The idea of religion is abstract and often met with a variety of both positive and negative connotations. To some, a church may be a symbol of hope and a reflection of moral resilience, to others, church may stand for hypocrisy and moral betrayals. In Phillippe Diederich’s novel Playing for the Devil’s Fire, Diederich addresses this dichotomy and uses character development to explore the differences between a relationship with God and relationship with the church. Diederich uses specific plot, representative characterization, and poignant dialogue to demonstrate the complex motivations of the church and address the baffling question of god. Religion holds an important role in society and generally puts forth a moral standard or obligation that people may expect their peers to uphold.
In Immigrant America, Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut explains that “Sociologically, the significance of religion…is to sustain moral cohesion and normative controls” (423). This definition of religion provides a basis for what society expects from religious constructs. It holds religion to a standard that guarantees protection and moral fortitude. In Diederich’s novel, the narrative demonstrates what happens when religion fails to uphold these agreed upon standards, exposing corruption in the church. Diederich illustrates the inherent trust individuals assign to the morality of the church and then explores the dismal repercussions when the institution of the church and its leaders prove to be undeserving of their congregation’s trust. Playing for the Devil’s Fire depicts the malicious effects of corruption and argues that not even a seemingly moral institution such as the church is immune to the terminal illness that is corruption. In the beginning of the novel, Boli views the church in a optimistic light and even states that he “trusted [Father Gregorio] more than anyone else in town” (65). Boli values his relationship with the priest and believes him to be good and trustworthy. This notion reflects the definition given in Immigrant America and demonstrates Boli’s view of religion as a platform to, “sustain moral cohesion” (423). Boli believes Father Gregorio is genuinely concerned for him and the welfare of his family, but from the beginning of the tale Diederich hints that this trust may be misplaced. Towards the start of the novel, Boli is sitting in church and notices a great amount of new people in the town’s mass. Boli then states that, “You could almost smell their money over the incense” (62). This imagery introduces the relationship of money and church, and begins the narrative of corruption displayed by the Catholic church in this Mexican village. During this same church service, Boli’s grandmother looks at the crumbling ceiling of the church and remarks that, “This church…is falling apart” (64). This remark clearly takes on literal meaning, but the abuela’s comment it also symbolic of the beginning demise of the church’s moral standards. This idea of money influencing the church only grows as the novel continues. The priest that Boli originally views as kind and trustworthy proves to be deceitful and selfish. Father Gregorio filters false information, and begins showing preferential treatment to the new wealthy residence of the towns. This favoritism is confirmed one morning when Boli and his abuela attend a mass service that is performed in Latin because the newcomers request this. After the service Boli’s grandmother remarks to the priest that, “[he] seems quite eager with the new people, perhaps their money is worth more than ours?” (124). This continued tie between the church and money portrays Diederich’s theme that the church is not impenetrable to the temptations of corruption. Diederich suggests that religious leaders can be swayed by money and that this institution that is supposed to serve as a moral regulator can be convinced to look away from moral atrocities for the right price. Diederich contrasts this dismal view of religion by separating the ideas of church and faith. The author’s disparaging views of the corruptible nature of the church does not directly relate to Diederich’s views on God. Diederich constantly reminds his readers that an individual’s relationship to the church is not necessarily tied to one’s relationship with God. Boli explains early in his story that “I wasn’t the best Catholic, but I did fear God” (61). This explanation portrays a difference in Boli’s relationship with the church and his relationship with a deity. Despite Boli’s slight disconnect with his religion, it does not directly affect his view of God. Boli does struggle with God but this altercation differs from his alienation with the church. After Boli’s parents have remained missing for a significant amount of time, Boli explains that “God was walking a thin line with me…. God had to prove to me that he still mattered” (122). This statement reflects Boli’s frustration with God and represents man’s common questioning of God’s goodness. Despite Boli’s frustrations, he continues to pray throughout the story and finds hope in his friendship with Chicano the luchador. Diederich emphasizes his view of God and church as separate entities in a crucial conversation that takes place between Boli and Chicano. Father Gregorio rejects Boli’s request to participate in the burial of Boli’s dog. Boli leaves feeling rejected and hurt and expressed that the priest’s actions are “unfair.” Chicano responds saying, “That’s why I don’t go to church anymore.” Boli questions if this is because he does not believe in God, but Chicano responds by saying, “Of course I do. But if God is good and powerful, he can see through all this mierda.” Boli returns to the unfairness of the situation and remarks, “I can’t believe it. I thought he was my friend,” and Chicano simply responds with, “Priests…They’re vultures” (208). In this conversation, God exists separately from church and Diederich addresses the idea that the mistakes made by the priest are not necessarily reflected in the traits of God. This conversation additionally reaffirms Diederich’s themes of corruption and suggests the priests can fall into patterns of betrayal and hypocrisy. Despite the endless stream of misfortune, Boli consistently turns to prayer in times of trouble. When facing the disappearance of his parents, the misplacement of his grandmother, the death of his dog, and other trials Boli frequently entreats God for help. It is not the Boli is not frustrated or disappointed, but he is able to maintain faith and hope throughout his suffering. It is clear the Boli struggles with God and does not understand why he is barrage with painful events. During the funeral for his dog, Boli emotionally cries out in prayer, “Please do something about our little town because we’re all sad and scared. Can’t you see us crying?” (210). This emotional quote displays a moment of hopelessness and poses the common question that asks, “if God is good why does he let terrible things happen?” Boli must wrestle with this question, but instead of becoming overwhelmed by his loss, Boli holds on to hope and faith even after losing everything. The pain and loss in Boli’s life only grows consuming the lives of his closest friends Mosco and Chicano. Even faced with insurmountable pain, Boli is not crushed but finds a foothold for hope. The novel ends with Boli expressing that he is, “going to become a luchador. The best ever” (245). This ending portrays Boli’s inextinguishable resilience, but also his continued hold on faith. Boli rises as a symbol of hope and justice suggesting that light can be found in the darkest of situations. This representation answers the question about God’s goodness in the face of evil. Diederich expresses that no situation is without hope and that there is someone willing to stand against corruption and champion justice in every situation. When the church fails to support Boli in his time of desperation, hope and faith still continue within him. Diederich suggest that church is corruptible, but God is not. Even in a town engulfed with corruption and deceit, hope remains in the faith found in Boli.
Phillippe Diederich writes a heartbreaking tale of corruption and loss in his story, Playing with the Devil’s Fire. In a tale that could easily leave the reader downtrodden with the notion that everything is susceptible to corruption, Diederich leaves a ray of hope. Diederich illustrates an infected portray of the Catholic church, demonstrating something that culturally stands for moral maintenance and trustworthy leadership overcome with betrayal, deceit, and a mercenary-like allegiance. Instead of leaving his story in this hopeless moment, Diederich argues that the corruptible nature of the church does not reflect a corruptible nature in God and portrays this attitude in his main character Boli. Despite the world around him, Boli never gives up his hope or his goodness. When faced with a world of consumed in corruption, Boli inspires those around him to be better people and devotes himself to the ideals of hope, faith and justice.
‘Diederich, Phillippe. Playing for the Devil’s Fire. Cinco Puntos Press, 2016. Portes, Alejandro, and Ruben G. Rumbaut. Immigrant America: a Portrait. Univ. of California Pr., 1990.