O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

The Devil, the Storm, and This American Life

I’m a regular listener to the podcast of This American Life, from WBEZ in Chicago. Last week’s episode, “Life After Death” (episode 359) was a repeat of a 2008 episode I missed, and I can’t stop thinking about the opening interview Ira Glass used to introduce the show — which was about stories of people “haunted by guilt over their role in others’ deaths, even when everyone agrees they’re

TAL typically starts with a short prologue that serves as a funny, quirky intro to the subject that’s about to follow. Only this week’s opening wasn’t quite as light-hearted as usual. Here’s how the website describes it:


One day at church camp, David Maxon challenged the
devil to show himself. Just then, a huge thunderstorm
started, and David felt sure the devil was behind it. So when the
thunderstorm led to two campers getting killed, David couldn’t help
but blame himself. Twenty years later, host Ira Glass talks to David
about being innocent but feeling guilty.

It starts with this narration from Ira Glass: “David says there are only two ways to see it. Either he succeeded in inviting the devil into a church camp in Wisconsin, or he didn’t.”

David was a kid at a fundamentalist church camp. David believed in the devil, as did his church. He and his friends had been taught all about the reality of the devil and the spiritual world. One night, around the campfire, he and his cabin-mates were doing that thing that all kids do at camp — attempting to scare each other with weird, supernatural stories — and there had been a lot of talk about ouija boards and supernatural beings and the devil.


Everyone got all creeped out about it, and that night David heard noises above their cabin. He imagined he had an encounter with the devil that night — that their talk about evil spirits had actually unleashed one near their cabin. The next day, the devil was still on David’s mind  when he noticed a storm rolling in over the camp. He suspected that it had something to do with Satan and the stories they had been telling the night before. He convinced himself that the storm was coming from the devil, but being in a spiritually confident, church campy place, David wasn’t afraid. In fact, he was overconfident. Mentally, he “challenged” the devil. Bring it on, he thought. Let’s see what you’ve got.


The storm hit the camp with loud thunder and torrential rain. And then, a lightning strike hit a bunch of campers, killing two of them. One was a kid from David’s cabin.

David immediately knew it was his fault. He had stupidly invited the devil into the camp, and in a storm, Satan had succeeded in killing one of David’s friends. “I had been told you don’t miss with that stuff, because it was real,” he said. “Spirits are real…and I had very directly challenged the devil, and it resulted in someone I was close to being killed.”

Overcome with guilt, David confessed what he’d done to his counselor and eventually to other adults, including a priest at the camp. All of them said what they should have said: it wasn’t his fault. Don’t worry about it. You didn’t cause this to happen.


And David was confused, because so much of what he’d been taught at the camp was about how seriously he should take demonic forces and supernatural stuff, yet when something (apparently) truly supernatural had happened, the adults told him not to take it seriously.

Spiritual warfare was a huge deal until it mattered, until it left the realm of spiritual storytelling. So David came to a conclusion: the adults acted as if all that devil stuff was real “as long as it’s not taken really seriously.”

Within a couple of years, he stopped believing altogether.

Because if it WAS real, David decided, it meant that, indirectly, he was a killer. His spiritual arrogance had led to a friend’s death. “There’s no in between. It made it untenable to continue believing the devil is real.”


You can listen to the episode here. David’s story is the first 9 minutes or so.

I usually think about eroding faith in terms of intellectual arguments and biblical trustworthiness and other things like that, and had never considered what kind of role our teachings about the reality (or unreality) of spiritual beings might play in it.

For some reason, this fascinates me. Let’s set aside whatever theological arguments you might be forming — some people who believe in the devil will dispute that Satan has control over nature. Some will say that David shouldn’t have been taunting supernatural beings. Some Christians may not believe in the devil or demons at all. We all probably have different perspectives on that part of the story.


But I’m thinking about another part of the story — the disconnect between the theoretical worldview David was taught and the reality of how that worldview was discarded the moment it really mattered.

Whatever you believe, we probably all agree that the adults in David’s life totally said the right things. Of course he wasn’t at fault. His friend’s death was not his fault. And yet their compassionate, wise explanations completely contradicted the things they had been teaching him. That contradiction led to the loss of his faith.

What do you make of that? Is there anything we can learn from stories like this?

Comments read comments(12)
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Paul D.

posted September 30, 2010 at 11:30 am

“Is there anything we can learn from stories like this?”
That Christians, especial fundamentalists and Pentacostal-types, ought to stop making crap up. While we’re at it, can you stop clucking like chickens and pretending it’s an “angelic language”?

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posted September 30, 2010 at 11:36 am

I think it says that whatever people might think they believe, when push comes to shove, they really don’t believe at all. Reality and faith are on different planes. People are uncomfortable if the two mix over negative circumstances.
No-one says “it was totally a god thing” when a toddler gets raped and murdered, while they happily credit him for letting them to beat that annoying red light on their commute.
If you beat 50-50 odds half of the time, you can thank god for those times you succeeded. Those times you failed were not just bad luck.

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posted September 30, 2010 at 11:53 am

“were just bad luck.”
Also, in this instance, I think David is better off as a non-believer.

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posted September 30, 2010 at 2:59 pm

For what it’s worth, I believe in the Devil, but I don’t think what happened was David’s fault because I don’t think the Devil works that way. But what would I know?
I think the adults were trying to be kind, but in doing so, they lost some of their integrity. Perhaps a better way forward would have been some gentle reassurance that David is not a magician out of a fairy tale, who can call up angels and devils. But it was a spiritual crisis and I certainly don’t have an easy answer.
What I do think is important is that Christianity involves a belief in the supernatural, and when something supernatural appears to happen, we have to be willing to deal with it, but with common sense (and a quick prayer for help!)

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posted September 30, 2010 at 3:13 pm

There is evil in this world. If
we allow it to influence us it
will drive us to do terrible
things. The only way to overcome
evil and its influence is to
believe in a Greater, Higher
Power that will give you strength
to overcome evil with good!!

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posted September 30, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Funnily enough, those of us who don’t believe in “Greater, Higher Power” are doing just fine on our own, overcoming evil with good and resisting the temptation to “do terrible things”. In fact, doing terrible things has never even been a serious option for me.
If god is the only thing keeping you from going on a murderous rampage, you might have some issues that extend beyond theology.

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posted September 30, 2010 at 8:36 pm

I agree that David’s story does raise some questions about the avalidity of the adults “true beliefs.” I believe David is better off as a non believer. I was playing with what I thought were “childrens games”. The Oija board, “Bloody Mary”, Tarot Cards, and Horoscope were the games I explored. When, while playing with the Oija Board and “Bloody Mary” I got scared, my mother’s only response was: “So what did you learn?” My response: That was fun! My mother said: That wasn’t the lesson I was going for.
I was taught that the “spirit world” was real. My family and church members, while outside the church walls, acted as though the spirit world was just stories. I, like David, no longer believe in Christianity. I am now Pagan, as I have seen the effects of the spirit world on the physical world.

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posted September 30, 2010 at 8:50 pm

I’m probably stating the obvious here, but it makes me think that it is SO extremely important to be careful in what you teach kids about God. It can take years to undo bad teaching~ if a person is ever able to undo it… it is heartbreaking to think of a child struggling under guilt like that.

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posted October 1, 2010 at 10:24 am

If there is a God, & i choose to believe it tho i struggle at times, he has made it clear that we DO NOT have control over anything beyond ourselves & our own choices. Anything else is wish/witch-craft. (It doesn’t work.)
I’m sad he went thru this. I’m sad that the adults didn’t better explain the difference between thoughts and actions. I’m sad the adults didn’t explain that God does not allow a devil to do whatever he wants & can “kill people.” I’m sad that they let the kids get to the point where they believe such @#$@. In fact, i’m more than sad, i’m angry.
The point of the Christian life is to teach people how to live not how to fear stupid boogey stories.

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posted October 6, 2010 at 10:41 pm

I have to respectfully disagree with Kathryn’s statement that, “God does not allow a devil to do whatever he wants & can ‘kill people.'” I think it comes down to what we believe is literal in scripture. This story very closely resembles what happens to Job. God allows Satan permission to test Job. Satan causes a great wind to blow which causes the house to collapse killing all of Job’s offspring. If we are to take all of scripture literally then God clearly can allow the devil to do whatever he wants including killing people.

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posted October 7, 2010 at 10:45 am

“God allows Satan permission to test Job.” Including that God told Satan that he could not kill Job. He must have made allowances that let Satan kill the children. You’ve made my point, Satan wasn’t allowed to kill outside of God’s permission. These things don’t happen outside “God’s Will” (a concept i’m not too sure about).

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posted May 12, 2011 at 7:58 pm

ISIAIh 41 BRING forth your IDOLS did they PREACH to you see they can’t speak they can’t DO ANYTHING all they do is cause confusion. spalms 115 and spalms 135 thier IDOLS are FALSE cant speak can’t hear cant smell and those that make them shall become like them. Jeremiah 10 they nail their IDOL down like a scarecrow it can’t move can’…t speak can’t move must be carried these are nothing but the WORK of CON men.john 10 jesus christ sais his sheep hear his voice and another voice thy will not follow and if another person tries to preach to them they WILL FLEE from him. jeremiah 5 the priests bear rule on their own authority what will you do when your judged my word is not inside them. Now here is the kicker john 5 son of man voice goes back in time mathew 16 jesus christ claims to be the son of man.‎1 cor2 mind of CHRIST preached internally and john 16 sais the spirit of truth comes in the future. Ezekiel 13 lying prophets of ISRAEL my word is not inside them saying god sais god sais god sais wrote hoping mankind would CONFIRM their WORDS. all of this is EASILY verifiable.

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