Liberal Grace

Monday, October 30, 2006

My Own Journey in Spiritual Warfare

Demons, witches, covens and assorted spooks are alive and well in the conservative church.

At Halloween I always reflect on my own personal encounters with the dark side of the spirit world. I was raised in a fundamentalist "bible church" that taught a very literal belief in the spirit world -- especially about demons who could possess or harass you.

It's no surprise, probably, that I had several remarkable "power encounters" with the demon possessed as a young man. Generally put, we believed that moral compromise invited demon possession. The demons generally agreed with us about the most dangerous moral failures: pornography, drugs, ouija boards, rock music, homosexuality, horror movies, etc.

This shaped my view of "spiritual warfare" for about the first half of my adult life. People like Bob Larson and the, now discredited, Satan-Seller reinforced that experience long into adulthood. Plus, well-educated people I respected believed deeply in demonic reality.

If you've somehow missed the "spiritual warfare" movement, I recommend a radio show, rather than a book. Pray by This American Life Especially listen to act one about spiritual warfare at Colorado Springs. Even though they're clearly septics at TAL, it's one of the best efforts I've heard to describe this cultural phenomenon. The shows understands that the spiritual warfare sub-culture has a radically different world view.

Two things really changed my perspective in the second-half of my adult life:

1) The "Powers" books by Walter Wink.

Wink, Professor emeritus at Auburn Theological Seminary, creates an alternative framework for the reality of evil that is both faithful to the bible yet relevant to modern society.

A major problem with the spiritual warfare in most of our churches has that it seems... well... just so plain silly in our modern society.

Believers in spiritual warfare have a way to deal with this -- they believe our modern world is blind to spiritual reality and that this blindness makes the demons work in more covert way. Needless to say, this theory begs a few questions!

When I lived in the developing world we regularly had "prayer walkers" come from America and Canada to directly encounter the spirits of darkness. These conservative spiritual warfare believers have a very territorial view of "the strongholds of darkness" and, as you can imagine, it doesn't get much darker!

Wink accepts much of this same reality, but sends it off into a different framework that you can speak about even with your most secularized friends. But he never discounts God, prayer or the spiritual world. I strongly recommend winks books.

For the serious students there is a trilogy which I've read and highly recommend:

* Volume 1 -- Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament
* Volume 2 -- Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence
* Volume 3 -- Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination

For the less ambitious I recommend "The Powers that Be" which is more-or-less a summary of his trilogy:

2) Watching the Movie The Exorcist

Since watching movies could lead to demon possession, I never watched The Exorcist when it came out in 1973. But in 2000, when they re-released it, I saw the film in a theater.

What a revelation! What the church calls "spiritual warfare" is about 80% The Exorcist and about 20% the bible.

After watching the movie, I set out on a personal bible study about all the demonic passages in the New Testament. It was a quite a revelation to realize that the modern spiritual warfare I'd experienced was very similar to The Exorcist and distinctly different than the bible.

Even though I no longer worry about becoming demon possessed through movies, I still generally avoid them as I do all horror films. But I recently saw The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

The directors place the issue of demon possession in a courtroom where the phenomenon can be seen from either the traditional church explanation or from the scientific-world view. This movie does a pretty good job of summarizing my own life-long personal ambivalence and how people of good faith can see the spiritual world very very differently.

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