Reviving Old Scratch-Reality of Spiritual Warfare beyond the reality of science and reason
Ever since I became a Christian in my high school junior year, I have had mystical experiences which would have been impossible had it not been for God. I had someone prophesy over my life, and I had other mystical experiences. Needless to elaborate on such experiences of mine, I am not a disenchanted Christian. I have accepted an evangelical faith, have been living in that tradition, and evangelical theological tradition is not promoting a dis-enchanted faith. The term dis-enchanted refers to a disbelief in things mystical and spiritual.
Richard Beck, teaching psychology at Abilene Christian University in Texas, makes it clear that he targets at the disenchanted Christians right from the beginning to be the audience of his book Reviving Old Scratch. A brief summary of the book’s main argument goes like this: the Bible still speaks of the reality rejected by the worldview of disenchantment, apart from which the message of the Bible and its reality cannot be holistically accepted. Thus, the faith Beck advocates is that of re-enchantment.
If so, why is Beck advocating the reality of Satan and spiritual warfare? I would provide Beck’s answers to this question, practically the whole substance of the book, by classifying the surfacing and the in-depth reasons. (Of course this is not how Beck organizes the book, which is divided into three large parts, the first of which deals with social justice as spiritual warfare, the second spiritual warfare beyond social justice, and the third a theology of spiritual warfare.) What I mean by the surfacing reasons are the kind of hermeneutical, theological, and practical benefits, provided we accept the reality of Satan and spiritual warfare. The in-depth reasons, on the other hand, is a sort of psycho-historical analysis of one’s own experiences in the past.
Let’s begin with the surfacing reasons. First, hermeneutically, Beck argues that the lens through which we understand reality can be more integrative and broad, thus making our understanding of reality more wholesome. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, attempted to snip all the mystical verses in order to suit the Bible into the spirit of the age of the Enlightenment and scientific reason. Jefferson’s approach to the Bible incapacitates the reality of Jesus and his disciples, leading all of us to read the Bible as Jefferson does, not as Jesus and his disciples did. In reading the Bible and applying its message to our lived existence, we understand Satan, ha Satan in Hebrew, to be anything and everything which opposes the quickening of the kingdom of God. Such forces always go beyond the social and the structural, and that is why we need spiritual warfare and Satan as part of the reality we perceive. As Beck participates in the lives of prisoners he led the Bible study with, he has realized that their lives cannot be explained without such forces of Satan and spiritual warfare. Beck brings up the term Zeitgeist as affecting every person living in a certain time and space, moving them politically, culturally, socially, and spiritually. These forces do exist, and cannot be reduced to one or two particular dimensions of reality, but always broader and deeper than what can be given accounts of. Beck calls this reality Satan and wrestling with it a spiritual warfare.
Second, a theological benefit we enjoy given that we accept Satan and spiritual warfare is to approach the reality of evil and suffering not just theoretically, but to enjoin us to be strong and resistant to such reality of Satan. Unlike philosophical theology and apologetics, the Bible does not reconcile the existence of all-good God and the painful reality of evil and suffering. Instead, the Bible teaches us to be adamant in our resistance to it. However, most contemporary theology focuses on the issue of harmonizing between God’s goodness and the world’s evil, shying itself away from the Bible’s approaches to Satan and evil. What is even more serious is, according to Beck, that many progressive Christians not equipped with accepting and resisting the reality of Satan and spiritual warfare end up being broken and collapsed in the face of harsh experiences of Satan’s resistance, which often leads them to abandon their Christian faith, the very motivation for them to plunge themselves into such battle against social injustice. However, acknowledging and accepting Satan and spiritual warfare will equip such Christians with what Beck calls a theology of revolt, helping them to resist strategically and wisely to the reality of Satan and spiritual warfare. Beck quotes at this point Greg Boyd’s book God at War, which he borrows the term a theology of revolt.
Third, a practical benefit of accepting Satan and spiritual warfare is that it keeps us from demonizing our enemies. Whether we are conservative or progressive in our theological or political inclinations, we tend to demonize those at the opposite pole of ours. If we acknowledge Satan and spiritual warfare, we might not fall into the trap of identifying people with Satan or Satan’s subordinates. However, what needs to be taken into account is that our forebears fully accepted Satan and spiritual warfare yet still demonized their enemies. So the argument might be too simplistic if we stop here; however, Jesus did avoid the trap of demonizing who most of his contemporaries end up demonizing, such as the Jewish tax collectors and the Roman centurions, aka the agents of oppressive force of the Roman Empire. (Jesus did call Peter Satan, however.) I believe, along with Beck, that there is something to ponder here.
Now, I am moving on to the in-depth reasons for which Beck has come to accept the reality of Satan and spiritual warfare. Above all this book is very self-confessional. What led Beck to embrace Satan was not something theoretical or deriving from his experiences of reading and research. Instead, he participated in the community of prisoners coming to believe God and worshipping Jesus Christ. As a full-fledged member and leader in this community, Beck has experienced what all the prisoners in that community take to be true as the reality of Satan and spiritual warfare. Before joining this community, Beck openly acknowledges that he was just one of those liberal intellectuals who is big on theory, yet does little anything practical. Beck was led to see, taste, and believe the reality of Satan through engaging the prisoners’ community struggling with Satan and spiritual warfare, which in turn led him to participate and experience the reality of evil and Satan firsthand by means of inviting the homeless and other people with problems. Building one’s life around speaking of and lecturing on social justice is one thing; actually engaging and working for social justice is totally another. Beck and his family gets hurt, exposed to the ugly faces of evil and suffering, which on some occasions deeply affect his own children too. However, Beck refuses to go back to his former life as an intellectual only. Belonging to the community of prisoners called the Men in White has changed and taught him so much that he can never go back to the kind of person he used to be. In addition, Beck shows that being exposed to such reality has prodded him to theologize more actively, so that his theology becomes truly his own, not someone else’s. For example, his acceptance of Christus Victor theory of atonement stems from his deep acknowledgement of the reality of Satan and spiritual warfare, for the Christus Victor cannot stand apart from the existence of Satan. What I would like to bring to attention here is that fully participating in a particular ecclesial community is not only beneficial, but also necessary for theologizing, for such participation encourages theologians to wrestle with the broader realities than her own, which the community experiences as a whole. I believe this is what Beck’s book Reviving Old Scratch attests to.
Despite all these merits and benefits of the book, I have two disappointments in the book. First, Beck shows quite well that Satan is real, yet he fails to show that Satan is a person. While this is still a controversial issue and widely debated among scholars, the Bible depicts Satan as a person, so this is what needs to be explained to make a more coherent case for Satan in the Bible. Second, what attracted me to this book in the first place was that Beck might give detailed accounts of how and why the prisoners’ community believe and accept Satan, yet Beck explains relatively little about those aspects. What he brings to the fore is the change he has personally gone through and not what prisoners go through in their wrestling with Satan. This might disappoint some readers who were expecting more narratives from those prisoners, making the book less persuasive. Even so, because of all the foregoing things, the book commends high praise and worthwhile for readers’ time and investment.