I just got back from my second meeting of the Skeptics' Book Club. It was an entertaining discussion, and I like the people there; this is definitely something I'm going to continue going to regularly.
The book under discussion this month was A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization, by Jonathan Kirsch. The "controversial book" mentioned in the subtitle is the Book of Revelation, and the book--that is, Kirsch's book, not Revelation--was all about the history of the Book of Revelation, its origin, how it got included in the Bible, and, most of all, the influence it's had on Western culture and beliefs.
To be honest, I found the book to be a bit repetitive, and I think in the last chapter Kirsch strains a bit too hard to try to connect any fictional works dealing with worldwide calamity to Revelation. (Worldwide disaster, and even destruction on a global scale, is certainly an idea that could arise independently, after all. I don't think it's plausible to insist (as Kirsch does) that the book of Revelation must have been a major influence on, for example, Dr. Strangelove.) Still, despite its faults, it was an interesting book, and I learned quite a bit from it.
One of the things Kirsch brings up that I found particularly interesting was the evolution of the concept of Satan. I had taken, as a freshman in college, a class on the Bible in Western Literature, taught by professor Bruce E. Zuckerman. The class, of course, was not religious in nature; as far as I know Dr. Zuckerman was an atheist. My reasons for taking the class are rather complicated, but at the time I still considered myself a faithful member, and while I did think some of Dr. Zuckerman's decidedly secular approach to the Bible was intriguing, I didn't let it sway my beliefs. Although I guess perhaps it did help do so indirectly, in that it added a little bit to the store of reasons for disbelief that at the time I was still managing to suppress but which eventually got too big to ignore...
(One of my favorite bits from the class was learning that in ancient Hebrew, "feet" was often a euphemism for the genitalia. I couldn't help but think of this in connection with Isaiah 6:2: "Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly." The image of blushing naked six-winged angels singing praises to the Lord while discreetly doing their best to cover their shame was one I couldn't help but find amusing. Coincidentally, at the book club meeting today, someone mentioned the image in Ezekiel of seraphim covering their genitalia, so maybe my interpretation of that verse is more broadly accepted than I realized...)
I don't recall being outspoken about my beliefs in the class, though. I do remember one instance when Dr. Zuckerman was talking about the Christian idea of people who sin being damned, and he asked rhetorically why, if God really preferred people to be saved, he didn't just force everyone to do the right thing--since, if he was omnipotent, that was certainly within His power. I mentioned to Dr. Zuckerman that, according to LDS doctrine, that was exactly what Satan had suggested be done, in the planning sessions before the creation of the world. Dr. Zuckerman had never heard that before, and found it fascinating. Still, I don't think I explicitly said that I was Mormon, although it could possibly have been reasonably inferred.
That's beside the point, though. The reason I bring this up is that one of the books in the Bible Dr. Zuckerman focused on was the book of Job. (Another was Jonah, which he said was probably intended as a big joke--but again, I digress.) In the book of Job, Satan appears in an interesting light--he speaks with God and suggests that Job be tested; in essence, Satan makes a bet with God about Job's faithfulness. This...doesn't seem to mesh with other presentations of the Adversary.
But what I didn't realize, even after taking Dr. Zuckerman's class, until reading Kirsch's book is that it's not the presentation of Satan in Job that's the anomaly. That's really all Satan was, originally. The Adversary, yes--that's what the name means--but more in a judicial sense. Not a being of evil, but just an accuser, responsible for testing humanity. And not really a terribly important being, either. In fact, the Book of Job is almost the only place in the Old Testament that Satan is mentioned! ("Almost", because, as I just found with a quick search he also gets a brief and pretty inconsequential mention in Zechariah, and a name-drop in Psalms 109:6.) Although I've read the Old Testament (yes, the whole thing, including the innumerable begats and the endless description of the original temple, though it was a long time ago), I hadn't really picked up on that--but of course, I'd been reading it from the perspective of a believer, so it was easy to take a lot for granted. Oh, sure, there are other beings in the Old Testament whom Christians hold to be identical with Satan--the serpent in Genesis, Lucifer in Isaiah 14--but this is after-the-fact conflation of what were originally separate entities. (Lucifer, for example, was supposed to be a metaphor for the King of Babylon--something which is clear enough that LDS teaching acknowledges the fact, but insists at the same time that the verses in question are simultaneously both a metaphor for the fall of Babylon and a factual description of the fall of Satan...)
In fact, the book primarily responsible for building Satan up as the Devil and the main source of evil is...Revelation. Along with a lot of other things that Revelation contributes to modern mainstream Christian belief. Which is somewhat ironic, since Revelation almost got left out of the Bible entirely, and many prominent early Christians denounced it.
I won't go into further details repeating Kirsch's theses, but I do want to add a few small notes on the Book of Revelation from an LDS standpoint. (Kirsch only mentions the LDS church twice in his book--though curiously the second time isn't listed in the index (and the first time he gets the name of the church slightly wrong--oh well).) The LDS church's standpoint on the Book of Revelation is...intermediate, I guess. Certainly church doctrine, in common with that of other Christian churches, does hold that the book is true, and that it was written by John the Beloved. Heck, the very name of the church points to its millenarian doctrines: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints--the whole church's name alludes to the belief that we're living in the last days. But, on the other hand, the LDS church doesn't put as much emphasis on Revelation as some fundamental churches do. Yes, church members believe the book is true prophecy--but they don't claim to know exactly what the prophecy means, or precisely how (and when) it will be fulfilled. And, incidentally, Mormons don't believe in the Rapture, which is a fairly late elaboration anyway, only dating back to the 1860s or so.
In the LDS church, Sunday School lessons currently rotate on an annual basis between the four principle LDS books of scripture: the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. This year, as it happens, it's the turn of the New Testament, and in light of what Kirsch's book mentions about the downplaying of Revelation by less fire-and-brimstone churches, I was curious just how much emphasis was going to be put on it, and how. So I checked out the study guide members were distributed last Sunday. There are two lessons on Revelation--and between them they don't cover nearly the whole thing. One lesson is on chapters 1-3 and 12, and has the theme that "He That Overcometh Shall Inherit All Things". The other is on chapters 5-6 and 19-22, and is entitled "He Will Dwell with Them, and They Shall Be His People". In other words, apparently we're focusing on the happy-ending part and not looking at all the graphic disaster part: the Great Whore, the six-headed beast, the seven seals and seven trumpets, and all of that.
But then, it seems lately the LDS church has been moving toward trying to become a kinder, gentler church than it was in the past, and maybe this is an aspect of that. In an earlier post, I'd said I had my doubts as to what extent violence played a part in the earlier history of the church, but since then I've learned about some changes to the temple ceremonies before I went through the temple for the first time myself, and it turns out those earlier versions of the temple ceremonies...well...maybe I should save that for a future post.