Being on Alert for the Demonic in the Mundane
When we read the gospel accounts of Christ’s ministry, one of the regular features we encounter is Christ’s interaction with demons. We read of demon possessed people, those oppressed by them, Jesus casting demons out of people, as well as Jesus speaking about them (see, e.g., Matt. 4:24, 7:22, 8:16, 12:27, 15:22, etc.). Yet, living in the modern world, I suspect that most Christians don’t encounter these types of demonic phenomena. Yet, does this mean that the demonic is nonexistent? The general answer to this question is, no.
Demons are real.
Demons are real, even if we don’t encounter them on a regular basis, or do we? One of the common assumptions is that demonic activity looks demonic. If we run into someone wearing a black cape on his way to his Church of Satan meeting where we find satanic symbols adorning the door, then we naturally assume that we’ve uncovered demonic activity. While such things do exist, we should realize that the demonic can take on a far more mundane form.
Saint Augustine once charged the politicians of Rome with corruption because they offered his countrymen the spectacle entertainments. In the ancient world, Rome’s spectacle entertainments featured in the Coliseum and amphitheaters scattered throughout the empire were a part of every facet of life. The spectacles included gladiator contests, hunting animals, and even mass executions.
The demonic can take on mundane forms.
Rome presented these spectacles for entertainment purposes, amusement, and pleasure—these spectacles touted the idea that life was cheap and death and violence were a form of entertainment. Augustine was part of the church and actively rejected the spectacle entertainments. In a sermon he connects the spectacle entertainments with the demonic. Augustine writes:
For such demons are pleased…with the frenzy of the games, with the cruelty of the amphitheater, with the violent contests of those who undertake the strife and controversy….By acting this way [pagans] offer incense to the demons with their hearts. For the deceptive spirits rejoice in seduction; they feast upon the evil customs and the notoriously vile life of those whom they have misled and entrapped. (Saint Augustine: Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons [The Fathers of the Church, Volume 38], p. 58)
In contrast to the pagan appetite for frenzy, violence, and blood, Augustine believed that the true God never enjoys bloodlust and violence, and as such, those who worship this true God should reject spectacle entertainments.
Ordinary, everyday events can be filled with evil.
In his book Gifts Glittering and Poisoned: Spectacle, Empire, and Metaphysics, Chanon Ross, describes the Coliseum in the following manner:
The Coliseum simulated the topsy-turvy existence of the demons by elevating the spectators above the death and suffering occurring on the amphitheater floor. From his privileged seat, the spectator looked down upon the mortality of the victims as if he were gazing at it all as an immortal demon. Through an objectifying gaze, he consumed the excitement and psychosexual allure of the spectacular violence. The unfolding drama of death ignited his lusts and most wicked desires; such desires were enflamed when a lion ripped a man’s arm from his body or when a gladiator delivered the deathblow. By means of a consuming gaze, he experienced life as a topsy-turvy demon, immortal yet rapt in the passions of the soul. (p. 59)
In this description I think we see how the demonic doesn’t have to appear as a devil in a red suit with a pitchfork but can rather become manifest in the mundane. In this case, the gladiatorial games and the violence of the Roman Coliseum were ordinary, mundane, everyday events, yet Christians like Augustine saw through the façade to identify their evil nature. This begs the question, what in our own culture looks ordinary and mundane, yet, at its core, pulsates with the demonic?
The demonic spectacle entertainments of today can fool us with their slick advertising and shiny wrappers.
Despite all of our modern pretensions to advancement, even though 1,500 years have passed since Augustine’s day, our so-called evolved society still has bloodlust and regularly lathers its hands in violence as a form of entertainment. Yes, our spectacle entertainments have slick advertising and shiny wrappers, but beneath this layer of respectability we find the demonic.
How many parents buy video games for their children that glorify violence? How many people participate in events that are filled with gratuitous violence? How often do spectators attend sporting events eagerly looking for bone-crunching collisions, metal-bending accidents, or violent altercations all in the name of entertainment?
In one sense, the world is as the world does, but what about Christians? How many Christians march with the crowd in lemming lines to the various virtual and real coliseums and arenas around the land to consume the violence and offer incense of idolatry to the demonic powers behind these spectacles?
We have to examine carefully what we’re seeking to achieve through our entertainment.
Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I am not condemning all forms of entertainment, nor am I saying that there can never be excitement in our use of entertainment. I am saying, however, that we have to examine carefully what we’re seeking to achieve through our entertainment, so we are not unwittingly conformed to the patterns of this world but renewed by the transformation of our minds as we live our lives in accordance with the teaching of Scripture.
We should ask ourselves, Am I looking for violence and mayhem in my entertainment? Or am I looking to admire the noblest virtues that God has given to human beings? Celebrating skill, artistry, or heroism is one thing; bloodlust and violence is another.
Moreover, what are we feeding our children? Are we unintentionally nourishing them on a deleterious diet of violence when we let them sit in front of the big screen and watch violent cartoons, movies, or play violent video games? These are all important questions to ask so we do not give ourselves over to the demonic in the seemingly mundane things of this world.
Note: Quotes and references cited above come from Chanon Ross’s Gifts Glittering and Poisoned: Spectacle, Empire, and Metaphysics (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014), a book well worth reading.
This article by J. V. Fesko is adapted from “A Pastor’s Reflections: The Demonic in the Mundane.” For more helpful content by Dr. Fesko, please visit jvfesko.com.
J. V. Fesko is Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. He has written numerous books on the Christian faith, including Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights and the newly released commentary, Romans (Lectio Continua).
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