I was tempted to call this “teaching the controversy” and quip that this could easily be a post about evolution and creationism. But it is not. Instead, it’s about that kind of problem: when scholarly outsiders study topics that have generated intense debate and conflict among insiders.
Case in point: territorial spiritual warfare.
Today I’m writing about the issue of controversy within one’s field of study, but it emerged directly from reading one of my primary sources, Chuck Lowe’s Territorial Spirits and World Evangelisation. In the future I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this text and its critical bedfellows, works like Roland Howard’s Charismania, Hank Hanegraff’s Counterfeit Revival, and Sara Diamond’s Spiritual Warfare.
Let’s take a step back to get our bearings: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, just as the Religious Right helped elect Ronald Reagan and was beginning to consolidate its political power in major groups like the Moral Majority, Conservative Coalition and Focus on the Family, a segment of evangelicals began to take seriously the idea that spiritual gifts were under-developed. These spiritual gifts emerged from close readings of not just Paul’s epistles, but also from the Old Testament in the figures of Daniel, David, Ezekiel, and Joshua. If you’re familiar with charismatic evangelicals like pentecostals who practice speaking in tongues or faith healing, then you’ve got the right idea.
These folks in the 1970s and 1980s argued, however, that Christians were not using the full range of spiritual gifts that were available to them. This emerged in part because of the theological developments in the Church Growth movement that came to emphasize “power evangelism.” This missionary perspective argued that in many non-western locations Christianity should position itself to overcome the authority of animistic religious beliefs. If you were a missionary in Africa or Asia and you were confronted with intense local belief in, say, a cult of the dead or animistic spirits dwelling in trees or temples, then how were you going to demonstrate these beliefs as false and convert the locals? One answer was to re-claim the kind of authority demonstrated by Jesus and the Apostles. This would displace the power of the indigenous beliefs with the true authority of Christianity. This is the power of power evangelism–a demonstration by believers of the Christian God’s power to combat erroneous indigenous religious beliefs.
One of the great challenges for folks that used Church Growth models or practiced power evangelism was that they were accused by other evangelicals of using practices that were, at the very least extra-biblical and more likely un-biblical. The controversy was not simply interpretative–taking a single scriptural passage and arguing over its meaning–but one of corrupted authority. Leaders that promoted these new spiritual warfare techniques risked turning themselves into cults of personality that were victims of their non-Christian practices. They were also warned of the dangers of giving an untrained laity access to spiritual gifts that could easily lead them astray. How do you know, for instance, that the voice guiding your spiritual warfare is the Holy Spirit and not the Devil? Evangelicals agreed that the answer was to check spiritual insights against scripture, but the interpretative dilemma remained.
Personal spiritual authority and scriptural interpretation clashed especially on the issue of territorial demonology. While exorcism of personal demons (yes, The Exorcist isn’t entirely fabricated) remains a scriptural practice for many Catholics and evangelicals, the category of territorial demons are those that supposedly have a geographically determined authority. In the midst of America’s current religious revolution–the rise of the nones–the controversy here is not at all about the existence of demons. That part is unquestionably accepted by all parties in these debates. What’s under debate is the authority these demons possess, the sphere of their influence, and, most especially, their weaknesses.
For believers that practice territorial spiritual warfare, there is much more going on than simply fighting demons. In part, the limited scriptural debates about the interpretation of passages from the Bible belies the broader context of concern being exhibited by critics of the movement. As an informant who has practiced this kind of spiritual warfare told me, the harshest critiques of their work was other charismatic evangelicals who drew a more conservative line about what spiritual gifts they had access to. What does this suggest? That debates of the biblical-ness of these practices reveal not just issues of authority but also perception, marketability, vision, and a range of other non-textual concerns. In short, were critics using scriptural concerns as cover for the declining interest in their non-power based evangelical traditions?
As a scholar trying to wade into these waters, I frequently wonder where the safe place to stand might be. I can’t play the role of scriptural arbiter. It’s not up to me which side of the debate has a more authoritative reading of biblical passages. Nor is it up to me to weigh the competing claims against one other. That might imply I had a stance that could validate one side over the other. While I can imagine several scholarly positions from which to do this, none of them seem to have rewards worth the effort at this time. Instead, a comparative reading of these controversies must see something else going on. (For my project the answer is pretty straightforward because I want to see how it affects the spatial components of the practices, but beyond the dissertation this wouldn’t be adequate.) That is, if I can’t really talk about who’s right or has a better claim on the truth of the matter, then what issues am I studying?
First, controversy reveals what’s significant to each side. The framing and specifics of each side’s argument show what they believe to be the essential issues. The scriptural critiques value interpretative frameworks more than they value any practical benefits of the potentially extra-biblical practice. Or normative practices may be more significant than innovation. And so on.
Second, controversy reveals the contours of the debate. Critics cite essential affirmative works to critique them, this generates a boundary for the discussion and highlights its perceived authorities. With my nebulous topic this is a valuable, if indirect, service. I can map bibliographic citations, compare biblical verses under scrutiny, look at educational lineages. These are all revealed when folks speak up as members of the debate.
Third, it provides me balance as a scholar to avoid uncritically adopting the affirmative position of my subjects. In this instance I may not be terribly tempted to begin spiritual mapping of my neighborhood, but in other instances I can see the introduction of critical voices as tempering the chorus of enthusiasts. It can also easily reveal alternative readings that are far closer to insider positions than I could ever hope to have.
I’m sure there’s more, but that’s plenty to be satisfied with at the start (e.g., with minor inclusions of critical voices in a project that otherwise presents its subjects using their own published works). Call me an optimist, but I’m thrilled that controversies do more than show us where and how folks close ranks. It’s silver linings for miles as controversies give us the ability to more effectively describe and understand the contours of our subjects as they resist, accommodate, or adapt to pressure. That’s a very biological logic. So perhaps I *should* have titled this Teaching the Controversy after all.