Warfare in the 1980s

8 Dec

In the post-AAR conference adrenaline, @Danielsilliman, @traviswcooper, and I had a brief conversation on Twitter that went like this:

Travis Cooper, Daniel Silliman and David McConeghy find mutual ground on demonology

Travis Cooper, Daniel Silliman and David McConeghy find mutual ground on demonology

I went on to say, “Maybe, but the folks I’m studying wouldn’t have gone off to see Exorcist in the theaters nor rented it on VHS. Their kids?” [And, yes, next time I’ll use Storify!]

This was an issue that came up in my dissertation proposal as well. I had attempted to use Jason Bivins’ work charting the broader cultural engagement with the supernatural and demonology as a stepping stone, much like Daniel did. Perhaps it just took a decade for the ideas to leak over from secular cultural experiences like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or The Exorcist (1973) to become Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness (1986).

It is weird, right? Okay, maybe it isn’t weird to you yet. Maybe I need to prove to you that the emergence of “spiritual warfare” in the 1980s (just before Peretti, too) is something of a mystery that we haven’t really solved yet. If I’m not sure of causation at least I can be sure that I’m right about a growth in the prominence of my object.

Here’s a tool to help me do that: Google’s Ngram viewer. The Ngram viewer searches for words or strings of words in the millions of books that Google has digitally scanned into its (frightening) server and storage farms. Here’s the Ngram for “spiritual warfare”:

This chart shows the growth of the term "spiritual warfare" in books starting in the mid 1980s.

This chart shows the growth of the term “spiritual warfare” in books starting in the mid 1980s.

Prior to 1983 the appearance of the phrase “spiritual warfare” was a paltry 0.000005%. That’s 5 out of million books. Then in the 1980s it becomes more common. By 2008 (the last searchable year in the viewer) the phrase is appearing in 25 books per million. That’s a significant increase. If the phrase isn’t becoming more common because of sampling issues (the set of data could be skewed even though Google attempts to normalize the differences in publishing volume over time). So what explains the change?

Daniel wondered whether the increase in spiritual warfare (related to demonology, which all of the items in the Ngram may not be) was the lag between secular culture and religious culture. That may be true, but one would expect to see an initial growth followed by a secondary growth. Parsing the data into smaller units might allow more sensitivity, but it isn’t possible at the moment. What phrase might give us better leverage over that secular to religious lag? How about demon(s)? Or demonology? Unfortunately none of these help. (Feel free to suggest one!)

The question of causation still looms over my project (at least in its hopes of finding its place into the larger history of American evangelicalism). I have not found, and I’m not really expecting to find, an instant solution. I would like to have an explanation that seems reasonable and for which I can find strong corroborating evidence. I dislike Daniel’s suggestion because tracing the connections from secular to religious spheres is likely to be like chasing ghosts. I’m willing to hunt them, but I’d like a tool to do so that I’m reasonably confident in.

Clear data is only the first step here. Something happened in the 1980s that led to a five-fold increase in the appearance of the term “spiritual warfare” in published materials. What was it?


5 Responses to “Warfare in the 1980s”

  1. Russell Williams December 8, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    I’m not a relgious studies scholar, so I might not be using the right terms, but I did live through this, so here’s my shot at an explanation:

    The big driver would be the entrenchment of fundamentalist evangelicalism as an isolated subculture. Spiritual warfare is an expression of an adversarial view of the church and the world. That adversarial viewpoint spiked in the 80s and held out for a generation.

    Your spiritual warfare spike is coming right on the heels of one of the major pre-millenial dispensationalist revivals, spearheaded by Lindsay. PMD is always a little adversarial, but Lindsay’s flavor was particularly isolationist and fatalistic, and believe me, it was everywhere.

    Meanwhile, Buchanan and Falwell were building the Moral Majority and welding fundamentalists to the GOP. This fed on and fed into the isolation of evangelicals as a subculture and the tendency to view everything in culture war terms. Spiritual warfare is in someways basically a literalization of the culture wars.

    If you’re looking for another term with a slightly different lead time, try “Satanism”. The spiritual warfare craze needed an enemy, after all, and you’re looking at prime Satanic Panic era years there. LaVey would have faded from public consciousness in the late 70s and hoaxters like Wernecke would be using that cultural memory to fuel their stories. It peaked just in time to run headlong into the first big wave of D&D popularization, but I’m going to call that a coincidence.

    I’m not sure any of this is big enough to be an underlying cause– it’s a set of feedback loops that all lead in the direction of cultural isolationism.

    • D. McConeghy December 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

      Thanks for the interesting reply, Russell!

      Seeing spiritual warfare as a literal extension of the secular/sacred conflict is one thing I’m exploring. There’s a catch, though. From a theological perspective, spiritual warriors who rely on heightened supernaturalism (as spiritual mappers and prayerwalkers do) appear to see the world not as secular/sacred but as kingdom of god/kingdom of satan. From the outside the spiritual battle appears to be between the secular and spiritual worlds, but internally the root of those causes are homogenized into a singular religious landscape. (They even seem to reject the idea of the secular altogether.) I think of it as the difference between two sides of a coin (it’s all one coin) and two polarized magnets.

      There’s also a problem with the link to the pre-millennial revival. These folks are rooted in a kingdom theology that is post-millennial. They firmly believe they can bring about the kingdom through their spiritual effort. The difference is substantial but not always clear. This is especially the case because the goal of the moments is ecumenical revival–they want to increase their flocks and resort greater interaction with the world to do so.

      I agree that part of the link has to be the growth of political power in groups like the MM and RR. That power was distributed broadly, but spiritual warfare was only adopted by a small minority that embraced not just some charismatic gifts, but an expansive sense of gifts (that came later to include Apostolic elements). That’s the obvious reason for a lack of broader appeal to spiritual warfare, even as some of its proponents (like Ted Haggard) attempted to make it more friendly to non-charismatics.

      Satanism Ngram

      Cultural isolation (in the form of fear) is part of Jason Bivins explanation for things. The culture of fear grew under Reagan’s war on drugs and rapidly advanced in the 1990s along with the digital age. You’d think that might have set spiritual warfare on a path that led up and up. After all, hasn’t fear (of terrorism, of Obama’s presidency) increased since 2001? And yet, the movement seemed to dwindle. It isn’t clear why unless you also connect spiritual warfare to the AD2000 movement, which was a worldwide revival coordinated by spiritual mapping toward the 10/40 window and its billions of ‘unreached’ peoples.

      You seem to have a great grasp of things, though! Clearly all that scientific training hasn’t dulled your religious historical sensibilities. 😀


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    […] Warfare in the 1980s (mcconeghy.wordpress.com) […]

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    […] Warfare in the 1980s (mcconeghy.wordpress.com) […]

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