Tag Archives: Territorial Spirit

It’s SLSW or Bust

30 Jan

As I’ve been furiously writing and editing my dissertation to make an end of quarter deadline, one of the major elements of my project that has kept me focused is the distinction made between the three levels of spiritual warfare advocated and practiced by third wave evangelicals (or neo-charismatics). It clarifies my work because unlike others who have recently written about demons–say Michael W. Cueno’s American Exorcism–I can always remind myself that my focus is only a a fraction of the picture.

Here’s the basic spiritual warfare breakdown. This version is taken from Peter Wagner’s 1997 Praying With Power, but there are many other near-identical versions of it in the spiritual warfare literature:

Ground-level spiritual warfare confronts demonic spirits that molest individuals. This is personal deliverance: casting out demons.

Occult-level spiritual warfare exposes organized forces of darkness such as witchcraft, shamanism, satanism, Freemasonry, Eastern religions, New Age and the like.

Strategic-level spiritual warfare involves wrestling with principalities and powers and rulers of the darkness as Paul defines in Ephesians 6:12

There are many, many works on ground-level spiritual warfare. It’s also a great source of inspiration for Hollywood horror films. The fascination with personal deliverance has left its pentecostal and Catholic quarters for the wider waters of popular culture. I don’t know that it was a great move–it’s surely resulted in an explosion of pseudo-science and pseudo-religion–but it has been profitable and popular.

Occult-level spiritual warfare is less well studied and less frequently practiced. Evangelicals (and Catholics) have long waged a war against non-Christian religious traditions. The most threatening of these are traditions that can be practiced alongside Christianity. A recent example would be the treatment of yoga in schools, but many others fit this billing. Some of these traditions are openly anti-Christian, but most are dangerous simply because they are not Christianity. It doesn’t have to be much more complex than that, but for occult-level warfare these traditions are seen, unrepentantly, as the domain of Satan. Good intentions mean nothing here, this is a hard and fast line being drawn.

Strategic-level spiritual warfare (or SLSW) is, pardon the theory-talk, a structuring structure. In a significant way, it is framework for the other forms of spiritual warfare. SLSW says that the forces of darkness are organized and hierarchical. This corporate evil is the means by which smaller units of organized darkness (occult-level) multiply. Sure, you can fight the New Age bookstore. The problem is that you’ve only dislocated and disrupted the middlemen. In a drug-metaphor, ground-level warfare attacks junkies, occult-level attacks local dealers, and strategic-level confronts the cartels. Why bother harassing every junkie if the drugs will continue to flow downstream to other users?

The work I do with SLSW is trying to explain, practice-wise, why this form of spiritual warfare is so concerned with the world in spatial ways. A colleague, Sean McCloud, is writing a whole book about the first level of spiritual warfare. His work will deal considerably with the therapeutic and materialistic qualities of this level of warfare. Those elements are present in SLSW but significantly diminished because of the way this ‘umbrella’ level of warfare sees its first priority as participating in a cosmic battle between Satan and God.

Remembering the three levels of warfare keeps me focused because I know I don’t need to say everything about spiritual warfare. There is no book, yet, that successfully explains why all three of these levels of warfare are necessary and how they work and why they are all coming together in the 1980s. Pieces of the story are clear: deliverance ministry has a long history in American pentecostalism. After a brief hiatus around WWII, exorcisms came back into fashion in the 1960s and then exploded in popularity in the 1970s after popular culture picked up on the practice and sensationalized it.

But the pieces of the story that explain occult warfare? Very murky. The pieces of the story that explain spatial and territorial demonology that is at the heart of SLSW? Almost absent. I’m working on it, but I’m also thankful I don’t have to account for everything just yet.


Power Evangelicals: Growing Trend or Passing Fancy?

25 Jan

[I’ve been working on some sections of my dissertation that call upon me to connect my evangelicals (spiritual warriors doing strategic-level spiritual warfare against territorial demons) with the broader currents of evangelicalism during the same era. These are just some thoughts about it–definitely unfinished thoughts about it. Feel free to disagree, suggest problems, and so on! Just sharing in a continued effort to bring more of the scholarly process to light.]

Donald Miller argued, in his controversial Reinventing American Protestantism (1997), that mainline denominations were the losers in the religious economy of the late 20th century. The winners, on the other hand, were churches like Willow Creek Community Church and Saddleback Community Church, but also Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, and Hope Chapel. Together these churches represented a new “seeker-friendly” church model that shared many of a dozen characteristics Miller outlined: 1) started after mid-1960s; 2) most members born after 1945; 3) seminary training optional for clergy; 4) contemporary worship style; 5) elevation of lay leadership; 6) extensive small group ministries; 7) informal dress of laity and clergy; 8) pluralism of personal styles valued; 9) humble, self-revealing pastors; 10) bodily worship favored over cognitive worship; 11) affirmation of spiritual gifts; 12) avoids topical sermonizing in favor of verse-centered teaching.

For church historians, students of religious studies, or historians of American religion, Miller’s “new paradigm” churches and their features pose a number of problems. Without rehearsing the many complaints of his work (especially his ethnography’s aging Jesus Freak, California-bias), one of the major features of my own work has been a growing fascinating with the broadness of conservative evangelicalism after 1980. Miller’s work helpfully frames the transition of liberal (or progressive) themes, such as anti-establishment sentiments and religion as therapy and religion in service for individual aspiration, into the conservative evangelical movement. In other words, Miller’s churches marry typically conservative elements with progressive stye. How that happened is one of the great stories of the long 1960s or the Vietnam era or the Pre-Reagan evangelical world. 

For me–as I study movements that arose in the late 1970s and share many features with Miller’s churches, including the major figure of John Wimber–the most essential problem is one of emphasis. Which one of Miller’s 12 characteristics is most essential for these churches. That question fractures Miller’s arbitrary paradigm, forcing it to acknowledge that many of the features of these churches are secondary to the ways they theologically marry the Jesus Movement with northern California’s personality. That these churches have been less successful maintaing the full breadth of Miller’s characteristics outside of the West is no surprise.

When I look back on my spiritual warrior evangelicals in the broad context of the last 30 years, the primary and most essential characteristic is nearly missed by Miller’s list because it falls halfway between “bodily worship” and “affirmation of spiritual gifts.” Deliverance ministers, prayerwalkers, spiritual mappers, and other prayer warriors don’t simply affirm spiritual gifts or emphasize bodily worship–they radically and substantially expand our understanding of the body in religious practice and force us to acknowledge the new ways spiritual gifts are being used. That the participants may not be dressing up on Sundays (or several other days of the week) is entirely secondary. Why? These Christians care about renewing the power of Christianity.

For Miller, the cause of new paradigm churches is a larger cultural shift. Using social theory from Max Weber (on routinization and bureaucratization), the contention here is that somehow the seekers looked to the “spiritual” as restorative and the “religious” as primitive. This is, to a a great degree, similar to the arguments of Wade Clark Roof in Spiritual Marketplace or Robert Wuthnow’s After Heaven. It’s something about those darned baby boomers. Sorry, dad, your generation is to blame.

What’s problematic about this, though, is that it doesn’t help explain the conservatism that emerges from folks out of Fuller Theological Seminary like John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner and their emphasis on power evangelism. At the end of the day, these folks argue, the only thing that matters is true commitment to the Great Commission. It is their extensive involvement with global missionary work that provokes a return to Christianity as imbued with power. Part of that power must emerge to participate in a cosmic spiritual war between God and Satan. The contours of this perspective shares much more–and don’t get too bent out of shape–with the religious terrorists described by Mark Jurgensmeyer in Terror in the Mind of God. Power is a conduit for better evangelism because it removes Satan’s roadblocks. It’s a grand strategy for Christianity for the whole world.

In that sense, to see these Christians as caring about the religious economy or spiritual marketplace scholars describe (using the secular sphere as a container for these exchanges and interactions) is to entirely miss the reclamation of power exercised by these Christians. Why don’t they train their leaders at seminaries? Because the power of the Holy Spirit anoints them. Why do they elevate lay leaders? Because they have a religious duty to wield the power Jesus granted them. Why do they dress casually? Because being sanctimonious about dress doesn’t show the power of the Kingdom of God. Why do they worship bodily? Because rationalizing the supernatural world is not a means to exercise the power of Jesus over it. And so on.

In short, Miller and other sociologists have been too willing to look at the socio-cultural context of these movements without really grappling with some of the essential theological issues that emergent. What we don’t know because of this emphasis is whether the renewal of a power-based Christian mode of practice and theology is growing or declining. As I’ve suggested before, when using Google’s N-gram viewer to look at spiritual warfare, this is an area of contemporary Christian that may be in decline. We simply don’t know. But finding a more appropriate home for these evangelicals will be essential if we want to find answers to the question of their growth/decline. Miller made them visible (for many folks for whom they had not been), but he didn’t successfully explain where they came from or why they were becoming popular or even what made they unique. That’s a project scholars are still working.

Studying the Controversy: Territorial Demonology

15 Jan

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.

Chuck Lowe's Territorial Spirits and World Evangelisation

Chuck Lowe’s Territorial Spirits and World Evangelisation

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.

Film poster for The Exorcist - Copyright 1973,...

Film poster for The Exorcist – Copyright 1973, © Warner Bros. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.