MR #41: “Christian” New Agers: A Growing Phenomenon
The Missiological Reflections (MRs) are prepared by Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Director of Mission Alive. This reflection is a real-life story describing North American Christians who unconsciously absorb Eastern and animistic beliefs that lead them to perform practices that dethrone God as Lord.
Introduction: I teach a course called Folk Religion and New Spiritualities at Abilene Christian University and a parallel seminar to various groups of missionaries and church planters. I ask learners to apply the understandings to their mission context. The following paper, shared by permission, is a real-life story describing North American Christians who unconsciously absorb Eastern and animistic beliefs that lead them to perform practices that dethrone God as Lord.
— Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen
In light of recent revelations from both my father and mother about spiritual kinds of things that have been going on in their lives, I have decided to write about their apparent escalating tendency to syncretize Christianity. This syncretism seems to have blended some animistic practices, Eastern philosophy in the guise of alternative methods of healing, and Christianity.
One of the difficulties in writing a paper of this nature is actually defining animistic practices and beliefs. The reason for this difficulty is because I am actually analyzing various practices that my parents are engaging in that, in my view, may be animistic. It should be stated at the outset that both of my parents are members of the Church of Christ; my father is even an elder. Their worship and practice of Christianity would be considered by Churches of Christ to be orthodox. The problem is that no one has been appointed to be the final arbiter of what is and what is not animistic. It is possible that a practice that one person considers to be animistic in nature, another person could conceivably consider to be an appropriate expression of Christian faith. Therefore, I offer the following overview of my parent’s animistic beliefs and practices with humility, understanding that my conclusions could be wrong.
In order to understand where my parent’s animism comes from, it is necessary to tell a little of their back-story. When my mom was working as a Child Support Enforcement Specialist for the state of Washington, she developed an interest in massage therapy. Becoming a massage therapist soon turned into a stronger and stronger focus of her life, until the point where she was working on a degree in massage therapy. Upon graduation, she started working as a massage therapist part time, in conjunction with her work at the Child Support Office. My mother is a very talented massage therapist, and, as her client list grew, she realized that this hobby could be her career. Therefore, she quit working as a Child Support worker, and worked full-time as a massage therapist.
Over time, she developed her skills, moving into neuro-muscular massage therapy. She also quit working for the clinic where she had started working so that she and my father could open their own massage clinic – my father handled the business end of things with my mother as the masseuse.
My mother, always in the pursuit of being the best therapist that she could be, pursued other forms of massage through various trainings and classes. What I did not realize is that she was progressing further and further into Eastern forms of healing. She began to experiment with therapeutic methods like aqua-chi, which seeks to draw toxins out of the body through electrical stimulation, herbal remedies, acupuncture, and hypnotherapy. Each one of these new forms of treatment was always couched in the same language – there is scientific research done that supports the efficacy of these treatment modalities.
At some point, her pursuit of alternative modes of healing led her to a Medical Intuitive in Boise, Idaho. This Medical Intuitive (MI) claimed that she could see human auras, do a “reading” of a person to determine what is medically wrong with him or her, and then engage in energy healing to correct the perceived medical condition. Frequently, the way that the healing would take place would be through the use of a bracelet or necklace that was to be worn to help with a person’s mood or perceived medical problem. The purpose of the bracelet or necklace is to manipulate a person’s energy so that he or she could be made well. Herbal remedies were another preferred way to treat various maladies, as was energy manipulation. At one point, my mother even had the MI do a reading on me using a photograph to determine what was wrong with me.
Recently, my mother shared a story with me about how a fellow masseuse was working on her, while at the same time the MI was on the phone with my mom, manipulating the energy to facilitate the healing. The MI claims to heal through the manipulation of the body’s energy, which is done through her ability to work with auras and energy. This ability seems to be psychic in nature, as it is based on her intuition about what is going on in the body, thus the phrase “medical intuitive.” My mother has reported how effective the energy healing has been with her. She has also begun to use this type of healing for other members of my family, members of her church, and for various people in her clinic that she believes would benefit from this type of healing procedure.
My mother recently told me that when she and my dad were in Hawaii, they visited a Psychic. She said that the reason that they went is because it seemed like fun. I am not a big fan of the slippery slope argument; it has been very over used. However, once one begins to experiment with energy manipulation and medical readings, what would be the problem with a psychic reading? I suppose one could argue that a Psychic is simply someone who is more spiritually aware than most people, and able to tap into resources that are not available to the average person. If this Psychic then used this ability to help people, what is the harm? Or, I also imagine that this is a practice that could be explained away as a bit of innocent fun.
My father has shared with me that he has been seeing what he refers to as “spirits.” According to him, he is seeing people out of the corner of his eyes who are not there. Recently, he woke up during the night and heard the front door slam This occurred at the same time as a dream that my mother had where someone was trying to pull her through a door or a hole in the wall into another world. This is a dream that she has had on several occasions. The MI told my mom that she was not to go with whoever was trying to pull her through the opening because the result would be that my mom would pass over into the next world and that she would die in this one.
Furthermore, there are at least two different ladies at my parent’s church who are now seeing images of spirits. Additionally, one of these women has a 5 year old son who is seeing the spirit of a man, his description of which fits with his mother’s grandfather, who has been dead for several years. This boy once turned and asked my mom on their way up a flight of stairs if she was going to talk to her mother, who has been dead for several years. Apparently, the way his question was phrased and the look on his face indicated that perhaps he had seen my grandmother as well. Finally, my younger brother has admitted to seeing the spirit of a person who appears to be one of my father’s old classmates who is trying to communicate to my father through him.
There is simply not enough space in this paper to share everything about my parent’s journey into alternative forms of healing and their new experiences with what I am calling an alternative experience of spirituality. However, the information that I have shared here should begin to paint a picture of the kinds of practices and beliefs that my parents are working with. Let me now turn to a brief evaluation of these practices and beliefs and some preliminary conclusions that I have come to regarding the question of whether or not they are animistic.
The problem arises from my mother’s work as a massage therapist. I feel safe in saying that very little reflection has been done on how the practice of massage therapy influences her practice of Christianity. Perhaps like most Westerners, the most important question is whether or not something is efficacious; therefore, if a treatment works, then it must be good. However, I believe that the reverse question should be asked: just because a treatment modality works, does that mean that it should be used? Is it possible that embracing alternative and Eastern forms of healing has led my parents on a path that has run further and further into experiences with power, the origin of which can be called into serious question? In other words, if we can believe the Bible, there are two forms of power – the power of God and the power of Satan – and both forms of power work. Perhaps when it comes to experimenting with psychic powers, human auras, and energy manipulation, the question of which power source is being accessed, whether consciously or subconsciously, should be addressed.
It is not that what my parents are engaging in can be labeled blatantly animistic. It is more like skirting a line that can very easily be crossed without intentionally trying to do so. However, there are a couple of practices that I would like to suggest are dangerously close to being animistic.
The first is the visit to the psychic. This will be treated in a more developed way in the theological section of this paper, but visiting a person who can use a psychic or spiritual force to discern the future or interpret events is very suggestive of animistic practice.
The second practice that I believe is animistic is the use of the bracelets to help in the healing process or to control mood. I see this practice as being closely akin to the use of amulets and charms in a traditional animistic context. Though there are others who may disagree with this conclusion, I think it is important to understand how amulets and charms are classically used. According to Philip Steyne, charms are “objects endowed with power…and are generally worn on the person of the owner. This power makes the charm effective in warding off evil and drawing good fortune to the wearer. A charm is a visible presence of special powers which gives its owner a sense of control in life.” Though the reason behind the bracelets that my dad and brother were wearing is not specifically to ward off evil, it is used in a remarkably similar way to the purpose of a charm as laid out by Philip Steyne.
The third animistic practice has to do with the use of the Medical Intuitive (MI). She seems to occupy the function and purpose of a medicine woman or shaman. “A shaman’s universal function is healing those broken in body or soul. He first divines the cause of sickness and then prescribes some type of cure.” The MI is not a trained physician, but rather uses herbs to treat the various ailments she diagnoses. As Steyne notes, a medicine man that confines his or her practice to the use of herbs is the functional equivalent of a medical doctor. However, the MI moves beyond traditional herbal remedies and engages in healing through energy manipulation, and uses some form of psychic/intuitive power to discern what is wrong with someone, even without having examined someone. She uses charms or bracelets to conduct healing, and she offers advice about how to deal with an interaction with a spirit.
Finally, one of the more distinctive markers of animism is the interaction with and manipulation of spirits, commonly a person’s ancestor. My mother has had many dreams where she interacts with her mother, and has often said that her mom is trying to communicate with her. A part of my father’s email to me made clear that perhaps my grandmother is angry about the fact that my mom and her sister are not speaking. In this case, then, making up with her sister could be a way to appease the angry spirit of her mother. Furthermore, the use of a dream is characteristic of animistic practices. I could go on to talk about how my brother is experiencing a spirit that is trying to communicate with my father; and at least one member of my parents’ church is apparently seeing a dead relative.
I believe that it is fairly clear that even if my parents are not engaging in blatantly animistic practices; some of them are at least questionable. I will now turn to a theological understanding of the animistic beliefs and practices that I have outlined to help further frame the discussion.
I will approach this theological integration first by establishing a basic theology of life. This is not to be the final word on this subject. However, there is a basic principle that first needs to be established before I can deal with the practices that I have labeled as animistic. Second, it seems to me that there are basically two practices that need to be addressed theologically. The first is the over-arching principal of interacting with a psychic/shaman in the guise of the Medical Intuitive. This section will be rather broad because here I will address not only consorting with such a person, but the ancillary practices as well. These practices include the use of charms as a form of healing; energy manipulation; and medical readings. Finally, in this section I will give attention to the subject of seeing spirits, dreaming about and interacting with the ancestors, and interpreting dreams.
Displaying the Holiness of God
The basic, overall, guiding principle that I want to lay out for each one of us as Christians is that we have been called, as children of God, to be reflectors of his holiness. God is a holy being. It is wrapped up in following him that not only do we proclaim his love and grace that is found in Jesus, we also live lives that bear witness to his holy nature by being holy ourselves.
The theme of God’s holiness runs throughout both the Old and New Testaments. It is ubiquitous to say that the Old Testament speaks of God’s holiness. However, there are a few noteworthy passages. God’s desire was that through his interactions with his people, he would be shown to be holy. In fact, in Numbers 20:12, God told Moses and Aaron that they would not be allowed into the land of promise because they had failed to show his holiness to the Israelites. The very next verse, Numbers 20:13, the text says that it was the waters of Meribah “by which he showed his holiness.” This theme of God displaying his holiness through his people is picked up in Ezekiel. God told Israel in Ezekiel 20:41 that “I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations.”
God’s holiness was a standard that was used to determine God’s own action. So, for example, in Amos 4:2, the prophet wrote that because of the immoral and unholy action of the people, “the LORD God has sworn by his holiness.” This same oath is given in Psalm 89:5, where the Psalmist has God saying that “once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David.”
As a holy being, God called upon his people to be holy themselves, as a reflection of the God whom they served. In fact, immediately after the exodus from Egypt, when the people were gathered before God at Mount Sinai, God’s instructions to Moses were to tell the people that they were to “be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). For example, many of the laws that are found in the Pentateuch were rooted in the fact that God is holy, and that by keeping the law, his people would be holy as well. Therefore, Leviticus 11:44-45, a section which is part of the conclusion regarding laws about animals, to make a distinction between the clean and the unclean, says that the people were to “sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy…for I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy.” Furthermore, the beginning of a section of Leviticus that is frequently referred to as the holiness code, starting in Leviticus 19:2, instructs Moses to speak to the congregation of the people of Israel by saying that “you shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
This theme of the people of God reflecting his holiness has been carried into the New Testament. For example, when Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he tells them that “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (I Corinthians 3:17). One last passage, this one found in the first epistle of Peter to the dispersed churches. Peter exhorts his readers not to be conformed to their former desires in which they used to live, but rather “as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “you shall be holy, for I am holy” (I Peter 1:15-16).
The theme of holiness is very appropriate given this subject material because many of the biblical passages that directly deal with some animistic practices come from the holiness code of the Old Testament. Therefore, I will now turn to a theological treatment of the two major animistic practices that I have discerned from my parents’ story.
Interaction with a Psychic and/or Shaman
Perhaps the best place to start is in Leviticus 19 with the holiness code. As I have already mentioned, Leviticus 19:2 begins with the admonition that the people of Israel should “be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” This begins a section of laws that seemingly have to do with how to live as a holy person. Frequently, the laws will be followed with the phrase “I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:4, 10, 25, 31, 34), or “I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:12, 14, 16, 18, 28, 30, 32, 37). Both phrases serve the same function, and it seems to be to remind the people that the law is rooted in the person and character of Yahweh, who led them out of the land of captivity.
The verse that concerns contact with a psychic or shaman is Leviticus 19:31. This law says: “do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.” Apparently, God considers the use of a medium or a wizard to be a practice that defiles his people. This command is intensified in Leviticus 20:6. There, the text says: “if any turn to mediums and wizards, prostituting themselves to them, I will set my face against them, and will cut them off from the people.” God is unequivocal on this point about consorting with mediums and wizards.
God further defines his feelings about his people visiting mediums and diviners in Deuteronomy 18:9ff. The text says:
When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the LORD your God is driving them out before you. You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God. Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the LORD your God does not permit you to do so.
There are two points that need to be made about this passage. The first is that seeing one of the prohibited religious specialists represents a violation of loyalty to God. To visit one of these types of people is to essentially say that what God is doing is simply not enough for me, and that I need to seek help from a power source other than God, who wants to be the provider of all my needs.
There might be those who would argue that this law, like many others, is found in the Old Testament; and since we are now under the New Testament, it no longer applies. Despite how spurious this argument sounds, it does lead me to my second point about this passage. That is that God labels the practice of visiting such a religious specialist as mentioned in this passage as abhorrent. It is difficult to believe that a practice that at one time was abhorrent to God has suddenly become acceptable under the reign of Christ.
The basic point of the above paragraphs is to establish that consulting any kind of medium or specialist who accesses a power that is different than the power that comes from God is abhorrent to God. This is a basic theological point that needs to be established from the outset. However, there are some of what I have called the ancillary practices, like energy healing and using bracelets to heal and control one’s mood, that need to be dealt with next.
There do not seem to be any overt passages that refer to the use of charms or amulets in the biblical text. Gailyn Van Rheenen has pointed out that there may be a reference to a protective charm in Genesis 35:2-4, where the household of Jacob discarded of their household gods and the “rings in their ears” at God’s command. Another passage that seems to address this practice is found in Ezekiel 13:18-23:
Thus says the Lord God: Woe to the women who sew bands on all wrists, and make veils for the heads of persons of every height, in the hunt for human lives! Will you hunt down lives among my people, and maintain your own lives? You have profaned me among my people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, putting to death persons who should not die and keeping alive persons who should not live, by your lies to my people, who listen to lies. Therefore thus says the Lord God: I am against your bands with which you hunt lives! I will tear them from your arms, and let the lives go free, the lives that you hunt down like birds. I will tear off your veils and save my people from your hands; they shall no longer be prey in your hands; and you shall know that I am the LORD. Because you have disheartened the righteous falsely, although I have not disheartened them, and you have encouraged the wicked not to turn form their wicked way and save their lives; therefore you shall no longer see false visions or practice divination: I will save my people from your hand. Then you will know that I am the LORD.
This reading seems to indicate that women were using arm bands and veils as some kind of protective gear, or even as paraphernalia to do harm to other people. What is interesting is that not only does God come out very strongly against the use of such devices; he goes on to say that they are a part of the practice of seeing false visions and the practice of divination.
Perhaps a seemingly unrelated topic of scripture might be also drawn upon for relevance to this subject. The first commandment of the Decalogue, found in Exodus 20:3 says that “you shall have no other gods before me.” The prohibition against idolatry in scripture is ubiquitous. What makes this commandment relevant to this topic is the reason why idolatry is forbidden. It is not forbidden because it acknowledges that there are other gods besides Yahweh; in fact, the commandment itself acknowledges this fact. The reason for the prohibition against idolatry is because by turning to other gods, the Israelites ceased to look to Yahweh for all of their needs, and attempted to find another source for them to be met. Idolatry is essentially a slap in God’s face, because it essentially says to him that “you are not enough for what I need.”
This is the problem of amulets and charms. They basically acknowledge that there is a power out there that we have not been given access to; God has not given it to us, and we are going to find a practitioner of another kind of power to access a perceived need because God is not meeting it. This is also the problem of medical readings by a MI. In a medical reading, a MI access psychic power or knowledge to determine what is wrong with a particular person, even if the person has not been examined or been in the MI’s presence. Essentially, this is approaching a broker of a certain kind of power and asking this person to intercede on one’s behalf because of his or her ability to manipulate this power, couched in the form of a person’s energy.
Seeing Spirits and Interacting with the Ancestors
For a large part of the world, there is no question that once a person dies he or she can still have an impact on those who are living. The anecdotal evidence suggesting that there are spirits of some kind that roam the world and influence the living is overwhelming. Therefore, the question is not whether or not the spirits of the dead are actually there; the question, rather, is whether or not one should attempt to communicate and interact with them at all? Fortunately, the scriptures are not silent on this issue.
A good place to start is Isaiah 8:19-20. In this oracle from the Lord, Isaiah reports that the LORD said: “now if people say to you, ‘consult the ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter; should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of the living, for teaching and instruction?’ Surely, those who speak like this will have no dawn!” The practice of consulting the dead is also mentioned in an oracle against Egypt in Isaiah 19:2-3. Once again, the text is not favorable to the practice. Furthermore, I have already quoted from Deuteronomy 18:9ff, where the law specifically forbids consulting with spirits and the dead as a practice which is abhorrent to the LORD.
Perhaps the most well known example of someone who broke this command is the story of King Saul and the medium of Endor found in I Samuel 28. In this story, the reader is told that “Saul had expelled the mediums and the wizards from the land” (I Samuel 28:3). In the story, Saul was afraid because of the Philistine army. The text says that “when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, not by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets” (I Sam. 28:6). Therefore, since God would not answer Saul, he sought out a woman who could raise the spirit of Samuel. What is interesting is that when Samuel asks why he has been summoned, Saul’s response is to say that “God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams; so I have summoned you to tell me what I should do” (I Sam. 28:15).
Saul broke not only God’s law, but also his own in attempting to find a solution to his problem. As is the case with the amulets and charms, the spirits are consulted when God is perceived as not meeting a need that one has at a particular time. The problem is that this practice proclaims that God is insufficient to handle my needs, so I will go to another source to find what I want.
In my parents’ case, and in the instance of my brother and members of their church seeing spirits, one could argue that they are not seeking a consultation with the spirits, but are rather being visited by them. Though this may be the case, I still believe that the overriding principle still needs to be that communication with the dead is forbidden and is a practice detestable to God.
For certain, the spirits should not be accepted at face value simply because they resemble dead relatives or have information that only a relative or friend could know about. I am reminded here of the exhortation found in I John 4:1, where John encourages his readers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” Though in its immediate context, John may be referring to false prophets who come in the flesh to make prophecies and announcements about Jesus and the gospel that are not true, the admonition to test the spirits certainly applies in my parents’ case. I like what I. Howard Marshall wrote in his commentary on the first epistle of John:
It is tempting to ascribe any unusual phenomenon to the power of God, and in the early church there was a tendency to regard any kind of unusual “spiritual” gift such as tongues or prophecy as being inspired by the Spirit of God…The reality of demonic spirits was not questioned, as the various stories of exorcisms in the Gospels and Acts indicate. Christians, however, needed to be reminded that demonic activity could penetrate their churches.
Paul’s exhortation from Ephesians 6 is very poignant. Our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against the forces of Satan. He will come to us in the guise of a sheep, though he is in fact a wolf. Therefore, whenever there is clear biblical teaching regarding a practice or belief; it is essential that Christians uphold biblical teaching so that we may be holy, as God is holy. However, in the absence of clear biblical teaching, it is incumbent upon us to discern whether what we are working with or facing is from God, or a part of the powers of the evil one, lest we be taken unaware into an unholy relationship with the forces of this world that will hinder our relationship with our loving and benevolent creator.
Given my parents’ story as detailed it above, and the theological foundation which I have discussed, I now propose to turn my attention to the question of how to minister not only to my parents, but also to their church. As I have previously stated, my parents, and their church, are professing and active Christians. They are considered to be orthodox Church of Christ members and my father is an elder. This makes ministry in this setting both unique, and challenging. Conversion, at least as we classically define it, is not the goal here; perhaps it might be an easier ministry model to develop if I was strictly dealing with an animistic culture where people were being brought to Christ for the first time. The goal could more accurately be labeled formation, or transformation; as Paul wrote in Romans 12:2 – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” Therefore, any ministry model that is used must take this goal into account.
I think that there is a tendency to react judgmentally and dismiss syncretized animistic and Christian behavior as silly and simply wrong. Therefore, I think the first step is to normalize behavior. This is not to say that the behavior is in any way condoned; rather, it is to make the point that all of humanity suffers from the common tendency to seek answers outside of God’s plan. Paul wrote of his tendency among those who populated the first century churches. For example, he wrote in Galatians 1:6 – “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” Even the church in Corinth, which abounded in spiritual gifts, had its share of spiritual problems; some of which were so bad that Paul wrote that there was sexual immorality among them “of a kind that is not found even among pagans” (I Cor. 5:1). Therefore, this step is an acknowledgement of the truth found in Romans 3:22-23 – “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The actual model that I advocate for this circumstance is called “symbolic catechesis.” Anne Marie Mongoven wrote that symbolic catechesis “associates or correlates the symbols of human events and experiences with the symbols of faith: the Bible, and the teaching, life, and worship of the church…[it] integrates life and faith symbols in a harmonious, dialogical, critical, and thought-provoking way.” The goal of symbolic catechesis is “to invite the community to conversion of life, as a response to God’s self-giving, and faith is seen as a holistic act that involves all dimensions of the human person.” Therefore, the leader, or catechist, leads the community through a process in which it looks at its “life, at its world, at common concerns and questions and tries to make sense of them in light of its Christian faith.”
This model of ministry focuses on the community as it seeks to live out the Christian life. This is important for many reasons. First, in my parents’ circumstance, the new experience of seeing spirits has flowed into their congregation. Additionally, my mother has treated most of the church, at one time or another, in her clinic. Therefore, since the congregation has been exposed to these various alternative forms of healing, it is appropriate for the congregation to engage in communal reflection on the practices. Furthermore, the communal focus brings a broader perspective to bear on a topic of reflection. Each one of us has a perspective, but our perspective is limited. By engaging in communal reflection, a plethora of voices is heard. This allows for alternative viewpoints to be considered. This creates a greater possibility for discerning the movement of the Spirit in the life of the community and individual. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the communal focus of this model negates the tendency among Americans to individualize faith. The church is not a collection of individuals, but is rather a community of faith; it is a place where a group of people try to live together in Christ. Therefore, what affects one, affects all. It is the one place where we can truly say that we are all in this together.
Mongoven has written that the process of symbolic catechesis closely resembles a symphony of four movements. These movements are: 1) communal reflection on a common experience; 2) interpreting the common experience through the lens of a Christian faith symbol; 3) moving from reflection on the experience to engagement in communal acts of justice and service; and 4) communal prayer about the common experience.
I envision that this catechesis would begin by gathering a small group of interested members, such as my parents, the women who are seeing spirits in their church, and several other members who are drawn by the topic of study. This group would agree to meet for a period of 3 to 4 weeks to bring seeing spirits and engaging in alternative methods of healing, such as using a medical intuitive, doing medical readings, and energy manipulation, into conversation with the Christian faith and life. The goal of this study group would not be to engage in judgment, or critique; rather, it is to reflect on people’s experiences related to the subject material and then view them through the lens of scripture. I would act as the catechist for the group. As much as it is possible, I would want the group to begin with no preconceived ideas about what is right or wrong, but come to conclusions as a community about such practices.
Movement 1: Communal Reflection on a Common Experience
Each meeting will be a time for the group to reflect on their experience, or lack thereof, with regard to this subject. The guiding principle of this time is that there is no question that cannot be asked; all encouraged to participate and discuss. “In symbolic catechesis the questions of the community are central in the catechesis. The catechesis is organized around the people’s questions, focuses on them, derives from them.” Furthermore, “the community, led by the catechist, analyzes, evaluates, considers, critiques, and studies the experience, concern, or issue that brought it together.”
During this time of the meeting, as the catechist, I would bring questions about the topic to the group for us to discuss. I might begin by asking the following questions: a) perhaps ask my mom how she got interested in massage and the other forms of healing that she practices; b) ask others in the group about their experiences with alternative healing – were they positive or negative?; did they feel like the treatment worked?; and was there anything about the treatment that made them uncomfortable? Perhaps one or more of the meetings could focus on a specific form of alternative healing, such as massage therapy, hypnotherapy, herbal remedies, etc. I also think that it would be important for at least one of the meetings to focus on using medical intuitives, as well as the accompanying practices such as medical readings, energy manipulation, seeing auras, and using amulets or charms to heal. Finally, I think it is vitally important for at least one of the meetings to focus on the subject of seeing spirits, communicating with deceased relatives, and visiting specialists who claim to be able to do such things.
Movement 2: Interpreting the Experience through the Lens of Scripture
This section is the hardest section to integrate. The difficulty here is going to be introducing the theological material contained above in a way that does not seem critical or judgmental, while at the same time upholding the goal of the group which is to encourage dialogue. Mongoven writes that “the catechist is the one who introduces the faith dimension and invites the community to consider what the church has to say about a particular experience. She may bring to the community a biblical story or passage, [or] a doctrinal statement…to help them discover what meaning faith gives to life.”
The task, in this case, is three-fold. In this case, it is common knowledge that most of the healing techniques that my mom uses comes from Eastern philosophy, culture, and religion. Therefore, the first task, as the catechist who brings a particular faith perspective combined with theological reflection and education, is to introduce information about other religious systems or philosophy that subscribe to the subject material at hand. This would include introducing information about Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, animism, folk religions, and other developing forms of spirituality.
The second task is to ask the group to reflect on the various practices of these different religious groups in light of scripture. This would be the time to bring in some of the theological material that is listed above.
The third task would be to ask the group to reflect on the various religious and/or healing practices that they are familiar with in light of the theological reflection that we have engaged in. I anticipate that this part will be the most challenging of the whole exercise. Essentially, what I am asking the group to do is to take their experience and measure it against the Bible, which is the chosen symbol of faith. This can be problematic because Western Christianity has often maintained a strict policy of separation between faith and experience. Another challenging part to this third task is that I will be asking the group to think about various practices in new ways, with new labels. For example, I might suggest that the group think about the similarity between the animistic practice of a charm or an amulet and the use of a bracelet to heal or control one’s mood. I would then ask the group to reflect theologically about the appropriateness of the use of charms or bracelets as a Christian. It is important to remember that the goal of symbolic catechesis is life transformation that manifests itself in a new and altered way of life that is radically shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, I might ask the group to think about the relationship between the Shaman or Medium and the Medical Intuitive. Questions will be addressed such as: if the MI is conducting a “reading” on someone she has not met through the use of a photograph, or if she is healing by manipulating someone’s energy even over the phone, where does this power come from? It cannot be working with someone’s body because she is not physically present with them. If this is the case, then the ability is psychic in nature. What does the Bible say about visiting mediums who claim to have this kind of power? I think that this section would be the toughest for my mother. As I have stated earlier, her measure of a healing method’s value is whether or not it works, and whether or not someone is researching it because it seems to work. I am asking her and the group to think through the next question, which is should the practice be used, even though it works?
This would also be the section where I would ask the group to reflect on seeing spirits and communicating with the ancestors. The difficulty here is going to be that the group, rightly so, would argue that seeing spirits and ancestors is not the same as visiting a medium to control the spirits. This is where careful reflection on passages like I John 4 is helpful. Just because a spirit appears to be benevolent, or a much loved but deceased relative, how does one know that it is not a demon in disguise? How can we ever be sure that the spirits that we are interacting with are not demonic? Philip Steyne, in his section on contact with ancestors, wrote: “demonic powers may very well impersonate an ancestor. Demons know the past history of all, including the ancestors…there can never be certainty that the demonic is not present in necromancy, and even if it should not be, the practice itself is a detestable matter in God’s evaluation.”
I anticipate that these questions will take place over each week that the group meets. Furthermore, I anticipate the very real possibility that the group will not come to a final consensus on every matter. The challenge for the catechist, in this case me, is to allow the community to discern what is from God and what is not. In symbolic catechesis, the catechist is not the expert in the discussion, but rather brings a particular perspective, experience, and education that will assist the community in engaging in dialogue about how their life experience should be viewed, changed, and interpreted in light of our faith.
Movement 3: Moving to Service
This is perhaps the most neglected aspect of catechesis. It is not enough to reflect on our experience, or to relate it to a symbol of faith; ultimately, catechesis must lead the community to consideration of how to reach beyond itself in service to others. I envision that this part of the exercise will simply be a matter of a discussion that the group has each week about how to move from reflecting on alternative forms of healing and spirituality to engaging in service of those whose lives need healing and reconciliation. In my estimation, this is a fairly easy move to make; it simply needs an intentional focus to make it. Additionally, I see it as the job of the catechist to not only lead the discussion, but to also challenge the community to go beyond discussion and make plans for service, and then follow them through.
Movement 4: Communal Prayer
In Churches of Christ, we are familiar with closing prayers. I am talking about a prayer which goes beyond a quick close to the time together. This is the time for the community to stand before God and ask that he will use his Spirit to form it ever more sharply in the image of Christ. It is through prayer that life changes are made and barriers to the gospel are torn down. As Mongoven writes:
The communal ritual prayer of the group is a priority. It is the climax of the entire session or meeting. It is that toward which all other actions point…for in the communal prayer the integration of community building, the searching for meaning through faith symbols and the doing of justice become one. Here a synthesis takes place. The catechesis comes to completion as the community prays together. It brings together the insights and questions of the session or meeting, not in a didactic linear way but through simple words and ritual actions that lift the heart and stir the imagination.
In conclusion, this paper has not offered the definitive answer to either defining some of my parents’ practices as animistic, nor to the question of how to minister in the instances when they are. However, I think that this paper is a good start in attempting the very important task of trying to minister and seek transformation among Christians whose practice of faith has moved toward a syncretized religious practice.
Marshall, I. Howard. The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.
Mongoven, Anne Marie. The Prophetic Spirit of Catechesis: How We Share the Fire in Our Hearts. New York: Paulist Press, 2000.
Steyne, Philip M. Gods of Power: A Study of the Beliefs and Practices of Animists. Houston: Touch Publications, 1989.
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1991.