The Devil You Know

you don't really believe any of this

The Devil You Know

The chat around the deaths at the Travis Scott performance really puts me in mind of something that happened to me in secondary school. It was 2006, and we were coming up to the 6th of June, and a fellow student started telling me about how at midnight, Satan and his hordes would be allowed 6 hours to cause mayhem across the planet. I asked: hey, are you a Christian? He said no. Do you believe in God? He said, not really. I said, who do you think Satan is? He said oh, I just heard all that from my brother. Then he changed the topic.

I wasn't trying to be clever[1] or (ha) holier-than-thou. I just thought, as a young, somewhat literal-minded Christian that belief in the Christian Devil[2] tends to indicate a concomitant belief in the Christian God, and I'm not sure how true that can be of many of the people saying that Travis Scott is doing human sacrifice or whatever. It does, though, illustrate to me something about the current nature of religious belief.

A while ago, I came up with "background radiation Christianity" to describe the way that a lot of people in the UK have ambient exposure to Christianity: births, weddings, deaths—and probably more important than any of these, school assemblies. From this they construct a sketchy version of doctrine which they sort-of loosely hold, get vaguely re-upped at any of the afore-mentioned occasions or at Christmas carol services. Some people—often, in my experience, conservative nonconformists[3], or even the outright non-religious who happen to be personally conservative, tend to think that the more Christian stuff that's ambiently present in the culture, the better. Leaving aside the fact that for nonconformists to want something that basically necessitates an established church to achieve is quite funny, to my mind this... not really want you want.

I understand that conceptions of what "being Christian" means from are very different depending on what time period you're talking about, but my understanding is that at present what the church should want is people to have a personal relationship with God. I suspect that (among the religious) their (conscious) argument would be that the more of it that's out there, the more likely it is to lead folk in the right direction. I would say it sounds like moral licensing again[4]. You have enough of it hanging around in the culture and people feel like they're spiritually inoculated because they've got a vague sense of some kind of affiliation with the religion[5].

There's also the sense that you get reading the Gospels that this isn't really something that should become an establishment, and if it is you're somehow doing it wrong. I don't mean that in the way that some more hardline evangelical churches do—that you shouldn't have networks of churches, I mean it in a somewhat slipperier sense that the way that Jesus talks about the thing he's here to teach everyone makes it sound very much like a solvent to power structures, not something that can be constitutive of them.

In the same way, even if you do believe certain behaviours to be sinful, I don't think it necessarily follows that you should support laws against them, on the basis that the sin is in the wanting as much as the enacting. You can't legislate people out of sin. You just have to let God forgive them; that's the whole deal.


  1. ok I probably was but I was a little shit in my early teens lay off ↩︎

  2. contested idea I know: I'll get to it, just carry on reading, ok? ↩︎

  3. As a side-note: I grew up in a very low-church evangelical non-denomination (a Free Church) which often took a fairly dim view of the established church; I now attend an Anglo-Catholic Church of England church. It is, with the benefit of a bit of distance, quite funny to me the insistence many nonconformists I knew had on certain traditions which don't actually have any scriptural basis, and how the (what seemed to me at the time) intimidating and unwelcoming ritual of higher-church ritual often, in practice, allows for greater latitude in other regards. Some kind of internal balancing related to moral licence, perhaps? Or, like everything else, it's all just ingroup/outgroup shit. ↩︎

  4. uh, 'again' if you read the last footnote I guess. ↩︎

  5. It's worth stressing at this point that even people who might be considered more "active" Christians are in no way immune from a certain... fuzziness in thinking about religious topics. Obviously, not everyone is going to be as spectrum as me when approaching this stuff, but there's loads of stuff: since we've talked about him already, Satan being articulated as "the devil" of popular imagination, an adversary to God, the snake in the Garden, all that, is largely due to conflating a bunch of different biblical stuff and it becoming historical tradition; when we talk about those who die "going to Heaven", N.T. Wright would like to have a word; Trinitarianism isn't actually mentioned anywhere in the Bible! and so on. ↩︎