Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Bible-land Weird Stuff

I am preaching this Sunday from Mark 5:1-20, an account of Jesus’ encounter with a man often referred to as the “Gerasene demoniac” (he is from “the country of the Gerasenes” and he has an “unclean spirit” – the NIV translation “evil spirit” is unfortunate). It is an eerie and complex story which demands that we do more than just acknowledge Jesus’ power in healing him, though that is an essential message of the passage. We are also invited to consider the spiritual underworld, if you will, and what modern analogues to this man’s predicament we might identify.

And that is difficult because this man is “on the edge.” Mark uses graphic language to paint a picture of someone we would be hard pressed to ever encounter outside a sanitarium or an Oakland Raiders game (pardon the redundancy). The point is that no one, not even this tormented man, is beyond the reach of Jesus’ spiritual authority and tender mercy. But if we leave it at that we miss a lot.

Christians through the ages have differed widely (gee, there’s a surprise) in how they interpret the maladies that afflict people in the gospel stories. For instance, in Mark 9 a father has a son who “has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid…” This sounds like what we in modern times call an epileptic seizure, but since this knowledge and diagnosis was not available to people in the first century, the boy’s condition was attributed to a “spirit.” Employing this line of reasoning, the Gerasene demoniac’s behavior bears much resemblance to an acute schizophrenic condition.

But here’s the rub: these facile explanations, while perhaps sufficient in some instances, fail to take into account the seriousness of the spiritual warfare to which the New Testament frequently refers. Unless one explains this away by attributing it to a pre-Enlightenment cosmology, a kind of ancient folklore, we are left with the question, “What do we do with the reality of spiritual forces in the world which contend against God’s purposes?”

C.S. Lewis, in his classic book about spiritual warfare, The Screwtape Letters, notes that “There are two equal and opposite errors into which people can fall about the devils (demons). One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.”

In my old age I am becoming, in some ways, more “fundamental” in my interpretation of the Bible. Which is to say that more and more I am dismissing the standard metaphorical explanations based on our superior modern understanding and considering how often the Scriptures speak very directly to our modern circumstances, thank you very much. So, for instance, when Jesus talks about the danger of riches, he means just that. And when the gospels mention “unclean spirits” and “demons” I don’t need to explain those away; I need to identify, understand, and confront them in my life. It’s too easy to dismiss them as “Bibleland weird stuff”


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12:04 AM  

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