26 October 2009

The devil in popular culture

John Morehead has an interesting article on Satan in popular American culture on this blog at Morehead's Musings: Satan and America:
W. Scott Poole, an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He has written a book titled Satan in America: The Devil We Know (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), and the following essay is adapted from that book. It originally appeared in The Post and Courier.

Quite a lot of the things mentioned in the article have also affected popular South Africa culture, so the article makes interesting reading. The films mentioned in the article, such as Rosemary's baby and The exorcist were also shown in South Africa, and so influenced the perception of the devil in popular culture in South Africa as well.

Back in the 1980s there was an "occult" unit of the South African Police, which dealt with "satanists", very much as perceived in American popular culture, and there were indeed some self-described satanists whose own self-understanding appeared to be shaped by the prevalent images in popular culture.

But the most striking example of the American cultural influence on South African popular culture in my experience was back in 1977, when we were in the Anglican Church in Utrecht, a small mining town in Northern Natal. In the town there was a big Dutch Reformed Church (NGK), and a small Anglican Church, and nothing else, so at the Anglican Church we had ecumenical services on Sunday evenings which were for anyone in town who wasn't white Dutch Reformed. The services were multidenominational and multicultural. There were Anglicans, Assemblies of God, Afrikaans Baptist, and many others, black, white and coloured.

One evening the Assemblies of God evangelist from Newcastle, Piet Joubert, brought a film that that been produced by American Evangelicals, called The burning hell, and this was shown to the congregation. It struck me as a crass materialistic spirituality. Val and I sat at the back and giggled the whole way through, and especially at scenes where middle-class white suburban Americans in dressing gowns were swallowed by holes in the earth in a crude re-enactment of Numbers 26:8-11. The symbolism of the book of Revelation was interpreted in crudely materialistic terms.

But at the end of the film there was an altar call and a very big response, and nearly all the black and coloured teenagers went up, many of them weeping and sobbing. The film had obviously had a profound effect on them in spite of its shortcomings. And it wasn't simply a short-lived one-off emotional response either. Some of those who had come to the church that evening for the first time returned regularly afterwards, and became active in the Anglican youth group. In this way images from American pop religious culture seemed to have considerable influence in South Africa as well.

I was in three minds about it.

First, I was repelled by the crude materialism and bad theology of the film itself. Secondly, I welcomed the enthusiasm that it engendered in the youth in Utrecht. Thirdly, I was concerned that it was entirely disconnected from the experience of other youth in the country who were being treated to the rocky rioter teargas show in Soweto and elsewhere.[1] In those days, the main sphere of demonic activity was in the implementation of the apartheid policy itself, and the white, middle-class American interpretation in the film did nothing to help the youth in Utrecht or elsewhere to understand that.

And then I compare it with Charles Stewart's study of folk theology in rural Greece, Demons and the devil, which has perhaps not been quite so strongly influenced by American popular culture. Stewart summarises his findings as follows:

The Orthodox moral world emerges as an arena in which good struggles against evil, the kingdom of heaven against the kingdom of earth. In life, humans are enjoined to embrace Christ, who assists their attainment of Christian virtues: modesty, humility, patience and love. At the same time, lack of discernment and incontinence impede the realization of these virtues and thereby conduce to sin; sin in turn places one closer to the Devil... Since the resurrection of Christ the results of this struggle have not been in doubt. So long as people affirm their faith in Christ, especially at moments of demonic assault, there is no need to fear the influence of the Devil. He exists only as an oxymoron, a powerless force.



[1] Hopkins, Pat & Grange, Helen. 2001. The Rocky Rioter Teargas Show. Cape Town: Zebra. ISBN: 1-86872-342-9

The Rocky Rioter Teargas Show was the title of a satirical theatre presentation performed by Cape Town students at the time of the 1976 Soweto uprising. The book goes inside the events and their causes, and recreates the drama and excitement of the events. The narrative is illustrated with photographs and documents, many of which have hitherto been secret, such as cabinet minutes giving explicit approval of "more deaths" through police action.


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Magotty Man said...

This brough back memories! I saw this as a "pre-teen" and later teen, multiple times, in the 80's. That film scared me "on to the straight and narrow" - only it was moralism at is greatest. It took many years before I actually understood and, importantly, taken the Gospel message in.

I have deep, deep feelings about this, then. In my case it was closely linked to the deeply entrenched legalisms of the Pelagian gospel I was preached at KSB (Kwasizabantu). It strikes me that pelagianism in all its manifestations has to rely on a frightful devil...

BTW, the American evangelsit was Estus Pirkle, A KJV-only Baptist.

James Higham said...

Great post but I usually avoid that topic.

Yewtree said...

A fascinating post, Steve.

I think the Western Christian view of the Devil is rather Manichaean (viewing him as a power equal to God), perhaps influenced by Augustine's youthful Manichaeism? Whereas the Greek Orthodox view has him in correct proportion.

I don't believe in the devil, of course, but I do think there is that impulse in humanity which Christians call demonic. I'd use a less loaded term, I think.

@ The Scylding: I don't see how Pelagianism relies on a frightful devil. I know loads of people who don't believe in original sin who don't believe in the devil either.

Alexander Patico said...

One reader said, "I don't believe in the devil, of course..." The part that struck me was not the unbelief, but the "of course."
If one rules out ALL that is beyond the human (and other aspects of the physical world), then God, the devil, angels, etc. are quite superfluous. But if one does posit a God (of some kind), thereby admitting the possibility of something beyond the physical (including the human), then it seems to me a fairly short jump to embrace the concept of some kind of demonic personage.
Otherwise, one must see the good impulses of men and women as linked to, or at least allied with, a good God, while our baser instincts (cruelty, revenge, etc.) are simply artifacts of our human nature (what else could they be, if no external force comes into play?). This makes for a rather Calvinist dichotomy -- the glorious divine in contest with the yuck-y material. Seen from the other perspective (traditional Christianity), the evil influence is (in one sense) perceived as external. Yet, one need not have all the traditional trappings (barbed tail, pointed ears, very reddish complexion, and so on). It (or he) can simply be a force that is separate from us and yet influential in our lives. Not human, but yet not a god.
Is that so much more far-fetched than an element in each human being that is bent on destructiveness and harm? What would be the species-wide advantage of having that trait hard-wired into us?

Steve Hayes said...


Yewtree is a Pagan, and I think the "of course" is there because Yewtree knows that I know that neopagans (yes, I also know that Yewtree dislikes that word, but I use it to distinguish them from paleopagans) don't believe in the devil.

Nevertheless, I think you raise an interesting point. How do neopagans account for evil in the world?

For paleopagans, at least in Africa, the role of the devil is taken by the witch. Evil is caused by human beings, but a particular class of human beings who happen to be malevolent. As a result of a few centuries of contact between Christianity and African traditional religions (and also, through the kind of films etc mewntioned in my blog post, American popular culture), there has been a degree of cultural exchange and assimilations. The title of an article by Birgit Meyer, who described this phenomenon on one particular place, was "If you are a witch you are a devil and if you are a devil you are a witch".

I've written more about this at Witchcraft, African and European: Khanya

Magotty Man said...

Yewtree: I should have qualified my statement. This wasn't formal pelagianism. But it certainly followed the morallisitic version thereof - ie do this and this and this and become perfect (by effort), then you won't burn and burn and.... you get the drift. IE, it provided a chain up to heaven, with a frightfull devil on your heels to make you go faster....

It was Pelagian uin the sense that it ignored the concept, or lack thereof, of original sin, but agreed with Finney's version of pelagianism in practice.

Maybe call it semi-pelagianism?

Anonymous said...

Dude doesn't have to be an ass.
Who cares if the African Youth bring some wider meaning out of a supposed 'materialistic interpretation of the gospel', he doesn't have to reaffirm his own surperior film interpretation by calling the movie tacky and subtly hinting that the African's own interpretation is immature.
We get it, you're an arrogant middle-class white guy who thinks he has the right to pass judgement on those kids because he has had more opportunities.
I'm not even religious, i just think you're ignorant.


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