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Reading the Bible Like a Pagan: An Anthropologist Weighs In

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.

Rob responded,

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.

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9 Comments

  1. Darryl,

    Although I tend to be pretty Western myself, I did have one experience a number of years ago that opened my eyes to the “other” side. I was visiting a church with a friend for the first time (he was a regular attender). When I walked into the church I felt like there was this overwhelming sense of evil in the building, like nothing I had ever felt before.

    I said to myself, what is going on here? Is it something to do with the music, the worship leader, or what? I could not figure it out. So I asked my friend to come outside with me, told him what was going on, and we prayed and asked God to protect the church. When we went back in, the sense of evil was gone.

    My friend said that I should talk to the Pastor about what I had experienced. I resisted. What is a Pastor going to think if someone he doesn’t know tells him that he has a sense of evil in is church. My friend said the Pastor would be understanding, and that he would vouch for me, so in we went.

    I told the Pastor what I had experienced and he immediately turned to my friend and said, “How far was he sitting from person X?” My friend replied, 2 seats over and 1 seat back!

    The pastor then told us that this person had been dabbling in the occult, and that he wasn’t surprised if he had brought some sort of evil with him into the church. He then thanked us for bringing the matter to his attention and that he would deal with it.

    So that has been my one of very very few experiences in this area over my 45 years in the church. It was enough for me not to doubt that these forces do exist.

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  2. Rob says:

    Darrell, sorry there hasn’t been much response to this – unless you’re processing more before posting? In any case, would you like to hear where I disagree with David Ker’s ‘Christian animism’ post, which would be additional background? I’d written something that I apparently then lost, but I can probably reconstruct most of it in pieces.

    Best regards,

    Rob

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  3. I’d love to see your response to David, Rob. I’m out of town this week and can only get online sporadically between meetings. Send me the link if you post it somewhere, or else send the material to me and I’ll post it here. Or, if it’s not too long, just post it as a comment here.

    Thanks!

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  4. Rob says:

    I have problems with a number of points in David’s post, such that I reject his idea of a Christian animism.

    One preliminary: While it may indeed be the case that most Christians accept “the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe,” that wouldn’t make the idea biblical. Most/many European Christians once believed that the sun revolved around the earth, right? The question that concerns us is, Is animism indeed a part of biblical Christian orthodoxy? (I say ‘no’, as I explain below, ultimately rejecting David’s idea that the whole of Judeo-Christian belief is in fact suffused with the two dictionary senses of animism he supplied.)

    I don’t accept either of David’s first two examples, those of Jesus cursing the fig tree and allowing the demons to go into the pigs, as illustrative of an animistic worldview. The first is a miracle that demonstrates the Creator’s power over the creation (whether living or dead, organic or inorganic, etc.), with no indication in either gospel context (Matthew or Mark) that Jesus or the disciples thought the fig tree normally animated with/by any kind of spirit. To me, not even the miracle itself assumes animation by a spirit; why not simply obedience to the Creator by a kind of inanimate life? With regard to the second, I fail to see how one biblical instance of demons being allowed by Jesus to enter a herd of pigs is evidence of an animistic worldview. Even if demons regularly possessed animals, that still wouldn’t have animals normally animated by spirits different from the demons concerned.

    Darrell, let me stop there for now and let you give me any feedback so far. No rush, I don’t have much time myself these days.

    Best,

    Rob

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  5. Rob says:

    To continue yesterday’s comment:

    I don’t see that David’s second set of examples, from the OT this time, fare any better. How many rocks are spoken to? How many donkeys speak? How many voices from burning bushes? How many seas and rivers part? In some cases it’s just one; in the others, a few at most. We’re again dealing with what we see as and call miracles, reacting to them I think in essentially the same way as did the OT people concerned. Rocks, donkeys, bushes, seas and rivers weren’t any more regularly ‘animated’ for them then they are for most Westerners now. Again, there’s a difference between this or that part of nature, whether living tree or animal or non-living rock, wind or sea, being subject to the Creator’s command and it being inhabited by a spiritual entity.

    I don’t agree with David’s list of effects of the Enlightenment. I wouldn’t say that most Christian I know read the Bible with a materialist mindset; I think most whom I know don’t see many of the kinds of miracles of the Bible as things that can’t and don’t happen today; I don’t agree that, here in Africa, “[a]nimism is the predominant worldview even among the most well-educated and deeply spiritual Christians.” In any case, before the Enlightenment, “the spiritual illumination that infused daily life” in Christendom was not animism, it was the living Christ.

    One more summary comment to come.

    Best,

    Rob

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  6. Rob says:

    Last comment in this series:

    To the extent that materialism is indeed a log in our own Western eye, we clearly need to deal with it. I agree with David’s post this far.

    At the same time, to the extent that our own Western eye in NOT in fact plagued and blinded by this log, I say we have the responsibility to try to help fellow Christians wherever else in the world see things that I believe parts of the West and the rest of the world have, with God’s help, come to see relatively clearly.

    Yusufu Turaki, a Nigerian seminary prof, writes in FOUNDATIONS OF AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION AND WORLDVIEW (WordAlive, 2006) of people generally, as a result of the Fall, turning to “a host of man-made divinities, gods and spirits” (page 63). I believe Satan and demons are behind, in one or more senses, such man-made invisible beings, exploiting people’s enslavement to their ‘reality’, but that we do not in any case have any Christian animism of the sort David suggests.

    David’s post mentions the AFRICAN BIBLE COMMENTARY. I believe it would be interesting to ask several of the contributors to that volume to weigh in on David’s idea of a Christian animism. In the end, whatever we or they or African Christian mystics or artists have to say on the subject, it all, from a biblical Christian vantage point, has to line up with Scripture.

    Best,

    Rob

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  7. African Christians (and those from Latin America) helped cure me of the Enlightenment prejudices against the demonic. But I also think the Scripture demythologizes (to some extent) the paganism of the cultures iin which it was written. With the likes of Ellul, Stringfellow, Wink, etc. I find the demonic in Scripture to be “sub-personal” forces rather than the personified forces of traditional African (and other) beliefs. In other worlds, if more is going on than Western worldviews can easily accomodate, it doesn’t follow that everything that goes on is just as pre-Enlightenment cultures picture, either.

    I tend to think that spiritual, even demonic, forces in Scripture are more institutional, more political, than in the personified views of non-scientific cultures.

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  8. I see I’m very late to this disscussion, however, it may be that this document might help further reflection. It points up a way to hold things together in tension.
    “http://www.davidheywood.org%2FRCC%2FY1ministry%2FWink%2520and%2520Bowsher%2520handout.doc&ei=dN0_T7yoBI2S0QWHss2PDw&usg=AFQjCNFhLbRXcFJwuvD20O7J6eiLOxmFxw&sig2=vVEn13-8XRk6hNiFuwtZVw&cad=rja”>

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