the interview

Richard Beck About ‘Scooby-Doo-ification’ and the Reality of Evil

“We Need to Revive the Devil”

Jun 09, 2016 by Josh de Keijzer

When I heard that well-known Christian psychology professor, Richard Beck, was making a serious plea with his new book 'Reviving Old Scratch' to give more attention to the devil, my first thought was that he was on his way to discredit his entire career. Think about it, Christians who see a demon behind every dark corner and live in a constant struggle with Satan will dismiss Beck for stating the obvious, while Christians who have relegated the devil to ancient myths and who see any interest in demons as a sign of immature faith will consider Beck an unscholarly thinker who is making himself ridiculous.

There is no way you can win talking about the devil, well, at least not when you are trying to address everybody making a sincere effort to strike a balanced middle ground. Even if there’s no devil at all, he seems to have conquered Beck’s effort the moment Beck started writing his book. Well, perhaps not.

For one, when I asked Richard if he wasn’t making things very difficult for his own career, he started laughing. “Um, well, I don’t know, nobody has asked me this question yet. Ha ha! Not as a psychology professor, but maybe as a speaker and writer. Yes, I might be missing the point for conservatives while liberals might indeed find the whole conversation ridiculous and irrelevant. Perhaps I wrote a book with no audience. But on the other hand, I write what I’m passionate about and I think it is important for a writer to write something nobody else has written yet. I decided to say something to both conservatives and progressives. I didn’t want to say something people expected me to say. I didn’t feel like being a theological echo chamber. People who read my book might get flustered a bit. I’m fine with that.”

Indeed, Richard Beck doesn’t write to please audiences. His intention is to revive the devil, that is, to take the devil seriously, is born out of a deep engagement with the power of evil in the world, not a desire to resurrect fairy tales. The moment you start reading “Reviving Old Scratch” you encounter the realism of someone who stands with both feet firmly planted in today’s world.

Richard Beck doesn’t write to please audiences. His intention is to revive the devil, that is, to take the devil seriously, is born out of a deep engagement with the power of evil in the world, not a desire to resurrect fairy tales.

What exactly is your book about? What is your message concerning ‘Old Scratch’
“I’m exploring whether the language of the devil and demons has any relevance for modern Christians who often fall in two camps. There are those who find it awkward to try to fit the devil into our modern context. Those would be progressive or liberal Christians. More conservative Christians generally think about demons and devils in terms similar to scenes from The Exorcist. I attempt to steer a course between these two choices.”

What are the problems of both groups?
“I’m mainly writing for people who tend to doubt the reality of the devil. They are faced with a fairly sophisticated secular audience that doesn’t share the Christian worldview. But I also address more Pentecostal and charismatic groups that tend to see demons as disembodied spirits who are fighting in unseen spiritual spaces with angelic beings…”

Like in the Frank Peretti books?
“Right! Such people tend to miss the mundane aspects of our battle with Satan and they also miss the political aspect of the biblical language of the principalities and powers. Spiritual warfare then becomes a very occult, exotic conversation which I think can be problematic. Some see a demon under every rock, behind every door, with every computer malfunction, or flat tire. That kind of obsession with spiritual warfare can be unhealthy."

"But to go back to the progressives and liberals who find the devil just awkward. For them the problem is that it seems like the only language available to them to talk about the devil is what I just described. And because they don’t want that, they reduce their walk with Jesus to a moral life; they’re just trying to be good people. As a consequence they lack the supernatural aspect. They fall prey to what I call ‘Scooby-Doo-ification.’ The problem with that is that it dislocates them from Jesus. In the gospels spiritual conflict is a central theme running through Jesus’ life and ministry. I’m trying to connect such folk with what was central in Jesus’ ministry.”

Scooby-Doo-ification? What on earth is that?
"Everybody knows the Scooby-Doo show. I was a great fan of it when I was younger. During each episode, especially in the first seasons, Scooby-Doo, the talking dog, and his group of human friends end up in a place where something spooky is going on. There’s a haunted house or a menacing ghost is scaring the village people. Initially Scooby-Doo and his friends get drawn into the narrative. They are haunted too and get scared. Until one of them discovers that there is a very mundane explanation for the spooky thing. Someone’s trying to cover up a crime or wants to make money illegally. The ghost is nothing but an evil business man."

this is what a lot of progressive and liberal Christians do with the devil. They reduce Satan and demons to human problems: social justice, economic problems, civil rights, etc. I call this Scooby-Doo-ification.

"And this is what a lot of progressive and liberal Christians do with the devil. They reduce Satan and demons to human problems: social justice, economic problems, civil rights, etc. I call this Scooby-Doo-ification. Like the show, there are no true spiritual forces of evil. And while it is vitally important for Christians to fight injustice, there are problems when we ignore the spiritual side of the struggle."

You are a psychologist, not a theologian. What is your unique take on spiritual conflict?
“Spiritual warfare is generally a felt experience. We experience it as temptation, as stress, despair, weakening faith or other emotions. The battle is uniquely a psychological one. It is therefore not so strange that a psychologist would write about this. I begin my explorations with human experience and I reason from there to theological implications. Theologians on the other hand tend to start with metaphysical propositions: like ‘the devil is a personal entity,’ ‘demons are disembodied spirits that dwell in human bodies,’ or ‘biblical talk about the devil is really only about politics and power.’”

“I come at it from a different angle. I work from experience toward metaphysics but in the end I don’t really talk much about metaphysics. People tend to fight about the question ‘Does Satan exist or not?’ And that is where we often get stuck. But while we can debate questions like that everyone generally agrees that evil forces exist and are destroying human lives. Regardless of whether you think Satan is a metaphor or an actual agent, experientially speaking, spiritual warfare is the same for conservative and progressive Christians. Focusing on the experience we find we have a lot in common, because everybody understands temptation, hopelessness, and how hard it is to be loving and gentle in this world. We can bracket the question of whether the devil is real and focus on what we all agree on, the forces of evil we see at work in the world and in our own hearts."

Yes, Jesus’ kingdom had political and economic implications, but in the end Jesus was involved in a real struggle against Satan. You simply cannot deny that and keep the Jesus of the Scriptures intact.

How did you change your mind about Old Scratch, the Devil?
I minister in prison once a week and also participate in an inner city outreach from my church where we reach out to the marginalized, homeless, and addicted. When I first went, I was a typical skeptical intellectual with a lot of theology in my head that didn’t really allow for the reality of spiritual warfare. But the inmates and my homeless friends talked about the devil and demons all the time. As they asked me to pray for them to be delivered from the devil I had to challenge my skeptical attitudes if I wanted to be pastorally engaged and effective. I could only pray if I meant it."

"I also learned a lot from theologians like N.T. Wright, who show how central Jesus’ battle with Satan was in his proclamation about the coming kingdom of God. Yes, Jesus’ kingdom had political and economic implications, but in the end Jesus was involved in a real struggle against Satan. You simply cannot deny that and keep the Jesus of the Scriptures intact. When you open the Bible you are drawn into a cosmic struggle. Social justice has a very strong spiritual element to it. And social justice is part of spiritual warfare."

Why is it such a big deal to not be focused on spiritual warfare?
"If there is not a spiritual aspect to spiritual warfare then all the evil that is left in the world is due to the people who perpetrate it. People then become the face of evil; they are then demonized. This is one of the paradoxes I explore in my book. In banishing demons and the devil from our world we are forced to see human beings who commit evil acts as the embodiment of evil. Human beings then become devils and demons. The only way to combat evil, if humans are the sole agents of evil, is for the Good Guys to take power away from the Bad Guys. And everyone knows that the Bad Guys are the people in the other political party. This is what happens when spiritual warfare is reduced to a purely human political struggle and it’s one reason, I believe, why politics in the US has become so ugly."

Can you briefly say how we should engage in spiritual warfare?
"Spiritual warfare is calling to account the national and personal idols that we have so the kingdom of God can be established in our midst. And when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God he didn’t march on Rome but called the people of Israel to repentance to become an alternative location of flourishing in the midst of Imperial Rome. Ultimately, spiritual warfare is our daily effort to live a cruciform life to establish love in the world. I call it the invasion of love."

Buy Richard Beck's 'Reviving Old Scratch' here.

---

By Josh de Keijzer, @YossmanTweets, © HelloChristian.com

Follow us on Facebook:

The Christian News­letter You Actually Want To Read!

Daily Newsletter
Weekly Newsletter