Bible Gateway interviewed JR. Forasteros (@jrforasteros) about his book, Empathy for the Devil: Finding Ourselves in the Villains of the Bible (InterVarsity Press, 2017).
Please explain the title.
JR. Forasteros: There are three answers to this question. First, I love the play on the Rolling Stones song, Sympathy for the Devil. Second, because the difference between Empathy and Sympathy is really important. To have empathy doesn’t require that we agree with or condone the actions of another person, only that we understand them. It’s something I think we’re deeply lacking in our contemporary world. We turn our enemies into devils far too easily. With that in mind, third, I thought if I could invite my readers to have a tiny bit of empathy even for Satan, then it shouldn’t be so hard to bridge a cultural, religious, or political divide at home, work, or church.
Are you using in this book similar literary techniques C.S. Lewis used in The Screwtape Letters?
JR. Forasteros: Yes and no. Empathy for the Devil does use fiction, but in a slightly more realistic way (mostly) than what Lewis did. I chose seven of the Bible’s worst villains to investigate. As I was working through the historical material on them, I realized that just presenting a history lesson wouldn’t get at how I wanted readers to identify with these villains.
Psychologists tell us that reading fiction is one of the best ways to practice empathy, because in fiction, we get to live inside the mind of another person. So I set out to write fictionalized reimaginings of each villain’s big moment. Obviously, with Satan’s story being set in Heaven, I had to get even more creative, but I did try to keep it—ahem—grounded in visions of the Heavenly throne room we find throughout Scripture (like Isaiah 6, Zechariah 3, and Revelation 4.
The biggest difference between Screwtape and Empathy is probably that I really want you to like Satan and find his fall tragic. We forget, I think, that God loves Satan as God loves everything and everyone God created. That, and my fiction is somewhat less didactic than Lewis’, I think.
How did your visit to the Dachau Nazi concentration camp shape your thinking?
JR. Forasteros: We always wonder how the German people could’ve participated in the Holocaust. Dauchau—which is named for the city by which it was built—answers that question very dissatisfactorily: no one (except Hitler) got up one day and decided to murder millions of Jews. It happened slowly, one day after another, in a million little compromises and decisions to look the other way.
Dachau showed me that the path to villainy is easy to walk and hard to differentiate from the path of ‘just getting along.’ In fact, they begin in the same place.
How do we begin to rediscover empathy by looking at the villains of the Bible?
JR. Forasteros: When we find ourselves marveling at how much we have in common with Cain, or how bad we feel for Jezebel or maybe even guilty for how ill we’ve thought of Judas, it should give us pause when we turn to vilify those we’ve declared our enemies. These villains let us practice that timeless biblical wisdom: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
What villains do you explore in the book?
JR. Forasteros: My seven villains are Cain (Gen 4:1-16), Delilah (Judges 16), Jezebel (1 Kings 16 and following), Herod (Matthew 2:1-12), Herodias (Mark 6:14-29), Judas (Mark 14:1-11) and Satan (Revelation 12:1-12).
I begin with Cain’s name. It means strength or spear while his brother’s means vapor or mist. It’s not hard to tell that Cain was the favorite son, which is no surprise in a culture that placed so much value on the firstborn son. He put his identity in being best, first, most important.
Then God rejects his offering and doesn’t tell him why (no one in the story seems to know why, though we’ve got our explanations ready today). And then God asks why he’s angry and promises, “If you do right, you will be accepted.” Which seems to indicate that God hasn’t rejected Cain yet.
I spend the chapters exploring Cain’s anger and our anger and how all that’s tied to our identities. I ask if anger might be God’s way of warning us that something’s wrong inside of us and that lashing out in anger, as Cain did, actually keeps us from encountering not only each other, but God.
Who did you have in mind as you wrote your book and why?
JR. Forasteros: Ultimately, I wrote this book for the church in my context: evangelical America (I pastor in Texas). Our culture is deeply divided, and rather than offer a holy alternative, the church is leading the charge, deepening the divide. I pray that this book engenders empathetic conversations.
What do you mean “there’s no such thing as monsters”?
JR. Forasteros: Monster-making is a form of scapegoating (that’s what I’m working on in my next book). Rather than face the darkness in our own spirits, we cast it outside of ourselves and onto someone else—usually someone who can’t defend themselves. But if we’ll look more closely, we’ll find one who bears the image of God peeking out from behind the monstrous mask.
What do you want readers of your book to learn?
JR. Forasteros: That we have more in common with the people we demonize than we’re comfortable admitting. And that there is deep spiritual value in becoming a good empathizer. This is a practice the church definitely needs to recover.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
JR. Forasteros: I’ve long been in love with Hebrews 5:8-9. “Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him.”
I’ve been captivated by the incarnation since before I knew the fancy theological term for it. I love that Jesus willingly embraced our humanity for no gain of his own. I love that we can learn faithfulness by following in his footsteps. It’s a radical idea that is as challenging as it is simple: for God to work in us, we have to let God work in us. Surrender. Obey.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
JR. Forasteros: I love Bible Gateway. As a pastor, I use it nearly daily. I love how accessible it makes the Scriptures! I also just used it to double-check Hebrews 5:8-9 before I cited it.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
JR. Forasteros: I’m grateful to Bible Gateway for featuring this interview. It’s a true honor!
Bio: JR. Forasteros is an author, pastor, and podcaster. He serves as the teaching pastor at Catalyst Church in Dallas, TX. He blogs on faith and pop culture at NorvilleRogers.com and co-hosts the StoryMen and In All Things Charity podcasts. He offers a weekly email newsletter on faith and pop culture called Stuff You’ll Probably Like. He and his wife Amanda love roller derby, cooking and travel.
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