REVIVING OLD SCRATCH: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. By Richard Beck. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016. Xviii + 192 pages.
Do you believe in the devil? Most progressive Christians living in the West likely will find that question to be rather odd. As heirs of the Enlightenment we live in a largely disenchanted world where angels, demons, and other spiritual beings are not part of our scientific worldview. And yet, without rejecting science, could it be that we’re missing something?
Richard Beck believes we are, and thus he has written a book targeting those of us who are doubters and embrace this disenchanted world view. Indeed, he has written a book inviting us to engage in spiritual warfare. It is an invitation to do battle with the Devil. The problem is, as Beck writes in his introduction, “the Devil has fallen on hard times.” A majority of Christians reject the idea of the Devil or Satan. Talking about demons and such sounds rather crazy, or at least the realm of a more fundamentalist version of the faith. There are good reasons to stay clear of the kind of demonology that was popularized by a series of Frank Peritti novels published back in the 80s and 90s. Nonetheless there may be good reason to revisit this oft neglected topic (at least in the kind of circles I frequent).
When engaging in conversations like this, it helps to have a trusted guide. I believe that Richard Beck is just the person for the job. Beck has a strong record of authoring thoughtful and thought-provoking books. His blog is always worth reading. Finally, at least for me, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him speak and speaking with him thanks to my friends at nearby Rochester College. Beck is by training and profession a psychologist. He understands the scientific method and its challenges. He’s also a professor and a keen observer of culture. Though he’s not a professional theologian, he has a well-honed theological mind and good understanding of the Bible. By background he is Church of Christ, and while the Churches of Christ tend to be theologically conservative they’re not usually given to wild apocalyptic visions. In fact, they hail from the same rationalist/Lockean roots as my denomination. Thus, he offers us a trustworthy guide into important questions facing our times.
Beck writes this book—Reviving Old Scratch—as a corrective to Christian social justice work that gets unhinged from the Christian faith. He is a justice-oriented believer, but he’s concerned that our often politicized visions can ultimately take us down dangerous paths. What we’re engaging in is spiritual warfare, but often without recognizing the spiritual powers and principalities arrayed against us. Thus, a good portion of the book addresses the question of who is “Old Scratch”? “Old Scratch” is in this case another name for the Devil, but one that seems appropriate. Beck himself discovered the true nature of “Old Scratch” in the course of discussions in a Bible study held at a prison. It was, he notes, his concern for things like mass incarceration that led him to the prison, but once there he discovered that his “disenchanted worldview clashed with the spirituality of the inmates who spoke about the Devil and demons all the time. Behind prison bars, Old Scratch is real as can be” (p. xvi-xvii). Thus, his vision of social justice was reconfigured. He recognized that his commitment to social justice wasn’t rooted properly.
There is much in this book that parallels the work of Walter Wink. He may not reference Wink on every page, but like Wink he has come to understand the true nature of the powers and principalities. He has come to understand the true systemic nature of evil that corrupts even the best systems. So he calls for us to re-enchant our world. It's not that there's a demon under every rock (ala Frank Peretti), but we need to recognize the very spiritual dimension that defines evil.
Central to Beck's message, and one that I find rather compelling, is that a "purely political vision of spiritual warfare is inadequate and often dangerous" (p. xvi). That is because, as he lays out in the book, when we engage in political warfare we may not believe in demons but we end up demonizing our opponents. This can cause significant problems for all of us. Thus, the need to revive “Old Scratch.”
Beck divides the book into three parts. Part One, titled “Wickedness in High Places: Spiritual Warfare as Social Justice,” sets out a framework for the rest of the discussion. He helps us name the issues at hand. In chapter two, provocatively titled “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!”, he discusses our embrace of a disenchanted worldview. Scooby Doo and friends often encounter spooky things, but in the end there’s always a naturalistic explanation. That’s the nature of our age, but Beck tries this on its head. He notes that in the Bible human and spiritual intersect. Justice for the ancients had a spiritual dimension. To do battle against powers and principalities involves not only demon possession, but political struggle: “Our battle is not against ‘flesh and blood’—individual human beings—but against systemic and structural evil” . . . “Spiritual warfare is resistance to empire, to the political and economic manifestations of Babylon in our own time and place” (p. 24). But, if we focus only on the human dimension we fall prey to Scooby-Doo, and miss the spiritual. He notes that Jesus wasn’t really much of political activist, since he talked more about Satan than Caesar. Here’s the rub. “when spiritual warfare is reduced to political struggle it’s tempted toward violence” (p. 25).
In part two, in a series of six chapters, Beck seeks to take us into spiritual warfare that goes beyond social justice work. He points us to the fact that Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as an exorcist. He notes that many progressive Christians snip out the spiritual stuff (like Jefferson). What we need, he believes, is a re-enchanted Christianity. It will, he believes help us stay clear of the danger of demonizing others. Thus, he writes:
If there isn’t a spiritual dynamic at work in the struggle, if the struggle for social justice is thoroughly disenchanted, the it’s destined to be a battle against other human beings, against the Bad People—the Good people trying to wrest power away from the Bad People. When spiritual warfare loses its spiritual component our battle can’t help but become against flesh and blood” (p. 59).
When this happens there is much less chance of a person being redeemed. They are the enemy and they must be destroyed. I see this occurring at this moment in our current political discourse. Justice will not be served if persons must be destroyed in the process.
Part three of the book is the longest. In eight chapters, he begins to unpack his vision of spiritual warfare for those who are doubters and live in a disenchanted world. He speaks of this as resistance and sabotage. It is undertaken, however, in the spirit of loving God and loving humans. They are interconnected and can’t be separated. Spiritual warfare is a battle in love. It is a battle undertaken by the Lamb of God who was slain. Those who engage in the work of spiritual warfare must recognize the often banality of evil. It looks mundane. It’s tempting. It draws you in. You become a cog. Thus, we must test the spirits. Is the zeitgeist that of Jesus or not? Beck points to the realities of the segregated south. We may have overturned the legal foundations of segregation, but racism is still part of the American zeitgeist in both north and south. It is a spiritual problem that politics can rarely address. Thus, our calling is to resist the Devil. That begins internally, within our own being, addressing our own inner demons. This starts in worship and in prayer, which enables us to renounce the gods of this world. Spiritual warfare begins in our recognition of the degree to which we give allegiance to gods other than God. Thus, the Devil is in the marketplace, and Jesus engages in exorcism. The work of spiritual warfare involves loving others, something is not an easy task when it’s not undergirded by the love of God.
I believe that this book will open many eyes to new ways of thinking about the world and our place in it. Beck doesn't dissuade us from engaging social justice or even political action, but he does call on us to open our eyes to the spiritual dimensions of such a work. He reminds us that central to our work is an understanding of our allegiance. He reminds us that we are all tempted by idolatry, whether it is the idol of nation or some other idol. I appreciated his analogy of economics and exorcism. Economics is spiritual. It speaks to what we value. In engaging in this conversation Beck doesn't require that we embrace the idea of a "personal" devil, but he does want us to consider the truly spiritual reality that is evil.
Indeed, this is a must read. It is a book for the ages. It's thoughtful, provocative, challenging. If one believes, as do I, in the spiritual realm (I wrote a book on spiritual gifts after all—Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening), then we need to consider the full range of what that means. Beck does an excellent job of reacquainting us with that realm, which likely involves “reviving Old Scratch.”