Friday, April 01, 2011

blast from the past: Rebecca Brown M.D., mental instability, and errors of spiritual warfarism

I was exposed to some of the writings of Brown in my teens and found them troublesome. I wasn't sure why at the time because a teenager isn't usually going to be so widely read in theology as to recognize the problems in an obvious or systematic way (unless the teenager happens to be someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, maybe). But the rampant declarations about generational curses, soul ties, and the like seemed to go beyond anything described in scripture. I distinctly remembered the passage in Proverbs that said that an undeserved curse is like a darting sparrow or a fluttering bird that will never come to rest.

That single verse in scripture pretty much destroyed 90% of what Brown espoused in her books. Even if it were to be argued that cases of genuine curses existed those were curses framed in terms of disobedience to the Lord by Israel. So the idea that disasters of a personal or corporate nature were explicable due to unidentified curses doesn't hold up. For that matter in the book of Job God permits Satan to destroy Job's possessions. God says to Satan, "All that he has is in your power but do not touch the man." We are almost immediately told about how "fire from God" came down from heaven and destroyed the sheep and the servants. The Chaldeans formed raiding bands and captured the camels. A great wind from the wilderness blew and destroyed Job's children.

Now to the extent that Brown could say that these are natural disasters from the Lord permitted to Satan to destroy Job's possessions this may constitute a partial rebuttal to John Piper's recent blogging about how earthquakes are only ever created by God. That's probably true but a thorough-going Christian interpretation of the relationship between natural disasters and Satan's involvement has to grant that God permits Satan to employ natural disasters as a tool in exceptional cases. With respect to Brown's curse teachings there aren't any attacks from Satan that aren't permitted by God but we should also grant as has been granted by many Christian teachers before, that in many cases the flesh is sufficiently troublesome that outright demonic attacks are often not necessary.

Other curiousities about Brown's theology and teaching are fascinating to consider on social and political grounds. If legal citizenship papers give permission for people to bring demons into the United States, for instance, then does this mean that illegal immigrants DON'T bring demons with them into the United States, in contrast to legal immigrants? Brown would seem, then, to want as much illegal immigration as possible so demons don't get permission from the United States government to enter our country. My hunch is that Rebecca Brown, were she ever to have considered this option, would change her theology to say that illegal immigrants bring even more demons into the United States because they have enough demons in them to overcome the principalities and powers of the United States (that probably didn't previously exist before, either). She would also say the Catholics and other Christians who don't subscribe to her theology bring demons with them, too. So learning about the legal cases against Brown in the last twenty to thirty years has certainly been illuminating and a blast from the past.

My sister found one of the above documents recently and I decided to do a little more reading of my own. Having come from a background that was Pentecostal where there was, to put it mildly, a heavy emphasis on spiritual warfare, I ended up being fascinated by exegetical studies and biblical literature as much out of a suspicion that most spiritual warfare teaching I was hearing was not really biblical as for any other reasons.

A lot of what passed for spiritual warfare teaching in the 1980s and 1990s now seems to me to have an unusually synergistic view of a believer's activity and I don't mean "synergistic" in the sense of a normal soteriological view. Instead I mean by "synergistic" the idea that is conveyed by spiritual warfare manuals, that you can, despite being a Christian open yourself up to all sorts of demonic influences and become demonized ignorantly due to this or that sin.

A lot of what has passed for spiritual warfare seems to me now to be paranoid madness. This does not mean that I don't see any value to prayer or intercession. It also does not mean I don't take seriously that Christians have a spiritual adversary. It does mean that I have come to suspect a great deal of supposedly Christian teaching by self-appointed spiritual warfare gurus in the United States peddles paranoia, fear, and fantasy rather than principles and observations that can be grounded in an exegesis of scripture.

What makes spiritual warfare as a topic so difficult to field, however, is that a great deal of the concepts endemic to spiritual warfare depend on ideas that are not clearly developed in the Old Testament canon but that are substantially expanded upon and defined in intertestamental literature which, in turn, are then alluded to without disapproval in the New Testament. This is one of the reasons so much dross rather than silver is possible in spiritual warfare teaching (and, of course, there are those who consider the whole field to be dross but they tend to have similar views about a great deal of other things taught in biblical literature). But I have to grant that in many, many cases the opportunities for fraudulent claims about demonic agency in the lives of Christians or non-Christians are, pun intended, legion.

I'm not unfamiliar with the psychological explanation that most cases of demonization occur in cases where an individual has a religious upbringing in which a belief in demons is taught and demonization is considered possible. Therapists have argued that the case of someone considered demonized is a person who has failed to integrate aspects of their self into their conscious understanding of self, thereby formulating a "demon" as something that permits them to consider that part of themselves separate. If you survey spiritual warfare teachings and consider what demons are considered to give bondage to Christians and need rebuking there's a surprisingly large amount of overlap.

I have seen some cases of ad hoc home-made exorcisms that have not, ultimately, led captives to freedom. In fact spiritual warfare teaching done apart from psychological assessment seems to set people up for more rather than less bondage because either part of the person is demonized by themselves or by other Christians (who may be concluding demons are involved because it is a desperate attempt to find and impose an explanation on a broken relationship); or because a person has been taught that aspects of themselves are signs of demonic influence. This may usually be a mixture of intentional rhetoric without a full understanding of the relational consequences of the emotional impact of the rhetoric. I've been told that my interest in theology and doctrine has amounted to being under the influence of "a religious spirit" and that this was really bad. It wasn't intended to be a declaration that I was under the influence of demons, as such, but it can come off that way when you're on the receiving end of "You have religious spirits" because a substantial segment of spiritual warfare teaching only uses the term "spirit" in a pejorative sense.

I can't say I feel anything but relief that Rebecca Brown has gotten herself into enough trouble to be shown that she has committed numerous crimes regarding the abuse of drugs, abuse of others, and that her character has been revealed. To the extent that her work has created at atmosphere of paranoia among sincere Christians who consider her writings as anything close to a competent supplement to scripture, let alone as an informed study of scripture themselves, I'm relieved. One of the most compelling reasons we should heed James warning in his epistle that not many of us should desire to be teachers because we will be held to a higher standard is in the field of spiritual warfare.

Character flaws in a person teaching on spiritual warfare frequently manifest themselves through the demonization of people that the teacher would choose to belittle on other grounds. Consider Brown's precedent of demonizing Catholics and immigrants (probably not just legal immigrants). Consider other teachers who consider women unusually susceptible to demonic influence as though men were not equally susceptible through different means. Consider those who view illegal immigrants as harbingers of devils even though some of these immigrants are believers who have fled economic and political troubles in their original lands.

But there is something else that needs to be said about spiritual warfare as a domain for abusive teaching, it tends to be an abuse fostered by conservatives rather than liberals. Liberals tend to dismiss the possibility of tthe demonic. To be sure they demonize conservatives in numerous ways because by not granting any spiritual element to the world they no longer use spiritual warfare teaching as an indirect way to demonize their opponents they directly demonize them by declaring them to be insane or hucksters or creators of lies. This looks more reasonable and I'll grant in many cases it is but the net effect in terms of how people are treated is still, basically, the same.

Liberals can demonize others while being confident that they aren't really demonizing others because they don't believe in demons. The errant conservative may be wrong to say so and so is motivated to speak or act in such and such a way because the person has a demon but that conservative has no illusions about the nature of the description. The liberal doesn't either in the sense of knowing what he or she is calling the conservative, but there is a cloud of self-exoneration in not believing demonic influence really happens that allows the demonization to be held as intrinsic to the errant conservative. The errant conservative may be deluded into thinking the liberal has demons but the flip side of errant demonization of opponents is that a person who sincerely believes someone has demons may also believe the person would not have their wrong views apart from demonic influence. In this respect, oddly, the liberal who views the conservative in demonized terms assumes an inherent character flaw leads them to demonize others while the conservative in question may hold that it is possible for the demonized liberal to at some point be free of demonic influence. It's rare, I concede, but possible. It still looks like the same level of demonization and self-exoneration to me on either side of the liberal/conservative divide of anything.

I've seen non-Christians talk about theism as a terrible thing while the said atheist has not become a significantly different person for being an atheist rather than a Christian. The person who got evicted for not paying rent on time or threatening fellow tenants; the person who got restraining orders from more than one ex; the person who managed to have a mercurial professional career due to mood swings, this person may become a better person as an atheist than as a Christian but it won't be through saying that Christians are stupid and judgmental so much as confronting his/her own weaknesses. It's easy to judge others mentally or emotionally weak without considering our own emotional and mental weaknesses.

A proper understanding of Christian teaching is to consider others better than ourselves and to recognize that our own emotional and mental weaknesses make us vulnerable to error and foisting that error upon our neighbor. This is the core error of most spiritual warfare teaching from the last 20 years that focuses on outward actions, outward judgments, and a disposition toward seeing the demonic in others rather than as an internal battle with our own character flaws and weaknesses.

What is more we can decide to externalize in the form of a demon what is ultimately a mental or even a physiological problem in ourselves. Rebecca Brown has obviously had problems with delusions of grandeur that she translates into a conviction that demons are everywhere and must be battled. A person may perceive physiological symptoms of a pending health catastrophe as spiritual warfare and make the terrible mistake of not seeking medical help out of an erroneous belief that the physical symptoms are signs of outside spiritual assault rather than failures in one's own body. It is also possible to resort to a belief in demonic influence on another as a substitute for attempting to understand multiple fractures in a relationship; tragically, resorting to such a belief will further fracture an already damaged relationship. If you dig into the multiple uses and abuses of spiritual warfare teaching it will often have a gloss of biblical passages and a formal appearance of being what is in the Bible but the practical application of it will often be so far afield of Phillipians 2:1-4 as to belie the allegedly biblical spirit in which the self-appointed spiritual warfare guru announces himselr or herself as being God's emmisary.

Rebecca Brown's case of delusion and abuse, seen in this light, begins to seem as though it is a sad warning that becoming a spiritual warfare teacher out of the selfish ambition to feel important and to have clout as being an expert in something leads to destruction of one's own life and the lives of others. In my personal experience few people are more prone to vain conceit than those who appoint themselves as teachers and experts on spiritual warfare because they do not submit themselves to the scriptures either in what the scriptures say or do NOT say regarding evil spirits. They certainly don't avail themselves of historical or serious study of the influence intertestamental literature has had on the subject of diabology or demonology in scripture itself.

Most of all self-appointed gurus on spiritual warfare, whatever they consider their credentials, have too rarely valued others as better than themselves. While they persuade us and assert to us that they have the interests of others in mind a careful examination of their rhetoric and aims in the use of spiritual warfare teaching reveals that, in the end, they consider their own interests and the interests of whomever they consider their team to be to be of greater significance than the interest of others.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Matthew Johnson writes: Denny Burk posts a video interview with Bell.

Says he’s been “slandered”. And “crucified”.

Rob, dude, some mean guys said some stuff about what you have written. On their blogs. Sayed Musa was almost hung – by his neck – for being a Christian. Your feelings are hurt but no one has crucified you.

still working on a lot of off-line stuff

There are several major projects occupying my time of late. One of them has been the continued hunt for work, another is that writing project for Mockingbird I keep cryptically referring to, and still another is preparing music for services at church over the next month. Several pieces are original compositions and I'm also tackling the project of learning a bunch of established repertoire used at my church.

I am ALSO preparing the first movement of Castelnuovo-Tedesco's charming Fantasia for piano and guitar for a public performance later this year. My pianist and I are discussing tackling this at the Seattle Classic Guitar Society open mic iin late spring and it since my pianist buddy has a recital coming up later this year he has suggested that I could play as part of his piano recital, which sounds fun.

I'm working my way through Battles of the Bible; a biography on Bonhoeffer my sister has lent me; and, thanks to my pastor, a book by a NT scholar that taught Bonhoeffer in his early years. This should make for a very interesting time of non-fiction reading for me right now!

I'm also trying to make sure I have an actual social life and get off my duff and do at least some exercise.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

two probably unrelated posts on a common theme


The first entry may be considered an "environmentally conscientious" blog entry because it's obviously using recycled material. John Piper blogging about the inscrutable providence in the deaths of tens of thousands of people is virtually a cottage industry by now if it weren't already a ministry. It's easier to blog about how God perfectly willed the deaths of thousands as long as they aren't Americans. The one exception to the pattern was 9/11/01 because that was a man-made disaster but Robertson, at least, was a bit more consistent in being willing to ascribe even this to a warning fromGod that people needed to repent.

Despite having been in the neo-Reformed camp for a while I must confess that John Piper's popularity sometimes confounds me. He's okay, I guess but he's a reminder to me that at the end of the day I've never been a particularly zealous Reformed Baptist. The meditation on John 9 is, you'll have figured out by now, the more obviously interesting meditation to me. I also consider it the more biblically informed one. Sure, Piper throws out lists of biblical texts but his is the less biblical meditation both for being a recycled reflection of something he blogged more than a decade ago and because the timing and wisdom of blogging about every natural disaster to the glory of God can be considered an epic feat in Job's comforter theology.

A friend of mine taught a class in a church we both used to attend about the book of Job. He summarized the import of the book as follows--the right theology applied at the wrong time to the wrong person for the wrong reason is still ultimately bad theology. The idea that Piper can say first things first and discuss the two things Christians should do ... but then spends ninety percent of his blog entry discussing what Christians should do after that is a collosal mistake. Jesus said we would be known as His by our love for one another. We are also known for how we love our neighbors.

We're at an early enough of a stage here that Piper's comments seem out of place not just for the fact that he has so obviously recycled his 1999 material on an earthquake that killed 17,000 for a tsunami that has devastated Japan. This is significant, of course, because it appears our Christian brothers and sister in Japan, to say nothing of the unsaved, apparently don't deserve any originally composed reflections on what has just happened to them. Even Job's friends waited a week before opening their mouths and that only after Job cursed the day of his birth. It looks like Piper could have waited at least one more day before blogging so as to follow the example of Job's comforters.

That would be reason enough, really, to consider his recent comments on Japan ill-advised. What surprises me is that few people have seemed to remark on this detail in itself so much as their concerns about his theology as a whole (fair enough) or to defend the humility in which he is perceived to have meant everything, which gets back to my concern that if he so openly concedes he is recycling material that this humility may be construed as a form of laziness in relation to contemporary events. Mobilizing people to help reconstruct churches and church communities in Japan (the few that are there) seems like a more well-thought-out thing to put before the public. Ergo, despite my differences with Driscoll and Mars Hill on some things I'd much rather more high-profile neo-Reformed churches get to the work of helping people rather than doing what they all too often seem best at, which is simply writing about why it's important to talk about proper theology at this point.

Thus we arrive at the second blog entry. Jesus heals the man born blind but does not explain the theological import of His having done so until after the blind man is interrogated by nearly everyone connected to him and met with the accusation that he wasn't even really born blind. Everyone is eager to explain what happened in some way or another. The disciples want to explain the man's blindness as the result of either his own sin or the sins of his parents. Jesus rejects that line of explanation and heals the blind man.

The blind man is overjoyed at being able to see and is met with people who try to explain what just happened, some saying he was never really blind and this disputation of the facts goes so faras to drag the man's parents into the debate. The experts in doctrine and dogma want to make sure glory is given to God and not Jesus. Well, we live in light of the resurrection so we will say "Of course it's about Jesus" and the Father and the Spirit, too.

Not all of us can act in the same way to the same degree but even if I granted Piper's premise that after we have acted and done what we can to help that people want answers isn't htere at least some scriptual basis for saying that our response of aid to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn (and laugh with those who laugh) the first and most important aspect of our "answer" that we think everyone needs? There comes a point when if a pastor has been doing this John Piper thing on disasters for the last twelve years that he's turning into a kind of theodicy equivalent of Captain Hindsight (let viewers of South Park understand).

Monday, March 28, 2011

be careful what you tweet, libel and defamation suits can happen

I have told friends and associates for years that if it's on the internet it might as well be considered public record. Looks like there was just a case in which someone mistakenly tweeted that someone was taken aside at a police polling station. Though the tweet was corrected the correction was not sufficient to preclude a defamation case being filed.

It's not really news that Facebook status postings can get you fired but it's a tangential theme.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Piper and Bell as the great white fight in contemporary evangelicalism

I was sure, to go by the blogosphere a few years ago, that the big fight upon which the evangelical faith (read neo-Calvinism) was going to win or lose was about the New Perspective on Paul and whether or not N. T. Wright's fans could be nipped in the bud by proving Wright denied double imputation and thus compromised the whole Gospel (at least based on sound bites exchanged by Mark Driscoll and R. C. Sproul).

Well, it would appear that the new, real, big fight is about whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist. Piper and Bell are the blogged about people at the putative center of this theological dust-up. Two white guys with glasses. Hey, solidarity, man, because I look pretty white and I have glasses. Still ... having come from a racially mixed marriage of an American Indian man and a white woman I admit that when I stumbled upon this link above I was more amused than perhaps some people would say I should be. Drew G. I Hart writes:

Younger, fresher expressions of church are “emerging” and are winning over many from white America. Simultaneously, the old guard is losing relevance, and feels threatened. Rather than working together as as the Church, imperial and colonial instincts have kicked in as folks gaze upon all the religious authority that could be attained. Domination over American Christian theological direction has quietly been the real story & narrative when you stop and read between the lines.

What is interesting is that some of the people who have aligned against Bell at various times were aligned with the "younger, fresher expressions of church". The rest of his comments are sufficiently interesting I am just going to post them as follows:

I can understand why younger white evangelicals would want to break away from this brand of American Evangelicalism. While I can appreciate many of the theological nuances expressed by this zealous group of white 20 and 30 somethings, they have their own set of problems. Before we get too excited about this coming shift in influence over American religious life, we must acknowledge that the practice of hegemony and domination will still continue through these “emerging leaders”. Overall, I have been pleased with the theological shifts being expressed, because they express desire for racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the Church… wanting the Church to be ONE church, which we were called to be. However, it did not take very long for me to realize that the proclamations and the practices of this group were not lining up. Everything that is done is done to cater to white middle class suburbia. They cater to the priviliged despite affirming Jesus’ call to serve the least of these. [emphasis mine] As far as hegemony goes, Black and Latino pastors and theologians still continue to be uninvited to the infamous “table” Even these newly formed tables under banners of emergent or missional are starting off on the wrong foot, being almost completely homogeneous. Of course these Evangelical 3.0′s have learned from their predecessors that you must at least grab a token black for your entourage or program (however the 2.0’s actually did a better job at pulling in tokens), often this GED effort of token representation is not even being done at many of their gatherings and events. Unfortunately the white control and supremacy over religious life in America is not going anywhere if left on track.

In a truly global Christian perspective the fight about whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist or believes in Hell is pretty unimportant. Even as a self-identifying conservative evangelical guy Bell is finally a non-entity. This Piper/Bell conflagration can be seen as nothing more than two fairly affluent white boys in glasses who are not quite so young making bids for which young and upwardly mobile white boys and their wives will shape the future of white American Christianity.

Despite the tempest in the teapot I know plenty of Christians who 1) have no idea who Rob Bell is and 2) have even less of an idea who John Piper is. We among the neo-Reformed think it's a super-big-deal that this is all happening. Conservative Protestants do have some reasons to have reservations about Bell, of course ... but we have to remind ourselves that to Christians even in America, let alone Christians around the world this fight is about as compelling and relevant as comic book fans debating who would be more likely to win a fight with bloodlust on, Captain America or Wolverine.

Again, I'm not saying the issues aren't important at all but that we take ourselves too seriously as though the issues and debates will stand or fall on whether or not we win. American evangelicals must continually be reminded that heretical views such as modalism, Docetism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Montanism, etc. etc. are not new. Even the New Perspective on Paul isn't new so much as an attempt to recover the old perspective that is older than the old perspective on Paul developed in the scholastic battles of the late medieval and Renaissance periods. If Piper matters now to a lot of Christians who aren't already committed super-soldiers in the young, restless and Reformed it will unfortunately that Piper seems to be working his way slowly toward pontificating on the need for all Christians everywhere to repent of worldliness any time a natural disaster arrives with a consistency greater than Pat Robertson.

Of course Robertson will be dismissed as a nutjob by the YRR crowd but Piper won't be even though he's make the same case without being so bold as to mention (most of the time) which specific sins American Christians need to repent of as God permits tens or hundreds of thousands of people to die in other countries where by and large white American Christians will never live. Now my Christian friend in Japan probably isn't spending a lot of time reflecting on how the tsunami is a sign that she and other Christians should repent of worldliness so much as she is hoping that our Lord Jesus returns soon so these kinds of horrors won't continue any longer.

While Internet Monk was alive I think, if memory serves, he once said that one of the controversies surrounding Mark Driscoll's popularity among younger Baptists was due to his being Calvinist and his lack of obvious adherence to Baptist concepts of Christian piety. He may have gone so far as to suggest that Driscoll was a lightning rod because he represented what conservative southern Baptists didn't want their denomination to become characterized by, either the Calvinsit part or the lack of earlier piety part. Piper came under fire from a few of the old guard about letting Driscoll be on the team, or Rick Warren.

Well, perhaps in a way Piper's view of Bell shows that these things can be relative. If the new Calvinists a la Calvinist Baptists are pretty confident they are blessed by God to reshape American evangelicalism then if there's no meaningful threat or competition from the old guard Baptists and the New Perspective is too European in terms of serious adherents to be a problem (and Wright has stepped down from his role as bishop to work on more books anyway), then the new big battle to mobilize the troops can focus around a Mars Hill founded by Rob Bell that could be confused with a Mars Hill founded by Mark Driscoll and two other guys.

Dare we suggest that maybe the fight is not merely about a political struggle to see which version of urban and urbane white Christianity will win but also a public battle over branding issues? It's not impossible, though it is obviously a small part of the fracas. That there are two Mars Hill churches in America in different parts of the country with semi-young pastors who are controversial for not seeming old-fashioned enough suggests that we are living in a small world indeed. I was at the one in Seattle for quite a long time and never had much interest in Bell or his church. I thought that Mars Hill was a bigger deal then I think, ultimately, it will prove to be.

Almost twelve years after first attending I'd say that it went from being an emerging church to a Calvinist Baptist denomination, which is okay, just no longer what I had signed up for. That the other Mars Hill and Rob Bell are being described as drifting back into traditional liberal Protestantism simply reinforces for me that in order for this description to have happened and for Driscoll to be aligned with Piper proves that Driscoll has already functionally lined up as Reformed Baptist in all but denominational affiliation.

Even though there's a lot about American evangelical white culture I can still very much appreciate I am not under the impression that in the history of God's global Church that this is as big a deal as the liberal and conservative white Protestants at contingently hip or influential churches are making it out to be. I'm pretty sure my Orthodox relatives and charismatic relatives have no idea who these people are (well, the Orthodox relatives know who Piper is, for sure, and don't like him. :)