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Last week, I wrote a column for OnFaith saying it is time to get rid of the devil. Why? The devil is a theological construct that has evolved over time due to various cultural influences. Blaming a real devil for life’s woes may just distract us from our own wrongdoing.
My article was brief. Only 800 words. Hardly enough space to explore 5000 years of thinking about evil, but it was based on good history and thoughtful theology. Seemed simple enough to me — until people started responding. Turns out not everybody agrees with me. Some people seem to be quite fond of Old Scratch and would hate to see him go. And some people aren’t fond of the devil, but they seem to need Beelzebub for their religion to work.
I was surprised by the number of people who took the time to chime in to defend a literal devil. And I was surprised by their passion.
I talked to a minister colleague of mine about this. “They’re afraid,” he said. “If they take one card out of the house of cards they’ve built, the whole thing may fall down.”
And that’s when it hit me: Christian need to play more poker.
Playing cards were invented in China in the 800s or earlier. Cards spread to Egypt, then to Europe in the 1300s, and to North America with explorers and settlers. The game of poker as we know it seems to have developed in or around New Orleans in the early 1880s, but other card games played for money were in full swing centuries earlier.
Somewhere along the way, a bored card player found another purpose for the cards — carefully standing them on end and covering them with other cards to build tabletop castles, towers and houses. (I confess, I loved that as a kid. Another confession: my dad taught my siblings and me to play poker when we were but wee tikes.)
By the mid-1600s, the phrase house of cards had entered the language to describe an argument built on a shaky foundation — an argument so fragile that if one piece is removed, the whole argument will collapse.
That’s what I bumped into with my article about Satan. People find the character of the devil to be necessary to their faith because they misunderstand faith. At least, they misunderstand Christianity.
Satan works well if you’re into fear and punishment. But that’s not what Christianity is about. Christianity is about grace and love. And grace and love are like poker. They require taking risks and gambling.
If someone hits you on one cheek, let him or her hit you on the other, Jesus said. In a religion of rules, the cheek-slapper would be punished. In a faith of grace, the cheek-slapper just might be so overwhelmed by your gentleness that he or she gives up cheek-slapping. (Of course, that might not happen. That’s the risky grace of the gospel. It’s a lot like holding a straight in your hands and hoping your opponent only has three of a kind.)
What should I do to inherit eternal life? a rich young man asked Jesus. Sell all that you have and give the money away, he answered. In a fear-based religion, that would be nuts. After all, if you give your stuff away the people around you will be afraid to give you their food or blankets for fear there won’t be enough to go around. You may end up broke, hungry and homeless. In a religion based on love, we might learn that there is plenty when we all share. (Or maybe not. That’s the gamble of the gospel.)
So what about upping the ante? What about challenging Christians to get rid of the devil? Historically, theological thinkers of various stripes have developed an understanding of evil that includes the working of a literal devil. Some current religious leaders still hold to that belief.
Let me be clear: Evil exists in the world. We must wrestle with that. But old constructs need to be tossed. The Christian church clung to a flat-earth cosmology far too long. Preachers used the Bible to defend slavery. Luther and then other Reformers changed theological views of communion from transubstantiation to consubstantiation to symbolism. Each move required risk.
A lot of people seemed worried about the existence of the devil. Worried about right theology and right belief. Worried that their house of cards be constructed with precision.
What if another way of saying that was, Don’t spend your time (or your lives) building houses out of cards. Instead, use the cards (or your lives) for what they were intended: Invite some friends over (especially the “sinners”), play games, laugh, have fun, risk, gamble. And don’t be afraid.
In writing about the devil last week, I learned that not everybody is keen on metaphor. Some folks are pretty literal. So, let me be straight up: Poker playing in church is a metaphor. I’m not really saying we should replace hymn-singing with Texas Hold ‘Em.
Wait a minute! That could a church fundraiser. Let me email our Stewardship Committee . . .