*You can listen to a podcast of Pierre Gilbert’s ideaExchange session by clicking here.
“No one can read this book and remain indifferent. Either the reader will enthusiastically embrace its thesis, be profoundly troubled and challenged by it, or oppose it vehemently.” So says Pierre Gilbert in the closing pages of his book, Demons, Lies and Shadows, published this past year on Kindred Press. While only time will tell if the book might in fact be met with indifference on the part of at least some readers, there is little question that Dr Gilbert’s book will run into opposition from some readers. I think that readers from at least two general circles will find this book problematic, though for very different reasons.
Gilbert’s book is subtitled “A Plea for a Return to Text and Reason,” and I suspect that some will conclude that the author has placed too much weight on reason – maybe on his own very reasonable mind – while others will conclude that ultimately he appeals just a little too immediately to a particular way of reading biblical text. In the former category, there will be those formed in the various pentecostal and charismatic schools of thought for whom Gilbert’s position will represent a dramatic – perhaps even dangerous – minimizing of the role, power and destructive potential of the demonic. In the latter, there will be those whose thought has been formed in the liberal tradition of the modern west (including not only secular folks, but also Christians whose faith has been shaped by a liberal theological tradition of a great deal more depth and nuance than is often thought by those from the more evangelical side of things) who will conclude that Gilbert’s insistence on the literal existence of demonic entities is simply not defensible in the 21st Century.
While it may be a truism to say that if you’re receiving opposition from all sides you must be doing something right, in the case of Gilbert’s book it does hold some weight. He treats the biblical text with the respect one should be able to expect from a solidly evangelical scholar, and as is the case in the best of that theological tradition, his work is careful, reflective and reasoned. He does not rely on the sources of any single school of thought on his subject, but rather has read widely and deeply in this field of enquiry.
One of the more helpful insights in this book is Gilbert’s critique of the “demonic warfare” approach; an approach which has a great deal of currency in much of North American evangelical church culture. For Gilbert, this approach, which has been developed by such well placed and influential leaders as C. Peter Wagner of Fuller Seminary, and which has been popularized in the novels Frank Peretti and in the best-selling Left Behind series, has more in common with the animist and occult world-view of ancient Mesopotamia than it does with the world-view of the biblical landscape.
Dr Gilbert understands the creation narratives of Genesis 1-3 as containing what he calls “the blueprint of a biblical world-view.” His treatment of these texts is sophisticated and reasoned, as he remains steadfastly disinterested in the questions of the mechanics of how things came to be, focusing instead on the theological and spiritual proclamation that God has created, and that the created order is named as good. In terms of how these narratives address the question of demons and magic, Gilbert could hardly be more clear:
By emptying the physical universe of its deities, the author destroyed the very existence of magical power and the possibility of manipulating it. It was a way of declaring: “A piece of wood is just a piece of wood!” No gods… no magic! (p. 57)
Yet Gilbert wonders if the world-view which informs much of the “demonic warfare” model is in fact one which includes a great deal of magic, sub-deities, personal and psychic manipulation, and a fairly thorough skepticism about the “goodness” of the very creation itself. In other words, at the heart of his critique of that model is a set of theological convictions regarding the nature and character of God and creation.
Still, he does pay close attention to the texts which suggest that the church cannot be indifferent to the reality of the demonic order. “Demons are real,” he writes,
…but their reality is mere illusion in the presence of the absolute reality of God. Real power and substance can only be derived from God. Outside of him, there can only be a mere whisper of reality. By virtue of their rebellious position, demons can only exhibit an infinitesimal degree of reality and substance. This is not to say these evil entities are harmless. The New Testament and human experience attest that under certain conditions, they can be extremely destructive, particularly when they are given the opportunity to wield their only power: the power of persuasion. (pp. 135-36)
Persuasion, of course, implies that there is real freedom and real choice; that the human will is such that it can be persuaded or not persuaded, as the case may be. For Gilbert, one of the worst things that we can do is to off-load our freedom and our will onto some overwhelmingly powerful demonic sphere. In short, to say that “the devil made me do it” is indefensible theologically. To cite Gilbert at some length:
By now it should be perfectly clear to my readers that the relationship between the demonic and human spheres cannot be defined by occult or magical categories. There is no biblical foundation to believe that objects can transfer evil spirits or that there is any objective reality to occult and New Age powers. We simply can’t catch demons the way we catch a cold. (p. 118)
I reiterate my conviction that demons have no supernatural powers they can bring to bear on individual human beings to force them to act against their will. (p. 119)
Close to twenty years ago now, I was working as the chaplain at an adolescent treatment centre when we began to face a season in which a number of our residents claimed that they were Satanists or into witchcraft. At the same time, there was a fairly significant buzz going around the child welfare system about “Satanic sexual abuse,” so people were pretty much wired to get concerned. As it turned out, the abuse buzz had been fueled by a single document, which had been faxed from a large American police department to other police departments and child welfare offices across the continent. Sadly, that document drew heavily on the writings of someone claiming to be an ex-Satanic high priest, and who was later entirely discredited as a fraud. In our own treatment centre, a number of my staff colleagues managed to get worked up into quite a frenzy over this purported occult involvement, and at the time I noted that the staff most likely to go that route were either people formed in the “demonic warfare” wing of the church or people with little or no active faith involvement. My counsel at the time was to not overreact or even give credibility to the increasingly gruesome stories our residents were presenting us with unless there was a concrete disclosure of a specific criminal activity or instance of child abuse.
I relate this here in part to offer anecdotal support to Gilbert’s thesis that the demonic has only the power that is freely given it, but also to offer the observation that in some sense no one is more vulnerable to misdirected occult beliefs than those who have no broader theological framework from within which to understand these matters. Those otherwise secular and non-religious staff members were the quickest to go into something of a panic, and there was little doubt that the panic was fuelled by both fear and a morbid interest. It is to this end that Gilbert offers G.K. Chesterton’s wise observation that “When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.”( p. 145) Dr Gilbert is unflinching in his conviction that the answer to these questions of evil and the demonic is not simply to become increasingly secular in our world-view, but rather to be rooted in a thoroughgoing theological proclamation that unflinchingly says it is all an empty lie and illusion.
There are some things about the book that I wish might have been done differently, most notably around the introductory chapter. The first few pages left me entirely unclear as to where Gilbert was headed with his project, and at times I felt like it was slipping into becoming a bit of a catalogue of moral outrages committed through the influence of a very crafty, very personal, devil. As the chapter moved along, I began to get a better sense of why he might have launched out that way, but on the whole I think that with only minor changes the closing short chapter, “A Few Final and Sobering Words,” might have served as a more effective introduction. That is really a minor quibble over matters indifferent, and so doesn’t compromise the value of the book.
So, do I embrace the book’s thesis, or am I among those who feel opposed to it? I think probably “stretched” and “challenged” would be the more apt descriptors. I am left with a number of questions, and in particular I wonder whether his almost exclusive reliance on the creation texts of Genesis 1-3 as the basis for a “biblical world-view” isn’t a bit of an stretch. The biblical witness preserves any number of “witnesses,” whose writings emerge over a period of more than a 1000 years. There are, it could be argued, various “world-views” at work – or at the very least a very gradual emergence of the world-view that is at work by the time of the New Testament – and so I wonder if the setting out of those creation narratives as the defining texts for discussions around world-view is not without problems.
Still, his presentation is a solidly helpful one for anyone who might bump up against these questions, and I would commend it as a valuable contribution in what can be a very difficult conversation.