Inventing a guy to get mad at
Note: I originally wrote this as a paid-subscriber-only thing on Sept. 3. With Satanic Panic in the air and lively conversations sure to be on the menu at family gatherings tomorrow, I decided to re-publish it for everyone today.
I want to talk about a 1990 music video by the late Christian pop star Carman.
The song is “Revival in the Land,” from the bestselling album of the same title, and it’s mostly about the devil. The first five minutes play like a high-budget skit from a Vacation Bible School.
“In the center of the caverns of hell, hidden under layers of evil that have thrived for centuries, sits the morbid domain of the prince of the power of the air,” Carman announces to a packed concert venue.
Cut to hell, a scene bathed in orange light with fog machines and open flames. Orchestral swells give way to timpani rolls and cinematic drones. We see a sniveling demon approach the throne of a musclebound red Satan with bad news: The evangelicals are planning … a revival.
The whole production is flamboyant and campy and smoldering with brimstone, like if Tenacious D tried to adapt The Screwtape Letters. The devil sounds a lot like Darth Vader, especially when he asks, “Is there a disturbance in my false religions?”
This video came out before my time, but Carman was a huge deal in U.S. evangelical circles in the ‘90s. When he died from surgery complications earlier this year, the eulogy in Christianity Today compared him to other one-name pop stars (Madonna, Cher, Liberace). I think that’s a fair comparison in terms of his reach within the vast subculture of evangelicaldom.
Born Carmelo Licciardello in New Jersey, he dropped out of high school to sing Top 40 songs in Atlantic City casinos, got born again (in the Billy Graham sense) at a gospel concert, and found a way to sing for the Lord. Throughout his career, he had a knack for fusing the culture war zeitgeist with old school, big-tent-revival spectacle.
“The music is the best means I have of reaching the most people in the quickest way to win them to Christ,” Carman said once. “I think an artist owes it to his audience to thrill them and impress them. It lets people know there is joy in being Christian.”
He had a smooth voice and rugged looks reminiscent of a young Mel Gibson. He toured in the ‘80s with the Gaither Vocal Band, a big draw on the church circuit that also helped launch the career of songwriters like Mark Lowry (he of “Mary Did You Know?” fame). He started writing his own songs and crafting an elaborate stage show. After a few years of struggle, Revival in the Land (1989) became his first album to reach No. 1 on the Christian charts.
Kicking the devil’s ass is a recurring theme in Carman’s ouevre. In live performances of “The Champion,” he liked to pantomime as Jesus in a boxing match with the devil. In the video for “Satan, Bite the Dust!” Carman appears dressed as a laconic Old West lawman, kicks open a saloon door, and blows Satan away with a revolver.
“Revival in the Land” is perhaps his longest meditation on the Prince of Darkness. In the field-demon’s report to his master, we get a punch list of things that Carman believed the devil loved most, in order of appearance:
I like to imagine an alternate-reality Carman whose Satan was concerned with different sins: the bloodlust of nuclear proliferation, the mass human bondage of the American carceral state, the naked avarice of Reaganomics.
But that’s not the Carman we got, and it’s not the devil he imagined. Carman was an entertainer, but he was also a fervent believer in mainstream U.S. evangelical accounts of what was good and evil at the end of the Cold War. And so, while U.S.-backed death squads were assassinating Catholic priests in El Salvador, we got a morality play about why women shouldn’t have access to safe healthcare and you shouldn’t let your kids read horoscopes.
In this respect Carman was drawing on a long tradition. The devil as we know him was Frankensteined from bits of pagan gods: the horns and goat-legs of Pan, a pitchfork from Poseidon’s trident. Carman’s depiction of Satan as a figure to be ridiculed, rather than feared, hearkens back to the devil’s role as comic relief in medieval mystery plays.
All this is to say that, when a man erects a devil, he tells you a lot about himself. We see in that scapegoat a representation of all the things he hates most, and maybe a few of the things that tempt him.
Carman’s devil was pure kitsch, and even for true believers I think that was always part of the fun of a Carman show. Still, for those of us who believe in a literal personified God, the question of a literal personified devil looms large and serious.
Satan (or a Satan-like figure) makes only a few appearances in the Bible — once in Job, where he strikes a deal with Yahweh to ruin a good man’s life; and once in the Gospels, where he tempts Jesus during a 40-day fast to save himself from hunger and death. He shows up again in Revelation as a 7-headed dragon for some reason.
Beyond those accounts, our American Satan is a mishmash of Milton, Dante, and maybe a little heavy metal iconography from the ‘80s. A good number of us believe he is real.
The most recent survey I could find on the subject was a Gallup poll from 2007 in which 7 in 10 Americans said they believed in the Devil. That number was purportedly on the rise since 2000.
Most days I see belief in Satan as a cop-out, personally. Turfing off my moral failings (or the failings of others) on an invisible semi-omnipotent trickster seems like an awfully convenient excuse.
But there are days when I can appreciate the benefits of having a devil in mind. If I see evil in the world — lying about a deadly disease for political gain, to use one example — I can take comfort in believing that the people carrying it out are simply possessed by a malevolent force. The devil-as-scapegoat lets me restore my faith in humanity and God all at once.
The devil is all around, particularly here in the South. My wife and I were in the Verizon store the other day dealing with phone issues when an older woman walked in and started chatting up a sales associate about her Bible study, the book of Revelation, and the visions God had shown her.
I felt bad for the put-upon sales associate at first, until she started preaching back.
“The devil is a liar,” I heard the saleswoman say at one point, and my ears perked up. Even without a belief in a literal devil, I always appreciated that aphorism. The devil does lie to us, often about whether we are worthy of love when we feel down in the dirt.
I have one encounter to share, and then I’ll stop talking about the devil. When I was in high school, I had a friend from my church youth group who became convinced on a long bus ride home from Panama City Beach that he was possessed by a demon. Several of us huddled around him and laid our hands on him. He was sweaty and trembling. We prayed to Jesus to cast the demon out, and we told the demon to leave directly. My friend writhed in his seat a little bit, and then he came to rest, delivered.
It all felt real at the moment, but I don’t know now. My friend also said he had been using salvia, which can make you hallucinate.
As a kid who didn’t observe Halloween, I never much cared for campy depictions of Satan and his minions. I read works of Christian horror like This Present Darkness, and I believed that demons were crawling everywhere around me on clacking taloned feet. The forces of darkness were real and to be reckoned with seriously.
As an adult who’s a little more agnostic about demonic oppression, I can appreciate a kitschy goat-devil for what he is and what he represents. Unfortunately Carman’s devil is still a devil for our time, even if he’s not the one I choose to believe in.
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