Popaganda: The Devil You Know

This episode is all about how cool the Devil is, especially for people of marginalized genders and sexualities. The devil is all over popular media, not as a straight symbol of absolute evil, but as something a little more nuanced and approachable—and sometimes even a little queer. Is this a sign of the end times and the moral degradation of humanity? Or does the character’s appeal to young people speak to a greater rejection of good vs. evil binaries?

To find out, I spoke with two experts. First, you’ll hear from Megan Kennedy, the executive director of Utah’s Religious Education Series, on the political side of evil. Then you’ll hear from Holly Lyman Antolini, the rector at St. James’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on what it means to disregard the idea of absolute evil. I hope you enjoy the show!

SHOUT-OUTS

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TRANSCRIPT

SOLEIL HO: This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by The Bechdel Cast, a podcast on the How Stuff Works network about the representation of women in movies. If you’re fond of the famous Bechdel Test, you’ll love listening to hosts Jamie and Caitlin examine popular movies and the representation of women each week with a special guest. From trash like Gigli to treasures like Hocus Pocus, nothing escapes The Bechdel Cast’s feminist lens. Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Hey there! You’re listening to Popaganda. This is Soleil Ho.  

I have an announcement to make! In December, we’ll be taking a little break. We’ll be back in January, but I’ll be popping in over at Backtalk during the hiatus. In the meantime, I guess you’ll have to come up with your own hot takes. And speaking of which…. 

This episode of the show is all about how cool the devil is, especially for people of marginalized genders and sexualities. The devil is all over popular media, not as a straight symbol of absolute evil, but as something a little more nuanced and approachable. Is this a sign of the end times and the moral degradation of humanity? Or does the character’s appeal to young people speak to a greater rejection of good vs. evil binaries? Find out all that and more in a few minutes!  

And by the way, if you have any ideas for future topics for Popaganda, we have a great new way for you to submit them. Text “idea” to 734-577-7711. No matter how strange or niche the idea, I love hearing from you! We’ve already gotten so many great ideas, and you might’ve heard some of them on the show already. But again, text “idea”—I D E A—to 734-577-7711, and save the number as Popaganda so we can keep in touch. 

[theme music] 

Like the rapper Eminem, the Christian devil goes by a lot of aliases: Lucifer, Satan, the Morning Star, Mephistopheles, Beelzebub. Most of what we think about this character—the horns, the rebellious angel thing, and the red skin—are all from what could basically be called fanfic. The popular notion of the devil owes a lot to the epic poems Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno and films and TV. As a personification of evil, the devil is a fixture in pop culture. We’re kind of obsessed. In films and TV, you’ll even find the devil playing more comedic roles. 

[recorded clip from YouTube of Rocko’s Modern Life: Welcome to Heck episode] 

[ominous music] 

DARK UNDERLORD: [booming voice] I am the Dark Underlord, the Prince of Doom, the King of Eternal Torment! I am fear! I am evil! They call me…Peaches! 

HEFFER: Peaches? 

DARK UNDERLORD: [regular guy voice] Would you let me finish? 

SOLEIL: Because the devil is meant to symbolize all that is subversive and “bad” in the world, the character serves as a dumping ground for whatever might be a source of public anxiety at the time. That could mean warfare, like in the Twilight Zone episode The Howling Man. Or it could be queerness, as with the devil in South Park, who is depicted as being in a same-sex relationship with Saddam Hussein. If you’re a little bit strange or unusual, sometimes this results in a character that you can actually relate to. The gender non-conforming and ironically named HIM from Powerpuff Girls is a good example of this. 

[recorded clip from YouTube of Powerpuff Girls] 

[terrifyingly ominous music] 

HIM: Hello, girls! 

GIRLS: [gasp] HIM! 

HIM: So good to see you again! How’s things?! 

SOLEIL: He schemes in the bathtub and pulls off thigh high boots with a tutu. That’s total #goals. 

This might be why the devil’s been making a comeback lately in media. Folks like the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple have also been adamant in claiming Satan as the ultimate individualist, free thinker, and champion for the marginalized. That’s why, for instance, Satanists loved the The Witch, a 2016 film about the dissolution of a 17th Century family of Puritans. They even officially endorsed it, citing its messages of individual liberty and feminine independence.  

[recorded clip from YouTube of The Witch, Live Deliciously plays] 

[eerie low rumbling] 

BLACK PHILLIP: [whispering seductively] What does thou want? 

THOMASIN: What canst thou give? 

BLACK PHILLIP: Wouldst thou live the taste of butter? A pretty dress? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously? 

THOMASIN: Yes. 

BLACK PHILLIP: Wouldst thou like to see the world?! 

SOLEIL: The Witch’s version of Satan is also weirdly sexy. There’s a lot of fan art. 

There are so many other examples of the devil in the media that I could pull out, but suffice to say that modern depictions are significantly more chilled out than they were a few centuries ago. I wanted to dig in to why that is, so I called up two experts. First, you’ll hear from Megan Kennedy, the Executive Director of Utah’s Religious Education Series, on the political side of evil. And then you’ll hear from Holly Lyman Antolini, the rector at St. James’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge, MA, on the binary of good and evil and what the devil has to do with it. I hope you enjoy the show! 

[I Let the Devil in by Kathy Freeman plays] 

♪ I was doing alright, feeling fine 
Doing my thing and taking my time 
In came the Devil with his bag of tricks 
Now there’s a pain in my heart that nothing can fix 

Help me God, I let the devil in ♪ 

MEGAN: I think Satan gets more popular as we get less stable. 

SOLEIL: That’s Megan Kennedy. She puts on a lecture series on religion, history, and anthropology in Salt Lake City, Utah. She’s covered witchcraft, heavy metal, and the horror genre and what religion has to do with all of those things. We’ll link to her videos on the episode page. 

MEGAN: As things like our political systems, our religious systems, the things that have kept our societies kind of rolling along, once some cracks start to show in that, people start to get a little fearful. And then it’s not really hard for somebody who wants to exploit that fear to suggest that what’s going on is being caused by an other. And in our society, obviously, that usually comes in the form of marginalized groups: immigrants, Black people, women, trans people, gay people, anybody who’s not seen as part of the status quo. And Satan as an adversarial character, as something that’s just against God, against what’s “moral,” it’s really easy to just kinda put that mask on any group that’s going, or excuse me, put that mask on an outside group when the in-group is going through a lot of torment. ‘Cause they’re looking for somebody to blame. They’re looking for an answer to why their stability has suddenly been compromised. And a lot of times, it’s really hard to look at the power structure and acknowledge that it’s their failing; it’s a leadership failing, or it’s just the tumultuousness of politics, if you will. So, it’s a really easy thing to exploit. 

SOLEIL: Both the Judeo-Christian god and Satan are typically thought to be masculine. But Satan so often seems to be associated with women—like witches—and sexually nonconforming people. Why is that? 

MEGAN: Yeah. One of my videos is actually all about the historical removal of women from religious spheres. So, you’ve got really ancient societies like the Minoans who had women in control of religion. And ironic, not ironically but interestingly, the Minoan women were, we know them now as sphynx goddesses because they used sphynx in their rituals, which is an interesting parallel once we get to Christianity. But we had women in roles that had more power and more contact with divine sources, more contact with that kind of social power that slowly kind of withers away. We don’t see oracles anymore. We don’t see a lot of those power roles. And eventually they’re not just removed from power, removed from the goddess pantheons, removed from those things, but they’re eventually subsumed under very patriarchal rule. And to establish a patriarchy, and especially once capitalism came into play during the age of exploration and all that stuff, it became necessary to make sure women were subordinate. Because you have to control their means of production. You have to control their reproductive systems. And it was easy to connect women with evil and temptation because there’s already some sexual fear, of course, that patriarchy carries around all the time about women’s sexual choices and their power. There was already foundation for it in the Bible with Adam and Eve. You know, ‘cause the writers of the Bible were already patriarchal. 

So, women are villainized too and mistreated before we’re even born. There’s data that shows there’s still heavy preference for female children and mountains of data that show the documenting the mistreatment of us once we’re born and throughout our lives. So, when the power system mistreats a person or group, they have to make a choice on how they’re gonna survive and respond. And I think that Satanic mythology in history provides a path for women who want to rebel against that oppressive system because it, like all myth, it allows us to imagine a different kind of world where women have the power to protect themselves. And associating with witchcraft, associating with demonic stuff does give women a power, and that’s why it was connected so heavily during the Inquisition and during those things. Because the general fear was women are gonna have power, and we can’t have that because then our whole system will be upended. 

SOLEIL: Mmhmm. 

MEGAN: So, we’re going to say that this power— So, it’s OK for men to access supernatural power through God, but it’s not OK for women to access supernatural power through the devil. And women can’t access through God in Christianity; they’re not allowed to be priests. They’re not allowed to contact God directly. So, this is kind of an enclosure to make sure women don’t have any contact with powers that might actually end up overthrowing men. I think the resurgence of witchcraft imagery and brujeria and everything in this post-Trump world, this is not chance. Women are experiencing the historical backlash that comes after we’ve had rights advancements and are turning back to that mythology that tells them they don’t have to take this shit lying down and that there might be power out there that they can access even as they have been denied traditional paths to power. And I think one of the ironies for me is that if women had just been allowed to access divinity through the normal resources in Christianity, I don’t think that women would need to turn to witchcraft or need to turn to demonic imagery. Because they wouldn’t be nearly as oppressed. They’d be able to access God. 

Which is why I’m such a big proponent of—even though I’m myself an atheist; I’m not part of any religion—I’m a huge proponent of any movement that is trying to ordain women within religious groups. Because once you see women in those areas of power, everything below it gets better and more equal. Everything gets chiller. 

SOLEIL: And in this current age, right, we still have a lot of resistance to that, dismantling of binaric systems and to the upending of Christianity as “the religion,” which is debatable, right? But what do you think people for whom this dismantling is a source of fear, what do you think they’re afraid of? 

MEGAN: Losing their power. I think there’s a lot of privilege, and I guess at the individual whether or not they actually see their privilege, I guess you really can’t prove what people see. And a lot of people— And culture works really hard to blind people to their privilege. But the only reason you wouldn’t be OK, in my opinion, the only reason that you wouldn’t be OK with sharing your power is because part of your power requires you to be over people and requires that some people are doing jobs they would rather not do or not getting all of, that some of the group needs to be treated as not human in order for you to feel better or to have your power. For me, that’s the only reason you would not wanna democratize this stuff or not want to have a more egalitarian setup. 

And it’s also, I think, a lack of understanding of how intertwined we all really are. I think there are people who just don’t wanna see the complexity of that system, who have interpreted their success in America as a divine thing, as a racial thing. Obviously, that is constantly encouraged through Christianity, through politics, through American propaganda. It’s encouraging that hey, you belong here, and you got here just because you’re awesome. 

SOLEIL: [chuckles] 

MEGAN: And welcome to the party. But it’s not. And America works really hard especially to hide how we get where we are. You know, I think of going to D.C. and seeing the Jefferson Memorial and this great quote about religious freedom and then remembering how he was a rapist and owned slaves and the whitewashing that we do and the picking and choosing of how we talk about how we got here. And it leads to an illusion that you got here without any help. It’s the Libertarian bootstrap bullshit. The idea that a Libertarian can get pissed about paying taxes but not using schools or the post office or things that we all need and use. [sighs] And unfortunately, white supremacy and patriarchy and capitalism really have forced this idea that people can make it on their own and can make it without social connections and can make it without community support. And you know, that’s bad for empathy. That’s bad for, it’s bad practically. It’s just practically, we’re seeing the effects of that ignorance play out now in a way I think we haven’t seen, at least in my lifetime. 

[mellow music break] 

SOLEIL: My next guest, Holly Lyman Antolini, is an Episcopalian rector—a member of the clergy—and actually the mother of my friend and colleague, Tina. It was really great to call up my friend’s mom and immediately jump into talking about the devil. 

HOLLY: When Tina messaged me that you were gonna be doing this and that you were curious about stuff, I immediately thought of the movie that I never went to see because I was so angry about it just in principle: The Passion of the Christ, I think it was called or something like that. That was a super graphic depiction of Jesus’s crucifixion some years ago. And people told me that the devil shows up in the movie and is androgynous, is like not identified as to gender. So, there’s this kind of subliminal implication that the devil is that androgynous-ness, you know, that evil personified. And I just didn’t even wanna pay money to anybody that [laughs] would put something like that out in the world. 

I think the whole movie was incredibly patriarchal. It has a patriarchal understanding of Jesus. So, the only way to be in the world and be holy is male, right? The archetypical symbol of evil is that not-male-ness. 

SOLEIL: So, as an Episcopalian, what’s your take on the devil? 

HOLLY: Ha ha! Yeah, well, hmm. So, “the devil” is a problematic category to me at all. The word is used in a few places. There other words used for an incarnation of evil. Like, there’s Lucifer, who was the fallen angel. And I was just reading a poem in my Poem-a-day that was today’s poem, by the way. 

SOLEIL: The poem Holly is talking about, which was indeed the poem of the day on poets.org when I called her, is called There is a Devil Inside Me. It’s by Carolina Ebeid. 

HOLLY: And it has a quote in the explanation about the poem saying Lucifer, the messenger bearing light. Lucifer, which means “of light,” right—before falling from grace into the underworld. So, there’s an image, and then there’s the image of Satan the Accuser in the Book of Job. The Accuser! Like the voice in your head that says, “You’re no good! You’re no good!” Right? [laughs] And then there’s an image of Satan as the tempter, like the snake in the garden luring us to claim more power than we can handle. And when I was thinking about this, I put, “mountaintop mining, genetic modification, intelligent computers, plastics!” [laughs] Right? We’re constantly tempted. It’s kind of a concomitant of our creativity with this amazing, I would call it, God-given imagination we have that makes us think up new things. And then but there’s also, there’s always inherent in that, there’s this temptation to claim more power than we have or more knowledge than we have or more certainty than we have about stuff and not see how we’re being distracted in the process. 

SOLEIL: So when you say “the accuser,” does that relate to the common idea of the devil’s advocate? 

HOLLY: Yes, exactly! Like a legal proceeding in which you must have somebody ask you the hard question. So, that’s really ambiguous. That’s not just somebody sashaying around, convicting people or snaring people. And then so much of the sort of popular image of the devil comes either from completely extra-Biblical stuff or from the Book of Revelation, which has all kinds of metaphorical evocation of devil-like figures or evil figures, all of it poetic, none of it literal. And Revelation is a tiny sliver of a book in a huge compendium, a library literally—Bible, biblio: it means library—it’s a tiny sliver of a book on the back shelf, and it’s connected back to apocalyptic literature, which was always literature of the oppressed. It was always borne out of desperation. So, it has this quality of kind of all or nothing, being rescued from absolute horror, right? And it’s not nearly as important in the overall testimony of that huge compendium of books that we call the Bible as, say, the Gospels or the Pentateuch, which is the first five books of the Old Testament of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Torah, or the prophetic literature: Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, all those small prophets, Amos, Hosea, and very, very different in tone from all those. So, why would we privilege that as the image of what we’re supposed to be about as Christians fighting evil on the terms of Revelation, which is metaphorical, not actual? 

SOLEIL: It sounds like that kind of devil appeals more to our fascistic tendencies, then…. 

HOLLY: You said it, and I affirm it. It appeals to our need for certainty because people read Revelation as if it were a map that says, “These are the evil people.” It’s fascinating to read over history and see who were the evil people then, and who are the evil people now? And what are their resemblance to each other? Oh, oh, oh! Oh! They’re people of color. They’re people who are on the outside of the power structure. Oh! Interesting. Why are we reading it that way still? 

So, I would say Anglicans don’t historically focus on the devil but on the grace of God imbued in us incarnation. So, Jesus came to be a human being so that we would know we have the divine in us. We recognize it, and we would build on it. And that Jesus doesn’t offer what we call substitutionary atonement, meaning a kind of Band-Aid of he did it for us, and now we’re OK. Jesus offers a model of what it means to live non-violently and trusting in God in the world, which usually puts you at risk [chuckles] from people who are inclined to be fascistic and anxious, right? And that sometimes, in order to contend against evil, that’s what you do. You put yourself in harm’s way in a sense on behalf of love because you’re supposed to be, you focus on the grace of God. You focus on the power of God, not your own power to fight against evil. And then you do what is the most loving thing in the moment. 

And for an example, I guess, for me of doing that—because love is a pretty general category too, right—would be I’m in a coffee shop at General Convention ‘cause I’m representing the Diocese of Main at General Convention, and we’re having this argument about whether my friend, Gene Robinson, can be a bishop or not because he’s a partnered gay man. And somebody comes up to me I’ve never seen before in my life and says, “You Episcopalians! You’re having this conversation about this, about homosexuality, and I know it’s evil. So, tell me why you think it isn’t.” And [laughs] you know, I’m like, OK, this is my moment. I don’t think I’m gonna make any progress with this person. This is going to be a dead loss of a conversation, but I’m gonna say what I think anyway! It’s gonna be painful. I’m gonna have to listen to their— Or in the same time, I was serving on the liturgy and music committee of the General Convention, which is the whole Episcopal church meeting to decide its business in a sort of democratic way. And we have these excruciating hearings that went on and on and on, whether it was about marriage equality or whether it was about consecrating Gene Robinson. This one was about consecrating Gene Robinson. You have to hear, again, people getting up to the microphone and telling you how they run these therapy organizations that heal people from being gay and how evil it is and what the Bible says about it and all this. And you have to sit and listen and listen and listen and listen and listen and hope to God that somehow out of this conversation is gonna come some awareness. Which it has, by George! [chuckles] 

SOLEIL: It seems like so much of your own religious practice is rooted in that sense of openness: of giving space for debate and questions rather than retreating into certainty. Is that accurate? 

HOLLY: For me, that’s the depth of spirituality: it’s to be able to live in the world as an agnostic, as one who doesn’t know, not as one who’s absolutely certain now about where God stands on everything. I mean if we’re certain about where God stands, God’s been shifting around. It’s really disconcerting. [laughs] And I also think, Soleil, that apropos of the devil, we have a really evil Chief Executive at the moment, I mean truly evil as far as I know how to define that. But I have a feeling that it’s going to call me to do things that could be really seriously self-sacrificial, you know, in order to stand up for love against the kinds of stuff that he does. 

SOLEIL: When you take the idea of the devil as an externalized, absolute evil out of the equation, does your motivation to do good change? 

HOLLY: So, we’re not fighting the devil, right? We’re just trying to create relationship. We’re just trying to be in our bodies, which I call Be Incarnate, you know? Be in our bodies and believe that good can come out of that. But you don’t know the outcome, and you don’t know who’s better or who’s worse. You aren’t on a clearly virtuous ground. I think even the word “virtue” is problematic. Who’s virtuous? I think Anglicans at our best are not willing to claim virtue. We’re willing to try for it if it means enhancing well-being wider than our own, but we’re not gonna claim, we’re really agnostic about our virtue. So, we have to listen to different voices and try to learn new and emerging things and reframe our notions of good and evil. So, right, the devil—in that scenario—the devil could be shifting around a lot and could be kinda useful, like God sends Satan to Job or gives him permission anyway. Satan says, “Hey, can I go bother Job? He’s such a good person. I wanna see whether he can hold onto it. I don’t think he can.” And God says, “Go do it. Sure, go do it.” And that’s why I follow a crucified God. It’s not so that I can fight the devil; it’s because sometimes doing the right thing involves giving up my power and trusting that good’s gonna come out of it somehow on the other side. And I don’t know what that, I don’t know how I’m gonna be asked to do that. But I’m gonna hope that when/if I am, I will do it out of love, you know, not because I’m gonna fight the devil. 

[The Devil Went Down to Georgia by Rika Ikeda plays] 

SOLEIL: Thanks to Megan Kennedy and Holly Lyman Antolini for talking with me for today’s show. 

And thanks to you for listening. This episode was produced by Alex Ward. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Thanks to Kathy Freeman for her track, I Let the Devil In. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. If you have thoughts or feelings or feedback on the show, please feel encouraged to send me an email to soleil@b-word.org. Or just review us on iTunes. Thanks! 

[theme music] 

AMY LAM: Hi! It’s Amy from Backtalk. 

SOLEIL: And Soleil from Popaganda. 

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by Soleil Ho
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Soleil cooks for a living and writes sometimes. When she was in kindergarten, she reviewed a book for Reading Rainbow that she didn’t actually read. She cohosts Racist Sandwich, a podcast on food, race, class, and gender.

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