009 Newbigin – Peretti


A year ago I was privileged to take part in a Christian College Coalition “think tank” in Washington, D.C., where some of us spent a weekend interacting with Duke University’s Stanley Hauerwas, a noted theologian. One of the current writers he stressed we should read is Lesslie Newbigin. Six months later, a good friend, ENC’s Academic Dean, Maxine Walker said she’d read Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1989) and insisted I should read it. So I took two scholars’ advice and read, to my profit, this British missionary, who (though he claims not to be a scholar but simply a “pastor and preacher”) insightfully addresses some critical issues.

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society puts in print the lectures Newbigin delivered in Glasgow University in 1988. It calls us, as Christopher Duraisingh states in the book’s foreword, “to renewed confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is an attempt to see ‘how as Christians we can more confidently affirm our faith in the kind of intellectual climate” in which we find ourselves” (p. vii). As Duraisingh continues: “It leads Newbigin to suggest that ‘the Christian story provides us with a set of lenses, not something for us to look at but to look through” (p. viii).

Most of us realize how our pluralistic society demands appropriate thinking and preaching if we’re to reach it with the truth of the Gospel. So Newbigin explores the roots and tenets of religious pluralism, a weltanschauung which insists each person be free to establish his or her own beliefs, asking only that one sincerely hold fast to whatever one values.

Religious pluralism allows no dogma, for “beliefs” reside only in a person’s mind; they’re not true or false, correct or incorrect. As Allen Bloom insisted, in The Closing of the American Mind, relativism and subjectivism flourish wherever “the language of ‘values’ has replaced the language of ‘right’ and ‘wrong'” (p. 17).

Consequently, religious pluralists frequently talk more about “doubt” than “faith.” In the academic world, which has been my milieu for more than 30 years, “doubters” are usually considered more thoughtful, more honest, more admirable than “believers.” To Newbigin, however, the notion that “doubt is somehow more honest than faith, is an entirely irrational prejudice. It is a form of dogmatism which is entirely destructive” (p. 20). And it’s largely absent in the scientific community, which resolutely insists that “facts” can be “known” and publicly tested. Such scientific knowledge, however, is not without its presuppositions, preliminary faith-rooted assumptions concerning the nature of the cosmos and our ability to know it. In fact, as Michael Polanyi (whom Newbigin frequently cites) insists, there is a deeply personal dimension to all knowledge. Thus, Newbigin says, “There are not two separate avenues to understanding, one marked ‘knowledge’ and the other marked ‘faith.’ There is no knowing without believing, and believing is the way to knowing” (p. 33).

This means there is certainty–not absolute certainty, but still certainty–in both scientific and religious knowledge, for both find tradition authoritative. Scientific progress takes place only within the context of an established and respected tradition. It may be challenged and revised, but the tradition clearly stands and exerts considerable authority over scientists. No reputable scientist operates “autonomously.” Careful scientists discount “subjective” views–scientific truth is replicable! In training, good scientists follow Augustine’s phrase, “Credo ut intelligam“–“I believe in order to understand.”

So do good theologians. “When we are received into the Christian community . . . we enter into a tradition which claims authority. It is embodied in the Holy Scriptures and in the continuous history of the interpretation of these Scriptures as they have been translated into 1500 languages and lived out under myriad different circumstances in different ages and places. This tradition, like the scientific tradition, embodies and carries forward certain ways of looking at things, certain models for interpreting experience” (p. 49).

Newbigin insists that Christian theology deals with objective “truth,” not subjective “values.” As such it needs public declaration, discourse, debate. But it must be asserted and defended as “knowledge” dealing with life’s meaning and purpose, with God’s revelation in history.

For the Bible, and the Christian faith, deals with history. Much else is included in Scripture, but essentially it makes clear God’s working out His plan for us and our world in the processes of history. “What is unique about the Bible is the story which it tells, with its climax in the story of the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. If that story is true, then it is unique and also universal in its implications for all human history. It is in fact the true outline of world history . . . ” (p. 97). And we Christians have the privilege of making known to the world God’s ways. For in Christ we find the final “clue to history.”

With a message for mankind one may develop a certain “logic of mission.” In one of the book’s most insightful passages, Newbigin says: “. . . the great missionary proclamations in Acts are not given on the unilateral initiative of the apostles but in response to questions asked by others, questions prompted by the presence of something which calls for explanation. In discussions about the contemporary mission of the Church it is often said that the Church ought to address itself to the real questions which people are asking. That is to misunderstand the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Church. The world’s questions are not the questions which lead to life. What really needs to be said is that where the Church is faithful to its Lord, there the powers of the kingdom are present and people begin to ask the question to which the gospel is the answer” (p. 119).

By being God’s people we will be asked the right questions, questions which demand that we answer them wisely. So living and speaking are part of the mission of the Church–and Newbigin regards “the congregation as hermeneutic of the Gospel.” This raises issues such as contexualization, the singularity of “no other name” as believers encounter other religions, and related topics which Newbigin skillfully addresses.

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society will reward anyone who reads it attentively. It both illuminates some aspects of our allegedly “secular society” (which Newbigin things is largely mythical) and challenges us to take seriously the Gospel’s missionary mandate.

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For several years students have asked me what I think about Frank E. Peretti’s popular novels, This Present Darkness (Wheaton: Crossway Books, c. 1986), and its sequel, Piercing the Darkness (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, c. 1989), so I read them during the recent Christmas vacation.

The title of the first books comes from Ephesians 6:12: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness . . .” (RSV). That of the second comes from John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (RSV). Spiritual warfare, an enduring conflict between demonic and angelic beings which becomes localized in human beings and activities, is both books’ central theme.

This Present Darkness takes place in a small American town, Ashton, which is targeted for takeover by demonic powers. An evil multinational empire, Omni Corporation, has gained control of much of the town and is poised to purchase Whitworth College, its most significant institution. A fundamentalist preacher, Hank Busche, and a few praying folks, plus a courageous newspaper editor, Marshall Hogan (who finds Christ as his personal Savior toward the end) thwart the plot–with the direct and dramatic assistance of multiplied scores of angelic warriors under the skilled military direction of Tal.

The second work, Piercing the Darkness, shares with the first a few common characters (namely Marshall Hogan) and many characteristics: a small town, Bacon’s Corner; a corrupt policeman; a fundamentalist church (whose school is at the center of the plot; a college, Bentwood, which allows demonic influences to flourish; and a central figure, Sally Roe, who through assorted adventures finally finds the Lord. It has some new wrinkles as well: a witches’ coven, satanic rituals, and a generally hostile judicial system.

I’ll not deny you the pleasure of enjoying the books’ suspense and adventure, both of which keep the pages turning, by divulging further details, but I think I’ve indicated the general drift of the two stories. So let me evaluate them.

First some positive notes. The books read well. Peretti knows how to tell a good story, full of suspense and action. Though not necessarily the mark of great literature, I applaud those books which I’m compelled to finish quickly just because I’ve been drawn into the plot and want to follow its unfolding–and I found myself anxious to resume reading these books until I’d finished them. While Peretti’s novels will never be critically acclaimed for their literary artistry, they are, in my opinion, well-crafted mystery stories which are clearly superior to much “Christian” fiction, which too often turns to preaching rather than engaging the imagination.

Secondly, I generally like the portraits Peretti presents of contemporary believers. They’re up-front about their faith, yet they’re not locked into some of the petty legalisms which sometimes serve as stereotypes of true believers. They’re not super-saints, but they’re admirable, credible folks. While I found the books’ plots more engaging than the characters, which lack the psychological or spiritual depth a Dostoevsky would provide, the main characters are credible and easily elicit the reader’s affection and concern.

Thirdly, I applaud Peretti’s effort to take seriously the reality of spiritual warfare, clearly a biblical teaching–and, incidentally, one central to the monastic movement of the Early Church, where monks like St Anthony went to the desert to do battle with the forces of evil. Though few writers can bring it off as did Milton in Paradise Lost or C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, the presence and power of angels and demons deserve our attention.

On these three counts I applaud Peretti’s novels. They’re good fiction–readable, instructive, far better evening fare than most TV programs, even the “Christian” variety. Reasonably mature, theologically balanced believers, will find them enjoyable.

Yet I can’t fully endorse the books. For one thing, they include a sustained (if often muted) judgmentalism, a polemical predisposition which has marred so many of the fundamentalist-modernist battles which have raged within American Protestantism for the past century. Peretti’s “true believers” in This Present Darkness seem localized in the Ashton Community Church; those in Piercing the Darkness in the Good Shepherd Church. Both are independent, fundamentalist, Bible churches. Those attending the Ashton United Christian Church, a clearly “liberal” denominational congregation, whose pastor is part of Omni Corporation’s machinations, appear less than bona fide believers. Those who truly know God, it seems, are magnetically drawn to the “remnant” joined with Pastor Hank Busche and thereby aligned with the angels. Though it’s not a major theme, it’s a judgmental message clearly articulated: only those who share Peretti’s worldview (fundamentalistic; separatistic) deserve to be labeled “Christian.” This message doesn’t appear in Piercing the Darkness, however, since no churches other than The Good Shepherd Community Church play any role in the action.

Both books, however, clearly portray colleges and universities as fertile fields, virtual hothouses, for demonic activities. They both feature professors who are deeply involved in New Age/occult activities and who adversely influence some of the protagonists.

To a degree, I share Peretti’s concern here, for institutions of higher learning, encouraging as they do an elitism which easily degenerates into intellectual pride, certainly cultivate the “secular humanism” and “ethical relativism” which tend to subvert Christian doctrines and standards. Yet I doubt, all things considered, that educational institutions are any more demonic than corporate board rooms or athletic locker rooms . . . or local church board meetings, for that matter!

Still more, one could gather from Peretti that anyone interested in non-Christian religions or concerned with ecological ethics is automatically hand-in-glove with demonic powers. I’ll grant that some occult activities do seem rooted in Oriental religions; some environmentalists have reverted to a pagan reverence for Mother Earth. But consistently linking environmental sensitivity with demonic possession not only strains this reader’s patience but runs counter one of the most basic Christian beliefs: God made and sustains the world He called “good.”

Beyond my discontent with Peretti’s judgmentalism, the second area which concerns me is doctrinal. I’m no authority on “demonology” (a subject discussed in a host of new books, such as Peter Wagner’s Engaging the Enemy: How to Fight and Defeat Territorial Spirits, which apparently argues specific demons have been assigned specific geographical sites, and Wrestling with Dark Angels). But I recently read George Mallone’s Arming for Spiritual Warfare (IVP, 1991), and reacted somewhat the same I did to Peretti.

Despite my lack of either personal experience with or in-depth reading about the subject, Peretti’s lengthy passages describing the various spirit beings and their constant combat, along with a clear portrayal of demonic possession and angelic assistance, leaves me wondering where in Scripture or Church tradition Peretti finds his ideas.

To assert such human maladies as “Despair,” “Fear,” “Gossip, “Adultery,” or “Deception” are in fact demons must be challenged. Without question we’re tempted to do evil things. There’s a demonic dimension to all temptation and sin. But to explicitly equate human weaknesses and sins with specific demons cannot, in my opinion, be allowed.

There’s a certain Manichaeism, a certain Gnosticism, a certain metaphysical dualism, which seeps into such presentations. Down through the centuries orthodox Christians have had to continually struggle to maintain the central affirmations of the Faith: God is good; creation is good; the Incarnation really shows that God entered into this very physical world and assumed a very real human nature.

The very notion that a demon, or demons, can fully enter into and possess a person (as, for example, “Stongman” possesses the main villain, Kaseph, in This Present Darkness, or Amethyst possesses Amber in Piercing the Darkness) runs counter to much traditional theology. For as one of the great spiritual masters, Francisco de Osuna, insists, “in the spiritual nothing except God can penetrate and infuse the essence of something else. Like a light the pierces glass or very clear water, God penetrates and infuses the essence of the soul, or an angel, in such a way that even the soul thus affected does not know how this is accomplished, only that it is done” (The Third Spiritual Alphabet, p. 185). If only God can spiritually indwell the essence of a person, no demon, not even Satan himself, can fully possess a human being. Evil beings may tempt, or influence, but since they are not God they cannot rival his power.

Now Osuna himself asserts: “If you wish to be spiritual you must regard yourself as a spiritual warrior,” (ibid., 202), so he knows the reality of spiritual warfare. He understands that the demonic powers attack us from without, not by entering into our very being. Still more, “As Saint Bernard says, our enemy is weak and can vanquish only the people who wish defeat” (ibid., 203).

In defense of Peretti, Jesus did cast out a multitude of demons from the demoniac on the shores of Lake Galilee. But that seems to me to be an exception, not the rule, both in Jesus’ ministry and in the record of the Early Church.

Just as some Christians err by disbelieving or disregarding Satan and his subordinates, so too others err in believing too much, or too readily, in them. Peretti’s constant references to spirit beings, whose actions regularly impact the very physical world we humans indwell, claim too much, far too much. In time, quite frankly, I just skimmed through the sections detailing the discussions and activities of the two contending spiritual “armies.” To have written as subtly about demonic and angelic activities as they seem to actually be would have made the “supernatural” sections of the book much less dramatically evident–and their treatment more believable.

Rightly read, by folks who allow Peretti latitude to range far afield in his imagination, the “spiritual warfare” passages may be tolerable, if less than artistically satisfying. But some readers–young readers especially–may, in fact, take Peretti as literally as they take Scripture. Thus they’re tempted to see devils in every human failing, demonic possession in every chemical or emotional addiction, and God somehow impotent (except insofar as his saints pray and thus empower angelic beings to slaughter their adversaries).

Still more: whereas C.S. Lewis’ demons, either invisible or appearing as well-manicured stock-broker types, prove credible, Peretti’s, sometimes described as reptiles, insects, or other nefarious animals, sometimes smelling up the place they occupy, removes them to the land of unreality (for this reader, at least).

Those who need to consider the reality of angels and demons, unfortunately, will rarely read this book. Many who do, equally unfortunately, already pin demonic labels on diseases and discouragements, on assorted human failures, and short change both our ability to freely function and God’s prevenient grace, everywhere efficacious in restraining evil and illuminating good.

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