Many years ago, theologian Roger Olson was instrumental in my own “conversion” to what he calls Satanic realism: the belief that spiritual warfare is real, and that the Satanic realm poses a real threat to us and our world. Granted, I shouldn’t have needed Olson to wake me up to this reality—I have the Bible, after all—but what can I say? I went to a seminary, Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where most of the faculty believed that Satan was merely a symbol for evil, not an active force (along with his minions) working against God’s purposes in the world.
At the time, Dr. Olson recommended a couple of books that I read on the subject: Michael Green’s I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (out of print, from Eerdmans) and M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie. Both of them had a profound impact on my ministry and theology.
At the time, I also talked to a trusted clergy friend who had done street ministry among junkies, prostitutes, and homeless people. With conviction and credibility, he described supernatural experiences that could only be understood in light of the demonic realm. I believed him.
Add to his personal testimony the testimonies of N.T. Wright, an intellectual hero of mine, and Olson, and I was convicted: the church in the West—Protestant or Catholic—has badly failed us when it comes to spiritual warfare. Christians in the Global South, by contrast, have rightly perceived the threat.
All that to say, I read Olson’s recent blog post, “Should Western Christians Rediscover Exorcism?” with great interest.
I am well aware of how shocked some of my readers will be by my asking the question. Am I not a modern/postmodern, enlightened Christian? Well, I ask myself that, too. But somehow I can’t avoid at least raising the issue and I’ll explain why.
What do I mean by “Western Christians?” Exorcism is not at all unknown even in mainline Christianity in much of the Global South and that is where Christianity is most vital. Most Christians in those parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America where evangelical Christianity is exploding (mostly varieties of Pentecostalism) believe strongly in the presence and power of the demonic. While exorcism might not be an everyday occurrence, it is widely believed in and often practiced.
In Europe and North America, however, evangelical Christians—to say nothing of so-called “mainline Protestants”—have by-and-large abandoned exorcism and even talk of the demonic. We smile half-knowingly in amusement when we read or hear about Luther throwing his ink well at a “devil” who attempted to distract him from translating the Bible into German. We may read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Lettersand for a moment or two pay lip service to Satan and his minions. But rarely do we take it all seriously—as if it really mattered for us.
And yet…there is no escaping the fact that the New Testament is full of it. Full of what? Satan, demons, demon possession and exorcism. So-called “mainline Protestants” typically dismiss all that as primitive description of mental illness, epilepsy and Jesus’s therapeutic powers. Officially, Catholics are still supposed to believe in the reality of Satan and demons. There are certain priests who are trained and recognized as exorcists. Evangelical Protestants in Europe and North America (and I assume Australia) typically will not deny the reality of Satan, demons, demonic possession, and exorcism, but we typically relegate all that to “New Testament times” and “the mission fields.” For the most part, we don’t think it’s real “here.”
Are we Western evangelical Christians simply over reacting to extremes and succumbing to cultural accommodation by virtually ignoring the demonic powers and exorcism? Can/should we rediscover this New Testament reality without extremism? Is it possible to rediscover it without falling into extremism? (By “extremism” I mean blowing it out of proportion and going beyond anything biblical.) I don’t have any answers, just questions. I think it’s a conversation contemporary evangelical Christians in the West need to have.
I think the answer to each of these questions is a resounding yes. What do you think?