Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

Almighty and everlasting God, by whom that begins to be which was not and that which lay hidden is made visible, cleanse away the folly of our hearts and purify us from secret vices, that we may be able to serve you, O Lord, with a pure mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- The Gelasian Sacramentary

Friday, August 18, 2017

Dante in Exile

(Note: This article was originally posted in 2015)

Here's a painting I find very interesting: "Dante in Exile," by the Victorian artist Frederic Leighton (1864). 

One immediately senses the tension in the painting: Dante (the black-cloaked figure in the center) faces directly toward us; while the other characters are moving elsewhere, mostly toward the room behind him. At first glance, one would think that this shows Dante's exclusion, his loneliness in his place of exile. But a second glance shows that this isn't entirely the case: many of the participants, though moving past Dante or turned in a different direction than him, are in fact looking at him: the child in the foreground, the young woman in the passing group, and the seated man to Dante's left. Even the red-cloaked man up in the room behind seems to be talking about Dante, gesturing toward him with his hand. Dante, though alone and opposite the flow of everything around him, is nevertheless (or perhaps, because of this) the object of everyone's attention.

So what is this all about? A quick history lesson: Dante, of course, is the Italian poet famed for writing "The Divine Comedy," (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), one of the greatest literary works of all time. But he was also a political figure, having been a leader and supporter of the White Guelph faction in his hometown of Florence, and it just so happened that in 1302 the White Guelphs were exiled from Florence. Dante spent the rest of his life in exile in Italy, starting in Rome and ending in Ravenna. It was during his long exile that he wrote his masterpiece.

This painting by Leighton shows Dante's exile in beautiful detail--in particular, it encapsulates Dante's resolution that drove him to write. A quick glance at Dante's figure may show him as sort of a passive character, with the world passing him by. But this is merely an illusion. It is precisely his posture against the flow of the world around him, against the worldly revelry, that makes up the theme of the first canto of The Divine Comedy. His face is mournful, brokenhearted at his exile, but it is also resolute--it will not attend to the bustling cares of this world. His folded hands seem at first to be submissive, resigned. But this too is an illusion, for in his right hand he holds a book, his finger already marking a place within it; and it is with a book that he will make his stand against the ways of the world. 

Perhaps the subtlest detail of all, though, is his feet. Everything about Dante is static except his feet. One would have guessed from his posture that his feet would have been together, but no, he seems to be stepping forward with his left foot. This is, in fact, an allusion to a line in his first canto, as he describes his decision to find the straight path that he had lost: "I dragged my stronger foot and limped along" (Inferno I:30). The dragging of the foot is taken to be a symbol of the way Dante feels rooted to the old life, to the ways of the world, and that impulse is stronger than his affinity for pursuing the way of faith; nevertheless, he resolves to step forward, even if it means dragging along that old, worldly part of himself. 

Exile is never an easy place to be, and the painting shows us that. But by putting into imagery the very mood of Dante's first canto, it also reminds us that we are all in exile. Every one of us has lost the straight path, and we find ourselves "in a darkened wood." It is our choice whether to go along the easy path of following the world into its spiritual exile of vice, or of dragging our unwilling selves up the hard mountain toward virtue.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

On Spiritual Warfare

(Note: This article was originally posted in 2007)

I had the onus of a specific request placed on me recently—to write some reflections on the topic of spiritual warfare and to take special note of my African experiences. This is an area of interest to me, but one which, I freely admit, I don’t know much about. I have many more questions than answers, but perhaps the questions will be helpful in pointing us in the right direction as a church. I don’t believe that this is a topic that demands as much attention as some Christians would have us believe (or at least not in the form they present it), but I do think it’s worthy of far more attention than most Americans give it. We are all called to be warriors in the kingdom of God, to fight spiritual battles for the sake of the gospel, and that is no small commission. We should learn how to do it well. 

When it comes to questions of the spiritual realm, and specifically the demonic, C.S. Lewis hits the center of the mark in his preface to The Screwtape Letters: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” The American church is all over the spectrum on this. Most of us go through our day-to-day lives without even giving a second thought to demons. Others seem to be obsessed with them. In researching this topic, I found some intriguingly fanciful books in our seminary library, including one that claimed to know that demons named “Ahab” and “Jezebel” were behind much of the lack of spiritual power in the church’s men and women, respectively, and that the Babylonian goddess Ashtoreth is responsible for the feminist movement.

To those who live their lives in willful ignorance of the spiritual forces at work in the world, I would urge that this issue be seriously considered. And to those who “see a demon behind every bush,” I would suggest that we have missed the forest for the trees. In his book Breaking Strongholds in Your City, C. Peter Wagner thanks his “less informed critics” for keeping him conscientious in his studies of spiritual warfare. I think this article would probably fit into that category. I’m not very well-informed on this subject, but it is of interest to me, and I’d welcome any additional thoughts or critiques.

Anyone who takes the Bible seriously must take the demonic realm seriously as well. One of the clear agendas of the gospels is to portray Jesus’ authority over these dark powers. However, a biblical theology of demons doesn’t tell us much more than that. The Old Testament, in contrast to the gospels, is almost entirely silent about demons. It does far more in attacking idols and foreign gods, so some have conjectured that demons and pagan gods are one and the same (for example, “Beelzebub” is not merely a demonic prince cited in the gospels, but also appears as “Baal-zebub,” the god of Ekron, in 2 Kings 1:2). But to be honest, we don’t know much about the connection between demons and pagan gods. Some later OT writings imply that idols and foreign gods aren’t real at all in the spiritual sense. Satan makes a few interesting cameos, but other than his sporadic appearance and the intriguing cases of harmful or deceitful spirits actually sent by God (1 Sam. 16:14; 1 Kings 22:19-23), the OT tells us little on this matter. 

Though the NT tells us more, one must admit that outlining a robust theology of spiritual warfare is very low on the priority-list of the writers. Clearly, spiritual warfare is a proper part of kingdom-life, but we are seldom told how to do it, and those passages that do address the subject are rather vague. Perhaps the clearest statement we have comes from Mark 9:29, where Jesus instructs his disciples that a certain kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer. The best exposition of spiritual warfare in the Bible (at least to my knowledge) is the famous passage in Eph. 6, which tells us that our battle is against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” But when Paul instructs his readers how to go about this battle, he gives no strategies for “warfare prayer” or “spiritual mapping.” Rather, he tells them to gird themselves with defensive weaponry in order to stand fast in their faith and to live the Christian life in righteousness and active witness. When Paul finally gets around to addressing prayer, which is the focal practice of most discussions of spiritual warfare, he focuses exclusively on intercessory prayer rather than on directly attacking or claiming authority over spiritual powers.

This is a topic which should be addressed carefully. Not only is there a lot that the Bible doesn’t tell us, but there are a lot of curious things that it does tell us which seem to go against the grain of what we’re usually taught about demons. This extends further than the OT instances of God sending harmful spirits. 1 Peter 3:19-20 appears to allude to 1 Enoch’s interpretation of the odd story of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6. According to early Jewish traditions, this is a tale of spirits (possibly demonic, depending on how one uses the term) who mated with human women and were locked up by God until the final judgment. This, then, would apparently be a different class of beings than the demons Jesus confronts during his ministry. Moreover, 2 Peter and Jude both warn against “slandering celestial beings,” and both contexts imply that these celestial beings aren’t angels (Jude explicitly puts Satan in this category as a being who shouldn’t be slandered or spoken about without understanding). Perhaps these are demons. Or perhaps there are other classes of spiritual beings, rather more independent in their allegiance than angels, who also have power over earthly affairs. We just don’t know.

This doesn’t mean that the Bible isn’t concerned with spiritual warfare. But it does mean that the Bible isn’t as concerned with it as with the glorious truths of the gospel and the importance of living a faithful and obedient life. In the relative dearth of explicit biblical treatment of this subject, Christians have filled in the gaps with their own experience. And rightly so, for we can learn much that is true from experience. For me, experience has confirmed the biblical worldview of demonic powers, but it has done little beyond that. I saw a few exorcisms during my time in Angola, and it was clear that there were evil spiritual powers at work. I have seen women who came to the pastors for help, and in the middle of a prayer which they had been listening to quietly, they suddenly burst into wild trances, sometimes fearful and sometimes angry. I have spoken to Angolan men who freely admitted the power of evil spirits in their lives, especially as harnessed by the witchdoctors. Many of the stories they tell would be impossible to deny, even if one appealed to psychological manipulation. For instance, one man told of a village a bit further down the Kubango River, where a certain man’s son had been eaten by a crocodile. After doing some asking around, the man discovered that the crocodile had been sent by a witchdoctor at the request of a jealous neighbor. When confronted, the neighbor admitted to the deed—he had asked the witchdoctor to have a crocodile eat the man’s son. There were even first-person witness accounts of dark magic that my discipleship group told me, including demonic manifestations at a witchdoctor’s funeral right in Menongue, the city where I worked. Evil spiritual forces are a known factor of life in most Third-World countries. Beyond this simple confirmation of the biblical worldview, however, my experience falls short. The exorcisms I witnessed seemed at least temporarily effective, but they also seemed to be a bit syncretistic in their methods and attitudes (using the Bible and Jesus’ name as magical charms in themselves—one pastor even began beating a possessed woman with his Bible).

Other Christians have much more extensive experience in this realm than I, and it seems to me, in reading some of the literature produced by the spiritual warfare movement, that it is these experiences which drive their understanding and their methods. A number of Christian counselors, even here in America, have developed a detailed demonology based on their interactions with evil spirits in people’s lives. Many missionaries, also having come into contact with spiritual powers, incorporate symbolic and direct spiritual warfare tactics into their ministries. The practices of “prayerwalking” and “spiritual mapping” emerged largely from charismatic impulses, in which the Holy Spirit gives specific insights about the spiritual realities behind a certain place. Now armies of prayer warriors are marching through unevangelized countries, praying against the local demonic powers. Some even suggest that this spiritual mapping—uncovering the spiritual background of a place through research into local history, sociological observation, and discernment through prayer—is the key to breakthrough to revival. 

I’m not criticizing these practices. If counselors do indeed have to face demonic spirits from time to time, they should at least have some idea what to do. No doubt missionaries are keenly aware of the reality of demonic powers, and they understand the power of prayer better than I do. Prayerwalks in unevangelized countries may well be one of the causes behind the dramatic worldwide expansion of the gospel. Furthermore, I admit that charismatic insights, direct from the Holy Spirit, are very rare events for me, so I would be out of place to assume that those who do receive such insights are merely engaging in flights of fancy. However, I would urge that such practices be subjected to the rigorous tempering of the biblical perspective, because I get the feeling that we often lose our proper outlook.

I should also address the issue of “territorial powers,” since this is one of the base assumptions of contemporary demonology and spiritual warfare studies. It is assumed that the same demonic powers rule over specific locales for long periods of time, if not permanently, and that by discerning the nature of those powers, warfare-prayers are given an added power. Aside from the issue of charismatic insights concerning specific locales, which I’m not qualified to speak about, I can say that we don’t know much biblically about territorial powers. The only passage that is regularly cited is Daniel 10, in which an angelic character tells Daniel about his wrestling with the “prince of Persia” and the “prince of Greece,” often interpreted as demonic powers (and apparently refers to Michael as an angelic “prince”). Even if these characters are interpreted as demonic rulers, which probably isn’t the only interpretation available, it must be noted that nothing in this passage actually directs Daniel to the sort of warfare-prayer which many Christians now advocate. Aside from this example, most if not all of the instances of demons in the NT (at least that I’m aware of) are attached to persons, not places. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that demons couldn’t be geographically organized. There seems to be a belief in early Christianity that angels are associated with specific churches, so I suppose demons could be associated with specific places or groups of people as well. I am in no position to overturn the experience of hundreds of missionaries who attest to territorial powers in the venues of their ministry.

What does trouble me, though, is the assumption that this form of spiritual warfare is the answer we’ve been looking for. Not only does the Bible never tell us to pray directly against demonic powers, but this development is fairly recent, as even its leaders admit. I’m a bit of a conservative, and so if no practice has ever been used fruitfully in the long history of the church, I am very wary of accepting it. There are certainly instances of “power encounters” with demons throughout church history, but these take the nature of casting demons out of people and destroying pagan shrines. To my knowledge, there has never before been a movement of Christians who assumed that they could directly discern the organization of specific spiritual powers and then directly attack them. That should give us pause. 

No doubt it is very beneficial to research local spiritual history in order to pray better for our communities, because history does indeed affect the present situation in countless ways. But I’m not convinced that it’s either wise or efficacious to pray directly against specific spiritual powers. The picture of intercession in the Bible is overwhelmingly about beseeching God for the sake of people, not against spiritual powers. Is it wrong to pray authoritatively against spiritual powers? No, I don’t think so. In fact, if the Holy Spirit leads us in that direction, that is precisely what we should do. But why do we need to know the specifics of local demonic powers? Is God’s power restricted when we pray “Lord, please break the power of the evil spiritual forces in our community” rather than, “Lord, please break the power of the Ahab and Jezebel demons in this place”? For that matter, why would either of these prayers be better than, “Lord, please bring your light into our community”?

In short, spiritual warfare is an essential part of Christian life. But, first and foremost, it should consist of conventional intercessory prayer rather than prayer-assaults on demonic powers. Second, we should never assume that this no-holds-barred spiritual warfare is the key to revival. Revival is a work of God, and when he chooses to send it, no demonic power can stand in his way. Revival comes with an understanding of sin and grace, and it comes from faithful living and fearless witnessing. Third, we need to embrace the Ephesians 6 paradigm and, rather than focusing exclusively on offensive assaults on spiritual powers (which is more God’s task than ours), we need to focus on equipping the church to stand its ground in faithfulness. And finally, we should embrace the biblical focus toward spiritual warfare—that the battle has already been won by Christ, and that the church is the vehicle of Christ’s authority on earth. Let’s not get so wrapped up in a spiritual battle we don’t understand that we miss the point of the victory of Jesus Christ.

And a final caveat—these observations and critiques are written as a relative outsider to this movement, so I may have missed the real emphasis and thrust of these spiritual warfare efforts. I’d love to hear some responses.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Evangeliad (2:5-14)

Section 2:5-14 (corresponding to Matthew 1:23-25a and Luke 2:1-5)
Herein was fulfilled the prophet's great word,
Spoken of old by the breath of the Lord:
A virgin conceives, and she bears a son!--
Immanuel, he: the Lord's chosen one. 

And this name, when rendered, means 'God with us,'
The true Deity with children of dust.
So Joseph got up, and did what was said:
Took Mary to him, and chastely they wed.

Caesar sent word from his palace in Rome
That all should return to their family homes;
There in his census would they be enrolled
(All this took place while Quirinius ruled).
Up out of Nazareth Joseph did go,
On out to his ancestor David's home;
And Mary his wife was nearing her time
As Bethlehem's hills they ventured to climb.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Photo of the Week

The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want.
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green: he leadeth me
The quiet waters by.

- metrical version of Psalm 23:2-3 (from The Scottish Metrical Psalter, 1650)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Quote of the Week

A reminder of the hard truth of mankind's fallen nature:

"No beast is more savage than man, when possessed with power answerable to his rage."

- Plutarch, classical writer of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, from his Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Scripture - James 1:19-21

James 1:19-21

1:19-21 – James open this section of thoughts by expressing commonplace wisdom from the Old Testament proverbs—be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. The first two commands need no explanation; most everybody understands the advantages to this kind of practice: if we truly are quick to listen and slow to speak, we will have greater understanding of others, less miscommunications and hurt feelings, and the things that come out of our mouths might actually be worth listening to. But although everyone understands the truth of that premise, most people find a great deal of difficulty in putting it into practice. As we’ll see, James notes that this isn’t the only area in which we may listen and agree, and then go out and fail to practice what we’ve heard. The third injunction—“slow to become angry”—is a repeated theme in the Old Testament, and it’s almost always said about God: he is slow to anger and rich in love. In the same way that God extends his grace and patience toward us, with our manifold faults, we too must learn how to extend grace and patience toward one another. In v. 20, James notes that “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” We must always note that, when we see the word “righteousness” in our Bibles, it could just as easily have been translated “justice” (the two ideas are encompassed by the exact same term in Greek). So here James may have in mind our internal righteousness—i.e., having a quick temper will not help us along the path of personal virtue that we ought to be walking—but he might as well have in mind the external justice of the situations we face. God is the one good Judge of all things, and we need his wise judgments to bring justice over against all the evil and suffering of this world. We humans, in our anger, do not further the ends of God’s great plan to bring this justice which sets all wrong things right. If anything, it gets in the way. So James’ advice is clear and incisive: get rid of all the evil and sin in your life, and accept the word planted in you. That word is, first and foremost, the message of Christ himself, the true Word, whose life and power grows within us just like a spiritual seed that breaks forth and blossoms. But James also has in view the “word of God” in the sense that the Old Testament prophets used that phrase: the things God has told us, which we ought to be doing. This word—Christ in us, and the binding counsels of God for living a life of holiness—is both the heart and the practice of our salvation: the word which can save you.