This Tuesday, October 10th, is the 178th anniversary of the founding of the U. S. Naval Academy. So I thought we’d consider why an Academy grad (and good friend) feels American Christianity has gone soft on war and evil.
My wife Kathy and I live in Annapolis, Maryland, which is home to the U. S. Naval Academy. We’ve lived here since 1987, so we have many friends who are Academy grads. One of them, a devout Christian, believes the gospel is essentially a cosmic conflict between good and evil. He feels American Christianity has lost touch with this, especially the idea of evil.
History might be on his side. In his book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, Tom Holland recounts the story of how the Greek-speaking world had gone soft on the idea of evil. He describes how the Catholic Church revived the idea of evil, especially Michael the Archangel in battling the cosmic conflict between good and evil.
The story begins in A.D. 492, on Mount Gargano, a rocky promontory jutting out from southeastern Italy into the Adriatic Sea. It was long known as a haunted spot, and Holland recounts a “scarcely believable” story of what happened there. It seems that a bull, wandering from its herd, had discovered the mouth of a cave. The bull’s owner, indignant that the animal had gone rogue, tried to shoot it with a poisoned arrow. But a blast of sudden wind reversed the trajectory of the arrow. It instead “struck the one who loosed it.”
Peasants who witnessed this told the local Catholic bishop who was intrigued, to put it mildly. So he embarked on a fast, hoping that God would make sense of what had happened. God did. After three days, a figure of radiant beauty armored in light appeared to the bishop. “Know that what happened,” the figure said, “was a sign. I am the guardian of this place. I stand watch over it.”
Holland writes that Gargano’s bishop was relieved to learn that the figure arrayed in light was not Apollo, the archer god who, according to Greek religion, had been felling the Greeks with his plague-tipped arrows. Few Greeks believed in this sort of spiritual stuff anymore, including the real possibility of evil. They were far too sophisticated to fall for such “hick” (i.e., pagan) notions.
The bishop did believe in evil. He was moved by the fact that the sort of the figure who appeared was the celestial general of the armies of God: Michael the Archangel, the guardian of such places where the existence of evil was a given. After the Archangel alighted on Gargano, further wonders soon followed, with Michael appearing in various places. He gave defending us in the battle against evil an individual face.As did Christian scholars parsing scripture for clues as to why evil exists. They’d been at it since the first century, but it was Origen (c. 185- c. 253), who pieced together the defining account: it had originated with the Devil, Lucifer. “More vividly than Persian and Jewish scholars had ever done, Christian scholars gave evil an individual face.”
The results were sober and personal: “Christians knew that they were not mere spectators in the great drama of Satan’s claim on the world, but participants—and the stakes were cosmically high. The shadows cast by this conviction were deep ones—and destined far into the future.” But perhaps not as far into the future as the 21st century, where American Christianity has gone soft on evil. We see it in today’s most popular rendition of the gospel, what scholars call moralistic therapeutic deism. Click the link and read about it. I assure you, the notion of evil doesn’t show up. Everything has to be positive, upbeat, affirming. It is here that I have come to think that my Naval Academy friend gets it right. We’re soft on evil.
Credit sacramental churches for keeping the Lord’s Prayer before God’s people week in and week out. It includes …and deliver us from evil. Evil is real. And credit many Catholic Churches for closing every Mass with The Prayer of Saint Michael the Archangel: “Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.”
Pretty sobering. But trust me. If you pray that prayer every week, you won’t go soft on evil.
 Book of the Appearances of Saint Michael 2
 Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, (Basic Books, 2019), 164.