification—it has to be the crucifixion of Jesus. Something—something from the very start—was against Jesus. And the Bible calls that force Satan. And,” Beck continues, “that anti-Jesus force is still very much at work in the world—and in my own heart” (11). And it is that anti-Jesus force that Beck spends his book investigating.

The next chapter of the book is about the Scooby-Dooification going on during our time. Demons and angels, Scripture and Tradition have become disenchanted and demythologized, with the result that the supernatural is ignored and the “human element” receives all the attention. Beck observes that when this happens, i.e., focusing on the human element, “our vision of spiritual warfare becomes more and more about social justice” (20). Beck will later show how this exclusive focus on social justice tends to cast other persons as themselves evil (59ff). But for the time being, Beck uses a series of Scriptures in the Bible that use the phrase archai kai exousiai to show that when the New Testament speaks of principalities and powers, it does not merely mean human persons in positions of power; no, it refers to “a mixture of human and spiritual powers.” Beck argues that “[t]he reason the Bible mixes and matches human and spiritual powers is because the writers of the Bible didn’t think these were different sorts of powers. They are, instead, manifestations of the same power.” Thus the story of the Exodus was first a story of liberation to worship God in the desert (Exod 5:1). This worship threatened Pharaoh, who was himself considered a god, and so he retaliated by making the Israelites work with less straw. Then came the cry for liberation on the grounds of justice. “In the Exodus, the political struggle on earth was also a spiritual struggle in the heavens. For the ancients, justice always had a spiritual aspect” (23).

Next Beck shows why spiritual warfare isn’t just about mere social justice or political activism.

Spiritual warfare isn’t just political engagement, it’s also a journey toward love.

. . . A narrow focus on political activism often ignores important conversations about personal morality and holiness. Political activism also tends to marginalize the church, the community Jesus left behind to continue his work. If electoral politics are how we are going to get things done in the world, going to church on Sunday to sing some worship songs seems pretty pointless. When spiritual warfare is reduced to social justice, things like church and morality get pushed to the side.

Basically, when you lose track of the Devil you lose track of Jesus and the kingdom of God (25).

Part 2 of the book, examining spiritual warfare “beyond” social justice, begins with an examination of Jesus as exorcist. Citing Mark 1 and Acts 10, Beck argues that “[t]he kingdom of God and exorcism go hand-in-hand” (32). He encourages his readers not to treat the Bible as Thomas Jefferson did, cutting out the irrational parts, but instead to take seriously the dual aspect of Jesus’s ministry and that of the apostles after his Ascension: preaching and driving out demons. More than just a great moral teacher, Jesus “appeared . . . to destroy the Devil’s work” (34). We are called to participate in that ministry also; thus we must understand the nature of that ministry.

Here Beck inserts a discussion of Penal Substitutionary Atonement versus Christus Victor. Why? Because the former misunderstands the nature of the ministry of exorcism. Beck describes them as two loves versus one love (cf. ch. 9). Penal substitution sees two objects of love—God and humans—and these two can come into conflict. The bad news, humans are hellbound; the good news, God wants to save you. But when push comes to serve, Beck demonstrates how these two loves come into conflict, and the love of God is always given priority, even if it is dangerously perverted as in the case of Westboro Baptist. Christus Victor, on the other hand, sees humans wrapped up in the love of God. Instead of God being both antagonist and savior, as God is in penal substitution, the older and more biblical atonement theory of Christus Victor sees God’s work in the person of Jesus as ransoming us from Satan.

According to Christus Victor, humanity and the entire created order is in oppressive bondage to a variety of cosmic forces, including sin and death, forces the Devil uses to keep us separated from God. In response to our bondage to these powers, Jesus is born into the world to liberate us and set us free. Jesus rescues us from enslavement to hostile spiritual forces rather than from the wrath and judgment of God (43).

The ministry of exorcism then recognizes that Christ is victorious over the powers and interrupts the powers to demonstrate that truth to the watching world.

Beck next offers a personal story from his own experience of worshiping with prisoners and marginalized persons and presents an “irony: A disenchanted, politicized, and progressive vision of spiritual warfare drew [him] to the margins and there, once [he] found [himself] on the margins, [he] clashed with the enchanted, enthusiastic, and charismatic spirituality [he] encountered” (53). Beck had to find a way of sincerely engaging in the “charismatic” and “penecostal (small p)” spirituality that he encountered there (52). The spirituality of prison and of the margins is a “warfare worldview” (53). And that worldview flows quite naturally out of a Christus Victor understanding of Christ’s atonement. Thus asking disenchanted Christians to embrace enchantment, he notes, “Enchantment isn’t forcing yourself to believe in unbelievable things, it’s allowing yourself to be interrupted and surprised by God” (53).

Having made an initial argument for re-enchantment, Beck continues his discussion of why understanding spiritual warfare merely in human terms, e.g., as fighting for social justice, misses the point. And so two assertions: (1) Beck suggests that disenchanted spiritual warfare tends to focus on the unjust person as evil whereas enchanted spiritual warfare sees various forces as evil and the unjust person as enslaved to that force; and (2) Beck suggests that the church (and Christianity) is not about political action in the so-called political sphere, i.e., using political means to bring about a desired result, but is instead about itself being a political entity (ch. 6–7). After all, when it comes to caring about people, “Jesus didn’t leave behind a political party. Jesus gave us a group of people to get along with” (72). And that group of people—the church, the body of Christ—is called to “become an intimate, face-to-face community of care and peace. That’s what Jesus called the kingdom of God” (76).

Crucially, Beck, following Greg Boyd, points out the danger of disenchanted spiritual warfare for a person’s spirituality. To quote at length:

As Greg Boyd argues in his book God at War, when doubting and disenchanted Christians lose touch with the warfare worldview of the Bible, we begin to treat the suffering of the world like it’s a logical puzzle to be solved rather than a reality to be resisted. And when we treat suffering as an intellectual problem, all that happens is that our doubts and questions pile up. Our mind starts running in a circle, chasing its own tail.

But very much unlike us, the Bible seems untroubled by the presence of pain, suffering, evil, and brokenness in the world. Across the pages of the Bible, evil and suffering are simply assumed to exist. Suffering exists and we must act—that’s the starting point. Evil and suffering exist, do something! That’s the warfare worldview, and that is the only thing the Bible seems interested in communicating to us (81).

The notion of “Zeitgeist” forms the linchpin of Beck’s argument for an enchanted spirituality. Reflecting on Hannah Arendt’s claim that evil is banal, Beck writes that “Evil . . . is the unthinking assent to the values, norms, and expectations of our world and the institutions we work and serve within, informal and formal, large and small. Evil is unthinking conformity to the Zeitgeist (105). Quite creatively, Beck introduces the notion of “the spirit of the times” (Zeitgeist) as the spirit that John tells us to test in 1 John. If the Zeitgeist does as much to create injustice and evil, “[i]f the Zeitgeist is the problem, then the battle is no longer merely political. The battle is inherently spiritual in nature” (107). According to Beck, “we have to discern the spirits of the age. And this is where the language of angels and demons can be helpful” (108).

And so Beck traces the “demon thread” through the Bible, beginning with Psalm 82, in which “the spirituality of the nation—the god of the nation—is connected to the political oppression being experienced within that nation. Also note how spiritual allegiance and obedience to God brings justice and relief to those being oppressed. . . . In the biblical imagination the worship of God and justice are two sides of the same coin” (111–112).

Beck then begins his wider narration: the Exodus in which “‘Let my people go!’ is an expression of spiritual resistance. It is a cry for emancipation from the ruling gods, the oppressive spiritual Zeitgeist of Egypt.” Moreover, “This is the same spiritual revolt we see in Daniel as he continues to pray in Babylon, and in Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego when they refuse to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol.” Beck observes,

Notice in the Exodus story how rejecting the worship of God is connected to political oppression. Instead of submitting to God, Pharaoh increases oppression and injustice in the land. Just like we see in Psalm 82.

All through the Bible a failure to show spiritual allegiance to God goes hand in hand with political oppression. This highlights how spiritual warfare can be described as a battle between rival spiritual allegiances, allegiances that bring either peace or oppression to earth (112–113).

And discerning the prevailing Zeitgeist, according to Beck, is one way of naming the unseen demonic spiritual forces vying for our allegiance.

Holiness, then, is one thing needed in order to fight the devil, according to Beck. Yet “[h]oliness is one of the things that gets lost when we stop talking about the Devil. We miss how spiritual warfare is often a personal, private, and intimate battle against our own inner demons” (122). And “a holy person is a loving person” that follows in Jesus’s footsteps (126). Beck claims, thought, that “following Jesus is fundamentally an acto of nonconformity to the world” (137).

Jesus’s nonconformity is based on his kenotic love. (Here Beck inserts a word coined by Roger Mitchell, “kenarchy,” a combination of kenosis and arche, that is defined as “the ‘rule’ or ‘authority’ of love” [141]). Exegeting Paul’s Christ hymn from Philippians 2, Beck focuses on two Greek constructs: isa Theo (“equality with God”) and harpagmon (“clung to” or “grasped”). Harpagmon, Beck notes, “literally means to seize something as plunder with an open use of force. Harpagmon is a term with military overtones, a term of power and violence” (142). Yet, Jesus chose not to grasp his equality with God but emptied himself. “Jesus,” Beck observes,

renounced harpagmon in favor of kenosis. Jesus did not consider his rightful status as isa Theo as something to be seized and taken by force. Jesus rejected the “pattern of this world” and chose, instead, to rule as one who “takes on the form of a servant.” What Jesus rejects on the mountain [when tempted by Satan] isn’t his status as isa Theo. What Jesus rejects is harpagmon, using his power and status to lord over others. Kenosis is not a movement from “high” status to “low” status but a refusal to use coercive power in the world to seize and take things for ourselves (142–143).

Beck next moves into a chapter about the harrowing of hell and Jesus’s freeing us from the fear of death. Beck demonstrates that such fear is based on our notions of scarcity—not enough time, not enough money, not enough status. And he suggests we learn practices of gratitude and joy to combat that fear. Worship is the prime practice to overcome these fears. He writes, “If practiced mindfully and intentionally the simple practices of doxological gratitude create the emotional and spiritual capacity required to respond to each other joyfully, spontaneously, and gratuitously. Because without joy nothing gets accomplished. . . . Without joy and gratitude there is only paranoia, fear, and hesitation, just the dark shadow of scarcity and the reverie of lack. Just the power of the Devil.” We must find ways to appreciate that “[a]ll is gift. With God there is always enough” (160).

Beck concludes by saying that Christianity, then, turns the world upside down. Jesus posed no direct threat to the Roman empire—he was not an activist, he did not tell people to rebel. Yet he was executed because he started something that shattered the underpinnings of empire—a community of enemy-loving, demon-exorcising family. Likewise the early church was persecuted as “atheists” because they would not bow to Caesar, even though they posed no violent threat. Christians today are called to this paradoxical way of being. “All of this is simply to say,” writes Beck, “that the confession that Jesus is Lord of all turns the world upside down” (170).

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