Miguel De La Torre on The Quest for the Historical Satan

With Halloween on the horizon, the time was right to touch base with Miguel De La Torre, author of The Quest for the Historical Satan, to find out just how scared we should be this season. De La Torre is an ordained Southern Baptist preacher as well as a social ethics professor at the Iliff School of Theology. During our conversation, he discussed Satan in his many historical contexts, how Satan relates to superheroes and what dressing up as Satan this Halloween season might actually entail.

See also: Denver Film Society gets spooky for Halloween week

Westword: Can you tell us who you are?

Dr. Miguel De La Torre: I am a professor of social ethics and Latino studies at the Iliff School of Theology. I've published over 28 books, mostly dealing with ethics issues and social justice. I've been writing this particular book with my colleague, Albert Hernandez; we were really interested in how the construction of Satan impacts ethical behavior.

For you personally, who is Satan? Does he take on different forms for you?

For me, Satan becomes an excuse that allows people to blame Satan for doing evil things. So when we look at evil in the world, for example, let's say something like the Holocaust or Jim Crow laws in the South and lynchings. It's very easy for us as a community to blame Satan for that evil, and thus excuse individuals for their complicity with the evil that exists in society.... I would rather instead, and this is what we try to do in the book, look at Satan as a trickster. Most religious traditions have some kind of trickster symbol -- I think that's what Satan is -- and I think that this way it's not that Satan personifies absolute evil, which is what our culture and our movies and our literature says, but rather Satan provides opportunities that could provide for either good or can lead to bad, depending on the individual and which road the individual wishes to traverse.

For kids today, it would seem like Satan has taken on a rock-star status: 666 tattoos, pentagrams on everything. What's interesting to me is that they're not religious, so it seems almost contradictory to believe in Satan if they don't believe in god. Thoughts?

Not necessarily. There was a time when a hint that one was associated with the satanic was enough to get the person hung or burned at the stake or excommunicated. Satan was very real in the past to individuals who were basically scared into heaven, for fear if they were to go to hell and fall into Satan's clutches. Satan has kind of died with the age of enlightenment, so that today Satan is no more real than the wolfman, Frankenstein, a mummy or any other madeup monster. But its still carries a rebellious tone, tattooing the 666 or the pentagram or any of those things. Do these children who do this actually believe in an actual physical being that represents ultimate evil? Some may, some may not. It's not so much that they believe in the person, it is more accepting the rebellion against how Christianity or god has been portrayed by the culture.

How do the horns and tail enter the picture?

Every time a religion moves through a culture, not only does that religion change that culture, but the religion itself is changed by the culture. For example, when the Jews were in Babylon -- and we talk about this in the book in great detail -- the concept of good and evil, absolute good, absolute evil, children of light, children of darkness, all that began to influence Judaism, which then, of course,influences Christianity. That's when you have this clear dichotomy between a good being and an evil being. When that faith moves through Greek and Roman culture, it begins to identify with the gods from the other culture.

You have Pan, for example, who had cloven feet, horns, a tail and reddish skin. That becomes the physical, visual representation of Satan. Secondly, what has been very common in early Christianity, from Justin the Martyr forward, is that the gods of all these other religions, they really are Satan. So when Christianity enters a new culture, whatever god that culture happens to be worshiping, that's Satan. Which is a move away from Judaism, which just basically says there are no other gods except one true god, and that is Yahweh.

Is Satan just different for everyone? Is the concept of Satan simply a balance of good and evil?

It depends. For some people, more fundamentalist evangelicals, Satan is the personification of all that is evil, the adversary of god. For other cultures, Satan has become a symbol of rebellion against the Christian narrative. For someone like me, Satan plays more of the role of the trickster. In many religions, especially indigenous faiths, the trickster is not good or evil, but rather is beyond good and evil. So it's not so much a balance, but more allowing the individual themselves opportunities that they may not have discovered.

Let me give you an example: In the bible there is a story of Jesus going into the wilderness, and coming across Satan. Satan tempts Jesus with three things: Possessions, you know, make these stones into bread; and privilege, jump off the temple and an angel will catch you; and lastly with power, worship me and I'll give you all these things. Jesus then rebukes Satan. If you look at the narrative through the eyes of the trickster, which is what we're suggesting in the book, it's not that Satan was evil, but rather through the temptations, Jesus discovered what Jesus's ministry is. So in a way, Satan was helpful in Jesuss' discovery of who he was and what his mission was. So that's what I mean by trickster opening up different ways of seeing something. It could lead to good or it could lead to evil, but that depends on the individual.

The History Channel had a show last year called The Bible, and Satan bore a striking resemblance to Obama. What do you think about that?

(Laughs.) I think that's the thing, we make what we don't agree with into the satanic. We talk about it in the book, how we look at the terrorist attack on 9/11 as being satanic and evil. Yet in Iran and Pakistan, we are the great Satan. So what we do by imposing this image we disagree with, it allows us the freedom to do very satanic things against those who we claim to be Satan. For example, during the Spanish Inquisition, the inquisitioner assumed the prisoner was satanic -- giving them the right to fight fire with fire, giving them the right to all kinds of torture. If Muslims are satanic, that gives permission to do drone attacks, to wipe them out, to have a war against them.

On the flip side, if we are the ones who are satanic, it gives them the right to fly planes into buildings. So the danger is when we call someone else, whether it be Obama or anyone else, as the image of Satan, it opens up this door to do very satanic stuff, to those who we find to be Satan. That's the issue I try to wrestle with in the book.

There is an old urban legend in Denver, where at the old Los Caporales nightclub, the devil showed up one night. He was a handsome cowboy, and when he was riding the mechanical bull his boot fell off, revealing a hoof. Everyone claimed it was Satan -- what do you think about this?

Well, I probably would chalk that up with those who have seen the face of Jesus on a tamale, or have seen Jesus in the smudge in the window. You know urban legends: They're fun to scare children with, but I'm more interested in scientific documentation.(Laughs.) I've seen everything from miracle trees, where if you touch them you'll be blessed -- all that might make a person feel good, but at the end of the day, I doubt that any serious, religious-safe community will accept that as being important to the faith.

So if on Halloween people really wanted to dress up like Satan, what should they wear?

If I were to dress up as Satan, I would probably wear a $600 suit, manicured fingernails and go as a banker. Others may decide on the more traditional red tights and horns. Just to clarify -- when I said "banker," I meant a Wall Street banker, not the banker down the street from my house. The Wall Street bankers who caused the last recession.

What does Satan mean to Halloween?

Again, the whole idea of Halloween, it's the tradition of the night before All Saints Day, so it's to celebrate the more ghoulish, darker side of the spiritual world. So Satan means no more and no less than being dressed as a hobo or being dressed as ghost, Frankenstein, nurse, superhero, it's just another costume. For more on Dr. De La Torre, click here and here.

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Alex Brown is a freelance writer from Denver, Colorado. You can find him around town falling off his skateboard, eating burritos and petting dogs.
Contact: Alex Brown