The Devil: A New Biography

Posted 11 December, 2014 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

The Devil: A New BiographyThe Devil by Philip C. Almond
Published by Cornell University Press on August 5th 2014
Genres: Angelology & Demonology, Christian Church, Christian Theology, Civilization, History, Judaism, Religion, Theology
Pages: 288
Goodreads
three-half-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

"Although the Devil still 'lives' in modern popular culture, for the past 250 years he has become marginal to the dominant concerns of Western intellectual thought. That life could not be thought or imagined without him, that he was a part of the everyday, continually present in nature and history, and active at the depths of our selves, has been all but forgotten. It is the aim of this work to bring modern readers to a deeper appreciation of how, from the early centuries of the Christian period through to the recent beginnings of the modern world, the human story could not be told and human life could not be lived apart from the ‘life’ of the Devil. With that comes the deeper recognition that, for the better part of the last two thousand years, the battle between good and evil in the hearts and minds of men and women was but the reflection of a cosmic battle between God and Satan, the divine and the diabolic, that was at the heart of history itself."—from The Devil Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub; Ha-Satan or the Adversary; Iblis or Shaitan: no matter what name he travels under, the Devil has throughout the ages and across civilizations been a compelling and charismatic presence. In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the supposed reign of God has long been challenged by the fiery malice of his opponent, as contending forces of good and evil have between them weighed human souls in the balance. In The Devil, Philip C. Almond explores the figure of evil incarnate from the first centuries of the Christian era. Along the way, he describes the rise of demonology as an intellectual and theological pursuit, the persecution as witches of women believed to consort with the Devil and his minions, and the decline in the belief in Hell and in angels and demons as corporeal beings as a result of the Enlightenment. Almond shows that the Prince of Darkness remains an irresistible subject in history, religion, art, literature, and culture. Almond brilliantly locates the “life” of the Devil within the broader Christian story of which it is inextricably a part; the “demonic paradox” of the Devil as both God’s enforcer and his enemy is at the heart of Christianity. Woven throughout the account of the Christian history of the Devil is another complex and complicated history: that of the idea of the Devil in Western thought. Sorcery, witchcraft, possession, even melancholy, have all been laid at the Devil’s doorstep. Until the Enlightenment enforced a “disenchantment” with the old archetypes, even rational figures such as Thomas Aquinas were obsessed with the nature of the Devil and the specific characteristics of the orders of demons and angels. It was a significant moment both in the history of demonology and in theology when Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677) denied the Devil’s existence; almost four hundred years later, popular fascination with the idea of the Devil has not yet dimmed.

Fascinating subject matter and quite festive for the season. Don’t you think? 

Anyway, a more apt name for the book might have been The Devil: A New History, but from a marketing perspective I definitely see why ‘biography’ would be more compelling. Regardless, although the book is only 270 pages it packs a lot of punch into a small space. It is an academic book published by an academic press, but I wouldn’t call it inaccessible, though it might make a good textbook for some esoteric liberal arts subject.

Indeed, while not quite inaccessible and not quite compelling, Almond’s book is definitely interesting and is well researched. I found particularly fascinating the differing Christian views on various aspects of demons and demonology, especially up through the middle ages. To me it reflected a deeper (and honestly, today more important) issue of how Biblical canon was developed. What the church ended up accepting about demonology, the devil, and witches by the end of the Salem Witch trials (which is sadly, where the history in this book ends) was a result of differing schools of thought within the church, the accepted views eventually to be remembered (and then forgotten) while the other views fade back into the miasma of superstition and scholarly works. (For my point on Biblical canon see: apocryphal gospels.)

Recommended for people interested in a non-fiction look at the development of the devil, demonology, and witches from late Judaism through Christianity during the Salem Witch Trials. 

What do you think, Reader? Do you have a penchant for weird (and sometimes weirdly grotesque) histories? What odd subject would you like to read on? 

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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