One hell of a story

16th February 1996 at 00:00
THE ORIGIN OF SATAN. By Elaine Pagels. Penguin Pounds 20. GOD: A BIOGRAPHY. By Jack Miles. Simon amp; Schuster Pounds 20

Did man make Satan? Is God a good subject for a biography? Sophie James finds out

Of course, theology lost its innocence long ago. Anyone still unused to the naked world of modem theology will be surprised by these two books. Readers will be disappointed if they expect any religious edification to come out of studies like these, representing as they do, two separate critical traditions, one sociology, and the other literary criticism.

Elaine Pagels, for example, in her The Origin of Satan sets out to write a social history of the Devil. Her intention is not to consider whether the Devil has an external reality. Instead she traces the gradual emergence of Satan as a central character in Biblical and extra-Biblical writing.

Taking the title Satan to cover demonic beings, fallen angels and the forces of evil, her social history maintains Satan to be a sophisticated human creation of the pen from authors representing one faith community against another. His image is to be found in Jewish apocryphal writings, the Essenes and the New Testament.

The Devil then is a useful tool in controversy. Associating all those in conflict with you ("demonising the enemy" Pagels breezily calls it) with Satan has the obvious reward of identifying your group with the Good.

Unfortunately, demonic images feature most in the New Testament. Pagels ascribes this to the first century turmoil in Palestine, the war between the Jews and the Romans and the separation of followers of Christ from their Jewish roots. The Gospel authors used Satanic images to demonise their opponents within the Jewish community. It is a classic case of wartime propaganda. After all, the war precipitated basic questions: Why had the Jesus movement so far failed? Why had Jesus been treated like a criminal? In response, guilt for Jesus's execution was passed to the Jewish authorities and not to the Romans - a point that many historical scholars dispute, including Pagels. The betrayal of Judas Iscariot became associated with Satan, as did the rejections of the chief priests, scribes and the Sanhedran.

Drawing on many historical sources, Pagels' most interesting evidence is taken from religious narratives about Christ not included in the New Testament (some discovered only last century). The gospels of Mary Magdalene, Philip and Thomas, for example, were not selected because they failed to consolidate the new Christian identity. Thomas's Gospel does not have the vision of cosmic struggle of good and dark forces that confirms the Jesus community above either the Jews or Heretics or Pagans.

While this is a scholarly work, Pagels is writing for the lay person as well as the academic and she precis much previous theological and historical debate. Her style is refreshingly jargon-free and her sobriety when writing about the dark world of gospel invention (the evangelists sometimes resemble our modern tabloid editors) is welcome. The consequences of her study she briefly refers to. If in the New Testament demonic images have been created to represent enemies, this is a cultural legacy that we should be on our guard against. Quoting Kierkegaard in her introduction ("An unconscious relationship is more powerful than a conscious one"), Pagels reminds us of the power of suggestion. Debates about religious wars, the Crusades - and the Holocaust - were probably an unwritten chapter in her book.

Jack Miles biography of God is a very different work. A supremely revealing aspect of his message is the list of 40 acknowledgements at the end: God is placed 12th, alphabetically squashed between Eilberg and Goodhue. Miles thinks that God has been too revered in the past and that recovering God as a literary character ("the protagonist of a classic of Western literature, the Hebrew Bible") enables people to reach God in a way not done before. Now God is so personable and person-like that he can join the list of Miles' friends and helpers.

Indeed, this biography reveals God to have a multiple personality which like Hamlet (the comparison is continually drawn) is full of tension and conflict, at once creative, destructive, subtle and naive ("God is no saint, strange to say"). Appreciating the Bible as a literary art (its plot, drama, action, character, emotion and development) he concludes that he has "placed the Biblical mirror, cleansed and polished, in the reader's hands".

What readers see is a reassuring reflection of their own Western personality in the original image of God. We are, Jack writes, "immigrants from the past". God is the Divine Actor whose semi-autobiographical account of himself in the Bible is the past from which we stem. ("His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep.") This is a long book, written in an elegant and impressionistic style suited to its artistic critique. It is not uninteresting. But it is platitudinous and false. The author is American, obsessed by introspection, even psychoanalysis. He seems to be dismissing the rest of the world when he writes: "Uncomplicated, simple people who know who they are without struggle . . . and fall short of the ideal . . . in the West we do not imitate them."

Miles obviously responds to drama and the fact that he was once a Jesuit, but is now married, probably answers for his interest in personality conflict. Other than proclaiming that God is the major protagonist of all literature and reflecting the American desire for couch therapy, this original book has little theological significance. I would even dispute with him that God is the divine actor Having read God's biography, God is still no match for Hamlet.

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