Satan as a Functional Theodicy, Interlude: Satan and Drive-Through Spiritual Formation

This particular post doesn't really fit with my overall theme of Satan and theodicy but, since we are talking about how Satan functions in contemporary Christianity, I thought this post might fit in.

A few years ago the sociologist Michael W. Cuneo published an interesting book called American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. The book is flawed (the sociological analysis is not as rigorous as I'd want) but the book is a good read and presents an interesting analysis/thesis.

In the book Cuneo documents the rise of demon possession and deliverance ministries (i.e., exorcism) in American suburban mainline churches from the 1970s to the present. I myself have noticed this trend over the last 30 years. In the Churches of Christ I've not seen any direct possession or deliverance situations, but I have noticed a rise in demon-centric formulations of spiritual issues. That is, I've seen more and more church folk move from diffuse formulations of being "tempted" by, let's say, lust to being more specifically "afflicted" by a "demon of lust." I've also seen a rise in prayer formulations where "hedges of angels" are prayed for to protect persons from Satanic or demonic attack. In my church life I saw all this emerge in the 80s with a surge of concern I had not witnessed before regarding things like Satanic cults, Halloween, and Rock and Roll (e.g., Kiss and AC/DC). I recall Frank E. Peretti's book This Present Darkness capturing this zeitgeist in the mid-80s. This Present Darkness transfixed the ACU student body in the late 80s and early 90s. Its demon-afllicted vision dominated the spiritual conversation back then.

Cuneo's book is interesting in that part of his research involved sitting in and witnessing many contemporary exorcisms as practiced in various churches and deliverance ministries. After analyzing these ministries Cuneo offers his thesis regarding the rise of this phenomena.

Basically, Cuneo suggests that the demon-centric or, more mildly, warfare-centric perspective (that spiritual life is largely about battling demonic influences) is a kind of McDonaldification of spiritual formation in contemporary Christianity. That is, Cuneo suggests that suburban Christian America, with its malls and fast food joints, was looking to hit on a way to get quick spiritual fixes for complex spiritual issues. If these fixes could also attenuate moral responsibility so much the better. And Cuneo suggests that pop Christian culture stepped in and created just the fix: A demon-centric vision of spiritual formation. To quote Cuneo: "Personal engineering through demon expulsion: a bit messy perhaps, but relatively fast and cheap, and morally exculpatory. A thoroughly American arrangement."

Let's say I do struggle with lust. With a deflationary view of demons my spiritual struggle with lust is difficult. I must bear the full burden of the blame as well as travel a long difficult road toward holiness. By contrast, in the deliverance demon-centric model where I've been "attacked" and "afflicted" by malevolent spiritual forces I get to reap a couple of benefits.

First, I'm a victim in this scenario. And this reduces my moral culpability. It definately shifts the moral nexus off me and into the spiritual realm.

Second, given that I'm "afflicted" the main intervention is a prayer of deliverance, a prayer to bind the satanic forces that harass me. Well, that seems easy enough. Just say a heartfelt prayer to bind Satan and that problem of lust should be taken care of. As Cuneo suggests, this approach to spiritual formation appears to be a morally exculpatory quick fix. The McDonaldification of spiritual formation.

In recent years, Cuneo notes a decline in this perspective. He charts the disillusionment of many churches who started deliverance ministries. And the disillusionment has everything to do with spiritual formation: Deliverance ministries were not producing holy, Christ-like people. The hard work of discipleship just didn't figure into the equation.

I bring Cuneo's book up for two reasons. First, although the demon-centric models are going away, you still see it here and there in churches. I still stumble upon it with ACU students. So it is interesting to reflect on the spiritual formation implications of this perspective. Second, this series on Satan and theodicy is about how we use Satan to meet certain spiritual and psychological needs. And Cuneo's book is a case study on a different way people might use Satan to meet other needs (to reduce moral culpability and to avoid the hard work of discipleship).

Again, I'm not suggesting that demons don't exist. But I am interested in how people think about demons and how they use those beliefs to to accomplish certain psychological goals. These belief-dynamics are often unconscious and I think a little reflection on the matter is of some use. As a psychologist I tend to reflect not just on what people believe but also on how they believe. For sometimes the how can be more self-serving than we would like to admit.

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7 thoughts on “Satan as a Functional Theodicy, Interlude: Satan and Drive-Through Spiritual Formation”

  1. I really appreciate this reference. I was totally unfamiliar with this book and study.

    I think it is so convicting to pull the veil back on our belief-dynamics (as you have stated it). I am not a psychologist but have been trained in the discipline of Marriage & Family Therapy. It has always been apparent that many of our beliefs prove to be self-serving- at least apparent to an outside observer. It is rare that one would recognize the self-serving nature of his/her own belief-dynamics. Your statements about the "what" and "how" of belief is potent!

    This is something I long to understand more completely- not only as it relates to my personal spiritual outlook, but especially as it applies to the discipline of biblical interpretation.

  2. I'm not the man for the job, but I'd like to hear how the inner/exterior locus of control figures into guilt/shame/culpability.

    Part of my sociological studies of African cultures was to think about how to communicate within a society with a strong external locus of control. For example, a person does not break a bicycle. The bicycle becomes broken through some exterior physical or spiritual force. In that instance, it is ridiculous to get upset at your friend for breaking your bicycle, because he didn't *actually* break it. Something else did.

    In this situation you describe, it seems like it helps us take sin out of the realm of the personal/internal life, and makes it some sort of external force that works upon us.

    Of course, I may have just repeated things you've already said, but I think it's worth fleshing out a bit more.

  3. Jason,
    I'm with you, I find the motive behind religious belief and behavior fascinating to study. It can be demoralizing what we find, but I think self-reflection and honesty is the only path toward authenticity.

    I think you are right that external loci of control tend to attenuate personal responsibility. But, conversely, an overly robust internal locus of control can lead to taking blame/responsibility for too much, things outside your control. I think a healthy balance is needed.

  4. Dr. Beck,

    Intriguing as always.... I'm curious if Cuneo longitudinally followed any individual who had a dramatic "deliverance" and "stuck to it" in some fashion. I could see the "what" of this person's belief system looking very similiar to a main stream religious group, but the how becoming something very different, such as an external focused compassion for others who are afflicted as opposed to an internal focus of "the devil made me do it." Perhaps an interesting thing to study would be how a person's use of the devil relates to such actions as giving, compassion, tolerance for sin and sinners, etc....the fruits of such a belief system are fascinating. Thanks for encouraging thought!

  5. It's interesting to think of THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS here. That concerned demon affliction. But the demons in the world of that book worked differently. One doesn't handle them via a quick-fix exorcism. Rather, through hard-work-spiritual-formation, one can make them lose their power over you. I guess it depends on how the demons work. In some ways, the SCREWTAPE demons work a lot like dark forces buried in one's own psychology. Those who think of their "demons" as a deflationary way -- as being just such forces -- can still identify with the book. And it teaches this lesson: Even if "demons" are just such forces, they are in various ways devious: It's can be helpful in some ways to personify them in one's thoughts. Or so I find.

  6. Keith,
    You've scooped me! Seriously, I'm going to end up with a position very close to your comments: Regardless of ontology, anthropomorphizing evil may help us to more effectively confront our moral vulnerabilities and tempations.

  7. Jared,
    I'd say that strong notions of satan are orthogonal to moral maturity. Some people may be using satan to escape moral blame. But I also know lots of people who strongly believe in satan who are also some of the best people I know.

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