Her Story: Does Satan really exist? Many United Methodists see evil as more subtle.

After spending much of my full time ministry life in the United Methodist Church, I found this article very interesting. It's written by Mary Jacobs and she nails the fact that most UMCers are scared to death to mention the "S" word (Satan) or the "D" word (Devil).

Jesus stood up to him. Plenty of Christians talk about him. And some blame all sorts of evil on him. But likely you won’t hear his name tossed around much in a United Methodist Church.

Could it be... Satan?

“For the most part, you don’t hear mainline Protestants talking about Satan, the devil or the demonic,” said Jaime Clark-Soles, associate professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology. “I think we’ve handed that kind of language over to the fundamentalists.”

Though Methodism founder John Wesley talked about Satan in his sermons, the United Methodist Church has no official doctrine on the devil or the demonic. Few Methodist ministers in the U.S., it seems, preach about Satan as a personal being active in the world today.

While Satan turns up frequently in Scripture, the notion of Satan and demons “certainly plays a larger part in the biblical context than we give it in our context,” said Douglas Wingeier, a retired United Methodist pastor and author of What About the Devil? A Study of Satan in the Bible and Christian Tradition (Abingdon Press, 2006).

Many United Methodists, for instance, gasped during the 2008 General Conference when an African delegate on the floor argued that homosexuality was “of the devil.”

It wasn’t just his position on homosexuality that drew the offended gasps, says Jerry Walls, who taught philosophy of religion for 21 years at Asbury Theological Seminary. Adding the devil to the conversation made it a “double offense” in the minds of some delegates.

“Bringing up the supernatural reality of Satan is enough to make a typical United Methodist go into conniptions,” he said.

And not only do Methodists avoid talking about he-who-must-not-be-named. They don’t sing about him either.

C. Michael Hawn, professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology, says United Methodist churches are prone to lop off the last few stanzas of Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” to protect unsuspecting worshippers from having to sing the third stanza, with its references to “this world, with devils filled” and “the Prince of Darkness grim.”

“Most of the discussions of evil in mainline Anglo churches,” said Dr. Hawn, “are not anthropomorphic in nature—references to a physical being called Satan or the Devil—but theological or much more general.

“Regretfully, many United Methodists don’t even want to discuss sin, let alone the devil.”

So why all this “denial” about the devil?

First, many Methodists have a disdain for all things fire-and-brimstone (too “Baptist-y,” jokes Dr. Clark-Soles, who is an ordained moderate Baptist clergyperson). Some seek to distance themselves from caricatures of uptight Christians (think Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” character on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, who blamed Satan for any behavior she deemed immoral.)

Then there’s the question of blame. Nobody likes the possibility that talk of Satan can turn into a convenient excuse, leaving the idea that “the devil made me do it.”

Many feel “it’s a copout to blame evil—particularly evil that can be attributed to human causes—to a supernatural power,” said Mr. Wingeier, “[and believe instead] that we should take responsibility ourselves.”

At the heart of one’s view of the devil is the question of how to interpret and apply ancient Scripture in modern life. Most mainline Protestants don’t take Scripture literally, and so are reluctant to embrace the idea of Satan as a personal being, says Susan Garrett, professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

“This is part of a trend that dates back to the modernist era and the beginning of the 20th century, when there was a move away from the supernatural and toward a natural explanation of things,” said Dr. Garrett. “With that came a move away from talking about the devil.”

A significant number of Americans, however, do believe that Satan is very real. A 2007 Harris Poll showed that 62 percent of Americans believe in the devil. Among born-again Christians, that figure jumped to 92 percent, compared to 79 percent of Protestants and 73 percent of Catholics. (The numbers correlate closely, incidentally, with the percentages of people in each category who believe in Hell and the Virgin Birth.)

Among Christians in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the notion of Satan as a personal being is also prevalent.

Stephen Seamands, a professor of Christian doctrine at Asbury Theological Seminary, noted that the African delegate’s reference to “the devil” was likely calling on common vernacular, rather than an intentional attempt to demonize homosexuals. Dr. Seamands recalled a doctoral student from Korea who liked to say, “The only Christians who don’t believe in demons are Western scholars.”

Most Methodists tend to fall somewhere in the middle of a spectrum that ranges from viewing Satan as a simply a literary device—the personification of evil—to seeing Satan as a separate, distinct being and the cause of all evil, according to Rev. Andrew Tevington, associate pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Like many seminary-trained Protestant pastors, Mr. Tevington falls toward the metaphorical end of the spectrum.

“I have a problem with understanding Satan as a separate individual, because ascribing powers to that individual makes it seem to be a separate god,” he said. “I believe Satan is really more of an analogy concerning evil than a separate cause of evil.”

Yet belief in Satan as an individual—not just an impersonal force—follows orthodox Christian tradition, argues Dr. Seamands, also an ordained United Methodist clergy.

“The early church took this whole realm of angels and demons very seriously,” Dr. Seamands said. Early baptism rites required believers to “renounce Satan and all his works,” in contrast to contemporary United Methodist rites, which ask new believers to reject “all the forces of wickedness.”

People’s beliefs about Satan are likely influenced by cultural factors, says Dr. Clark-Soles.

In the class she teaches at Perkins, “Evil, Suffering and Death in the New Testament” (earning her the nickname “Dr. Evil”), Dr. Clark-Soles says she has met many African-American students “who are quite comfortable talking about the devil,” including students from United Methodist and A.M.E. traditions.

Nobody would challenge a reference to “Satan” at St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation in Dallas, says senior pastor the Rev. Tyrone Gordon.

“When I talk about God, I don’t just say ‘goodness,’” he said. “When I talk about evil, I talk about the evil one, Satan. I believe there’s a power opposed to God’s will and God’s purpose on earth and to me, that’s Satan, the adversary.”

That kind of language is not so foreign to postmodern thinkers, especially younger adults, according to Dr. Seamands. Among the students who take his “Spiritual Warfare” course at Asbury, he says, “there’s an openness to mystery and things that are beyond the purely rational.”

That postmodern influence may be opening up the conversation around Satan, too. Mr. Tevington says that in his pastoral experience, he sees “a growing group of Methodists who see Satan more in terms of the book of Revelation, which depicts Satan as a real individual who does real battle for the souls of people.”

The idea is making its way back into moderate, mainline Christian conversation, as some Christian scholars are rethinking Satan in terms of sinful webs and structures, such as destructive governments and immoral companies. United Methodist seminarians often turn to Walter Wink, a theologian whose writings offer a supernatural, but non-personal understanding of Satan.

“He suggests that in institutions made up of people that go home and pet their dogs and hug their kids, there can emerge a kind of evil that is greater than the sum of the parts,” said Mr. Wingeier.

And institutional evil can include churches too, Dr. Clark-Soles said.

“We all know churches that are demonized, that chew up pastors and spit them out,” she said. “Wink is helping moderate-liberals reclaim the biblical language of powers and principalities, language usually associated with very conservative Christians.”

Similarly, Dr. Garrett says modern scholars are beginning to see that in the strictly rational approach, “there was a false notion, that we could somehow have a complete story of salvation without any adversary.”

“If you ax out all the parts about evil or Satan or demons from the New Testament, the story of Jesus doesn’t make sense, because it’s not clear what he’s redeeming us from,” she said.

“When we give up that language, we give up what we have to offer.”

At the root of how Methodists view Satan, says Dr. Walls, is the question, “Is evil real or do bad things just happen?”

Some may “think of the demonic in psychological terms, de-mythologize it, leave it at the level of human choices,” he said. “I think we are on dangerous ground when we don’t take evil seriously.”

“I don’t see why we’re perfectly happy talking about God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit moving in our lives, but then feel so weird talking about Satan,” said Dr. Clark-Soles. “The realities of evil are still there. Not talking about it just makes our abilities to articulate and engage those realities more difficult.”

Dr. Seamands wants Methodists to heed C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, which described two “errors” in dealing with Satan: not to believe in the devil at all, or to over-believe, giving the devil more than his due.

“The idea is not to fear Satan in an unhealthy way, but to know and respect your enemy,” he said.

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