Friday, October 30, 2009

Satan in America: Scott Poole Interview, Part 3

Baldblogger (BB): As writers, it is inevitable that some of what we write along the way ends up on the cutting floor. What did you have to leave out of Satan in America? What great stories are readers missing?

Scott Poole (SP): Lots, I’m afraid, ended up being left out and I’m sure you understand how painful that can be. This is why I wanted to include “Hunting the Devil: A Bibliographic Essay” at the end of the book to point readers to other resources. The book I originally proposed to write was much larger, in fact coming in at around 600 pages instead of 300. My publisher really felt that this was too hefty and agreed with me that, even writing a book of that size could not mean I would give my subject an exhaustive treatment.

So, I did not examine American literature to the degree I wanted to. The reader will get bit on Hawthorne, Melville and Twain in the 19th century but only a brief mention of Flannery O’Connor in the 20th. I wanted to say a good bit on O’Connor who stared into the American heart of darkness perhaps more directly than any of our great writers. This was a section that could be cut because other scholars have done this really well, including Jeffrey Burton Russell in Mephistopheles.

Another area that had to be cut significantly was my discussion of the “satanic panic.” I felt ok about this, in part, because other books had dealt with the details. I do hope I managed to convey the sense that American demonologies created a kind of moral crisis in American life during that period and that these beliefs found expression in the larger moral crisis of the Reagan years.

BB: Now a question about teaching: What is Satan’s reception in your classroom? In other words, how have students responded to the subject of Satan/evil in the classroom? (In my experience, students seem endlessly fascinated with the various incarnations of “Satan” in American culture.)

SP: College students love Satan! At least they love to talk about him and consider how popular beliefs about him complicate existing narratives of American religious experience. I teach a course on the History of Religion in the United States and really try to push students, usually successfully, to consider how stories we already know are changed when we factor in the Satan variable. I think it further illuminates everything from the Great Awakening, to the rise of the Methodist movement, to emergence of sectarianism in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

Certainly the connections I make between pop culture and theological belief hold a lot of interest for students who are, we all know, media saturated. As a teacher, I really believe that helping them to read “The Exorcist” or “Rosemary’s Baby” as an important document in American religion rather than just a scary movie with some interesting themes can help them interact with and interpret pop culture in a sophisticated way.

I have also found that “media saturated” doesn’t always mean media savvy…scholars need to help students look at pop culture in some depth, to read it as a set of documents that help us to explain American history and culture just as much as text we might locate in the archives. I love watching students be amazed to realize it can be done legitimately. After all, the goal is to help them become fully independent, fully rational and very interesting people who can interact with all sorts of information in a sophisticated way…its not to hit them over the head with some historical master narrative while telling tell them to memorize it or they don’t get any pudding (I guess that last comment really dates me).

BB: You’ve written extensively on the nineteenth century, politics, religion, and culture and now a long, historical look at Satan. Any new projects in the works that interested readers can keep our eyes peeled for?

SP: My collaboration with dark powers continues. In fact, I’m not even done with Satan yet. Although its too soon to give any details, I’m having early conversations with an accomplished documentary filmmaker about the possibility of turning the book into a film, perhaps a documentary series.

For my next book project, I hope to use the massive amounts of material I cam across on the idea of monsters and monstrosity in American history to again consider some of these connections between religious belief, popular culture and American identity. I think we need a historian’s take on American Monsters as well as the American Satan and I hope to be able to provide that.

I enjoyed talking about this with you Phil, thanks for taking the time with me.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Satan in America: Scott Poole, Part 2

Today is the second installment of Baldblogger's interview with Scott Poole.....

Baldblogger (BB): One of the thoughts that came to mind as I read Satan in America was “fate” of God/gods according to the secularization thesis/narrative. Many of the foremost supporters of the secularization thesis have recanted in recent years (e.g., Peter Berger), writing about the endurance of religion and faith in the technological age. From one perspective, it seems that Satan “survived” the secularization thesis; few seemed to question the existence (and/or reality) of the Prince of Darkness even as many doubted the viability of belief in God/gods. Is this an accurate observation, and if so, what does this say about Satan in American religious history?

Scott Poole (SP): I don’t think the secularization thesis is at all tenable for American society. I actually make the case mushrooming beliefs about Satan from the 60s until today underscore the idea that not only is America not becoming more secular, its becoming more religious all the time. Berger has, as you note, recanted. Its as telling to note that the author of The Secular City, Harvey Cox, has published books on Pentecostalism and another called When Jesus Went to Harvard in the last few years.

Along these lines, part of my own intellectual background was a book that made a huge impression on me in the mid-90s called The Death of Satan. Written by the brilliant cultural historian and commentator Andrew Delbanco, the book argues that, as beliefs about Satan and the world of spiritual evil declined throughout American history (especially in the 20th with what he calls the birth of a “culture of irony”), Americans lost the ability to talk bout evil in meaningful terms

It’s a profound book but, in my mind, profoundly wrong in certain respects. Americans have not lost the language to talk about evil—they have a lurid, gaudy and intemperate language with which they do talk about it. What Americans have never been able to face, at least Americans who are white and of middle class and upper class status, is the way the national experiment is profoundly entangled with historical evil.

I hope that readers are struck, as I still am, by how frequently the Devil has been the ghost at the American banquet. My own experience as an author was to feel like I was on a guided tour of an American inferno, where beliefs about demonology seemed to be creating horrors at every turn. This didn’t cease in the 18th century, or the 19th century or t an point in the 20th. Indeed, one of my last chapters is entitled “Lucifer Rising” to convey the sense that , for specific historical reason, post-Vietnam, post-Nixon America became fertile ground for lurid beliefs about the Devil.

BB: Is has been interesting to read Satan in America during the opening months of President Obama’s tenure. As many are aware, some on the Right have presented the President as an incarnation of evil, with a few even claiming that Barack Obama is the Antichrist. This is a striking contrast to depictions of Obama as a messiah-like figure during the campaign. To what extent do these contemporary depictions relate to the arguments you make in Satan in America?
SP: I was completing the book in the final months of Bush presidency with the campaign well under way. Some bits were actually added during the revision/editing process after Election Day. I’m pleased you bring this up because, as an author, you always wonder if your book will be immediately dated, so much “of the moment” that it has little meaning once that moment passes. I, for example, wondered (and in some ways hoped) if the closing chapters of the book were so pessimistic and angry that it would seem very out of place in an America where hope seemed a the national sentiment.

I’m sorry to say that, if I were writing those final chapters today, I suspect that they might be even darker and angrier. The book argues throughout that the a desire to do violence to the Other has been one of the cycles hardwired into the structure of American historical experience, the process of demonization followed by an unleashing of terrible violence. In the last twelve months, the rhetoric of irresponsible individuals like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh , the pathological paranoia of the “tea baggers,” the fact that a recent poll of New Jersey Republics found almost forty percent of them saying that Obama was definitely or at least maybe the Antichrist points to a rising tide of darkness in American public life.

The book deals with the portrayals of Obama as the antichrist, as well as Sarah Palin’s connection to an exorcist who worries about the influence of Satan in the media and believes himself a witch-hunter. This is worth pondering: some of our fellow citizens believe the President to be a supernatural creature possessed by Satan and leading the world to the end-times. A recent vice presidential candidate has an exorcist as a spiritual mentor.

In 1836, Hawthorne wrote of Gallows Hill in Salem that it was overgrown and covered in weeds, just as the place “where superstition won its darkest triumph” should be. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Hawthorne was too optimistic. I don’t think that we have yet seen superstitions darkest triumph in our national history yet.

BB: I was particularly intrigued by some pointed and poignant comments you make in the closing paragraph in the Epilogue: “American historians have not, as of yet, been able to speak meaningfully about the reality of evil in national history . . .This is a failing in the profession. For too long, allegedly rejected notions of “American exceptionalism” and “American innocence” have blinded both the amateur public and the professional historian to the darker chapters of our history. . . Only when American historians reject the vestiges of national myth and equally acidic myths of “historical objectivity” can American historiography undergo a much needed exorcism.” I wonder if you can elaborate briefly on these thoughts?

SP: I think that American historians, especially those who deal with the American South, have dealt with individual evils and have been willing to discuss those in some detail. There is a powerful and moving historiography of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and treatment of the native peoples. What I was hinting at (it is not fully developed in the book) is that most Americans, historians and otherwise, do not have a sense of collective guilt over collective evil. We are all aware of the evils committed by the American nation-state throughout its history, we even are aware that the boundaries of the west were carved out by mass slaughter while prosperity was built in the east on the brutal subjugation of four million African Americans. And yet, we still have a major debate in the Texas school system over American history textbooks (and its thus a national debate since Texas purchase so many textbooks that it will effect what is published and what isn’t) with conservative leaders arguing that our schools should teach “American exceptionalism” and an optimistic notion of American achievement while avoiding any negative portrayals of American history.

Of course, the knee-jerk reaction for many would be to write this off as the ranting of an “anti-American” That is also an example of the refusal to face our collective past. Don’t the American people have a deep well of moral and spiritual tradition that calls us to some degree of penitence or at least mourning over our national atrocities? If not, doesn’t that mean there is something rotten at our very center? Either we are morally clueless or like Satan himself, filled with a kind of Miltonic triumph over our war against the good.

I don’t believe in the Devil that so many of those I have studied believe in. But I do believe in massive, collective historical evil, trans-human in its ability to incite violence and then encourage apathy about the result of that violence. And I think it has us just where it wants us.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Satan in America: Scott Poole

This week Baldblogger interviews Scott Poole, a history professor at the College of Charleston and author of the new book Satan in America: The Devil We Know, just out with Rowman & Littlefield. Today is the first post of three. So while this week is filled with trick-or-treating, ghosts and goblins of various kinds, fall festivals, and haunted houses, give Satan his due by reading Poole's great new book (or surprise those unsuspecting trick-or-treaters by passing out copies of Satan in America!)

Baldblogger (BB): Satan seems to be an ever present interest, preoccupation, even obsession in American history and culture. What inspired your interest in this subject? What were the origins of this fascinating project?

Scott Poole (SP): I have joked with my parents that I probably would never have needed to write a book about Satan if they had let me get ticket to that Ozzy concert in 1986 or not cut off access to Ghost Rider comics around the same time. I don’t know if I’m entirely kidding. I did grow up in the 80s when, as I describe in the book, a wave of irrational paranoia about the influence of the Devil in popular culture, a “satanic panic” swept the country. Evangelicalism’s rather gaudy and dark symbolic world that imagines Satan in the lyrics of heavy metal music and heading up a worldwide conspiracy that will lead to the emergence of the Antichrist held and still hold, enormous fascination for me.

I also think that scholars of American religion have avoided this topic for too long. It seems to me that beliefs about the Devil shaped American religious practice as much, and sometimes more, than beliefs about God. Some wonderful historians, including some that have been very influential on me like Christine Heyrman, have looked at this as part of their larger work.

Finally, I have to confess that I’m an inveterate consumer of low and high-grade pop culture, in massive, possibly unhealthy, quantities. It makes me happy to connect my scholarly life with this other pretty important part of my life.

BB: A central tenant of Satan in America is that Satan, the diabolical, and the Other/Evil flexes and changes over time, depending on the historical context as well as the cultural needs of the moment. In your estimation, what is the most striking of these moments in American religious history?

SP: I was astonished at what I learned about the 18th century. This is not a period where, as a historian, I spend a lot of time and so I quickly became fascinated with how much power was attributed to the Devil in this era, even over and above what even the Puritans had given him. The whole notion of “spiritual warfare” becomes a primary part of the evangelical narrative in the 1740s and this makes Satan a constant shadow across their path.

Its interesting to note that, for many Puritans, seeing the Devil or having an encounter with him was evidence that an individual had made a “satanic pact” and was active as a witch. For the first generation of American evangelicals (and later generations as well) an encounter with Satan meant that were on your way to becoming a spiritual hero, a spiritual warrior. I tapped into some unused primary sources that I think show what a powerful and ever present force the Devil became for many Americans.

By the way, it is ironic to me that most people who hear about this book assume that I focus primarily on the Salem Witch trials. I don’t, in part because I believe the understandable focus on that episode tends to blind us to the larger role that beliefs about the Devil play in the American narrative.

BB: I was particularly intrigued by the multiple manifestations of Satan as a male, as well as the Devil as a female. I wonder if you could discuss the gendered dimensions of Satan in American religious history?

SP: Well, of course, gendered representations of the Devil are part of a much longer history of misogyny in the western world. Throughout most of that history, Satan has been gendered as a male but his chief servants and avatars have been gendered female. I think that this is generally known but I think that it is less well known that these representations have remained incredibly powerful in American religion and popular culture. Most of your readers have likely heard of the story of the Jersey Devil who haunts the piney woods with its moans and shrieks. Few probably know that these stories originate in the 18th century with tales of a monstrous birth connected to a woman accused of both witchcraft and sexual misconduct. I explore this in the book as part of a larger story I tell about the relationship between diabolical beliefs and efforts to restrict womens’ political and social agency.

Another aspect of this same theme is the rather surprisingly numerous appearances of the Devil in the silent film era and how, almost always, these were connected with the screen vamp. Theda Bara and Adele Farrington consistently played women who either made a pact with Satan to deceive men or were themselves deceived by him, either because they were sexually voracious or materialistic or both. Clearly this gendered imagery pointed to cultural anxiety over “the new woman” although throughout the book, in every period, you’ll be struck by how often women are linked with demonic evil. I recently commented on this in a discussion of American misogyny and the recent film “Jennifer’s Body.”

BB: Unfortunately, there are no images of Satan—artistic depictions of the Devil—in the book. In your opinion, what are some of the more striking, or enduring images of Satan in American culture?

SP: I think that in one sense some images of the American Satan do appear in the book. A central theme in the book is that “Satan has always been someone” for Americans and so when Thomas Nast creates an image of feminist Victoria Woodhull as “Mrs. Satan” then we are getting a good glimpse of American demonology. The book also contains a harrowing image used in the rather trashy late nineteenth century rag “The National Police Gazette.” Entitled “The Female Abortionist” it shows a young, middle class woman whose vitals are being literally consumed by a demonic imp. The message there is clear.

A lot of the images I wanted to include (but couldn’t because of the sometimes extravagant price my press would have had to pay for permission) include a lot of contemporary pop culture images that illustrate both the continued power of older images of the Devil (such as Linda Blair from the Exorcist) and newer, alternative Devils that I discuss in the book who often subvert older, more conservative paradigms. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an interesting example of the latter. I am really intrigued at how that show played with traditional concepts of misogyny and apocalyptic to deliver a very different message than these older narratives. I also look at Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” and Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” for similar reasons.