History’s Greatest Monster: Antiochus Epiphanes and the Devil

In my talk over the devil at Shimer College, I insisted that the figure of the devil that emerged out of Jewish apocalyptic thinking and had such a distinguished career in Christian theology had to be distinguished from the generic “trickster” figure that is found in many different mythological traditions. One of my colleagues later asked me when this distinctive devil figure emerged, and I had a ready answer: “When Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the Temple.” That was the moment that the “prophetic paradigm” that explains world-historical events as either punishing or restoring Israel broke down. Antiochus was simply too evil to be God’s unwitting servant on the model of Nebuchadnezzar — and perhaps more importantly, the people were being too faithful (as witnessed by the martyrs) for his persecution to make sense as a purification.

Politically, this led to the Maccabean insurgency and the subsequent repeated waves of Jewish militancy that really only ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Theologically, we can see the Book of Daniel as an attempt to expand the old schema in a way that can make sense of Antiochus’s gratuitous evil as part of God’s plan — and it seems that the only way that is possible is by making Antiochus’s qualitatively different evil the last step before God’s qualitatively different apocalyptic intervention, symbolized by the resurrection of the dead. Paradoxically, then, when the earthly ruler becomes intolerably evil, his status is somehow “promoted.” He is no longer simply God’s unwitting pawn, he is God’s adversary — and yet still somehow his servant insofar as he has a role to play in the divine plan.

This is the political-theological background of the Gospels, where the devil is straightforwardly portrayed as the ruler of this present world. Thus we can perhaps read the insistent reference to Isaiah’s “voice calling in the wilderness” in all four canonical Gospels — a passage that in its original context refers to the Persian emperor Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to Palestine and will finance the rebuilding of the Temple, as God’s annointed servant — as staging a kind of polemic with the old prophetic paradigm. Things are too fargone for a new political settlement or a new benevolent emperor to be satisfying. Something else, something qualitatively different, is demanded.

In the end, though, that demand could not be sustained, and Christianity tried to recuperate the prophetic stance, turning the Anti-Christ into the Katechon. This is the constrained space within which Schmittian political theology moves.

Text of my devil lecture

Yesterday, I delivered a lecture at Shimer College entitled “A Brief History of the Devil,” and the text of my talk is available in PDF form here. The talk is aimed at an undergraduate level, and so I did not include much theoretical or scholarly discussion. You can get a sense of how I see these ideas relating to the discipline of political theology, however, if you keep in mind that this recent post was written while I was drafting the lecture.

“A Brief History of the Devil”: Lecture at Shimer College

On Wednesday, October 30, at 3:15, I will be giving a lecture a Shimer College entitled “A Brief History of the Devil.” It will be a partial sneak preview of my long-promised project on the devil, providing what one early reader of the text for the lecture calls “a really good reckless dash through the history of devil thought.”

Shimer College is located at 3424 S. State St. in Chicago, blocks away from the 35th St. Green and Red Line stops. The lecture is in the Cinderella lounge on the second floor of our building. Feel free to e-mail me at a.kotsko at shimer dot edu for further details. It is rumored that drinks at Maria’s Community Bar in Bridgeport, along with fortification from the Pleasant House Library, may follow this event.

The Devil: Made for TV?

The last decade has witnessed an explosion in supernatural themes, in novels, movies, and television. Vampires and zombies have been particularly successful, but few mythological creatures have been left totally unexplored. That’s why the absence of the devil from our entertainment landscape is so striking. There are lingering rumors of some kind of Exorcist remake, but that doesn’t really have much hope of being a long-lasting TV franchise. Thankfully, I’m here to help.

Basically, someone needs to make a show where the devil and his legions of demons have decided, like the vampires of True Blood, to make themselves known to the general public. Their primary ambition in “mainstreaming” would be to institutionalize the act of selling one’s soul, and they could also run a sideline of short-term demon possessions for various purposes, perhaps to be able to get away with a crime — this could be run by “rogue” demons. The main characters would be a demonic middle manager and his minions, and through various plot contrivances we could get a peak at higher levels in the satanic hierarchy. Subplots would include following the lives of people who’d sold their souls, plus watching short-term possessions play out. The rogue demons offering possessions could be pursued by a kind of demon police. Surely there are thirteen decent episodes in this premise.

This show would be the logical outgrowth of the sociopath trend and could potentially be the step too far that killed it — asking us to identify and sympathize with figures who are destroying human souls by means of debt.

The Prince of This World: Thinking the Devil in Light of Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory

[This paper was presented on Sunday, November 18, 2012, at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, under the auspices of the Theology and Continental Philosophy and Theology and Religious Reflection groups.]

The reader of the first three volumes of Agamben’s Homo Sacer series—the eponymous first volume, State of Exception, and Remnants of Auschwitz—could be forgiven for being skeptical. Though Agamben’s meditations on the question of sovereignty had an immediate purchase during the dark days of the Bush Administration, it could sometimes seem that he was guilty of stretching the concepts of the sovereign exception and bare life to the breaking point, forcing them to take on an explanatory burden they could not really bear. One could concede that when pushed to a certain extreme, the Western theologico-political machine breaks down into the confrontation of sovereign power and bare life, and perhaps even that the Western machine operates within the tension between the two—yet there is so much going on in that “between” that it seems impossible that it can all be accounted for in Agamben’s terms.

From this perspective, The Kingdom and the Glory represents a crucial turning point in Agamben’s project, deepening his account of Western theologico-political structures by beginning to work out how the logic of sovereignty is deployed and transformed in order to penetrate the fine-grained textures of everyday life. In place of the easily delimitable “state of exception” where the sovereign suspends the law in order to save it, we are directed toward the workaday realities of flexible management.

Though it is perhaps surprising that he derives this logic from the Christian theological tradition, it appears in retrospect that many of his key points were more or less hiding in plain sight. Read the rest of this entry »

Sunday’s sermon: “Good News to Those Whom the Church Has Hurt”

The following is my draft of this Sunday’s sermon, the sixth Sunday of Easter, at Zion “Goshert’s” United Church of Christ, where I am Pastor.  There is no mention of Memorial Day but the subject of grieving is one of the threads at work here.  (We have a Memorial service in our cemetery early Sunday morning, which keeps the civic celebration separate from the Sabbath celebration.)  The scripture I am drawing from primarily is John 14:15-21, Jesus’ last speech before the ascension, and Psalm 66 and 1 Peter 3:13-22 will also be read.  Among the hymns will be “Abide with Me,” which is one of the great hymns.

The main theological shift here is that Jesus’ promise to abide with his disciples, which shifts tribulation and rapture eschatologies, takes on new meaning, at least for me, if one considers John’s audience when this Gospel discourse was written.  The promise is one made to outcasts. Read the rest of this entry »

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Advice thread: The Devil

Dearest readers, as I’ve often mentioned here, my next major project is going to be on the devil. My tentative title is The Prince of This World: The Devil as a Political Symbol, and I plan to flesh out the subthread of Politics of Redemption on the devil, both by adding more figures and by extending it into the early modern period — I figure Milton is a good place to end. I’m also intending to limit it to the devil in the Christian tradition, though perhaps I’ll need to extend it to other monotheistic traditions as well.

I’d like to get started on some preliminary research this summer, and so I thought I would see if any readers know of good primary or secondary sources on the devil or closely-related topics. I intend to have maybe one brief chapter on the devil in the Bible, but my main concern is with the devil in the patristic, medieval (probably mostly Western, though we’ll see how that goes), and early modern periods. Again, either primary texts (i.e., references to where major figures discuss the devil in detail or use devil-centric rhetoric) or good secondary texts (just assume that I’ve heard of Girard here). Secondary texts on the devil in Judaism and Islam would be helpful as well.

Thanks in advance for your help.

The Incarnation as God’s Leap of Faith

At perhaps the pivotal moment in the Church Dogmatics IV/1, Barth poses the question Cur Deus homo? He discusses the incarnation and what it meant for God “to deny the immutability of His being, His divine nature, to be in discontinuity with Himself, to be against Himself, to set Himself in self-contradiction” (184). Continuing with these questions, Barth goes on to ask about the how the perfect, eternal, and omnipotent God could become limited, lowly, and impotent. Barth considers what it meant that “His becoming man, consisted in this determination of God to be “God against God” (184). Further on he writes, “God in His incarnation would not merely give Himself, but give Himself away, give up being God. And if that was His will, who can question His right to make possible this impossibility?” (184). This rift, this gap in the Godhead for Barth culminates in cry of dereliction on the cross. With fear and trembling, Barth wonders if this cry ultimately is a temptation that would encourage the notion that there is a “contradiction and conflict in God Himself” (185). Barth comes very close but ultimately rejects this idea because “God gives Himself, but He does not give Himself away” (185). Also, God is a God of peace not confusion (1 Cor 14:33). Despite the fact that God experiences this contradiction, “He acts as Lord over this contradiction even as He subjects Himself to it” (185). As Barth approaches the mystery of Christian theology, he stops short. He looks over the cliff but refuses to jump. At the very moment where he could ultimately embrace the death of the sovereign God, he pulls back. The sovereign God ultimately never left the control station even at the cross. Altizer once said that the death of God could help us finally come to terms with what the cry of dereliction actually meant for the Godhead. Radical death of God theologians seem to be the only theologians who actually take this question seriously.

Read the rest of this entry »

Lent 1: Re-Member-Ing the Dis-Member-Ed

This morning’s sermon at Zion “Goshert’s” United Church of Christ, Lebanon, PA…  The lectionary readings for today are Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11.  Today is a Communion Sunday for the congregation.

Many of us know this story from the Bible.  Shortly after being baptized, Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, fasting, and at the end of his fasting, the devil appears to him.  The devil tempts Jesus into making a magic trick, of transfiguring or changing stones to become loaves of bread.  But Jesus says no.

Then the devil took Jesus to the highest point of the temple, and said, if you are God, allow yourself to fall to safety.  And Jesus says no.

And then the devil brought Jesus to a high mountain, and there Jesus is offered all of the kingdoms of the world, if he would worship the devil.  And Jesus says no again.

What I find so interesting about this is that what the devil is actually tempting Jesus to do in all three of these cases here is something that Jesus himself later accomplishes.  Read the rest of this entry »

Devil Course Capstone Lecture

For the final session of my course Images of the Devil (syllabus here), I decided to write out a more formal lecture, somewhat on the model of a conference paper, to summarize and push forward the primary themes of the course, both to provide “closure” for the students and to spur myself toward developing a research project along these lines. The text follows, and readers who were skeptical of having group presentations will note that the presentations were, by and large, a great success — we’ll see about the final group papers.

I would like to begin by thanking you all for participating in this class. I conceived of the course as a collaborative research seminar, and I think that we have succeeded in making it that. Your presentations have contributed significantly to the course content, and discussion has generally been as good as could be expected for such a large class and an awkwardly laid-out classroom. I believe you have all benefited from each other’s work, and I have benefited as well—this course has spurred my own thinking in significant and unexpected ways.

What began as an attempt to follow up a strangely insistent sub-theme in my dissertation has moved closer toward a real research agenda, driven not only by the need to more clearly formulate my ideas for lectures and discussion, but also by your presentations and miscellaneous remarks in class (probably most often by remarks the students in question don’t even remember making). My goal for this paper presentation is simply to lay out my initial thoughts about how I might follow up on this class in my own scholarly work—but I hope it will be helpful in spurring your thinking as well, both for your final papers and beyond.

In the syllabus, I said that the course readings “trace a course from early Christianity to modern literature, attempting to find the theological roots of the modern tendency to view the devil as a fascinating and even heroic character—most famously in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.” Though we spent a significant amount of time in the biblical, patristic, and medieval eras, the real motivating question behind this course was about the modern era, a suspicion that understanding the strange fascination that the devil exerts on us might help to illuminate something about the modern West and about its relationship to its own past.

Read the rest of this entry »

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