THE RETREAT FROM RELIGION TO SORCERY
by Robert M. Price
Today's television preachers have come in for their fair share of ridicule and criticism, much of it because of their moral hypocrisy (as with Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart) or their cynical and greedy approach to the "ministry" as a way of ministering to their own bank accounts.1 While these unsavory aspects of the media evangelists merit every bit of scrutiny they have received, I believe we are in danger of neglecting the most crucial criticism, the one we would still have to level if none of them were hypocrites and hucksters: the charge that will still be appropriate if the electronic churchmen ever do clean up their acts. And that is that their brand of Christianity represents a backsliding even from traditional fundamentalism, a devolution from religion, however simpleminded, to magic pure and simple. If the TV antics of Jimmy Swaggart have ever struck the reader as being more than a little reminiscent of those of a prancing witchdoctor, this is more than coincidence. In what follows I hope to show that on the more lurid fringes of contemporary Pentecostal and Charismatic movements we are witnessing a retreat from religion to sorcery.
"Magic" is a rather ambiguous term, conjuring up various associations, from the romantic spark of infatuation to the dark orgies of Satanism. Here I will be utilizing the classic definition of the anthropologist Sir James Frazer. In his theory about the origins of religion, Frazer hypothesized that humanity's first ritual dealings with the supernatural were strictly businesslike. The human suppliant performed the requisite sacrifice or chant, and the god (or demon or deva or ancestor) must "come through" with the desired blessing, usually a material one. One must indeed beware of the numinous power which might resent its binding and use by puny humans, and lash out if one were not careful. But at this stage there was no real worship. One was careful to avoid offending the god, but there was no thought that immoral conduct might offend him. It was pure business, though potentially dangerous business, rather like dealing with the Mob. The believer in magic did not bother to purify his heart before going up to the Temple of the Lord; he merely made sure he carried with him a long spoon to dine with the devil.
The important thing to see is that what distinguishes magic from religion is that the former is simply a matter of the manipulation of supernatural power for selfish ends, and involves no real element of either adoration or morality. Frazer felt that these elements belonged only to a later stage of social development, that of religious faith. Whatever one thinks of this schema as a theory of the origin of religion, the typological value of it should be clear. That is, the categories of "magic" and "religion" set forth here do seem to fit the phenomena as we find them today in human behavior toward the supernatural. I will adopt these categories as conceptual tools for the present analysis. Before applying the concept of magic to fringe Pentecostalism, let me make one further clarification. I will not be considering the question of whether Pentecostal belief in the supernatural and miraculous is itself superstitious in nature, but this article will concern only the differences between magic and religion as categories within the larger belief in supernaturalism.2
Are there magical elements in the Charismatic-Pentecostal movement today? Indeed, there seem to be. And though they are most obviously to be found in rather extreme elements of the movement, they are not restricted to the fringes, and their implications are wider still. At any rate, the most obvious practice of "charis-magic" occurs in the "prosperity gospel" circles of Kenneth Copeland, Jim Bakker, and elements of the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship International. On the basis of various sections of scripture, leaders in this movement insist that God wants his children, the "King's kids,”3 to live it up! One of the main sources of this message seems to be certain alleged "promises" of God which the believer is to appropriate. Here we can see magical bargaining pure and simple. The magician wants material benefits and intends to get them. Norvell Hayes shamelessly advises women to ask God for closets full of new clothes.4 Kenneth Hagin exhorts hearers to have "Cadillac faith," since only those of little faith will be satisfied with a Buick!5
The suppliant won't take "no" for an answer. One often hears in such quarters the confident affirmation: "I demand so-and-so from God!" While this passes for simply a strengthened version of the pious idiom "claiming the promises," it thinly veils the speaker's claim to have bound God's power like that of a familiar spirit. One almost expects to hear "I say 'jump!' and God says' How high?'!"
And how does the pray-er dare to push God around in this manner? Of course, he is only claiming those scriptural promises. The favorites are Mark 11:24, "I tell you, then, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours" (NEB) and 3 John 2, "I pray that you may prosper even as your soul prospers." It means nothing to the charismagus that these texts are taken out of context; they are simply incantatory formulae, power-words that pulse with occult energy simply by virtue of their presence in a magic book. The Bible is reduced to the level of The Seventh Book of Moses or the Necronomicon. "Nay, but I have you now! / For such a-hybrid brood of hell, / the Key of Solomon will serve me well." (Goethe's Faust).6
While the preternatural powers of charismagic are purportedly available to all, it is no real surprise that certain adepts hold center stage. In terms of primitive magical societies such people are called "shamans." They are better known to Westerners as "witch-doctors" or "medicine-men." This movement has no dearth of them. I will briefly review five shamanistic traits shared conspicuously by Pentecostal practitioners.
First, the shaman receives both his vocation and his powers by virtue of a visionary journey to the world of spirits/ancestors. This experience may even be conceived of as a temporary death. It is hardly exceptional to point out that most of the charismagicians have had similar "calling" experiences, since the role of such visions in prophetic and millenarian religion is well known. But it is worth mentioning that Kenneth Hagin, for instance, puts great stock in a series of personal visions, the commencement of which was a youthful deathbed experience of descending three times into hell!7 Here we have a remarkably close parallel to the shamanistic journey to the realm of the dead.
Second, the shaman is equipped for his task with a clothing of elemental power, known generically as "mana." This mana is roughly equivalent to "the Force" in the movie Star Wars. Though any individual may accumulate mana (and so good fortune and prosperity), the shaman is endowed with it to a singular degree. He radiates the life-force. To use Kenneth Hagin as an example once again, he presents himself as eradicating disease virtually by his mere presence. He recalls a trip with a diabetic friend. "I told him, 'You won't register any sugar as long as you're with me!"8 Similarly, one need only call to mind the endless offers of "healing handkerchiefs," or appeals to "put your hand on the radio." Oral Roberts may defend these phenomena as mere psychological "points of contact," but it is clear what impression is given the believer; the mana possessed by the healer is so great that it attaches even to material objects designated by him!
Third, the medicine-man is endowed with specific abilities to serve the community. Prominent among them is rain-making, or the ability to control weather. While it is rather common for Pentecostals and other Evangelicals to attempt to control the elements via prayer ("Lord, give us a good day for this rally."), the claims of the Charismatic leaders can be quite dramatic. Franklin Hall writes of past victories, how "five times the author commanded it to stop raining during the time people came to services in the evening. On May 20 [for example], within five minutes the heavens quit raining as commanded.... In nearly every city we come to we find it necessary to do something about the elements. If it is too cold, we command the temperature to rise. If it is too hot, the temperature must come down."9 A hagiographic booklet collecting some miracles of faith-healer William Branham recounts how "In Germany he confounded the witch doctors who came out in force to frustrate his ministry. They actually succeeded in bringing a huge black cloud over the tent which with tornadic force would rip it to shreds. Brother Branham stepped on the platform and in Jesus' Name the cloud was instantly dispersed and the sun shone through."10
Fourth, the shaman can work woe as well as weal, casting hexes and curses. We are not far from such voodoo when Kenneth Hagin claims "You can actually exercise authority over others as long as they are in your presence.... When folks in my family get excessively angry, I just take authority over it. They know when I do because they look at me with a startled expression."11 More obviously punitive measures include the abrupt silencing of an antiglossolalic speaker by a "Full Gospel pastor" of Hagin's acquaintance.12 Similarly, Franklin Hall recounts the destruction by tornado of a town which had rejected his preaching of the "gravity-free Christalujah Power" and the" Fire-and-cloud space flight ministry."13
A garage mechanic made sport of William Branham, but "Before he could get to his own garage, his own son-in-law, backing out of the door with his truck full of scrap iron, struck him, crushing both his feet and ankles.11 A similarly hostile woman, on leaving a Branham meeting,” stumbled over a board, and falling to the ground, she broke her arm in fifteen places.” Recalling those who made excuses not to attend the Great Supper, one man rebuffed Branham's invitation to attend a revival: “We are too busy to go to any revival; we raise chickens and haven't time for anything like that.' However, shortly after that, this man died, so he didn't raise any more chickens.”14
Fifth, the shaman is to function as the intermediary between mortals and the supernatural realm. His intercession with gods is necessarily more effective than ordinary prayers. And along the same lines, we find Rex Humbard inviting his viewers to send him their prayer-requests which he will take to the foot of the Cross itself in Jerusalem. Or Oral Roberts will do the same at his Oklahoma “Prayer Tower.” In each case the implicit logic is that the shaman’s prayers have a greater chance of compelling an otherwise reluctant divinity to act, and all the more so as he takes the prayer requests to the sacred “axis mundi” (Golgotha or the Prayer Tower) linking heaven and earth.15 Here is the portal through which prayers may ascend before the gods. This is, I believe, no mere analogy.
I have been concentrating on the leaders of the Pentecostal fringe, but as already anticipated, much of the same superstitious framework is relevant to their many adherents. They, too, are told to partake of the various occult powers, though one suspects that the leaders function vicariously in this respect. That is, most of their fans never personally experience such spectacles, but their faith is buttressed by the fact that at least someone does. As long as the shaman himself performs miracles, then the believer's faith in the miraculous is confirmed.
But there is in the everyday lives of fringe Charismatics (and some not so fringe) quite a dose of the primitive. The worldview inculcated by much popular charismatic teaching and literature is essentially magical. For instance, Merlin Carothers teaches about a world wherein quite literally every piece of soggy toast, every stolen parking space, every headache is a sign from God to the believer.16 This kind of worldview is aptly described (with reference to actual cultural primitives) by anthropologist Mary Douglas:
The cosmos is turned in, as it were, on man. Its transforming energy is threaded onto the lives of individuals so that nothing happens in the way of storms, sickness, blights or droughts except in virtue of these personal links. So the universe is man-centered in the sense that it must be interpreted in reference to humans.17
And how is such "interpretation" practiced in the world of Carothers? There are two ways. First, with Bill Gothard and almost all other fundamentalists, he suggests one examine apparently fortuitous events to divine the will of God. What is he trying to tell me?18 In another culture, the believer might read the flight of geese or the entrails of chickens, but charismagician Merlin and his brethren advise us to read flat tires and collapsing chairs. And, secondly, if the divinely prescribed situation is a really dire one (illness, financial straits, etc.) one may avert divine pressure by the device of formulary "praise." The clear tendency of the anecdotes given by Carothers is to lead his readers to believe that if one praises God for the trials, God will relent.
The stated rationale is that God will then have seen that the believer has learned his lesson of humble submission, and will call off the calamities. Though on some level all this is no doubt sincerely meant, it is impossible to miss the plainly magical character of the whole schema. It is as if one manipulates, even outwits, the plaguing divinity by the requisite magic words, "Oh, praise you Lord for this cancer!" Brer Rabbit had the same idea when he begged to be thrown into the briar patch.
Not all events are thought to be initiated by God (though in light of the above, this seems inconsistent). There are also evil spirits to be reckoned with. I will leave aside the obvious shamanistic elements in the "Deliverance Ministry"19 and instead refer to the practice of "binding the demons.” An illustration comes to us from the pages of TV Guide. There born-again musical celebrity Pat Boone describes how he sought to stop his daughter’s backsliding by tacking up a picture of Jesus among the rock star posters in her room. Then he walked around the room "binding the demons.” One may wonder if he had a headdress and a feathered rattle with him.
In the same vein, it is rather unsettling to see the ease with which Evangelical missionaries assimilate the animistic paganism encountered in the field into the categories of their own belief. They do not doubt the reality of the tribal god N’kangu; they merely preach that their god Jesus is stronger, able to protect converts with greater spirit-power.
Domestically, one can notice an equivalent phenomenon in the late-night gatherings of fundamentalist young people, trading secondhand stories of demon-possession. Though of course they believe in the factuality of these hair-raising reports (compiled for instance in Demon Experiences in Many Lands),20 the scene is much the same as the old game of swapping ghost-stories around the campfire. When one person piously terminates the session, saying "Listen, we're really glorifying Satan by talking about him like this; let's talk about the Lord instead, “the meaning in plain English is: “Hey, no more ghost stories! I’m too scared to walk back to my tent as it is!"
In my comparison of extremist Pentecostalism with classical magic, I hope to have made certain puzzling aspects of the movement more understandable. And, all of it taken together should help explain one more interesting fact.
Why is it that fringe Pentecostalism has to deal seriously with admitted magic and “witchcraft” in its own ranks, especially in inner-city areas? The answer is that it is a family argument. The two are close enough to throw stones. Suburban Assemblies of God believers may disdain black magic or palmistry as a rather theoretical pitfall from which they hope to see “hippies” and others converted. But the fringe Pentecostals must actively fight against adherence to pagan witchcraft in their own midst.21 James Rector chides “superstitious saints” with these words: “Some Church Folks are so Superstitious that they won't walk under a ladder.... They wear Root Bags, and Rabbit's Feet.” But “if they had the HOLY GHOST in their Life, they would not be Afraid or SUPERSTITIOUS!”22 But one does not wonder that such beliefs would tempt the followers of Reverend Rector who goes on to tell of his experiences with “The Snake Woman,” “The Spider Woman,” and “The Demon on the Bridge”!23 This minister fulminates against “root-bags” and amulets, but distributes blessed crosses and vials of anointing oil. In effect, his message is “Your superstition is false, but my superstition is true!” One is the mirror image of the other, and it is easy for fringe Pentecostals to step “through the looking glass.”
1 James Randi, The Faith Healers (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1987), especially chapters 4, 8, 9.
2 Many Pentecostals themselves bemoan the peculiarities we are discussing. For example, see Gordon D. Fee, The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels (Costa Mesa, California: The Word for Today, 1979).
3 See Harold Hill’s regrettable books, e.g., Instant Answers for King's Kids in Training (Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos International, 1978).
4. Sermon attended by this writer in Montclair, New Jersey, 1978
5 Kenneth Hagin, “Practicing Faith” (Los Angeles: Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship (tape).
6 Goethe, Faust (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 72.
7 Kenneth Hagin, I Believe in Visions (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1972), pp. 9ff.
8 Kenneth Hagin, Authority of the Believer (Tulsa, .oklahoma: Kenneth Hagin Evangelistic Association, 1975), p. 29. .
9 Franklin Hall, Subduing the Earth, Controlling the Elements and Ruling the Nations with Jesus Christ (Copyright, Franklin Hall, 1966), p. 43.
10 Twentieth Century Prophet, The Messenger to the Laodicean Church Age (Jeffersonville, Indiana: Spoken Word Publications, n.d.), p. 43.
11 Kenneth Hagin, Authority of the Believer, p. 30.
12 Ibid., p. 31.
13 This nomenclature is “explained” in Hall's Miracle Word Magazine, Spring 1979.
14 Twentieth Century Prophet, pp. 46-47.
15 See Mircea Eliade's discussion of "sacred space" in The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1959), pp. 20ff.
16 Merlin Carothers, Prison to Praise (Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos International, 1971), p. 66; and Bringing Heaven into Hell (Old Tappan: New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1976), p. 90.
17 Mary Douglas, “Primitive Thought-Worlds,” in Roland Robertson (ed.), Sociology of Religion (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), pp. 79-99.
18 Bill Gothard, Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (syllabus) n.p.
19 Robert M. Price, “Devil's Advocates: The New Charismatic Demonology,” Agora, Spring 1980). Like primitive shamans, the Deliverancy Ministry attributes severe problems and illnesses to evil spirits who may be expelled with the proper incantations.
20 Demon Experiences in Many Lands: a Compilation (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972).
21 One informant, a member of R. W. Shambach's Miracle Temple in Newark, New Jersey, speaks of constant accusations and admissions of "witchcraft” among the members. These charges may be confirmed by means such as seeing ectoplasmic snakes hovering over the heads of the culprits!
22 James Rector, Demons, Witches and Warlocks (Cincinnati: The United Christian Fellowship of America, n. d.), p. 6. [Rector's capitalization and grammar.]
23 Ibid., p. 9.