Books

Book review

‘The Devil Wins’ by Dallas G. Denery II

Author Dallas G. Denery II teaches history at Bowdoin College.
Author Dallas G. Denery II teaches history at Bowdoin College.

Are you a good liar?

It’s a safe bet you were taken aback by the question. But all lies are not alike. They can take many forms, from face-saving fibs, evasions, and half-truths to the full immersion of living a lie, like, say, Clark Rockefeller. According to one study cited by Bowdoin College history professor Dallas G. Denery II in his exegetical new book “The Devil Wins,” we lie an average of three times in 10 minutes of conversation, “and even more frequently when we use e-mail and text messaging.”

If that’s the case, then the question becomes, is it ever OK to lie? That’s a riddle, as Denery points out, that has been vexing theologians and philosophers at least since the beginning of the common era.

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Despite the reference to texting, “The Devil Wins” concerns itself only with deception in the Bible, and how it was interpreted by theorists through the Middle Ages to the dawn of modernity. The Bible’s assertion that “[i]t took God six days to create the world and the Devil two sentences to undo it,” as Denery writes, made lying central to the story of human development: When the “father of lies” urged Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he made all God’s children sinners, living in a fallen world.

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For the medieval masses, that notion led to troubling conundrums. Was God capable of deceiving his followers? Martin Luther was one of many to address the church’s own apparent deception, the celebration of the Eucharist, which was presented to the congregation as the literal transformation of the body of Christ into the sacramental bread.

Luther compared the Bible’s stories to a fisherman who “deceives a fish by enticing it with bait.” Christ “came into the world clothed in flesh and was cast into the water like a hook.” The devil, fooled, “thought that he would kill a man and was himself being killed after being decoyed by Him into a trick.”

But Augustine famously argued that living for truth, no matter the consequences — such as the tale of the bishop who was tortured for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of a fugitive (and refusing to lie about it) — was to live for God. Lying — any type of lying — was to imitate the Devil, and live for the self, not the truth.

The author’s provocative, if sometimes starchy, exploration continues with the ways that “lying,” in all its forms, helped lead the way to the Age of Reason and the modern world. The complicated relationships of the royal court introduced role-playing to human life; joking can be considered a form of lying, “because in jokes, deception is key”; a woman who wears jewels and rouge “effectively criticizes God,” as some theologians alleged, “suggesting with every daub of makeup another way he could have improved on his work.”

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In a brief conclusion, Denery considers Rousseau’s view on lying, which relied not on Bible stories but evolution. The civilizing advances of language, tools, and agriculture, the philosopher wrote, created property, which in turn created the distressing idea that all men are not equal.

“Differences in wealth, prestige, and status, in mind, beauty, strength, and skill, stirred the envy of the less well-off, while it goaded the pride of the successful,” Denery writes. According to Rousseau — the philosopher who prefigured the modern era’s emphasis on introspection and selfhood — it soon seemed imperative to have those qualities. Or to fake them.

“[F]or one’s own advantage, it was necessary to appear to be other than what one in fact was.”

Sound familiar?

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James Sullivan, author of four books, can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.