What lessons can those of us living in a hyper-modern world learn from a missionary anthropologist who wrote about primitive folk religion and animism?
Several years ago, missionary anthropologist Paul Hiebert wrote an important article, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.” The article sought to explain how the worldview of Animists should determine missionary strategy. Hiebert used a clever teaching illustration to show that westerner missionaries tended to understand the world in two tiers. There is an upper tier which is the dwelling place of God and a lower tier that is occupied by people and other physical matter. Animists, he claimed, include a third/middle tier or realm of activity, in their world view. This tier is occupied by non-human and non-divine entities: spirits, powers, curses, blessings, magic. Animism, he pointed out, is a religious system consumed by this middle tier. Spells, sacrifices, rituals, etc. are all intended to appease, manipulate, or ward off these powers.
Hiebert argued that Western missionaries made huge mistakes when they simply dismissed or denied the validity of this middle tier. Every animist has a story of how these forces have exacted revenge or given reward. Because of the strength of culture and personal experience, it is not only futile, but destructive to ignore or deny the power of these beliefs.
There are three problems that denial creates:
- The message is seen as irrelevant or foreign. This leads to rejection of the gospel.
- Denial makes the missionary seem ignorant or out of touch with the “real” and spiritual needs of the day.
- For those who accept the gospel, denial encourages syncretism. “Believers” accept the gospel for eternal security but keep animistic rituals to deal with everyday life.
SO WHAT! I can hear some of you asking, “I don’t work with, or even know, anyone mixed up in backward Folk Religions. What does this have to do with me?”
I am glad you asked.
It is true that most (but not all) of us live in hyper-modern, sophisticated, contexts. However, it is naïve for us to believe that those around us are any less consumed with the fear and frustration that comes with trying to please the powers (gods) of this age. When we strip aside all of the theological language, a god is simply a being or power (whether real or an illusion) who provides direction, gives hope, promises power, and protection. I know this seems crass and disrespectful, maybe even blasphemous. Hang with me. I think all will become clear in a short while.
In the western world we have our own ‘gods.’ Most were not created for the purpose of worship, but think of the hope, trust, joy, satisfaction, and even worship, given to things and powers in this age. They command the attention of neighbors and countrymen. What is a missionary to do?
Deny them – deny there is no power, no hope, no direction? Like the missionaries Hiebert was addressing, it is very easy for us to dismiss out of hand the all-consuming power and even the fear these gods possess. Money, Sex, Family, Political status, you fill in the blank – are no different than the middle-realm powers of the animists. If we, in our zeal for God, reject the power they hold, some might give intellectual assent to the gospel message as a source of hope for life after death, but will remain committed to these other gods for daily survival. See the list above of dangers…
Better, take the approach of a good missionary in animistic context. Apply the gospel. Show that Christ is more powerful, gives lasting hope and good direction. Hiebert’s recommendation for the missionaries laboring among adherents to folk worship was not to deny the existence, or power of the spirits. Rather, it was to show from the Bible how Jesus is actually more powerful. He has already defeated these gods. He is not only the God of the heavens, but he is also the king of all creation. It seems to me; this is a healthy missiological strategy even in our hyper sophisticated world.
When we are confronted by the powerful beliefs of those around us, our mandate to make disciples should push us to search the scriptures to show the real power of the gospel, to confront and even overcome the gods of this age. Don’t deny their power. Don’t deny the fear. Apply the ointment of the good news of the gospel.
Scott Hildreth is the director of the Lewis A. Drummond Center for Great Commission Studies. He frequently speaks on issues of missions, spiritual formation, missiology, and theology. Scott also contributes to SEBTS faculty blog www.betweenthetimes.com