Years ago, Marilyn and I had a young North American atheist stay at our home. He had just returned from a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in a remote village in the jungles of Indonesia. He left and returned to the United States as an atheist. But his experiences in the Indonesian bush changed him. I will never forget what he told me: “I still do not believe in God. But after my experience in Indonesia, I will never doubt that Satan and the demonic realms are real.”
He was half right: Satan is indeed real. And in some cultures, Satan and his activity are more recognizable.
Tanya Marie Luhrmanna, professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God, has written a provocative article for the New York Times Sunday Review titled “When Demons Are Real.” Although Dr. Luhrmann does not mention Satan per se, she contrasts the American and the African Evangelical/Charismatic understanding of the demonic:
To be in Africa is to encounter a God different from that of a charismatic church in the United States. People say that the boundary between the supernatural and the natural is thinner there. Certainly religion is everywhere — churches and church billboards seem to be on every street — and atheists are few. American evangelicals often say that faith is more intense in Africa. There is something to this. Compared with Ghanaian charismatic Christianity, American Christianity can seem like soggy toast.
In contrast, the American evangelical church is more subdued:
In many American evangelical churches, people will tell you that demons are real, but they do not treat them as particularly salient. Demons don’t come up in Sunday morning sermons, and for the most part people don’t pray about demonic oppression. Their encounters with supernatural evil were like the ghost stories I heard at summer camp: more exciting than terrifying.
May I suggest that the two different experiences are related to the contrasting underlying worldviews of Western and African societies. The church in America and the West lives in the cultural climate of naturalism. This tempers the West’s religious experience and mutes the experiential impact of Satan, of the spiritual and demonic realms. The modern world largely sees the concept of a spiritual order—God, Satan, angels and demons—as ancient mythology. Moderns “know better” than to believe in such beings. This thinking puts a damper on Western Christians experiencing and expressing the reality of the spiritual realm. This, I think, is what Luhrmann means when she compares the American Christian experience to “soggy toast.”
But a very different worldview has shaped the African mind. Africa’s traditional religions are largely animistic. Animism sees the world inhabited by spirits. The demonic is real, evidence of Satan is everywhere present. This is reflected in what Luhrmann writes about.
My dear friend and co-laborer from Ghana, Mr. Chris Ampadu, wrote in response to the Luhmann article:
This indeed is interesting and yet very true concerning the church in Ghana and West Africa. Around my house, we now have over ten churches that hold all-night prayer meetings. The noise is unbearable, and even illegal. But if you dare report them to the police, you become an enemy sponsored by the demons and these Christians will start to wage spiritual warfare on your very being. Demons and witches are everywhere and normal prayers are unknown; all prayers are spiritual warfare.
Two years ago, after a Samaritan Strategy Vision Conference, a very prominent president of a very large denomination in the Ivory Coast came to me and asked after the teaching of ABC’s of Culture “How then should we pray now if Satan is a conquered foe since this is our only way of prayers?” Churches in my country have become Satan’s tool of leading many astray. Almost all the churches are following this line of ministry. Those who don’t are regarded as unspiritual, their pastors are considered to be without anointing, without power, without followers, and useless.
These “animist churches” are growing rapidly across sub-Sahara Africa because their message of demonic powers and witches’ treachery are seen as relevant to the daily life of the African. This is easily understood in view of African Traditional Religion in which belief in spiritual beings and powers are central. These powers are in the kitchen, in the marriage, on the farm, in the rivers and lakes, in businesses, diseases, disappointments, mismanagement behaviors, corruption. Even very simple mistakes people make every day are often attributed to demons. In the African mind the spirits are everywhere.
The consequences are ignorance and belief in Satan’s lies. Only the truth can set people free but sometimes l wonder if even some so-called Christian pastors, prophets, and bishops are interested in knowing the truth. The wholistic transformational message of the Samaritan Strategy, Africa is surely needed in this environment, but we face many inhibitions and limitations to its total emergence. Yet we know God is our Helper.
C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. 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 a magician with the same delight.”
It seems that the American (Western) church and the African church reflect the two ends of this spectrum.
People who come to Christ must have their minds renewed. Western Christians must throw off their materialistic mind and African Christians must repent of their animistic mind. Satan is real. But Christ defeated Satan at the cross (Col. 2:15). Christ is our unconquerable king. Satan is a defeated enemy and is in retreat. We need to acknowledge the existence of Satan, but his power is diminished. We must avoid a fixation on Satan. Such obsession is unhealthy and results in a poverty of life and service to Jesus Christ.
- Darrow Miller