Rob McKee, a Christian anthropologist, has raised some interesting issues in the comments to my post “How to Read the Bible Like a Pagan.” Although the issue of demons, evil spirits, or what have you is only one facet of what I was attempting to discuss in that post, it is worth asking probing questions about the intersection between Christianity and the cultures of the world. Just as one shouldn’t buy into the Western post-Enlightenment worldview uncritically and try to shoehorn the gospel into it, one shouldn’t assume that the other cultures of the world are beyond critique. It isn’t politically correct to say that the cultures of non-Westerners are at times at variance with the ideals set forth in the Bible. It is, however, sane.
I’ll reproduce the conversation so far. First, Rob commented:
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.
As appreciative as I am to Rob for raising this issue, I’m at a loss to see how anyone (I, Imasogie, Boyd, etc.) is “creating” divinities. In my response, I stated that, 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.
Next, Rob clarified his point with reference to a number of biblical passages:
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?
This is a helpful process, by the way. Rather than assuming the worst, Rob rephrased a central point of his concern to make sure we were not simply talking past each other. I wonder if it’s rather that we are each approaching the issue with a different set of biblical examples in mind. I responded that Rob is quite right about the ancient Israelites, but that I disagree that Imasogie is doing the same thing.
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.
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.
I’d like to summarize where I think the conversation has taken us so far and encourage the rest of my readers to join in—especially those of you with first-hand experience living and ministering in a non-Western culture.
It seems there are two issues on the table:
1. Are demons real? Unless one simply denies a priori the possibility that things like demons exist, one must come to terms with the diversity of the biblical witness on this point. Some biblical passages suggest that foreign deities (spirits, demons, etc.) do not really exist, and therefore do not merit the preoccupation believers sometimes give them. Others depict Jesus or his followers contending against malevolent spiritual forces and casting them out of people who have come under their attack. How are we to make sense of the fact that there are passages in the Bible that can support both understandings?
For purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t matter to me if you take a more or less face value approach to the Bible’s (particularly the New Testament’s) portrayal of the demonic or if you prefer to see it more in terms of how Walter Wink describes the “Principalities and Powers” as spiritual projections of human attitudes and institutions. You worry about your worldview issues; I’ll worry about mine.
2. Does everything count as a demon? Even admitting that the demonic, however you construe it in your theology, is a reality, that doesn’t mean that every spiritual entity proposed by every culture is equally real. I don’t believe in Mangbetu forest spirits, do you?
At the same time, I can’t help but wonder what I would do if I were an evil spirit trying to terrorize people who did believe in forest spirits. I might well decide to impersonate one if I thought it would serve my purposes. And if Wink is right (sorry, I thought we could leave him out of this!) it may in fact be that Principalities and Powers in such a setting might be especially prone to manifesting themselves in this way. Of course, for Wink this would be more because the Powers owe their existence to the human institutions in which they cohere rather than to any conscious decision on their part; the Powers as such are purely impersonal.
At any rate, what should a Christian pastor or missionary say about supernatural forces—real or imagined—that are a concern to his or her community of faith? What should he or she say if it were at least conceivable for there to be a demon somewhere masquerading as a forest spirit?
I think there may be some interesting food for thought concerning ministry in non-Western and/or postmodern cultures somewhere in these questions.