Lent: Jesus and the Demon of Status Quo

Mark’s gospel tells us that after Jesus called his first disciples—Simon, Andrew, James and John—they left their nets and followed him. They all went to Capernaum. On the Sabbath day Jesus was teaching in the synagogue and a demonized man was there.  The man screamed, “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus quieted the man, cast out the demon, and he set the man free (Mark:1-21-28).

This was Jesus’ first healing, and his first confrontation with the Darkness after his wilderness temptation. And it happened in a house of worship. The three L’s of exorcism are: location, location, location

Diverse interpreters of the Bible understand these unclean spirits differently. The quasi-charismatic evangelical hermeneutic that shaped my reading of the text, takes the spiritual world as a given. These are demons—beings of personal evil bent on destroying humanity. Post-Enlightenment bible scholars with a bent toward demythologizing the supernatural look at what the spirits means within the early church’s proclamation. So one group looks at demons as personal evil (could it be . . . Satan?) and the other group see demons as representations of cultural and institutional structures (e.g. the ‘spirit of the times’). The result is that one camp reads this account as Jesus’ confrontation with a very real spiritual being, the other camp understands this as Jesus’ encounter with systemic, structural evil.

Of course these two readings are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to observe, in the context of Mark, a man in the synagogue who was really demonized and that Jesus’ first miracle and confrontation with the demonic happened after his teaching challenged the teaching of the scribes. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).

Ched Meyers observes, [T]he meaning of the powerful act must be found by viewing it in terms of symbolic reproduction of social conflict” (Binding the Strong Man, Orbis 1988, 2008, 142). The demonic stronghold becomes apparent as Jesus opposes the pervading political, social and religious thought.

Meyers writes:

Although Jesus identity is hidden to the protagonists (e.g. the disciples) in the story, the demons know exactly who he is. Clearly understanding the political threat he poses to the status quo, they struggle to “name” (that is control) him (1:34; 3:11) (143).

In Lent, it is easy to talk about following Jesus and the cost of discipleship. It is even easier to conceive our Lenten journey as our own little private devotion to God. However, walking with Jesus the way of the cross necessarily will bring us into spiritual, political conflict with evil. Following Jesus means opposing structures and systems which hurt people. In Mark’s story, Jesus’ teaching is contrasted with the scribes for the authority of his teaching (1:22, 27). In Matthew 23, Jesus is explicit in condemning the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, and the way they subvert true justice. And yet these were the social, political and cultural leaders of his day.

The way of the cross is not about private spiritual devotion. It confronts political realities. This was as true at the beginning of Jesus’ mission as it was at the end.

“What’s that got to do with us Jesus of Nazareth?”

The status quo tends to hurts people. If you want to see the reality of demons, question it. When you hear the phrase what’s that got to do with us (or what that’s got to do with me) you may be listening to a demon. Cain, the first murderer, uttered a similar sentiment, “Am I my brothers keeper?”  That’s demonic. It is also demonic when a Christian apologist shames mass shooting victims for speaking out about assault rifles. Or when the victims of domestic or sexual violence are discounted because of due process. Or when you see an angry outburst when someone dares to say black lives matter, and challenges the practices of law enforcement and mass incarceration. Narrow is the gate to salvation but we have institutionalized the wide way of destruction.

Following Jesus will bring us more and more into confrontation with the powers because the way of Jesus is diametrically opposed to the kingdom of this word. To walk with Jesus will mean challenging unjust systems, structures and the status quo. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.

 

 

 

Could it be….Satan? (A book review)

As I am reflecting on the nature of sin this season, I thought it would be worthwhile to read a book from a Charismatic/Pentecostal perspective. This book talks about the invisible battle we face as we seek to live holy lives. As someone who’s diabolic imagination has been set aflame by Screwtape Letters I accept the world that Kris Vallotton describes in Spirit Wars: Winning the invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy. I have attended charismatic churches and been around when people were praying over others for demonic deliverance. A lot of these ‘deliverances’ seem more psychosomatic than real, in the same way that divine healing can sometimes be attributed to the placebo effect. Still I have seen enough, and have thoughtful friends with enough discernment that I know that some of it is real and there is a real spiritual battle being fought. Therefore a book helping Christians better wage this war makes sense to me.

And Kris Vallotton does not disappoint. He shares from his own experience of demonic oppression, physical depression (or in his case a hormonal issue), experience in praying with people and his reading of scripture. He argues that for those who are in Christ, victory over sin and the powers is not only possible, it is the norm (explaining at one point that he can go several weeks without sin). Vallotton does not discount that there could be psychological causes for struggles and advocates that those struggling with long term depression or anxiety see a physician, get a proper diagnosis and medication. He also avoids the spirit-flesh dualism of some Pentecostal preachers by urging that physical, emotional and spiritual causes for our struggle are intermingled inside the human person and cannot be easily separated.

I don’t endorse everything that Vallotton says here. He oversimplifies at some points and takes fanciful leaps. I would question his interpretation of the Bible. People who self-describe as prophets (as Vallotton does) often take an imaginative approach in biblical exegesis, which provides keen insights as well as abysmal errors. So I affirm some of what he says but have serious questions about other portions of this book. For example, he uses Nehemiah and Joshua as exemplars of how we can resist “the enemy” and carry out the task that God gives us. This spiritualizes and allegorizes the biblical history of the Old Testament, which is legitimate to a point, but Vallotton’s approach means an uncritical view of both Nehemiah and Joshua. Contrary to leadership and popular accounts, the hero of the books of Joshua and Nehemiah are not the men the book is named for, but Yahweh himself. Joshua and Nehemiah do some things well and also make horrid missteps along the way ( i.e. Joshua is told to be strong and courageous, but instead sends spies and sits on his hands for several chapters, fails to call on God; Nehemiah ends with the sending away of foreign wives). I think if Vallotton was attentive to the ways these leaders failed, his insights for spiritual warfare would be more incisive.

Also, Vallotton makes errors in his interpretation of passages by drawing distinctions that are not in the text. He makes the common error of drawing a strong distinction between spirit and soul (within the human person), but the biblical material neither supports this nor warrants it. Likewise, he distinguishes terms (such as a distinction between prisoner and captive in Isaiah 61:1) which betray an amateur understanding of Hebrew poetics and parallelism.

I think this book is more useful as describing one person’s experience of the spiritual battle and his personal insights into the nature of it. When it comes to Biblical interpretation I do not think Vallotton is a trustworthy guide though he does provide and interesting window on individual texts. I would recommend this book to the discerning charismatic Christian who can separate the good from the bad, truth from error. While I have my reservations about parts of this book (some of which I failed to mention here), I will likely refer back to sections.

Thank you to Chosen books for providing a copy of this book in exchange for this fair and honest review.