In my childhood, comedian Flip Wilson was big. His Grammy-winning album, The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress, took its title from this routine he performed on the Ed Sullivan Show:
Flip is playing the character of a preacher who wants to know why his wife, Geraldine, has bought a third dress in the course of a week. Their interchange is an enlightening study in the theory of knowledge, or epistemology.
GERALDINE: I didn’t want to buy this dress. The devil made me buy this dress.
PREACHER: I’m not goin’ for that because every time you do something wrong, you blame it on the devil. You blamed it on the devil when you ran the car into the side of the church.
GERALDINE: It was the devil! You wasn’t there. How do you know? He grabbed that steering wheel out of my hand.
PREACHER: Why didn’t you step on the brake?
GERALDINE: Because when he grabbed the steering wheel, I tried to kick him.
GERALDINE: He pushed me over to where the dress was. And he made me try it on. Then he pulled a gun and made me sign your name to a check.
PREACHER: How come the devil’s always making you do something for yourself? When’s the devil gonna do me a favor?
GERALDINE: I asked him about that. He said he did already. Devil said if it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t even have a job!
If you were the preacher, how would you reply to Geraldine’s assertion that “It was the devil. You wasn’t there. How do you know?”
Flip gives the only two responses I can think of.
First, he tests her assertion against the evidence. He recalls the time she blamed the devil for an auto accident and points out that if that were true, all she had to do was step on the brake. She didn’t hit the brake, so chances are there was no devil.
Of course, she has a retort at the ready so Flip tests her assertion in the second way. He says it’s suspicious that “the devil’s always making you do something for yourself.” As a detective would say, she had a motive as well as opportunity and means.
She counters that as well and the routine ends as the preacher is stymied.
The best comedy does nothing more than hold up a mirror.
In the last few posts, I have been considering points in Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster?. One of them is this bit about Israel’s allegedly God-commanded genocide in Canaan.
…we could say this about Israel’s “holy war” situation: “Don’t try this without special revelation!” These matters aren’t up to humans to decide. (Page 161/Kindle location 3430.)
In other words, Israel could only justify her genocidal acts because “God made me do it.”
I’m sure I don’t need to point out the obvious parallels to the preacher and Geraldine.
Instead, I’ll recall a post from 2014, where I said that the road to moral insanity starts at a privileged position of “knowing God” and continues when you allow yourself a moral epistemology that, by your own account, has failed everywhere else it has been tried.
Dr. Copan would be the first to say that a moral epistemology which relies on “special revelation” has been a nearly universal failure. The failures stretch from today’s Islamic State terrorists all the way back to shamans who said the gods demand child sacrifice. He might even admit that it has often failed for Christians, for all denominations except his own have evidently gotten at least one doctrine wrong that was important enough to cause a schism.
I do not say that special revelation is impossible. What I do say is that humans have shown themselves completely unqualified to make decisions based on it. Israel is certainly no exception. If we learn anything from the Old Testament, it’s that the people of Israel had the same human faults as everyone else.
So let’s stop allowing special revelation from God to be an excuse for immoral behavior — behavior that we would otherwise say really is from the devil.
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