by Tripp York
164 pp. Cascade Books, $19.00
I’ve said and written this before, and I still believe it’s true: if you want to find out what’s really important to your neighbor, ask that neighbor about Hell. I suppose the corollary of that truth is thus: a book about the devil will reveal more of the author than might a book about God. Going with that major premise, and using Tripp York’s The Devil Wears Nada as the minor, I’d say that Tripp York is a person who loves his footnotes and worries that his reactions to one folly will land him in a second, more foolish folly. That said, whereas some books leave me wondering whether I live on the same planet as the author, York’s is the sort that makes me think that a different choice here, a switch of opportunities there, and I could easily imagine his life and mine switched. That makes for difficult book-reviewing, but it’s also the kind of reading that teaches me some things about myself. Yes, O Reader, this book review will be more autobiographical than most of mine, but it’s because this book (not unlike Ed Cyzewski’s Coffeehouse Theology) holds up a mirror to my mind as much as it gives me a funny book to read.
As the title of my review indicates, York seems to take the structure of his book from Morgan Spurlock’s documentaries: after a brief narrative setting up the quest to find the real Satan, York travels to churches of all stripes, interviewing evangelicals and unitarians, Pentecostals and liberals, all to find the real Satan. Why find Satan? Because, as the book’s setup narrative relates, York has become bored with the classical proofs of God and the safe, mostly sterile discussions that philosophical theology inevitably drift towards. So that he can find an exciting God, he goes where the excitement is: Satan. Unlike Spurlock, he doesn’t state his rules at the outset, but there are rules governing the hunt nonetheless: for the duration of the book, he must go to a variety of religious and non-religious people, asking them to explain their claims about Satan and following those claims to their logical conclusions. As he hunts, his aim will always be a face-to-face encounter with Satan, and if the meeting occurs, he will offer his soul in exchange for the immediate repayment of his student loans.
The selling-the-soul riff, like most of the book, has its own theological rationale: York explains, deep in the book, that since he holds to something like a Thomist view of the soul, in which the soul is the ordering principle of earthly (and resurrected) existence rather than a non-corporeal component of the person that one can separate from the body (and thus buy or sell), that he’s in no real danger of losing anything of value when he makes his deal. If you, O Reader, think that such a chain of reasons strains a bit, even for a light satire, then you’ll likely read as I have read, laughing one moment and calling sleight-of-hand the next.
Whether the dialogue in the book is based on transcripts of recorded conversations or whether York has some Thucydides to him, the conversations with religious people, both conservatives and liberals, are hilarious. Because York is himself an Anabaptist who wrote his master’s thesis for someone whose name “rhymes with Schmauerwas” (98), he’s just as comfortable poking holes in the liberal (or progressive, if that’s what you’d prefer to call it) platitudes of the Unitarian as the Unitarian tries to reduce Satan to a battle with one’s self (100) as he does with the Satan-around-every-corner claims of the Nazarenes, even one who claims that Satan made the CD skip during the Sunday morning song service (22). Both sorts of scenes, whether based on real conversations or not, left me laughing hard. Like a Spurlock documentary, though, York has the particular gift of liking (or really, really seeming as if he likes) people from all sorts of backgrounds. In other words, one comes away from the encounters with liberals and conservatives in his book with a sense that, as far as York is concerned, these are good folks who can really get things right when they have their moments but who are laboring under some seriously bad ideas. Think about the way you feel about the pony-tailed Big-Mac addict towards the end of Super-Size Me, and you’ll have an idea of the frame of mind within which York approaches people of different faiths.
And by different, I don’t just mean Trinitarians and Unitarians. Some of the funniest dialogue is with a self-identified shamanistic healer, someone who takes all of the magick and wiccan business quite seriously, talking him through the nuts and bolts of binding rituals, Tarot cards, and other trappings of the modern-day sorcerer. But to York’s chagrin, he takes the soul so seriously that he won’t help York to sell his soul in exchange for student-loan money. And here I reproduce the ending of that interview because, like so many other episodes, it ends with York’s pointing to what is genuinely likable even in a person who could so easily become a stereotype:
“[…]what I have learned through this whole phase of my life, and the one major conclusion out of all these experiences that I can draw, is that although your loans seem uncomfortable to you, and I know this will sound crazy, but greater things are going to come out of experiencing what you need to experience in order to pay them off.”
I stared in disbelief. Of all the things he had told me, this was by far the least credible. Yes, I said to him, as I nodded my head in agreement, you are correct–that sounds crazy.”
He laughed and proceeded to tell me I’ll be a completely different person than what I would be if I didn’t have to pay my loans.
I would be a person with money.
I can’t believe it was my conversation with the one-time Satanist turned pagan/shamanistic-healer/drum-playing mystic who would be the one to teach me about character building.
Well, that interview was a bust. (130)
Throughout the book York (whether he’s inventing the dialogue or not) points to these moments when, although out of their gourds when it comes to some very important questions, folks who relate to Satan in very different ways nonetheless manage to say things, unwittingly or no, that teach him something about God.
As I said, this book was to a great extent a mirror for me, seeing as I wrote my undergraduate senior project for one of Hauerwas’s grad students and had as a reader for my master’s thesis in Old Testament a Yale-educated theologian. But like some mirrors, this one threw things into relief rather than simply reproducing them. For instance, whereas I tend to read Gospel pericopes through the lenses of N.T. Wright, always situating them within the large narratives of second-temple Judaism and first-century Church, York (in one of his relatively straightforward narrative passages) treats the story of the Gerasene demoniac as merely a “weird story” that tells him something about how people think about demons. He never mentions the name Legion and its connection the Roman presence, never notes the economic boon that gaining a son back would have been for the family, never notes that the presence of pigs in the Decapolis serves in the text of the gospels as a strong mark of foreign occupation. He spends four pages on it (80-83) but never sees fit to situate it very explicitly in its own moment. Such is a matter of emphasis rather than of doctrine, so no biggie. What troubles me more are brief passages in which York too easily conflates “people who are gay, or are of a different race, nationality, or faith tradition (even within Christianity)” (63). Those four categories carry with them the complexities of stories, and to list them flatly as elements within a series strikes me as a bit of sloppy writing, perhaps to demonstrate a point about Southern culture but nonetheless sloppy.
By and large, though, I can recommend this book for a good laugh at the expense of the Devil, who demonstrates his powers mainly through heresy (151) but also by standing back and letting us Christians say what we’re going to say about the Devil. And the real gems in this book are related to but not directly in the plotline of the devil-search; as a set of theological reflections, although I had some quibbles, I enjoyed the book as a whole. I didn’t come away any more convinced that anyone has anything worth saying about the devil, and perhaps that’s the message of the book: with mouths as big as ours, the only wonder is that the devil has to work very much at all.