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Jesus stood up to him. Plenty of Christians talk about him. And some blame all sorts of evil on him. But likely you won’t hear his name tossed around much in a United Methodist Church.
Could it be... Satan?
“For the most part, you don’t hear mainline Protestants talking about Satan, the devil or the demonic,” said Jaime Clark-Soles, associate professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology. “I think we’ve handed that kind of language over to the fundamentalists.”
“Bringing up the supernatural reality of Satan is enough to make a typical United Methodist go into conniptions,” he said.
And not only do Methodists avoid talking about he-who-must-not-be-named. They don’t sing about him either.
“Regretfully, many United Methodists don’t even want to discuss sin, let alone the devil.”
So why all this “denial” about the devil?
First, many Methodists have a disdain for all things fire-and-brimstone (too “Baptist-y,” jokes Dr. Clark-Soles, who is an ordained moderate Baptist clergyperson). Some seek to distance themselves from caricatures of uptight Christians (think Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” character on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, who blamed Satan for any behavior she deemed immoral.)
Many feel “it’s a copout to blame evil—particularly evil that can be attributed to human causes—to a supernatural power,” said Mr. Wingeier, “[and believe instead] that we should take responsibility ourselves.”
Most Methodists tend to fall somewhere in the middle of a spectrum that ranges from viewing Satan as a simply a literary device—the personification of evil—to seeing Satan as a separate, distinct being and the cause of all evil, according to Rev. Andrew Tevington, associate pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Servant in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Similarly, Dr. Garrett says modern scholars are beginning to see that in the strictly rational approach, “there was a false notion, that we could somehow have a complete story of salvation without any adversary.”
“If you ax out all the parts about evil or Satan or demons from the New Testament, the story of Jesus doesn’t make sense, because it’s not clear what he’s redeeming us from,” she said.
“When we give up that language, we give up what we have to offer.”
At the root of how Methodists view Satan, says Dr. Walls, is the question, “Is evil real or do bad things just happen?”
Some may “think of the demonic in psychological terms, de-mythologize it, leave it at the level of human choices,” he said. “I think we are on dangerous ground when we don’t take evil seriously.”