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Charismatic Characters: The Shapeshifter

“You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

In the literature of all cultures, a fascinating character emerges called the Shapeshifter. Such characters are not what they first appear to be, usually pretending to be virtuous and proving to be deceptive. As in life there are lots of Shapeshifters in the Bible cautioning us not to trust appearances.

The first example is the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. His appeal to Eve is all reason and logic, but his words are half-truths and his intentions are subversive rebellion to God. Cain is a first brother who turns into the first murderer. Rebekah deceives both her husband and her eldest son to get the family blessing for Jacob. Deceit appears chromosomal in that family as both Jacob and his uncle Laban are not above false promises. Samson is a Nazarite pledged to God, but spends most of his time avenging perceived slights in violent ways.

To me, one of the worst betrayers in the Old Testament is King David’s son Absalom. Born a prince, he avenges the rape of his sister by murdering his brother. Banished by David, he pleads for reinstatement and then undermines the King’s authority, eventually leading a rebellion that almost displaces David as king. His fate is the same as many Shapeshifters as they reap the punishment of their treachery as the wheels of justice slowly turn: Absalom’s armies are defeated and he is ignominiously killed while hanging from his hair in a tree, a failed rebel and son. There is a reason that Dante puts betrayers of trust in the lowest rings of his Inferno: they sever the bonds that hold community together.

In the New Testament, Pharisees appear to be virtuous defenders of the law, but are revealed to be more interested in locking God in a box of rituals. Judas is the archetype of shifting priorities, betraying his master with a kiss. The most important New Testament Shapeshifter is Satan, the father of lies. No longer the Old Testament figure of a divine District Attorney in God’s heavenly court, Satan by Jesus’ time is the Devil, the personification of evil. He tempts Jesus with power, possessions, and pride if Jesus will only bow to him. That’s the way of the Shapeshifter: appeal to our lower desires to subvert our higher goals. One name for Satan is Lucifer, ‘bearer of light,’ which exactly describes the deep deception: evil is wrapped in a shiny package and lies are wrapped in half-truths. The book of Revelation clearly reveals Satan as the devil, the leader of all those forces that pull us from God. Christian tradition has identified the first betrayer, the Serpent, as really Satan himself. The ultimate victory is God’s, but the battle is fierce and price is steep: God sacrificed on a cross.

There are counter examples of positive change, of course: Jacob emerges finally as Israel; Joseph rises from slave to Vice-Pharaoh, Esther from obscure Jewess to savior queen of Persia. The New Testament has these positive reversals as well: Peter from vacillating follower to rock of the emerging Christian community; Matthew and Zacchaeus are transformed from tax collectors to disciples; and Paul from persecutor of the church to evangelist for the church. The proper term for these changes isn’t shapeshifter, but saving grace!

Of course, the psychological reality is that Shapeshifting isn’t just ‘out there’ but also ‘in here’: we all have various impulses fighting within us allowing different versions of ourselves to appear at different times. One name for the largely unconscious aspect of our darker selves, the selves we don’t want to admit, is the ‘Shadow.’ The biblical injunctions to confess, repent, transform, or convert are all calls to acknowledge that our characters are ever being formed, the shape of our actions is always shifting, and that the power of the Holy Spirit, God in us, is the only power strong enough to turn us from the shadows.

Prayer: Dear God of both light and shadow, help us to see ourselves in the biblical characters, who, like us, struggle, to be consistent followers of You. Help us to integrate our various impulses into a faithful replica of your Son.

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