Credible Threats (Lent 9)

Credible Threats (Lent 9)

It was easier to believe in Satan than in God. We were cautioned against disregarding the devil—his greatest trick, etc., etc.—and I was perhaps over-vigilant about keeping him in mind. Not that I intended to think of him at all. It felt almost like a curse, like he wouldn’t leave me alone. When I opened my eyes at night I expected to find him standing next to my bed. When I walked out of the bathroom after brushing my teeth, I expected to find him outside the door, waiting to carry me off to hell. I imagined him not with a spiked tail and horns, but as an ordinary man with a leering Cheshire Cat grin. I would know he was the devil because he would be waiting for me someplace he shouldn’t be (my bunk at camp, the closet in my bedroom), looking at me with the dark pleasure of someone who’s just said check and mate.

Fear hove up around me as I lay in bed, and I’d try to tamp it down by reading the Bible. My grandmother had picked out a few especially comforting passages for me. The danger was that opening the Bible accidentally to the wrong page—seeing one of the terrifying passages in Revelations, a dream of Daniel’s—would make things worse. And even if I got straight to, say, Psalm 23, every line that assured me that God was on my side also reminded me that the dangers I feared were real. 

Satan was everywhere in those days–supposedly Satanic cults were running nursery schools to groom children for sacrifices, metal bands were openly embracing devil worship. The news was chock-a-block with serial killers, the theaters filled with horror movies. I felt porous to all this fear—a glimpse of an ad for a scary movie as I passed through a room where my parents were watching TV could sink me into a kind of misery I can’t describe except to say that I spent years of my childhood convinced that I would be murdered. It was just a matter of where and when. I was on the lookout everywhere. And since Satan was involved, there was little I could do to stop it, and no place it couldn’t find me. I imagined knife blades spinning out of cracks in the wall, severed hands grabbing me by the ankles, dead-eyed babies sucking my soul out of my mouth. All I could to to save myself was hold the Bible up as a kind of shield, hoping it would buy me a little more time and a less terrifying death when it came.

If my short experience as a Creationist had long after-effects (mostly intellectual, mostly valuable), my longer experience of this satanic fear had an even more durable, visceral, and damaging legacy—one that well outlasted my belief in God. I was intermittently afraid of being alone the dark until I was in graduate school. On solo backpacking trips I’d every night lying awake in my tent wondering whether it would be better or worse to see my murderer’s face before he hacked me to death. I couldn’t talk sense into myself. I was a grown man lying in the woods in the pitch black dark miles from anyone at all, yet certain that some possessed psychopath would happen upon me out there in the wilderness at just the very moment he had an urge to kill.

It was an egotistical fear, to be sure: why would I be the one singled out for dismemberment? Why should evil descend on me, leaving everyone around me unscathed? But it was the dark mirror of the belief I grew up with, that Jesus took a personal, intimate interest in everything about us, was with us at every moment, there to comfort us in any difficulty.

There were times I wondered whether in order to get rid of my fear I had also to get rid of my faith.

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