Andy Hamilton’s made a career of taking the mick out of Old Nick as the writer and star of Radio 4’s Old Harry’s Game, but last night the bearded comedian spent an hour getting to know the real Lucifer in Andy Hamilton’s Search for Satan. And he didn’t even have to chalk out one single pentagram…
This was a cracking bit of TV – truly BBC4 at its best – combining probing analysis of a serious, academic topic with striking visuals and a gleefully Blackadderesque humorous tone, which kept a subject that might have appeared esoteric palatable to the general viewer.
Hamilton, for his part, made a thoroughly convivial host, doling out quips and knowledge aplenty while, crucially, asking experts exactly the sort of questions that would occur to viewers as the programme unfolded.
The comic’s intellectual journey began by looking back to the time of ancient polytheistic belief systems, like those of the Egyptians or Greeks, whose pantheon of gods enabled them to foist the problems of war, suffering and so on onto specific and often minor deities, none of whom solely embodied pure evil.
Fast-forwarding to the dawn of Christianity, which the programme sensibly used as its bedrock, the theological problems caused by the devil’s existence (ie how can God be all-powerful if he’s got an evil counterpart in the form of Satan?) were probed with humour by a trio of actors playing monks who could have shuffled straight off the pages of a Discworld novel.
But the programme was far from an attack on Christianity. Indeed, Hamilton spoke with Jewish, Muslim, Christian and secular scholars, giving equal opportunity for the representatives of all these belief systems to voice their feelings about the subject.
And Hamilton exploded a great many misconceptions we hold about the Dark Lord, like the mistaken belief that he was explicitly identified as the snake in Genesis, revealing the devil doesn’t actually crop up that much in Scripture, and that the mania inspired by Satan came centuries after the Good Book was compiled.
Pleasingly, Hamilton also looked at Biblical apocrypha – those “gospels” and books that didn’t make it into the Bible – and notes the influence that these non-canonical texts had on early Christian ideas about the devil.
But the programme came into its own when the discussion moved on from the Bible, through the witch burnings of the Middle Ages, to Milton and the seductive Satan he created in Paradise Lost, revealing that a lot of what we think we know about the devil is more attributable to Milton than the Bible.
Finally the documentary alighted on the 20th-century idea of Satan as a symbol, paying particular attention to the psychoanalyst GC Jung, who believed in the existence of an “evil” principle inherent in reality itself that we humanise and understand through the figure of Satan.
This was fascinating stuff, which took a rational but sympathetic look at a myth that’s as old as humanity itself, and one that has developed in new and intriguing ways alongside the ever-evolving human intellect. If you’re in the mood for a bit of armchair theology or a documentary that will make you laugh and think, I urge you to check this out on BBC iPlayer before it disappears…