Monday, December 5, 2016

Agreeing to Disagree?

Families are famous for their silence. Silence on painful topics, silence around fault lines, silence to keep the peace. Silence often feels like a small price to pay to keep the family together. But silence is also limiting. It prevents healing and can hide the truth.
Until this past year, the church I attend has been silent on the topic of homosexuality. While the culture exhibited a seismic shift on the topic with the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, we said nothing. Finally, in winter of 2016, we had an adult-Sunday school series exploring the Biblical view of homosexuality, but only a minority of our members attended.
Two things at least are needed for unity: a shared understanding of how to read the Bible, and effective, church-wide teaching on the topic. Even our limited exposure to the topic showed that the former is lacking, and the latter simply can't happen unless we are all learning together. Our church is currently between pastors, making this impossible. Without unity our church can take for granted a certain irrelevance, since we can't speak with a single voice on a topic so central to our culture. More importantly, without unity we can't effectively minister to the same-sex attracted in any form, and our church remains for those brothers and sisters a dangerous place. What gay man or lesbian woman would be safe sharing deep thoughts and feelings not knowing where our church stands?
Without unity, do we just agree to disagree? While the discussion within the Church is recent, having arisen in response to rapid cultural change, the question of what it means to “agree to disagree” is ancient and addressed by Scripture. In the Bible there are certain beliefs and behaviors which are considered so serious that they would prevent one from inheriting the kingdom of God. For instance, in Galatians 5:16-26, Paul gives a list of vices, the opposite of the fruit of the Spirit, which characterize those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks with the same gravity of the resurrection, which he considers indisputable, a matter on which believers cannot simply agree to disagree. 
In contrast to this are certain religious behaviors. In Romans 14, Paul discusses choice of special diets and setting aside of certain days for special religious observance, concluding that the Roman believers should do as their consciences dictate, not passing judgment on others and being “fully convinced in their own mind” regarding their behavior. These matters may be placed in the “disputable” column; reasonable, sincere believers may disagree about them and choose different paths.
The church is to treat differently the beliefs and behaviors in the “disputable” column from those that are indisputable. A primary concern for disputable matters is not offending what Paul calls a “weaker” conscience. Believers who recognize that meat sacrificed to idols is still just meat are told not to eat that meat if it would lead a fellow believer to do something which would offend conscience or cause them to sin (1 Corinthians 8). The things in the indisputable column, however, are taken very seriously. So, for instance, believers can disagree about whether to eat meat previously sacrificed to idols, but they can't disagree about idolatry itself. When some believers in Corinth allow forms of fornication forbidden in the Old Testament law (much as homosexual activity is), and even treat them as an indication of freedom in Christ, Paul insists on excommunication with the hope of repentance (1 Corinthians 5-8).
So where does that leave us? Well, Paul places homosexual behavior among those vices which characterize those who will not inherit the kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; see also 1 Timothy 1:8-11). These vice lists are worth reading. One is hard pressed to find even a single behavior on those lists which has ever been considered for the “disputable” column. Rather, Paul himself treats homosexual behavior quite differently from the special religious observances of Romans 14. For Paul this is not a disputable matter. This is a crucial difference between women in office and homosexual practice: nowhere does the Bible support the latter. It's wrong to argue, as some do, that they are parallel issues; the Bible treats them entirely differently.
The fact is, though, that there are sincere and loving believers in our church family who point to scholars who interpret Scripture differently. As these brothers and sisters in Christ read it, loving homosexual relationships are not condemned. Despite this, we aren't back at square one; there are four things we can still conclude:
First, since the Bible, by a straightforward reading, takes homosexual activity so seriously means we must too. However we read Scripture we must recognize the eternal stakes (as Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). If we get this wrong, the effects could be devastating. All sides must recognize the gravity of the topic.
Second, we can't rely upon experts to do the Bible study for us. These passages are not esoteric, and there's no excuse for not reading the key passages carefully, in context. This should serve as a warning to each of us, regardless of our position: we are responsible, not for collecting scholars who support us, but for interpreting the Scripture. There is no excuse for failing to read the relevant passages carefully, in context.
Third, if your chosen church has a functioning governing system (as our does), then work within that system. In our denomination that means following the biblical and historical position which forbids homosexual activity but calls us to love and welcome and minister to all who seek to put themselves under the authority of Scripture. 

This requires some balance. On the one hand, we want to encourage an atmosphere of open discussion and inquiry. On the other hand, we are bound not to teach those things contrary to the denominational position, nor enact policy which opposes it. In fact, we should not be embarrassed to teach and preach the straightforward reading of the Bible on this topic if we do so with sensitivity. 
Fourth, whatever position we hold, we must treat all members with love out of respect for Christ. There are those in our church who are scared of censure and feel isolated in what’s meant to be their refuge from the battering world. I have talked to those on both sides of this issue who feel afraid to speak openly on this topic for fear of angry responses. This is something we can and should change, and there's no better way than deliberately reaching out to those who disagree with you, to ask them why they believe as they do—not to argue, but to listen, one-on-one. This simple act is profoundly counter-cultural and can be a witness to the watching world. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dying Well

We joke that we don’t want to pray for maturity, or God might give us suffering. There’s more than a little truth to this. The New Testament book Hebrews is a whole letter written to a group of believers who were being called to expose their faith at a time when this was like sticking your head out of a trench in World-War 1. Except, it was not for the purpose of spiritual growth, but to keep from abandoning faith entirely. No one was pushing them out of the trench; in fact, they could stay there, blend in with other Jews and enjoy the official Roman toleration of Judaism, and their possessions, their families, and their lives would not be at risk.

The writer coaxes them out in a dozen different ways: God disciplines through suffering those he loves (Heb 12:6); this is the time, the day when God is acting (Heb 3:13); faith which leads to suffering is a constant pattern among the heroes of the Old Testament (Heb 11); those heroes are watching, even now, and waiting at the heavenly city to which they have been called (Heb 12:22-23).

Near the end of this winsome letter he says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7). “Outcome” is ekbasin, which also means “the end of one’s life” (BDAG). In the words of Raymond Brown, rather than simply considering the way their leaders lived their lives, is probably far more natural here to see in this statement a reference to the death of these leaders, possibly even by martyrdom. Even if they did not pay that supreme price, the very way in which they had passed from this life serenely and unafraid was a radiant example in a world terrified by death and an unknown future. Christians of this kind have an abiding influence; the readers are encouraged to imitate their faith.  

In the Victorian era it was common for Christians to contemplate those who had died well. They even collected into books the last words of believers. As health care has improved, though, dying well has become a lost art. In the culture at large, life is about self-actualization while collecting accomplishments and holdings, and death is the ultimate interruption to these pursuits. Talking about death is considered defeatist and depressing. Given our unprecedented control over the end of our lives, this generation does not simply succumb to death, it must often be willing to deliberately let go. When believers hang on, white-knuckled until the bitter end, we send a clear message that they have no peace with what comes next.

Thinking about this has given me a horrifying awareness of how limited our time is. Even if I don’t contract cancer or die in a car crash, my blood is circulated by the uninterrupted action of a muscle I don’t control, which is doomed to wear out. We struggle (and reasonably so) when someone dies an untimely death, but all death is untimely.

Belief in God’s existence is not enough (James 2:9). Do we also believe God loves us, and won’t fail us when we are so vulnerable we can’t even hang on to our lives? All of faith comes down to this: when you look back at your prayers and God’s answers, do you see someone who loves you, and is powerful to save?

If we want to die well, and if we want to be of any help to those around us who are dying, we must cultivate the discipline of recounting God’s faithfulness to us.

At the same time we should ask, was God was faithful to Jesus? If you can read the Gospels and see, standing behind Jesus in all his frustrations and travails and ultimately in his tortured death, a God who loves him, then you will be much closer to dying well.

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (1 Thess 4:13-14)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Mental Contortions on Pentecost

This past Sunday, all around the world, non-charismatic churches which observe the church calendar engaged in a fascinating annual display of cognitive flexibility. Pastors everywhere talked about the first Pentecost, at which the prophecy of Joel was fulfilled in glorious fashion, ordinary disciples spoke in tongues and the Spirit began to work wonders on a dramatic scale. It’s a date that invites messages and sermons on spiritual gifts and empowering among even the meekest of quiet, traditional congregations.

We see this empowerment on the pages of our Bibles but we may find it hard to locate in our churches, and be grateful that Paul includes not just prophecy, tongues, healing and other acts of power, but also teaching, serving, mercy, administration, etc. (cf. Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:8-10, 28; Eph 4:11). While the sermon at my church didn’t focus on this, it is not unusual for preachers to point to the use of ordinary “gifts”—talents, really—as representing the works of the Spirit in Acts.

When I look around at the churches I have attended, I do not see prophecy or tongues or anything demonstratively miraculous going on aside from the very gradual miracle of sanctification. And those whom I would point to as particularly gifted in teaching, administration, etc., did not appear to receive those gifts at conversion. Notions of common grace aside, why do we ascribe those to the Spirit in the same vein as the gifts bestowed on the church on and after the first Pentecost?

This is where the mental contortions come in: We know what happened to the early church and our doctrine tells us we are inheritors of that tradition, yet we see none of the power they experienced. This is ironic in the age of the Pentecostal revivals of the 20th century, an era where the greatest church growth is in the global South, often being led by charismatic movements. These can’t be explained away by pointing to charismatic abuses; many of these churches are experiencing genuine movements of the Spirit which include the very gifts which we are absent in churches like mine. Rather than face this fact head-on, we succumb to the temptation to squint until we can convince ourselves that our experience is just as first-century-Pentecostal as theirs.

In March of this year I set myself a task of spotting where the Spirit is active for 21 days. No repeats, no historical events, just current events which are consistent with Scripture’s M.O. of the Spirit. It wasn’t easy—both because I, like others, am unused to seeing the Spirit around me, and because of the no-repeat rule. (The work of the Spirit, like the work of rain and sunshine on flowers, is often repetitive.) 

On a global scale I observed acts of mercy and kindness, such as Christiane Van Heerden who teaches a pre-school in rural South Africa and makes care package for child victims of rape as they prepare to testify in court. I saw acts of courage, such as the Orthodox priests risking their lives and praying on the frontlines in Kiev despite government warnings, and the spread of the gospel in Bali in the midst of a sometimes violent Hindu majority. On a national level, I saw the Spirit working in individuals, as in Malcolm Gladwell’s return to faith and the efforts of the mother of Jordan David to forgive his murderer. A powerful work of the Spirit is seen in the volunteers of the Kairos prison ministry who bake literally hundreds of cookies for prison residence, a simple act of generosity which has a profound effect on the prison residents who receive them.

Most importantly, on a local level I began to see things which I believe are the work of the Spirit. I saw Christians coming into the presence of God confident that his love for them was greater than any parent: ‘And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”’ (Galatians 4:6). I saw my wife and others from our church went downtown to serve food to the needy at Cameron Community Ministries. (I should also include my occasional experiences of the Spirit in prayer, Bible study and worship.)

In my own small group of believers, I saw what Gordon Fee calls our “lavish experience of the Spirit”. Well, perhaps it isn’t exactly “lavish”, but if you are there you see that we care for one another (1 Cor 12:25); pursue one another's good (1 Thess 5:15); bear one another's burdens (Gal 6:2); and consider one another better than ourselves (Phil 2:3). I saw zeal for service on the part of the elders of our church I am privileged to be friends with (Rom 12:11), who sacrifice blood sweat and tears, with little reward in sight. And I see my friends who have adopted or married inter-racially, or come from inter-racial families. This racial unity is one of the most powerful acts of the Spirit; “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (cf. Eph 2:14-18).

What do all of these have in common with tongues and prophecy and healing? They are out-breaking of the kingdom so we might better spread the gospel and more effectively love and minister to one another, and they are experiences which go beyond simple exercise of natural talents.

That does not mean we have nothing to learn from the first-century church’s experience of the Spirit, or the charismatic tradition. This tradition offers an immanence of the Spirit which can strengthen faith and help us shake off our torpor. We should pray boldly for the works of the Spirit, including those charismata which require us to be uncomfortably vulnerable. Or we are too timid—or too comfortable—to break ranks and try something new?

What we should never do is sell the Spirit short and mistake the talents of common grace for the charismata. Make no excuses for God. Look reality in squarely in the eye, ask God to show you where his Spirit is at work, and then ask him to use you in even greater ways.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


My sister, experiencing the goal of all those late nights
Grad school had its share of professional and personal crises, like the night when my drunken apartment neighbor ripped the building door off its hinges and aimed his fist at my face, to the time I discovered a missing minus sign in an important derivation, invalidating my current research and taking my work off in a totally different direction. For all that, the dark times during college were deeper and much longer. My junior year, when the full force of coursework really hit, was boot camp, and the massive curriculum was like a drill sergeant trying to break me. I had always dreamed of being a physicist, and that dream hung in the balance as I climbed mountains of work and slept very little, wondering if I would make it through.

I was at a college in a small town in rural Ohio, without a car, and the brightest times that year, in fact the whole four years, were the visits. I can remember one clearly, when my brother drove up for the weekend to collect me for a holiday. Just having someone there from the outside put everything into perspective and made me realize that whatever happened, I would survive. That visit was a light in a very dark place. I remember also visiting my sister a year or two later, at another small Midwestern college. It was the end of the year, and all her friends had left, yet she still had a big project to finish, and I knew the look in her eyes, like a tired swimmer a mile out from shore. We put on some good music, and squared up against the pile of books and papers and at the end drove away with a sense of emancipation.

Letters, calls, care packages—these are all important. But there’s no substitute for being there in the flesh.

I have never felt this more deeply than as a parent not being present when my boys were in tough spots. Last year Sam transitioned to public school. He was the youngest in a class of strangers, with a teacher who had the warmth of a stone. He learned a lot that year, but many were the days when he pleaded not to have to go to school. What I would have given to have been there with him!

I have never resonated with Christmas, maybe because Jesus as a baby has always seemed so foreign to me. This year it’s finally sunken in what God was doing. God knows there’s no substitute for being present in the flesh. Like any parent, God’s heart ached to be with his people in all their struggles, in a way that a pillar of flame simply can't be. And so God implemented a plan so strange that Paul refers to it as a “mystery” which he says "has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints," a mystery which amazingly neither his people nor even the angels in all their wisdom nor the demons in all their cunning anticipated. 

No road, no journey across the furthest seas, could take God to his children the way he wanted. The only way to traverse the gap was to actually allow himself to be born as a child among us, to learn to speak and move anew, and to grow up among the people his heart ached for. (Next time you have to wait in a packed, smelly airport for a delayed flight, be glad your journey doesn’t involve a birth canal!) And God did this even knowing that many of the people he was so eagerly wanting to be with wouldn’t recognize him: "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?"

We who do recognize what God did to be with us, have a great reason to cheer this Christmas. If you are a sibling who has taken time to visit a brother or sister in a dark place; if you are a parent who has longed to be with your scared or lonely child, then you understand. Emmanuel: God with us. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Laws of Church Dynamics

The Laws of Church Dynamics

I. Ecumenical movements are good at dialogue but bad at action.

I am reading Metaxas' book on Bonhoeffer, and currently Bonhoeffer's trying to convince the ecumenical movement to speak out against the Reich church. It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion. To paraphrase Thurber, falling back on ecumenical movements when times are tough is "very much like falling back full-length on a kit of carpenter's tools."

II. A church's ability to hold onto the strengths of its tradition is inversely proportional to the ability to see the strengths of other traditions.

The same wall needed to hold back the eroding waves of culture obscures what the other branches of the church are up to. This tends to result in ignorance and even suspicion of other traditions.  (Of course, it need not, and there are always those open to learn from other traditions.) 

It's sadly impractical in this culture to require adult Christians spend time in more than one tradition. 

III. It's impossible to use creeds and confessions to protect against heresy without elevating them to the level of Scripture.

If the creeds are able to serve as a correction, they must be able to decide between different readings of Scripture, and to do that, they must be able to stand over Scripture and serve as referee, much the same as other passages of Scripture are meant to do. I have spent most of my life in the Episcopal Church and the Christian Reformed Church.  For all their differences, in both churches their creeds (Apostles', etc. for the Episcopal Church, Dordt, Belgian and Heidelberg for the CRC) are functionally at par with Scripture. In the CRC this means that no reading of Scripture can ever contradict the creeds. In the Episcopal church where from time to time you run across an unfortunate priest who has lost a belief in the physicality of the resurrection (and thereby abandoned the creeds), it only means that he has also abandoned Scripture.

In fairness, I should point out that most serious Christians in credal traditions would disagree.

Churches without creeds shouldn't be smug. Creeds do serve a role, despite their dangers. The creed follows the sermon in Episcopal liturgy for a reason: no matter what the priest just said, the congregation is reminded of the divinity of Christ and his resurrection from the dead. 

IV. The more competent the clergy, the less trained and equipped the laity.

This is not to say that the less competent the clergy the more capable the laity--though that may happen at times.

Paul, in the pastorals, pointed out the importance of qualified elders and deacons. At the time, synagogue leaders were not fully supported by their congregations, but had "day jobs" as well. Over time both adopted something closer to the priesthood found in pagan churches, by establishing a full-time trained clergy. 

If you have been in churches without seminary-trained clergy you know there's some value to a formal seminary education. 

However, if you are the parish priest or church pastor, you may quickly think that training your flock in all the things you learned is like a dentist training his patients to fill their own cavities. The simplest equilibrium is the one which has dominated the past 2,000 years of church history: a weakened laity under the direction of a strong clergy.

This may not seem fair to the clergy who will tell you that their flocks aren't clambering for more training. William Willimon among others has eloquently defended the value of the pastorate. The traditional way can't be all wrong, right? [2]

Trouble is, that means there's a single person on which everything depends. It also means the laity are less equipped for ministry than they ought to be. This is easily demonstrated by asking what fraction of your church's council, vestry, etc. is well versed in Scripture. 

What's my counter-example? Check out Xenos Christian Fellowship, which has a central structure surrounded by a huge network of home churches, each of which survives (many of which thrive) without professional clergy. Their leaders are required to take at least two (?) years of training courses. How many council/vestry members can say they've done the same?

V. Churches have a finite shelf life: all churches eventually decay from the inside out and dwindle, disband, or become apostate.[1]

There are many factors which contribute to this. Multigenerational churches tend to become dynastic, and when the church contains your whole family it's very hard to make the church your new family, hating mothers and brothers for the sake of the kingdom.

The more you have to lose, the harder is it to give it up. A church which has been alive for centuries feels like a treasure to be protected more than a tool to be used for the kingdom. 

If you think your church is suffering from stagnation what should you do? It's a question of balance. Churches do experience revivals. But it's possible to spend too much time helping breathe life into your church, at the expense of other kingdom work.

I actually find Law V encouraging. In a roundabout way it reminds me that while one church declines (shrinks or acculturates) the Spirit is nevertheless at work elsewhere. This is the parable of the wedding feast, where the servants scour the hedgerows for guests. God is throwing a party, and when God throws a party, you can bet the hall will be full, of people and surprises.

VI. The Holy Spirit will eventually form a remnant of true believers within any apostate church.

This is Ezekiel's dry bones. Time and again this has happened. The mainline charismatic movement is a wonderful example. The seed will eventually find fertile soil in the hearts of those who recognize the shepherd's voice and are willing to use their talents (and minas) to give all for the pearl of great price hidden in the field. 

Seriously, of all the Laws above, this is the greatest hope: For all the Church's flaws and weaknesses, God has chosen this Body as the vessel for his Spirit. And God knows what he's doing.

I think I managed to offend everybody. What laws would you add?

* * *

[1] Walls describes how this has worked on a global scale--the centroid of the Church moving from the Roman Empire to Europe and most recently to Africa and Asia. I am thinking on a smaller scale. I have heard of research showing that the church always becomes more like the culture over time (certainly never the other way around).  I would love to see those data.

[2] The past 2,000 years has also seen predominantly mono-ethnic churches, but that's clearly not the NT pattern. Not to say you can't serve God the way it's been done historically. You can also do ministry in mono-racial churches, but thank God that some churches feel a higher call. 

(Image credit:

Monday, July 30, 2012

Seeing the unseen

Last fall I was reading the Bible with my son when we came across the account of the Garasene demoniac. This naturally led to questions about demons. I assured Sam they are real, but visible encounters with them in the U.S. are rare. In fact, most people here believe they don't exist.

I suggested Sam not bring up demons at school. I might as well have cautioned him against mentioning demons at church. Even those Christians who agree to belief in a devil will look askance at anyone who spends time talking about him. Bring up demon possession and you will certainly get some strange looks.

Americans enjoy a good demon possession movie; a new one with a Jewish exorcist is due out soon [1]. But despite wide-spread belief in God, we generally don’t believe in demons. It’s hard to be critical of this, given that most of us have had no direct experience to support their existence. We are children of the Enlightenment, and (with 19th-century Biblical scholars like Rudolf Bultmann) we tend not to believe what we don’t see.

A recent paper by Craig Keener [2] turns this logic on its head. In it, Keener surveys anthropological data concerning modern spirit possession phenomena. Anthropologists have spent a good deal of time studying possession, because it is wide-spread. In the words of an anthropologist quoted in the article, to deny demon possession as a phenomenon is the “anthropological equivalent of ‘being a flat-earther’”. It's widely enough attested in ethnographies that of 488 societies surveyed by specialist Erika Bourguignon, 74% had spirit-possession beliefs. While it is not commonly found in the West, it is found in “a wide variety of societies in most regions of the world, among them Africa…, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas” [3]. Furthermore, in those societies it is not necessarily reserved for the lunatic fringe. For instance, Keener writes, “…in many African countries a third of Christians claim to have witnessed exorcisms, and in some that figure rises to roughly half (Uganda, Mozambique), 65 percent (Ghana), or 74 percent (Ethiopia)” [4]. Keener writes, “Generally when I have asked educated persons from Africa and many other parts of the Majority World whether they believed in the reality of spirits, occult activity, and the like, their response has been, ‘Of course,’ sometimes with the caveat that they are careful with whom they discuss such matters, especially among skeptical Westerners.” [5]

What do we mean by “spirit possession”? From the anthropologists’ perspective, it’s an altered state of consciousness which the local culture describes as due to control by an external spirit. In some cases ritual is used to bring it about, as in the Yoruba culture in Nigeria, where a ceremony with drums is used to induce a trance state, allowing the shaman to heal, curse, predict the future, etc. Not all who experience what might be labeled possession seek it for their own ends, however. Dennis McCallum, for instance, related the following experience:
When I was preaching at a village church in India, an elderly woman suddenly began to cry out and gesticulate in an unnatural way. I asked my translator what she was saying, and he translated, “I am more powerful than any of you! She has been mine for thirty-five years! There is nothing you can do!” Four men carried her out of the meeting to a nearby hut with a covered front porch where they prayed over her. Amazed, I asked if we shouldn’t stop and pray for her, but the other Christians made it clear they wanted me to continue with my teaching. They did not seem surprised by the experience. [6]
 In some cases it appears to be tied to a pattern of occult practice. The spectrum of possession practices and experiences is simply too broad to describe here. Importantly, modern possession includes phenomena similar to those found in the New Testament.

Anthropologists themselves have historically sought to sympathetically understand a culture while retaining scientific objectivity. In recent years, though, some have gone beyond this. As Keener writes,
One obvious example of this phenomenon is the noted anthropologist Edith Turner, who describes her gradual transformation from skeptical observer to convinced observer and finally participant, now rejecting her former stance as cultural imperialism. In 1980, she and her husband, Victor Turner, were leading some students at New York University in some rituals addressed to Yoruba deities, with drumming and songs; right there a street theater director went into a trance and made accurate predictions afterward. The Turners had not expected the ritual to function this way outside its original context. [7]
Turner has written extensively since on the reality of spirits. While they are by far in the minority, Keener gives other examples as well of academics thus persuaded. Since Westerners generally do not believe in the reality of spirit possession, it is noteworthy that a even small number of those academics who make a living studying it have become convinced of its reality.
A mediƦval illustration of Jesus 
healing the Gerasene demonaic

Even Christians who accept belief in spiritual beings may be wary of mistaking supernatural affliction for personality disorders, and the damage which a misdiagnosis could cause. Indeed, some cases which are described as possession may not be the result of psychosis, but rather heightened suggestibility due to cultural pressure and inculcation. But the weight of data forbids us from dismissing out of hand demon possession as a real phenomenon, especially given the Biblical witness. The data beg the question, though: If demon possession is real, why isn’t it found in the West? Its societal correlates suggest some possible answers. Quoting Keener again,
Increase in occurrences of possession often accompany dramatic changes in society. Even in the nineteenth century, observers noted that ‘cases of possession are less frequent in peaceful times, and more frequent in times of civil commotion; also less frequent in prosperous families’ and ‘among educated people.’ Possession without a trance is more common in hunter-gatherer societies; increasing societal stratification and complexity increases the likelihood of added trance states…Including ecstatic Christian experiences in her analysis, Bourguignon suggests that possession trance is most common among the more marginalized members of a society; groups that once experienced it, such as early Methodists, that have now become respectable are far less likely to display it. It often appears among those marginalized from other means of power in their society, especially women, although this pattern varies from one society to another. [8]
Since possession gives power to the powerless, albeit at a price, it’s not surprising it’s found globally more among those lacking power, and in unstable societies. The West, being more stable and powerful, would tend not to attract this sort of phenomenon. Westerners, with their post-Enlightenment culture, are also less likely to become involved in cult activity, with its ties to spirit possession. Many have also wondered if it might represent a larger demonic strategy, in which supernatural demonic aggression in the West is deliberately covert to encourage materialistic and atheistic religious-philosophical beliefs [9].

Let’s say, then, that some fraction of spirit possession phenomena represent actual demon possession. What are the implications? Keener quotes the famous Chinese writer Watchman Nee, saying “one Chinese church leader of a previous generation reproved Western critics with the observation that their theological hairsplitting would benefit them little in his country ‘if when the need arose you could not cast out a demon.’” [10] Still, a Westerner might be justified in regarding this as irrelevant if it doesn’t happen in his or her own back yard [11]. McCallum argues that the relative lack of guidance on exorcism in the epistles indicates that it is not intended to play a central role in the lives of believers. It’s one thing to have a fire extinguisher on hand and in working order; it’s another to use it every time you see a light.

One day when Sam is much older, I will tell him about these data. What would it look like for him to take seriously the biblical view that the earth is populated not just by humans, but also by a species of spiritual creatures which, while generally invisible, can exert influence on the physical world? There probably won't be much assistance for him from the pulpit--when was the last time you heard a sermon on spiritual warfare, or heard a prayer in a church service aimed at resisting the enemy? [12] He may not feel the need to bone up on exorcism techniques [13], but given the data described by Keener on spiritual activity we surely can't blame him for feeling some curiosity about Satan's covert (i.e. non-possession) tactics [14]. If the prevailing attitude in the West remains the same, he may be one of the few in his church who does.

* * *

[1] The Possession (2012).
[2] “Spirit Possession as a Cross-cultural Experience”, from the Bulletin for Biblical Research (20, 215; 2010). This work is expanded upon in an appendix of Miracles, Vol. 2 (Baker Academic, 2011).
[3] Miracles, 792.
[4] Miracles, 813.
[5] Miracles, 837.
[6] Satan and his Kingdom (Bethany, 2009), 197.
[7] Miracles, 830.
[8] Miracles, 824-25.
[9] E.g. McCallum, ibid., 185. A further theory is that overt spiritual attack only occurs on the missions front.  Keener notes a similar correlation.
[10] Miracles, 835.
[12] We currently attend a Christian Reformed church. In the Episcopal, American Baptist and Evangelical Free churches I have attended I can’t recall even one sermon on this topic. Certainly other churches don’t have this blind spot.
[13] Though if you need to, see McCallum, ibid., ch. 17, or Spiritual Gifts in the Local Church (Bethany House, 1987), 198ff, by Anglican bishop David Pytches, both of which offer considerably more information than the single page in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services, 2003, which simply directs those in need to visit the local bishop. (We can only hope the bishop has more in hand than The Book of Occasional Services.)
[14] This is too large a topic to address here, though a good place to start is Ephesians 6. A more thorough exposition of the topic is the subject of McCallum's book.

The first image is a detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Getting practical about doing right

For those not in the Huddle, we are current studying Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and John R. Schneider's The Good of Affluence. Our second meeting last week saw some  brainstorming about how we are better aid the needy and steward our resources. This post is meant to give us a convenient place to brainstorm further. Post ideas! Even if they occur to you half a year from now, post away. Here are some ideas to start with, from last Friday:

  • Write a letter to your congressperson, local store, etc.
  • Buy used clothing
  • Start with the basics, such as looking to buy minimally packaged goods.
  • Gradually get educated regarding fair trade companies
  • Check out Slavery Footprint
  • Do activities such as walk for homeless, raising money via 5k run, etc.
  • Donate items you don't use much to shops like Second Thought Resale Shop etc.