Friday, July 22, 2011

Dragging the Monster From Under the Bed

I have never believed in guardian angels. The idea of a divine bodyguard, with the sole assignment of following me around and protecting me from bad things happening, is a superstition belonging to middle-aged women with fluffy hair and a collection of Precious Moments figurines. It's unrelated to Biblical descriptions of angels, and it doesn't play out convincingly, since lots of people (including me, sometimes) have horrible things happen to them. So if guardian angels exist, they are either bad at their jobs or only assigned to a few lucky jerks.

And the flip side of this is, I've always been skeptical about fallen angels, too.

"I don't like to go near that window at night," my friend said. "One time my sister looked at the window and saw a face in it. She thinks it was a demon."

Like any good fundamentalist in the early '90s, I read all of Frank Peretti's books. Most of his characters fell into two categories:

1. Smart, cool Christians who abstained from drugs, sex, yoga, and anything else that gets you instantly possessed by demons

2. Nice but dopey folks who were tricked into trying drugs, sex, or yoga, and had to be exorcised by the Christians

These were books with deadly violence, heart-pounding suspense, kidnappings, car chases, epic boss battles, and at least the mention of sex. And since they were Christian books, it was virtuous to read them! How cool.

Okay, I had bad taste in books (I picked up Peretti after running through all 200 or so Hardy Boys Casefiles novels, and I was looking for more cheap thrills and explosions), but I wasn't stupid or paranoid. Sudden, physical possession of unassuming citizens by the eternal forces of darkness didn't seem likely.

According to the anecdotes spread in pop evangelical circles those things did happen, but I hadn't seen or heard anything to back it up, and I didn't see much in the Bible about it: some people got healed of possession, but Jesus and Paul didn't say much about demons and didn't leave any advice on avoiding getting possessed, so apparently early Church leaders and God himself didn't have it high on their list of priorities.

But it was high on a lot of Christians' priorities. At church, my mother was advised: Don't ever say out loud anything that you are afraid of. Demons will hear you and make it happen. Some of the people around me at Grace were demon-obsessed, talking about being under spiritual attack by the Devil when something didn't go their way or they'd had a week feeling down in the dumps. According to them, demons were lurking everywhere, watching and listening and waiting for our faith to slip or for us to make a bad moral decision. Once we did that, the demons would move in on us.

How is this useful, I wondered? Is God really awesome because God is strong enough to save us from monsters? That's a mercenery reason to worship somebody. How healthy is it for kids to be afraid to go asleep at night because if they stop praying, the demons will grab them? It was misdirected attention and misdirected energy. It was life and thought and belief that was oriented toward the negative, the not-God.

I heard about the dangers of skepticism. "You have to take them seriously," the warning went, "or they'll exploit your lack of belief. You won't have any defenses against them." But if demons were picking people off every day, even the liberal secular democrat news media would have started reporting on it. Okay, there was a ready response to that: demons only bothered with Christians like us, because we were more valuable to them.

All this was during the commercial peak of the New Age movement in the late '80s and early '90s. That movement, I learned, was an attack by Satan on a world that had let its guard drop. Crystals, meditation, and anything that smacked of the Far East was, I was taught, an open door to my mind and body with a big flashing neon sign overhead saying "DEMONS WELCOME." (Incidentally, organic food and recycling were also taboo. They were all part of nature-goddess worship.)

Now I'm a college graduate with a little knowledge in a lot of areas. I know that pop Christian demonology evolved from pagan religions, Medieval stortytellers, and less-than-orthodox Jewish mysticism. I know that the authors of the Bible meant a lot of different things when they wrote about demons, including mental illnesses, oppressive social powers, and debilitating physical diseases. Now that I know it's actually more Christian, not less, to ignore demonology, I can feel smug for disbelieving Frank Peretti back when it wasn't cool to do so.

For the sake of full disclosure, I once had a frightening experience while shopping in Boone, North Carolina, during a family vacation. There was a gift shop on the main street with New Age kitsch: Baoding balls, quartz bear fetish pendants on leather cords, books on guardian angels. I browsed for a little while, and then felt suddenly sure that someone was standing behind me, glaring at me. The feeling grew until I was terrified, and I ran out of the store. The feeling stopped as soon as I was on the sidewalk. It was similar to a feeling I had ten years later, walking home from work late at night, when a drunk man came staggering out of the Rite Aid and walked parallel to me, sometimes veering closer and closer. Finally, just a few yards away, he turned and walked directly toward me. I screamed, and he turned and staggered away.

This really ticks me off. I refuse to believe that a New Age shop was inhabited by a healing-crystal-dwelling-demon, awaiting an easy mark for possession and using all of its demonic scare-energy to get the God-indwelled Christian out of its territory. There are psychological reasons that it was something other than demons, and there are certainly theological reasons that it wasn't demons, but mostly I think it wasn't demons because that would be too lame for words. Maybe it was nerves, or a hallucination, or a poltergeist or demiurge that got lost in our dimension of reality. I don't really believe in nerves or poltergeists either, and I've never had a hallucination that I'm aware of, so I choose to remain a skeptic and say that whatever it was, I'm pretty sure what it wasn't.

It's annoying that this experience-- shared by my equally-skeptical mother, who popped out of the store a moment later and said, "Were you in there? I don't know what's going on, but I couldn't stay in there one more second!"-- fits so neatly into a worldview that I think is screwy, a view of the world from upside-down, where there are bad guys lurking behind every door and under every bed, and God is the dull but trustworthy superhero who dutifully defends the everyday citizens of the world.

See, that's not my God. Nobody likes Cyclops best. My God is surprising and creative and achingly beautiful, and doesn't need to be the only alternative to demon possession in order to hold my interest.

1 comment:

  1. Totally with you hear. Right down to reading Peretti's books in the early nineties. Did you ever read his childrens archaeology adventure books? They were supposed to be like Indiana Jones and of course taught "Christian" principles. They were lame as hell.