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?

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