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22 March 2005

today's theology lesson: Does the Devil Exist?

Okay, we're climbing up out of the Comments again, because I'm having Too Much Fun again.

But please read my Sermon on Faith vs. Good Works (with the great recipe at the end), and these Comments to bring yourselves up to speed. And don't forget the mushrooms and the scallions.

Some Efficient Person may remark that, in this otherwise highly streamlined easy-to-make recipe, the fresh garlic will require a lot of manual labor, so we should use the church's humungous old plastic jar of McCormick Garlic Powder (purchased in 1977) instead. Or one of those quasi-gourmet glass jars of crushed wet garlic.

Efficient you may be, but you are No Friend of Mine, and you are certainly an enemy of my Sausage Stew. I suspect you are in League with the Devil, who tempts us all to be Lazy and use Garlic Powder.

If the Lord's Spirit is truly in us, we will use fresh garlic. Crush each clove and bulb by smashing it with the flat of a big-ass heavy kitchen knife. After that, the skins come off quick and easy. After that, chop the meat a little more.

Did you wash your hands when you came into the kitchen? You really should do this whole thing wearing those clumsy but necessary plastic disposable gloves. There's a box of them to the left of the large refrigerator.

* * *

Does the Devil Exist? Is he over our shoulder all the time, whispering in our ear, providing clear, easy, convenient driving directions to the Castaways Exotic Lounge on Route 5 in Whately, Massachusetts? (Local guys refer to it over the phone as "The Whately Ballet.")

Well, if you thought you were going to get the Final Theological Scoop on the Existence of the Devil here, for free, you got another think coming. Not happening today.


But I do know a nifty True Story About The Devil.

The violinist Niccolo Paganini (1782 - 1840) died well before Edison invented the phonograph, so we don't even have hints about how he actually played the violin. Except that everyone who ever heard him play reported that he was wonderful, magnificent, thrilling, amazing, supercallifragialisticexpialidocious, A No. 1, The Best. Nobody ever played the violin like him before, and it's very doubtful if any fiddler has done it better since. That's the most expert historical and musical buzz about Paganini.

He didn't start world-famous, of course. He began in Italy, probably as a three-year-old boy who made just horrible screaming shrieking discordant noises like fingernails on a blackboard for hours every day.

(My mother achieved that stage of violin mastery, refused to touch the thing ever again, and for the rest of her life never wanted to hear the noise of a solo violin again, she didn't care if Niccolo Paganini had come back to life just to play if for her. When one of her own children was, briefly, afflicted with violin lessons, she came close to going Schoolyard with the music teacher.)

But Paganini (unlike my mom) stuck with it and kept practicing. He had a lot of natural talent, and he got a lot better, very young.

But still, decades before the phonograph and radio, nobody had ever heard him play outside of Italy; he'd never been out of Italy.

In London, he was unknown, just whispers, mostly in Italian, from a few tavelling musical cognoscenti. Barely a ripple in the newspapers when it was announced Sgr. Paganini would play his first concert in London in a month.

But lots of people had heard him play, and were authentically a-buzz and a-twitter about the amazing things he did with his fiddle. They'd never heard anything like it before.

And then a little rumor started, nobody knows where -- just like a Web rumor, impossible to verify or track down the source.

Paganini could play the violin like that because he had sold his soul to the Devil!

This was the original rumor made of kerosene improperly stored next to oily rags in a dark corner of Uncle Tyler's illegal homemade fireworks barn. Surely this was The Mother Of All Rumors.
(And don't call me Shirley.) This rumor raced around London, Paris, Brussels, Manchester, Edinburgh, Hollyhead and Dublin in eight languages, including Cockney, Yiddish and Mandarin, within 48 hours. It took a little longer to reach Oslo, but not much.

By the time tickets went on sale, there were lines thrice around the theater.

Well. As you can imagine, it was a huge embarrassment to The Artist himself -- a perfectly respectable, unimpeachable, unblemished, certifiably baptized, and highly spiritual creative artist who had never before been accused of having had any dealings or contractual arrangements written in blood with the Prince of Darkness.

He had just wanted to take his first trip to the famous city of London which he had heard so many nice things about, and play a few tunes on his fiddle, and entertain a few thousand music-lovers. And make a reasonable profit, and cover his hotel and travel expenses, and then go back to his modest little home in Italy. He never wanted or anticipated anything like this.

So what could he do? He took out full-page advertisements in all the major London newspapers:

the celebrated Italian violinist
Sgr. Niccolo Paganini
wishes to state publicly
in the form of a solemn oath

that he has Never sold his Immortal Soul
to the Devil
contrary to false and malicious rumors
now circulating

This just made things much worse. Now the lines wound around the hall nine times, and the promoters had to schedule six extra concerts to handle the unanticipated, undesired and unprecedented demand to hear the Italian fiddler who swore he never sold his Immortal Soul to the Devil.

Assuming there is no Devil, then Paganini must have been telling the Gospel Truth, and he paid to tell it out of his own pocket with expensive full-page ads. Was the big panic and riot for tickets somehow his fault?


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