Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“The Devil, You Say” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Touchstone.
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The Devil, You Say
I Am Not Afraid: Demon Possession
reviewed by Timothy R. Furnish
Observing that demonic possession is legion in our allegedly secularized culture may be an understatement. Dozens of movies on demons and exorcism have followed 1973's The Exorcist, just as hundreds of books, both fiction and non-fiction, were spawned by William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel. (As I write this review, the Spanish film Exorcismus is showing on TV channel IFC.) Many films and published works claim, like The Exorcist, to be true accounts. The Vatican, under Pope Benedict XVI, was reported to have begun the training of hundreds of new exorcists. Evangelical pastors such as Bob Larson have created entire spiritual warfare ministries. Even the Antiochian Orthodox Church in the U.S. has at least one prominent exorcism expert these days—Fr. George Aquaro.
Now, the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LC–MS), not exactly known for openly battling the devil—at least since Martin threw his inkwell at the Adversary—has published a new book on the topic by one of its ministers. Robert H. Bennett, a LC–MS pastor who holds S.T.M. and Ph.D. degrees from Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, and has done mission work in Madagascar, has written a book on spiritual warfare among the Malagasy people. Slightly over half of the book treats possession and exorcism in Madagascar, while the remainder deals with those topics in the New Testament, in Luther's time, and in the views of a number of prominent LC–MS theologians.
Dr. Bennett is attempting to provide a conservative Lutheran alternative view of spiritual warfare to the secular doubting Thomases in the Western world, as well as to refute the "foolishness" of the "medieval" and "magical" Roman Catholic perspective, particularly the exorcism rite itself (137). While his fieldwork is impossible to refute, and his pastoral concerns are clear, Bennett's narrow focus on the conservative Lutheran assessment of possession and exorcism limits this book's analytical utility and its appeal to other Christians.
The Battle in Madagascar
Madagascar, an island nation off Africa's southeastern coast, has a population of about 21 million, split between Austronesian and African (mainly Bantu) ancestry. About 40 percent of the island's people are Christian, divided between four denominations: Roman Catholic, Church of Jesus Christ (Reformed), Lutheran, and Anglican. The Lutherans number about three million but are the fastest-growing group, thanks to a revival movement known as Fifohazana, which is kept going by mpiandry, "shepherds" who are specially trained laity. Christians, however, are outnumbered by adherents of traditional religion, among whom the placating—and, indeed, worship—of ancestral and other spirits is rife.
But whether animist or Christian, "for the Malagasy, all experiences, including disease, sickness, and death have spiritual causes" (15). According to both pastors and mpiandry, many Malagasys "become possessed through their interaction with the traditional religions. They beg the ancestral spirits to possess them, but these are . . . [actually] demons who disguise themselves as ancestral spirits" (22). This includes Christians as well as non-Christians.
Bennett also thinks that the obsession with propitiating dead ancestors via building them expensive and elaborate tombs is a major element keeping the people mired in poverty: "the tombs are well kept and modern looking, while the homes are many times falling down and deserted looking" (39). Furthermore, many Malagasy practice famadihana—exhuming and re-burying their dead every few years (40–41) which also contributes, at least in the minds of the people, to spirit
The liturgy of the Malagasy Lutheran Church contains two forms of exorcism: a general one, of a place; and a specific one, of an individual (44f). Both consist of prayers, Gospel readings, and invocations in the name of Christ that the evil spirits depart. According to a Malagasy pastor, Joseph Randrianasolo, "exorcism . . . puts the mpiandry and the Fifohazana at the forefront of a daily battle against Satan and his kingdom" (47). Bennett notes that "sometimes many exorcisms are needed to free the possessed person from the grasp of the demons" (50–51), and the exorcism is not deemed successful until "the individual regains composure and begins to pray in Jesus' name" (52).
Bennett's empirical methodology consisted of interviews with 64 Malagasy individuals, 35 of whom self-reported having been possessed at some point in their lives. While that is a rather small statistical sample, the anecdotal accounts are disturbing and ring true. As Michael Green observed in his seminal work Evangelism in the Early Church, modern missionaries in Asia and Africa are recapitulating the experiences of the Church in apostolic times—particularly in spiritual warfare.
The Conservative Lutheran View
Bennett's chapter on possession and exorcism in the Gospels and Acts is exegetically solid, if not groundbreaking. Any honest appraisal of these New Testament books demonstrates that possession and exorcism were realities in the eastern Roman Empire in the first century a.d., and that Jesus and the apostles arguably knew the difference between, say, epilepsy and demonic infestation.
His next chapter examines the topic as reflected in Luther's writings and in the sixteenth-century Lutheran Confessions. The Large Catechism mentions the devil 84 times, as do the Smalcald Articles (the latter in claiming that the pope is possessed). Some six of Luther's letters mention Satan as causing affliction in specific individuals of pastoral concern, and one of them "specifically warns [Lutheran] pastors against using the Roman Rite of Exorcism" (137), which Bennett himself deems "foolishness."
The author also briefly delves into the views of possession and exorcism among LC–MS theologians over the last 200 years. He notes that such conservative Lutheran luminaries as C.F.W. Walther (d. 1887), Francis Pieper (d. 1931), John H. C. Fritz (d. 1953), William F. Arndt (d. 1957), Kurt Koch (d. 1987), and Helmut Thielicke (d. 1996) all accepted the possibility of post-New Testament-era demonic possession; likewise for living Lutheran scholars like John Warwick Montgomery and Jeffrey A. Gibbs. Bennett is careful to point out that Walther, the theological pillar of the LC–MS, believed—as do the Christians of Madagascar, and contra modern American Evangelicals—that Christians could be
He also notes that Walther believed "the successes of the Roman [Catholic] exorcist to be a 'sham' which Satan uses to distract people from trust and faith in God" (151). Rather than the Roman Catholic Rite of Exorcism, Bennett himself recommends the LC–MS publication Visitation: Resources for the Care of Souls (Concordia, 2008) to pastors who may need to shepherd those harassed by demons, as it has a section on spiritual warfare and even "a concluding prayer which contains exorcistic language" (173). He concludes his book by predicting that it will prove "helpful to Christian churches" (177), echoing his earlier "hope that . . . the book restarts the conversation" about possession and exorcism, which he finds lacking in the Western
Benefits & Flaws
I Am Not Afraid is a convincing modern examination of spiritual warfare, particularly on two levels: it deals with the church's activity in a little-known, Third World mission field, and it does so from the perspective of a decidedly sober, non-charismatic Christian denomination. However, it could have been better—or at least more influential.
In terms of process, the editorial staff at Concordia Publishing House seems to have taken a vacation when Bennett's book arrived. There are annoying typos: "reformation" not capitalized (147), "Malagasy's" used as a plural (62), the inexplicable "Seminaries education" (105); and there are too many assertions sans corroboration: depression is "running rampant in the western [sic] world" (141), and "most of the founding fathers [sic] . . . were followers of Deism" (35).
More importantly, Bennett's parochial focus on LC–MS churches, pastors, and theologians causes him to utterly ignore the extensive and influential recent accounts of exorcism and possession by those in other (or no) denominations—such as Fr. Malachi Martin's Hostage to the Devil (1976); M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie (1983) and its sequels; Thomas B. Allen's Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism (1993), which purports to be the actual account behind The Exorcist, and notes that the possessed boy, a Lutheran, had to seek help from Catholic priests; Michael W. Cuneo's American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (2001); and Tracy Wilkinson's The Vatican's Exorcists: Driving Out the Devil in the 21st Century (2007). These non-Lutheran works may not explicate Law and Gospel sufficiently for an LC–MS author, and some even speak kindly of the dreaded Roman Catholic exorcism practices, but pretending they don't exist is bad scholarship and detracts from the import of this book.
As it is, Dr. Bennett's book will appeal to clergy, and some laity, in our 2.3-million-member denomination—but he could have appealed to a much broader Christian audience without sacrificing LC–MS doctrinal integrity. He would then have provided a valuable case study of, and cross-denominational handbook on, spiritual warfare in the twenty-first century. •
Timothy R. Furnish is an author and consultant who specializes in Islamic eschatology and sects, as well as in comparative Christian—Muslim issues. He is a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod who is also quite fond of Orthodox Christian theology.
“The Devil, You Say” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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