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”:
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?