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How to Read the Bible like a Pagan

David Ker’s post on “Christian animism” has got me thinking about worldview issues. In particular, I’m thinking about how the worldviews of the non-Western world are often closer to those of the biblical writers than those of post-Enlightenment Westerners like myself. About twenty years ago, African theologian Osadolor Imasogie wrote a little book called Guidelines for Christian Theology in Africa (University Press, 1986) when he perceived the need for a new pastoral and theological response to “the fears and reactions of African Christians in times of existential crisis” (11). In short, he and other parish pastors were concerned that, in crisis situations, average African Christians tended to resort to traditional African religious practices.

Animists Who Love Jesus

He argues that this was largely because of the rationalistic worldview of the missionaries who had first evangelized large parts of Africa beginning in the 1800’s. Despite these missionaries’ conservative theology, they were still deeply enmeshed in what Imasogie calls the “quasi-scientific world view” of the Enlightenment. In Africa, these missionaries encountered a different worldview that Imasogie describes in terms of four concepts that are pervasive throughout the continent despite the obvious cultural variety.

  1. The earth as a multidimensional reality, including not only a physical dimension but a spiritual, dynamistic one. The nyama or “vital force” of the earth is neutral, but it can be tapped for good or ill.
  2. Humans themselves are complex psycho-physical beings as mysterious as the world in which they live. They are created by God and open to relationship with God, divinities, spirits, and the “vital force” of the earth itself.
  3. A human being’s place on earth continues after death. Death does not dissolve the relationship between a person and his or her community.
  4. Humans have access to what are considered “divinely ordained provisions for coping with the uncertainties of life” (53). These include divination, sacrifices, and protective charms and amulets.

Imasogie concludes,

For the mid-nineteenth century missionary (a great-grandchild of the Enlightenment), from whose world view the dynamic concept of spiritual forces and even God has been eroded, this African world view did not make sense. This lack of empathy for such an African self-understanding was complicated by the missionary’s preconceived idea that Africans were so primitive that they did not even have a concept of God. This presupposition made the missionary insensitive to the self-understanding of the African within his world view. (65)

Similar attitudes often crop up when Westerners try to make sense of non-Western cultures. In The Ritual Process (Cornell University, 1969), Victor Turner makes note of a Native American critique of Lewis Henry Morgan’s study of Iroquois religion to the effect that Morgan utterly missed the point of his subject matter:

To my mind, the Seneca comments are related to Morgan’s distrust of the “imaginative and emotional,” his reluctance to concede that religion has an important rational aspect, and his belief that what appears “grotesque” to the highly “evolved” consciousness of a nineteenth-century savant must be, ipso facto, largely “unintelligible.” (2)

What we may fail to recognize, however, is that the Bible was written by people who held to similar worldviews. This was, in fact, a major emphasis in my dissertation on cultic symbolism in the book of Hebrews.

Fortunately, others are beginning to come clean about the fact that the Bible is not entirely at home in our post-Enlightenment cultural trappings. Greg Boyd, for example, explored what he calls the “warfare worldview” of biblical peoples in God at War (InterVarsity, 1997). According to this “worldview” (which more accurately might be called a particular aspect of preindustrial worldviews such as those of Africa and the ancient Middle East), the spiritual dimension impinges upon the physical, and humans are caught in the crossfire of a cosmic conflict between good and evil spiritual realities. Boyd reads the warfare mythologies of the ancient Near East—and even the New Testament—against the backdrop of this “universally shared intuition” (14) of spiritual conflict.

Against this backdrop of nearly universal agreement about such matters as the immanence of spiritual realities and the human capacity to intersect with these realities, the materialistic mindset of the contemporary Western world seems positively myopic. As David notes at the beginning of his post, even Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun is not too far distant from the worldview of the typical African animist. Nor are many of the folk prayers and rituals collected in the nineteenth-century Carmina Gadelica!

The intellectual chauvinism of the Enlightenment is one of the reasons Western Christianity, particularly the Protestant versions, is currently in such upheaval. Christian “emergents” are looking with fresh eyes toward expressions of Christian faith and spirituality that take seriously the mystical and mysterious aspects of their tradition. The fascination in some quarters in Celtic Christianity is one symptom of this reappraisal. (Unless I’m mistaken, pre-Christian Celtic culture would have affirmed all four of Imasogie’s concepts ennumerated above.) At the same time, it seems growing numbers of Protestants are heading towards those churches that have maintained a healthy respect for such things as sacraments, symbolism, and the communion of saints.

The Barbarians Who Wrote the Bible

This is the worldview that produced the Bible, and it seems to be experiencing a resurgence in post-modernity. If this is so, how then should we read the Bible? One possibility is to learn more about approaching the texts anthropologically, by applying insights gained from the phenomenology of religion. This approach, as expressed by the Scandinavian school of Helmer Ringgren and Åke V. Stöm, Mircea Eliade, and others, is a comparative study of religious ideas and their manifestations. It draws its material from the history of religions, but arranges these data “from a systematic rather than a historical point of view” (Ringgren and Ström, Religions of Mankind [Fortress, 1967] xviii).

Otto Kaiser’s essay on Old Testament exegesis warned against the danger of being misled by structural similarities such as phenomenology hopes to find, but even so he concludes that “there can be no doubt that the phenomenological approach offers definite assistance in constructing a bridge from a text belonging to the distant past to the living questions it reflects” (Exegetical Method, tr. E. V. N. Goetschius [Seabury, 1963]). The revised edition (1981) regretably deletes much of Kaiser’s treatment of this matter.

The principal characteristics of a phenomenological approach to the Bible are epoche and eidetic vision. Epoche has to do with the attitude of the phenomenologist. It is a deliberate mental “bracketing” of questions about the reality or truth claims inherent in the data. Thus, the phenomenologist approaches the data with all seriousness and does not dismiss anything as “primitive” or “crude,” as has often been done with portions of the Bible that do not conform to Enlightenment standards: sacrifices, angels and demons, etc. The fundamental question for phenomenology, as was passionately explained to me long ago by Dr. John Jonsson of Southern Seminary, is not “Is this statement true?” but rather, “Why is it said in that particular way?”

Eidetic vision involves searching for the essence or “structures” that emerge from the data of religion. It is presupposed that careful examination yields coherent existential and religious patterns that show how human beings see themselves in relation to other people, to God, and to the cosmos.

The search for structures must never detract from the individuality of distinct religious expressions, however. This concern has been a constant emphasis of phenomenologists of the Scandinavian School, who have rejected dialectical and comparative approaches to religious phenomena out of a compelling interest in the specific and the concrete. Beyond whatever common patterns may be discerned in the Bible’s treatment of cultus, sacrament, cosmology, eschatology, or the spiritual realm, the particularity of the empirical evidence must be highlighted.

Doing Theology for (ex-)Pagans

At the conclusion of his book, Imasogie proposes three guidelines for a new Christian theological approach in Africa. I would suggest that the same guidelines have much to commend them in the post-modern West as well. These guidelines are:

1. A new appreciation of the efficacy of Christ’s power over evil spiritual forces. Since the typical African worldview is saturated with spiritual realities, most of which are hostile to humanity, the Christus Victor motif is the most viable starting point for an African Christian theology. According to Imasogie,

This is a very biblical approach in view of the fact that the world view of the first hearers of the Gospel, especially in the Gentile world, was one ridden with fear of evil spirits and demons. Apart from the witness of the four Gospels to this reality, Paul recognized it in his dealings with Gentile Christians, especially in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. (79)

Later he asserts,

Mere denial or arrogant condemnation of this world view will not be perceived as a valid solution to the problem by the typical African. As far as he is concerned, any authentic Saviour must be capable of destroying the cause of his fears and anxieties. This is why the Saviour to whom he can utterly commit himself must first be the destroyer of evil forces before his saviourhood can be existentially acknowledged. (80-81)

2. A new emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit and the present mediatory efficacy of the Living Christ. In African culture one finds fulfillment only in community. I’m reminded of Kenyan theologian John Mbiti’s subversion of Descartes, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” The community in which the individual African is nested has both human and spiritual aspects, which calls for greater attention to the Holy Spirit present within the community of the faithful and in fact bringing this community into existence.

The Church is the community brought into being by the Holy Spirit by virtue of his indwelling presence in all who are incorporated into Christ. As the one who walks alongside the Christian, the Holy Spirit guides him into all truth, comforts him in times of difficulties, and directs his thoughts as he grapples with the knotty problems of life’s decisions. (81)

Traditional Africans have no doubts that the spiritual world is real. They are thus reluctant to embrace the attenuated, secularized doctrine of the Holy Spirit they learned from Westerners who were largely afraid of him!

3. A new emphasis on the omnipresence of God and the consequent sacramental nature of the universe. For the typical African there is no strong demarcation between the sacred and the secular. Rather, he or she lives in a world thoroughly infused with spiritual potentialities. The idea of a remote God who is not wrapped up with all of life therefore makes no sense. This means that whatever a person does or thinks is done coram Deo—in the presence of God. Ironically, Christianity has taught the African to regard this traditional awareness as superstition without emphasizing God’s omnipresence (84). As a result, Africans who look for fidelity in relationships seek to ensure it through traditional religious practices.

This is so because by condemning the traditional awareness of spiritual realities as superstition without the appropriate substitute of the reality of God’s omnipresence, the Christian theologian has inadvertently created a spiritual vacuum. The African Christian in this sense is like the man, in the parable of our Lord, from whom an evil spirit was expelled. After wandering for some time the evil spirit returned to find that his place has not been filled. With that knowledge he went to invite “seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they all come in and settle down; and in the end the man’s plight is worse than before” (Luke 11:24-26 NEB). (85)

To avoid such a situation, theology must see the world as “one huge temple of God which must not be profaned by deeds, words, or thoughts since God’s eyes are ever open in the persons of his divine agents to what goes on” (85).

A Wideness in God’s Weltanschauung

There is no point in me, a non-African, trying to embrace an African-style theology as if I have never been touched by the Enlightenment. I have been; I am comfortable with critical methodologies and, at least part of the time, seek to approach the Scripture as objectively as possible. I try to acknowledge my presuppositions and bracket them in order to do “serious” biblical research.

At the same time, I dare not fall into the trap of the Judaizers. In his foreword to Guidelines for Christian Theology in Africa, Charles H. Kraft observes that the Judaizers who proved to be such a thorn in Paul’s side were not wrong to apply the Gospel in their particular cultural context. They were only wrong for insisting that theirs was the only valid cultural expression of the Christian faith (8). Likewise, it is not wrong for Westerners to read the Bible through Western lenses, but it is profoundly wrong to assume that those are the only lenses available.

I’m convinced there is much wisdom to be found in reading the Bible—as much as possible—through non-Western, pre-industrial eyes. At the very least, one won’t get far in understanding the values and motivations of the people who populate the biblical narrative without it. As surely as I am not an African, none of the heroes of the Bible were Americans!

Nor were the first interpreters of Scripture. Christianity in antiquity surely looked more like Imasogie’s African theology than anything that came out of Germany a hundred years ago—or 500! It is worth remembering that for most of its history, the church was made up of people whose worldview emphasized the immanence of the spirit, the power of symbol and sacrament, the fellowship of departed saints, and the availability of God’s grace not merely for the transcendent questions of ultimate concern but for everyday questions of uncertainty of the near future, crises of the present, and unknowns of the past. These are the issues that drive our lives most of the time, and traditional Western Christianity has not always done a good job of addressing them.

We in the West could learn a lot from Christians beyond our intellectual borders.



  1. David Ker says:

    I don’t want to flatter you or anything…but this is a great post (and I seldom say that about anyone’s posts but my own).


  2. Craig says:

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a LONG time. From any blog.


  3. […] Recent interactions between Lingamish and Dr. Platypus have led to an interesting brainchild. My post on Christian Animism inspired Dr. Platypus’  How to Read the Bible like a Pagan. […]


  4. Mark says:

    This is fascinating and really demonstrates why the west needs to learn from the African church.

    This is one of the reasons I think minority language Bible translation is so important for the worldwide church – God has created incredible diversity of language and culture and each one shows us a unique perspective of who he is.


  5. John says:

    I worked for 20 years in a tribe in New Guinea, and am happy to say I underwent some kind of conversion with respect to my Worldview. It changed teh way I read the Bible, and I hope it also enabled me to contextualize (critically) the Bible in that context. There has to be a triadic encounter and interlogue between Scripture, my own cultutre and the other accompanied by a willingness to put one’s own sacred ideas and interpretations on the table, and re-read the Scriptures with critical self-awareness of Platonic and Cartesian ideas, and a critical sympathy to the viewpoint of the other culture.


  6. John says:

    Further to my introductory comment, I would affirm the three points offered by Imasogie as guidlines. (1) Good Christology with clear affirmation of the full (and representative) humanity of Christ as well as his divine nature. The nature of the victorious Christ with whom we have been raised and seated above “principalities and powers”; then consequently, (2) the role of the Holy Spirit and the present mediatory efficacy of the Living Christ as the one and only mediator. (These 2 points help disarm the problem of “the excluded middle”–Paul Hiebert). Fnally (3) the omnipresence of God and the consequent sacramental (and holistic/intergarted nature of the universe)–not a creation divorced from who we are in the image of God, or from the Creator, Christ or the Spirit.


  7. Cate says:

    Ironically, as a western (Australian) Christian, I find myself easily able to understand a world view where secular and sacred is not separated, and I can’t get my head around the view of many people in my community who separate them.

    Makes conversation about God entirely confusing!


  8. Rob McKee says:

    As a Christian anthropologist, I believe Platypus et al. sadly mistaken. Our God-given cultural mandate doesn’t give us the right to create divinities, a vital force, etc., any more than it gave ancient Israel the right to create the god it did in Exodus 32. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul repeats the Old Testament point that an idol is nothing, and adds that it’s the strength of enculturation re. idols that has people keep insisting on their reality. The Church in the West/industrialized world does have things to learn from the Church in Africa; however, no one is doing a favor to the Church in Africa or Africa generally by praising their biblically-illegitimate cultural creations, which can and do result in things like red-eyed, octogenarian women (like my own grandmother and mother, eh?) being burned to death for alleged witchcraft. The ‘reality’ of the witchcraft concerned is one of the 2 Corinthians 10 strongholds the Church needs to demolish, not by killing the people we sinfully mistake as witches, but rather by (1) confessing and debunking the man-made ideas concerned and (2) trusting in the authority of Christ’s name to defeat the demonic/satanic that delights in using such lies to keep even Christians in bondage.


  9. Darrell Pursiful says:

    Thanks for your comments, Rob. I’m at a loss, however, to see how anyone is “creating” divinities. If it is true that malevolent spiritual entities exist, however they are construed (and I think a quick look at the Gospels will confirm that this assertion is certainly biblically defensible) then it is reasonable to ask how the gospel addresses this reality. And it’s not by excusing peoples’ “biblically illegitimate cultural creations”—that is precisely what Imasogie and others are trying to avoid!—but by holding up Christ alone as victorious over every principality and power. I think you can find that theme in the New Testament as well.

    So if people in Africa and elsewhere do what Imasogie suggest, it will wean people away from indigenous magical practices and toward Christocentric strategies for dealing with the reality of evil, and our respective mothers and grandmothers will have nothing to worry about.


  10. Rob McKee says:

    Thanks for your response, Darrell.

    Since we may be talking past each other to some extent, let’s take it step by step.

    First, did Aaron not, in Exodus 32, create for Israel the god whom the people evidently wanted to establish as the one who brought them out of Israel? Similarly, are the gods/idols spoken of in Psalm 115 and Jeremiah 10 not clearly the deaf, dumb, and blind creations of men? What problem, then, with the idea that a people might create its divinities and such?

    I suspect we’re in agreement thus far, but maybe not.


  11. Darrell Pursiful says:

    I agree that that is clearly what the Israelites did. It sounds like you think that is what Imasogie is doing. If so, I disagree.

    I would ask, Did not Jesus face conflict with real spiritual entities, commonly called “demons” or “unclean/evil spirits,” throughout the Synoptic Gospels, and were not the people of the New Testament therefore rightly concerned with the possibility that these entities might adversely affect their lives? If so, then might it be possible to build an authentic Christian, biblical theology that affirms that such entities are in fact real, and that Christ has won a decisive victory over them through his cross and resurrection?

    Christians—African or otherwise—don’t need to start looking for demons behind every rock, but if there’s a demon behind my rock, it’s good to know that Jesus—and not rituals and superstitions of human design—is the answer to getting rid of it.


  12. Rob McKee says:

    We’re in agreement so far, Darrell – assuming it’s a DEMON behind your rock, and not an Adioukrou divinity or Mangbetu forest spirit or such, neither of which, I’ll insist, is the same thing as the demon.

    For your benefit, part of the reason I want to clearly understand you and Imasogie both is that I’ve lived for lengthy periods in two African countries (Congo/Zaire and Kenya) where I think it can matter very much just how/how exactly ontologically real malevolent spiritual entities are construed by different cultures.

    All I can manage today on Nairobi time.

    With my best regards.


  13. Darrell Pursiful says:

    Thanks for the probing questions, Rob. I think I’ll bump your comment up to a post of its own later today so others can weigh in.


  14. Rob McKee says:

    Darrell, I’ve a busy day today (8h05 in Nairobi as I write), but I wanted to add one thing.

    I’m very glad to see you’re interested in building an “authentic Christian, biblical theology” and not an African or Western or any other one. One thing I’ve heard some African theologians reported as saying is, ‘Leave us free to do our own ethno-theologizing!’ For any continental or other-level culture to say that is a danger sign to me. We can and should learn from one another within the Church worldwide, including what in our own cultures, American and Western definitely included, might indeed be errant nonsense.


  15. Darrell Pursiful says:

    Thanks, Rob. I’ve moved our conversation on to a post of its own, where I hope we can continue.


  16. Great post and discussion comments. The interchange btwn Darrell and Rob were helpful.


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