I’m reading an unpublished novel. It is historical fiction set in the 1950s or 60s in the first all English language Russian Orthodox Church in America. It is a story full of intrigues and dark spiritual forces working through evil men who want to manipulate the Orthodox Church to serve their personal thirst for authority and wealth. The main character of the story is a hard-working, godly and humble priest who has risked everything to get this all English language Church off the ground and running. However, once running and very successful, “St. Vladimir’s” becomes the target of greedy men, clergy, who want to suck up the wealth and prestige of the community to satisfy their greed and further their personal ambition. I am only half way through, which is further than I get through most pre-publication novels I review. I may even finish it.
However, something bothers me. Although the novel is well written and is set in an interesting Orthodox Church world, it still somehow boils down to a good guy versus bad guy story in which the bad guys are demonized (both literally and metaphorically). This bothers me. It bothers me because, in my experience, the real demon is not out there in someone else, but it is experienced in me as the desire to see the demon out there in someone else. That is, the devil (diabolos, literally, the one who throws or accuses) at work to destroy the Church is found not so much in the weaknesses of the clergy or the laity but in the accusations they throw at one another.
Much of what is wrong with the Church and the world, I think, has less to do with the devil than it has to do with human weakness and immaturity. People–and I chief among them–are lazy, confused, fearful, lustful, and generally mostly just watching out for Number One. No wonder churches flounder and institutions of all kinds ferment corruption. We are screwing things up pretty well on our own, we don’t need much help from the devil.
But the devil does help, but not in ways we usually suspect. Frank Peretti’s novels (This Present Darkness, etc.) in many ways typify how we suspect the devil and the demons work in this world: pretty much the way we would if we had their abilities and limitations (as the novels imagine them) and wanted to manipulate others. The demonic, as it is commonly imagined, is organized like a human army that is out there attacking true believers and true faith. We fight those demons by praying “hard” against them and resisting the demons’ human accomplices–who also happen to be our enemies. I think this scenario is terribly flawed, even demonically flawed.
Jesus told us to love our enemies and to pray for (not against) those who despitefully use us. Yes, St. Peter tells us to resist the devil (1Peter 5:9), but the context makes it pretty clear that resisting the devil means to suffer with patience, to remain sober and vigilant in prayer and to humble oneself, “casting all of your care upon [God] for He cares for you.” We resist the devil by casting our cares upon God, not casting accusations agains one another.
And this brings me back to this novel I am reading. The main character is so far doing an excellent job casting his cares upon God and not accusing others, but his companions are not doing so well. The narrator keeps telling the reader of the almost monolithic evil of some of the characters, encouraging the reader to see them bad guys only, as one dimensional, demonized villains who must be resisted by “hard” prayer and intrigues as deceitful as their own that are plotted by secondary characters (on the good guy’s side). I guess the lesson is supposed to be that deceit isn’t a bad thing when the good guys deceive.
Certainly Church life is messy. All of life is messy. But the devil’s work in the Church probably has almost nothing to do with clear good guys and bad guys and almost everything to do with encouraging us to think there are, thus through accusation becoming like him (like it?). The devil is an accuser and a liar; and in as much as we also accuse others and practice deceit–even for a good cause–we may find that we are acting much more like the devil than that other person on whom we’ve focused our accusation.