When I was little, I knew that demons existed.
I also believed in Robin Hood and secret societies and Father Christmas until I was 10 years old, when I sat my parents down and very seriously asked them whether or not he really did come down the chimney.
Demons, though; they were different. I knew demons existed because every Sunday I went to church where we sang about Jesus and long-skirted women waved flags and then a different man would get up and exhort us for an hour from behind a lectern – if we were lucky with shouting and fist-banging or maybe even crying. Some people didn't like it when the men shouted, but I thought it was exciting. The men all believed in demons. Nobody mentioned them much outside of those hour-long slots; certainly nobody claimed to cast any out, or suffer from an infestation. But demons were to be taken seriously, as was everything the Bible talked about. No one ever spoke about Father Christmas like they did about demons.
The devil was also mentioned, quite a lot in fact, and people did talk about him outside the sermons. The devil was responsible for most of what went wrong in the world; natural disasters, laws we didn't like getting passed, the elder who had an affair with a married woman. The devil was the one who tempted you by trailing sticky, tantalising thoughts through your brain to lead you off the path of righteousness; the one who thrust that red hot poker of rage into your ribcage so you wanted to swear at your brother; the one who trickled warm, dizzying excitement down your spine when you saw that hot actress on TV. The devil was real, personal and right up in your face, panting sizzling smoke into your lungs to get you hooked. The easiest way to get rid of him was to tell him to get lost in Jesus' name. I did a lot of that as a kid; even more as a teenager (admittedly, sometimes after a lengthy hesitation while I sampled the delicious temptations on display).
I've grown up a lot since then. I go to a different church where no one shouts and flag-waving is strictly prohibited. No one talks about the devil in this church. No one talks about demons much either, or temptation, and the 's' word is pretty much banned.
A few weeks ago, I went to the pub with my friend from church, Straight Claire. Straight Claire is the opposite of me in pretty much every way: she's a petite, blonde, hippy-shaped vegan, with two teenagers and a penchant for grey-haired men. Claire came to faith through her kids, a thirty-something Buddhist artist with a contemplative soul and a shitload of incense sticks. Straight Claire thinks almost everything I think is completely nuts, and I return the compliment. That's what makes drinking pints with her so excellent; we spend hours investigating the others' preposterous theological ideas, while I drown my incredulity with Cornish fish-gut ale and she rescues drowning flies from her vegan lager.
Straight Claire, when I first mentioned the devil in passing, literally laughed out loud and then stopped halfway through because she realised I was serious. "The devil?" she groaned. "You seriously believe in the devil?" She did a little half-hop pitchfork dance with pokey-up finger horns. "Tail, hooves, hellfire?"
I had to laugh at that. Even my hellfire-preaching fundamentalist church back home didn't believe the devil came in a red catsuit with cloven heels. But yes. Yes, the devil.
The devil's got real unpopular recently. Now society's all grown up and worked out how to use penicillin, we've got no use for myths like Satan. We know that if you practice for 10, 000 hours, you too can play like Robert Johnson, no soul-selling required. Even the church ducks its head apologetically at his mention, and mutters about medieval symbols and ancient cultural superstitions and the language of divine accommodation.
I've got no problem with divine accommodation: the idea that God communicates with us through the Bible as an adult to a small child, using simplistic concepts to communicate complex realities. I don't read the Bible literally; I'm with Calvin on this (if nothing else).
What fascinates me is that even though we acknowledge that spiritual reality is complex, far beyond our finite human comprehension, even though we read Biblical texts aware of their mythological purpose and the necessity of invoking simple imagery to give readers a handle on an incomprehensible spiritual dimension, we then stretch and say, "But obviously all that devil stuff was back then for those ignorant human societies. Now we've got combustion engines and can split the atom, we know the devil was just a metaphor for forces beyond human control." As if, now we can describe precisely what it looks like at a cellular level when cancer swarms your body and eats it alive from the inside, we have got a handle on all the perennial metaphysical agony humanity has wrestled with for years.
I don't know if the devil is real, in the sense of a dancing pitchforked hysterical twisted angel, screwing up every bit of good he can get his hooves on. I don't know if he's an impersonal force, the inevitable shadow side of creation. I do know what evil tastes like, when it brushes up against you and leaves a metallic sting of blood in your mouth. I know what it feels like to have depression suffocate you like a thick black fog of violence, so your own wrist twists the knife blade towards you against your will. I know what it feels like to slump against a brick wall, sluggish under the weight of living death, while Jesus screams in your ear, "Fight! Fight for your life!"
Does it feel better if you imagine the devil isn't real? Not really. On the days I lay shattered, twisted and cramped in the bottom of a deep, deep canyon of despair, it felt easier to see the devil dancing round me. The slurs ripping from his lips were then the cursing of hell. The blood-soaked thoughts seeping behind my eyes were the devil's work, not mine. All the violence, all the agony, all the cloud were Satan's work, the fumes of hell, not me, not my soul, not my mind. The depression was a battle to be fought, between the forces of light - me, a child of God, made in the image of Love, formed by a deliberate Creator - and the forces of darkness: something outside, external, a parasite trying to take me over. I was not the darkness. The darkness was someone else.
I don't think we've grown up much, in the past few hundred years. Sure, we can blow shit up. We can prolong the dying. We can make dazzling colours and lightning conversation and fly to the moon and back. But we don't know a damn thing more - if you'll excuse the pun - about evil. If anything, we've sanitised ourselves so much that we know less. The evil we know (here in the west) comes to us through television screens, hyped up and retold by film makers or sprayed with objectivity and recited by newsreaders. But you can't stop it. Now and again it rears its ugly head, like the parasite it is. Now and again the devil dances through our streets and leaves a hanging teenage boy or a battered child in his wake.
It strikes me as breathtakingly arrogant to assume that we have achieved such spiritual and emotional virtuosity as an entire generation that we no longer need any simple images to understand evil. That we, a nation who still drop bombs on delicate, middle-eastern villages, who stare straight in the face of terror-wracked refugee children and refuse them shelter, who spin webs of political deceit to avoid facing our mistakes, have fathomed the essence of good and evil beyond any of our predecessors. Are we really so advanced? It has the same ring of the accusation that faith in God is a crutch. Well sure; you're the one still stumbling around with your twisted kneecaps. At least I know I'm limping.
I'm not smart enough to know whether the devil really exists. I'm not wise enough to know what spiritual 'existence' even really means. But I know that the best way to fight against the sick evil that invades our world, that shatters children's skulls and rapes pregnant women and snaps the necks of husbands, is to declare war against it, and fight with all our breath against it when it threatens to poison our own souls too. Or in other words: to give him a name – and then tell him to get the hell out in Jesus'.