MR #14: The Rise of Folk Religion in the 21st Century

Three scenes from February 2—the Day of Yemanja—are etched in my memory. On that evening teachers and students from Abilene Christian University’s Campus Abroad program in Montevideo, Uruguay, walked to the beach to observe ceremonies dedicated to worshipping the goddess of the sea Yemanja.

As we walked, I thought about how Uruguay, because of its highly secular heritage, is called the “cemetery of missions.” In fact, the father of the nation Jose Artigas, “set the tone for Uruguayan society” when he said, “We can expect nothing except from ourselves” (Spruance 2000, 994). “Perhaps,” I thought, “secular Uruguayans are turning to Spiritism and Neo-Pentecostal to fill the spiritual vacuum of their lives.” Truly the cultural tides of Uruguay have shifted toward emotive, symbolic forms of religious expression.

The first scene was at the statue of Yemanja, overlooking the ocean. Against a backdrop of the tall buildings of urban Montevideo stood the three-meter-tall statue with arms extended to the sea. The metal fence surrounding the statue did not deter the worshippers. As they reached through the bars to offer their candles and sacrifices, some crossed themselves while others merely knelt in prayer. Before the curious eyes of onlookers like ourselves, they asked for blessing and healing with closed eyes and focused spirits. Many worshippers dressed their small images of Yemanja in blue, the color of the Virgin Mary, and intertwined their commitment to Yemanja and the Mother of God. God’s words in the Ten Commandments kept coming to mind: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or the earth beneath or in the water below” (Ex. 20:3-4). How austere this statement sounds in relativistic, westernizing world contexts! I wondered: “Do the students share my sentiments or do they see this worship as quaint and exotic, something that they might like to participate in?”

The second scene was on the beach in front of the statue. Thousands of people had gathered for private and groups rituals. One family, for instance, dug a large cavity in the sand in which they placed a boat with sacrifices to Yemanja wrapped in plastic. Warren Roane, missionary to Montevideo, asked the father what offerings were in the boat. He explained, “Each member of our family has sacrificed one piece of clothing—a pullover each—to be given to Yemanja.” Around their little boat they had lit various candles and placed other smaller sacrifices in the boat. The focus of family was evident as each member dug in the sand, lit candles, and said the ritual prayers. I shared Paul’s feeling of being “greatly distressed” when he walked through Athens and saw their idolatrous worship (Acts 17:16).

The third scene was further down the beach. Many white-clad initiates were being becoming members of their coven on this auspicious evening. To the beat of drums they danced around the image of Yemanja and fell before her in adoration.

While the high intensity of the rites attracted many visitors, an equally important aspect of Spiritism was taking place off to the side. People lined up to consult mediums about personal problems in life. Seekers were first cleansed by the sign of the cross upon them and by the ritual of cutting the air around them. They then waited their turn to consult the medium, who was speaking gibberish while possessed by some god or spirit. A helper, standing alongside, translated the words of the spirit within the medium to the one seeking answers to everyday problems, including auspicious days, romantic relationships, and business considerations. In this case the medium rubbed his elbow over the person to absorb her vibrations so that he could describe the client’s problem and prescribe some remedy.

The practitioners’ services were free on this day, an inducement for further consultation in the future. If the medium is effective in solving an individual’s problems, he/she might return numerous times when faced with other everyday uncertainties.

Isaiah words flashed through my mind, “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter–should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the Testimony!” (8:19-20). Before this injunction, Isaiah had instructed Judah to “wait for the Lord” and put their “trust in Him (8:17).

The 2nd of February in Uruguay is symbolic of a process that is occurring throughout the world.

Years ago missiologists forecast that folk religion would fade away when participants either became a part of some world religion or learned that their beliefs were based on superstition. Alan Tippett, one of the first significant teachers about communicating Christ among people of an animistic heritage gave these beliefs “ten years, at the very utmost twenty” to disappear (1973, 9). Phil Elkins wrote of the urgency of sending missionaries to receptive folk religionists, saying that “the progress of the world will bring all . . . animistic people into some advanced [world] religion” by the turn of the century (1964, 10).

Folk religion, however, has not died but has exploded into a new, multi-faceted philosophy of life. The trend suggested by David Hesselgrave has not slacked but increased. He wrote, “Cults and the occult, Satanism and witchcraft, are not only surviving of the missions fields of the world, they are also thriving there and simultaneously invading the Western world” (1982, 72). Old paganism—reclothed in new garments—has returned with a vengeance.

For example, the secularism of France has given way to numerous types of New Age perspectives so that today there are more folk practitioners on the tax rolls than Catholic priests and catechists. The Akashic Record (www.neopagan.org/akashic) provides an updated list of the many neo-pagan cults on the web. At the date of this writing there are 369 web sites registered. Last week I read in our Christian school newspaper about Richard Foreman, who has initiated in my hometown a club called Ghost Hunters of Texas. This organization is “dedicated to finding more about ghosts and educating others about them.” He claims to converse with his father who died in 1992 and advertises his own web site in a university paper atwww.ghosthuntersoftexas.org. Various Reiki and occult practitioners are also readily available. In some regions of Mexico “unusual and mysterious devices for not only foretelling but also manipulating the future are hotter than Barbie dolls, Pokemon and super scooters all put together.” Despite a general fall in the number of books sold, those determining one’s destiny, including astrology, sorcery, necromancy, and spiritualism are up. “The masses seem eager to follow in the shadows of anyone who is persuasive with his predictions” (Coker, 2001). A mystic in Montevideo, declaring herself “an international clairvoyant and card reader,” advertises her services with this statement: “The power is inside you. Look for your solution with Jeanette.” These are descriptions of folk religion which I have encountered in reading and experience during the last week.

In response to the rise of folk religion in the world The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and the Association of Evangelicals in Africa convened the DUFE (“Deliver Us From Evil”) Consultation August 16-22, 2000 in Nairobi, Kenya. Thirty practitioners, missiologists, pastors, and theologians, representing all parts of the world, attended this conference. Their purpose was to seek “a biblical and comprehensive understanding of 1) who the enemy is; 2) how he is working; and 3) how we can fight him in order to be most effective in the evangelization of all peoples.” Their web site (www.gospelcom.net/lcwe/dufe/Papers) documents some of the most significant current literature on communicating Christ in folk religious contexts.

The consultation statement noted with interest that participants from Western societies had come to accept the reality of the spiritual realm through cross-cultural experiences. Participants from the Two Thirds World generally reported experiences with Western missionaries who had no understanding of spiritual realities and thus were ill-prepared to minister in animistic contexts. This reminds me conversations with an insightful Brazilian woman living in the United States who married a man who became a Brazilian missionary. While critiquing one of my papers on Brazilian Spiritism, she wrote a series of reflective questions concerning the typical missionary’s lack of preparation in dealing with animistic religion.

1.  How can we expect missionaries to be effective if no realistic preparation about Spiritism is offered prior to going to my country?

2.  Considering that Americans do not understand the concept of spirits existing in our world today, how can they understand the Brazilian mind and culture and succeed in spreading the genuine message of God?

3.  How cynical are untrained missionaries toward beliefs in Spiritism? (Da Silva in Van Rheenen, 1991,     16-17)

The rise of folk religion in the twenty-first century necessitates a rethinking of proclamation emphasizing metaphors which touch the heart of the animist and biblical interpretive models for explaining the world to the animist. It also requires new models of ministry, vastly different from western therapies and counseling, for nurturing the converted folk religionist to grow in Christ. But these are topics for future Monthly Missiological Reflections.

Works Cited

Anthony, Paul. 2001. Group of Abilene Residents Investigates Paranormal.Optimist. Vol. 89, No. 34 (February 7):5.

The Akashic Record. 2001. www.neopagan.org/akashic

Coker, Dan. 2001. Groundhogs, Shadow and Other Predictions. Toluca Tales. (February):1.

DUFE Consultation Statement. 2001. (www.gospelcom.net/lcwe/dufe/Papers/Dufestmnt.htm).

Elkins, Phil. 1964. Toward a More Effective Mission Work. Dallas: Christian Publishing Company.

Forman, Richard. 2001. (www.ghosthuntersoftexas.org).

Hesselgrave, David J. 1988. Today’s Choices for Tomorrow’s Mission: An Evangelical Perspective on Trends and Moral Issues in Missions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Optimist, Feb. 7, 2001. Ghost Hunters of Texas (Advertisement). Optimist. Vol. 89, No. 34 (February 7):2.

Spruance, David. 2000. Uruguay. In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Ed. A.Scott Moreau, 994. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Tippett, Alan. 1973. Verdict Theology in Missionary Theory. Pasadena: William Carey Library.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1991. Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. Pasadena: William Carey Library.

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