Recently Tokens’ Craig Katzenmiller was able to sit down with Tripp York via email and ask him a series of questions about his recent book, The Devil Wears Nada. The following is the result of that email exchange. 1. To start off with, I wanted to comment on your writing style; I was struck by the informal, accessible nature of it. You convey profound theological insight while simultaneously making me laugh out loud. (It’s sort of like reading Irenaeus’ Against Heresies if Irenaeus had studied under Jerry Seinfeld.) Could you speak to the reasons for presenting your research through storytelling rather than through the listing of facts?
To quote the great poet, Homer (Simpson): “You can use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true. Facts, schmacts.”
This book just lends itself to a narrative style. I mean, how does one really capture someone like, say, a Brother Ray (a charismatic-snake-handling-Elvis-imitating-preacher), by just physically describing him? I wanted him to be as real for my readers as he was, and still is, to me. I wanted people to feel the tension and humor that accompanied this whole strange journey.
I also wanted to make sure everyone felt my righteous fear of puppets. Those things are just not right.
2. Puppets not withstanding, just who is Satan, and what’s he up to—your research revealed he’s a him, right?
He’s up to about 6’2”, 205. At least, that’s my impression of this one particular Pentecostal minister who chased me out of his office for asking too many questions. That guy was scary. But don’t worry; I was never in any true danger. When you’re a Mennonite and can’t fight back, you learn how to run fast. I’m quite speedy, thank you.
3. It seems that a lot of the issues surrounding people’s understandings of Satan come from rigidly proof-texting verses of Scripture about what we love. Might there be a more productive way to approach themes of desire than to say, “The devil did x” or “Satan broke y”?
I guess personal responsibility for one’s own vices would be a start. And, you know, realizing that microphone feedback could be due to a terrible sound technician rather than Satan. Granted, I’ve worked with some sound techs that I’m convinced were born and bred in the fiery pits of hades, so who knows.
4. You note that there are a lot of folks who are working to ward off Satan by being “strong” or by finding a “respected prophet” to exorcise them, and you further note that the Gospel subverts both the “strong” (I think immediately of Jesus’ cross here) and the “respected prophets” (Jesus’ words in Luke 6 about how his contemporaries’ ancestors treated prophets surely cast doubt on respectable prophets). Drawing on TDWN as well as your other work, could you speak to this subversiveness in the Gospel?
The whole narrative is so thoroughly subversive. Jesus is born out of wedlock to a virgin (what sort of chromosomal alignment does that produce?), tells people to give away their money, to love their enemies, to hate their parents, and, might I add, to pray in private. You know, that last one should be the easiest. I understand how people get hung up on turning the other cheek or giving away their money, but why is it so difficult to just pray in private? These chaplains of the nation-state who mawkishly “heap up empty phrases” for the voting public need to keep it down. It’s time for a ban on public prayer—if for no other reason than it could save lives! Now that would be interesting.
But yeah, I mean, Jesus goes into the temple, turns over tables and disrupts the big business of marketing and profiteering off one’s religion. Sacrilege! Even more so in a consumer culture where Jesus is reduced to predictable platitudes on a t-shirt. It’s no wonder they had to kill him. He’s a huge threat to the kind of religious piety that masquerades as faithfulness. So, he’s executed as a criminal. He’s an enemy of the state (not to mention all the good religious folk). I can’t really find anything in the Gospel that’s not subversive. Try talking about marriage (or, remarriage), money, violence, sex, our enemies, the stranger, the alien, etc., through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount and see where that will get you. It will not resemble the maudlin sort of love affair many North American Christians have with their “personal Lord and Savior” that currently does little more than endorse the pious conflation of God, Caesar, and money.
5. Ultimately, your book, as I read it, is an appeal to Christians to think correctly—orthodoxly—about their faith. You conclude by saying that TDWN is an attempt to “test the spirits” in order to find out more, if not about God, than about the current state of Christianity. And you reveal that troublesome heterodoxies are as common today as they were in the first century. What advice do you have for folks who want to avoid these ways of thinking, who want to avoid modern Gnosticism—whether as revealed in rigidly making the world a God-vs.-Satan battlefield or in enthusiastically separating the secular from the sacred, for example?
You’re right, the book really is about combatting heresy—or at least pointing it out. Unfortunately, some folks are getting hung up on certain parts of it and are missing that overall point. I’ve been called a cynic (the book is not cynical at all), borderline blasphemous (yes, I am all about committing blasphemy against false gods), as well as, and I quote, a “sardonic ass” (that’s probably true). The purpose of the book is to expose how heretical Christianity in North America has become by examining how people think about evil and/or the Devil. I just wanted to have a little fun along the way so that I didn’t become a cynic!
In terms of avoiding Gnosticism—good luck with that one. I guess you can start off by rejecting our culture’s fetish with spirituality. This can be accomplished by simply spending some time in a Catholic Worker house, growing a garden to share with those in need, or just resisting the siren song that indoctrinates you into thinking God is not concerned with the material. Matter does matter. Otherwise, why would God bother pronouncing it ‘good’?
Once you exorcise those demons, do what you can to resist the commodification of Christianity. This means no more ‘witness-wear’ or buying into the kind of pedestrian music over-produced by ridiculously affluent ‘Christian’ songwriters. You know, just stop singing songs a capuchin would find embarrassing. That form of resistance alone could create a new kind of Christianity. Also, don’t fall for the trendy rejection of all theological resources existent prior to the 20th century. The church is ripe with wonderful resources for how to think well about Christian practice. Finally, and most importantly, buy my books. All of them. Multiple copies. Or, if you imagine capitalism to be a product of malevolent forces, steal them from the wealthy and redistribute them as you deem fit. You know, give them to all of your enemies. That should work wonders for your reputation.
Tripp York, PhD, teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, VA. He is the author of numerous books including his most recent, The Devil Wears Nada. He is also the general co-editor of the Peaceable Kingdom Series. The first volume in the series, A Faith Not Worth Fighting For, is now available. Tripp also maintains The Amish Jihadist blog. When he’s not busy writing, he spends much of his time shoveling animal poop at the zoo. He finds sloths, squirrel monkeys and African crowned cranes to be far less under the influence of Satan than most of his human peers. Well, maybe not the squirrel monkeys.