The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil

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9780374135669: The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil

Through the writings of America's major figures, a professor at Columbia University traces the change in Americans' view of evil over the nation's history from a clear, religious understanding to a perplexed helplessness.

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From Booklist:

A serpent, a monster, a seducer, and a destroyer--the devil threatened early Americans with real power from an unseen world. How is it, then, that contemporary intellectuals generally dismiss the great Author of Sin as a foolish illusion? To explain why Satan has vanished from modern minds, Delbanco first explores the premodern religious views of such determined witch hunters as Samuel Sewall and Cotton Mather, men deeply fearful of Satan and his wiles. Then he shows how, bit by bit, modern precepts and social patterns drove Satan from the consciousness of leading Americans, making irony, not faith, their preferred spiritual posture when confronting evil. Surprisingly, it was the generation who lived through the Civil War that most decisively closed the metaphysical doors on Satan. For the horror of that war defied interpretation within inherited religious doctrine. Yet even in today's world, millions of Americans still--like Sewall and Mather--do believe in Satan. What is more, Delbanco admits that in locking Satan out of their philosophies, secular thinkers have unintentionally sterilized the imagination and muffled the conscience. Indeed, some modern thinkers have created surrogate Satans for themselves by demonizing people who differ from them in politics or culture. Better, the author advises, to see in the world's evils a reflection of our own incompleteness and inadequacy. Thought-provoking reading for believers and nonbelievers alike. Bryce Christensen

From Publishers Weekly:

Columbia University literary scholar Delbanco (The Puritain Ideal) weighs in with a plea for revival not of old-time religion but of the sense of personal responsibility fostered by traditional religious notions of evil. His subject: "the incessant dialectic in American life between the dispossession of Satan under the pressure of modernity and the hunger to get him back." Delbanco argues that in contemporary America, the Devil and the evil the Devil represents are stranded between the liberal tendency to explain heinous acts as the consequence of bad social luck and the fundamentalist hunger to demonize one's enemies. The author takes his most useful notion of evil from St. Augustine by way of Jonathan Edwards, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr., who, he argues, all saw Satan not as an invading other but as a symbol of "our own deficient love, our potential for envy and rancor toward creation." When we cease being able to imagine and name this evil (whether in horror movies or serious literature or daily conversation), Delbanco argues, it will have truly gained mastery over us. This is serious cultural history, as witty and elegant as it is impassioned. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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