With these ongoing debates in mind, I asked Papadopulos where he thought The Infernal Word sits in relation to this diabolical heritage and how the book interacts with it. He responded by saying that: “This rebel angel is concerned with the Biblical narrative and what it discloses of God and of God’s relationship with humanity. He is not principally a tempter (as was Screwtape); nor is he a tragic hero plotting his revenge (as was Milton’s Satan); he is instead something of an investigative journalist – an armchair general, commentator, and amateur theologian, keen to ascertain why on earth God seems so keen on the creation that so regularly lets him down. He is also a realist: he harbours no illusions about the place of his kind in God’s economy. The cross was Christ’s decisive victory – the rebels have been beaten.”
This represents a key difference between Papadopulos’ protagonist and Lewis’ Screwtape. As Edwards notes: “Screwtape never understands why the Enemy [God] loves the patient [human beings], even to the point of giving up His life for another. This is not even ponderable for Hell-bent or Hell-bound dwellers, who are the ultimate egotists and self-aggrandizers.” This difference of approach also raises a question as to why Papadopulos’ protagonist is undertaking his investigation. As he recognises Christ’s decisive victory on the cross, what purpose is served by his investigation? That question takes us to the heart of the book’s purpose which is also linked to the challenges it provides to some accepted narratives of the faith.
We do know, however, why Papadopulos began the book. His ministry, prior to Salisbury, included time as Vicar of St Peter’s Eaton Square, London, and at Canterbury Cathedral as Canon Treasurer and Director of Initial Ministerial Education for the Diocese. The Infernal Word began as addresses preached on Good Friday in those earlier settings. Good Friday, of course, is the moment in the Christian story when the Devil appears to have won. So, I asked Papadopulos what was it about Good Friday that inspired him initially and which called his rebel angel into being: “The devil did not win on Good Friday, and he knows he did not win! Christ’s faithfulness sees to that. But - stuck for a sermon when serving as a parish priest I tried preaching from the vantage point of faith’s opponent - as a devil. Arriving in Canterbury, and needing a theme/motif for a Good Friday Three Hours Devotion, I remembered the experiment, and wrote the series from that vantage point. It obviously needed to culminate with the crucifixion, and that event’s location on a hilltop prompted the addresses which preceded it.”
Writing in the rebel angel’s voice allowed him to have fun while, at the same time, compelled him to work out what faith in God really means to him. He says he has always been more interested in questions than answers and that posing difficult questions identifies the real issues. As a result, I asked what it is about testing or exploring faith in this way that enables the essence or the essential to be identified: “The barrister’s skill is identifying the right questions, and that part of my formation lives on in me, jostling with the faith that has been real since I was very young. Theology is faith seeking understanding – the book is an account of faith in which sharp questions are posed, to which (ultimately) a fairly simple ‘answer’ is offered. But that’s in the Epilogue and I wouldn’t want to give it away! Asking questions is not something for people of faith to be afraid of – but we do have to have trustworthy places to ask them and to receive answers. My dearest hope is that a reader might identify with some of the questions posed in The Infernal Word, and find answers that are at least coherent and perhaps compelling.”
Martin Luther once said that “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn” while Thomas More wrote, “The devil…that proud spirit…cannot endure to be mocked.” Papadopulos’ talk of having fun while writing in the rebel angel’s voice reminded me that creatives from Lewis to Bono have utilised this approach, so I asked whether it one he also endorses: “The rebel angel targets humanity and specifically ‘the Christians’. They are the object of his unremitting scorn and the source of his perpetual puzzlement – why does God bother about such a crowd of undesirables? The angel’s writing is the lens through which I uncover the absurdity of God’s relationship with them.”
Mountain-tops, as significant places of encounter with God, become important in providing a structure for his book: “The choice of mountain tops was actually triggered by the need to end on one (if Golgotha counts as a mountain top). As that was the destination, I looked for precursors and, of course, there are plenty – from Ararat onwards. I could have picked a different theme: Biblical encounters in cities, or beside water. But mountains serve the purpose, as they do throughout Scripture, as places of encounter between the human and the divine.”
I ended our conversation by asking in what ways the book challenges the accepted narrative of faith by providing a fresh perspective on familiar Biblical stories and why that is needed: “I hope the book is profoundly orthodox, but it poses some of the questions about faith that have fascinated me and that I believe fascinate others. Because it’s narrated by a rebel angel it can dare to be irreverent and occasionally downright rude. Don’t we always need fresh perspectives on the tradition? That’s what keeps it alive. It was the quest for a fresh perspective that first pushed me in the rebel angel’s direction when I was stuck for a sermon.”
The Infernal Word: Notes from a Rebel Angel is published by Canterbury Press.