On the need to understand the gospel

Here is a confession. I struggle with some of the language used around the gospel.
(OK, not much of a confession)

So I came across the above image on Twitter, with the tag-line “Believe on the Son for everlasting life”.

Now before going further, I should clarify, I think this is true. I do think that if we believe in the Son then we have everlasting life (I’d rather say eternal life – everlasting is a bit too much of a Protestant emphasis for me).

What challenges me is that, whether it is simply a matter of temperament or philosophical training (I feel like an honourary Missourian) – I really need to know the answer to the question ‘why?’ In other words, why believe on the Son? How does it work? What am I being saved from? (As Florence sings: He died for what?)

The thing is, there is an answer to that question. Jesus died to save the world from the power of the evil one. Salvation is to be set free from the fear of death and those who resort to the fear of death to get their way, ie the prince of this world and all those who conform to the ways of the world. To believe in Christ is to know a peace that this world cannot give – and so on and so forth.

There IS an answer to my questions in other words. It’s just that I find those answers more compelling than ‘believe in Jesus!’ – however true I also think that to be.

Such are my musings this day.

Inner turmoil

I am in a weird place at the moment.

I haven’t been well – and am still not right – I suspect that after three years of avoiding it I have finally had a dose of Covid. My immune system seems to be ‘cycling’ several times a day, which is why at first I thought it was allergic (gluten or dust or feathers or what-have-you) but it has been nearly three weeks now. I seem to only have about half of my normal energy.

Also, though, and what is taking up much of my attention at the moment, is the situation in Israel and, even more, the protests in London celebrating Hamas (and I think that is a fair description). I’ve thought a lot about Islam in the last couple of decades. I did some academic study of it in Cambridge, and then in my curacy I was in a Muslim majority area at the time of 9/11, and that was rather formative for me. There is a heart of darkness there, and when I ponder it I start to worry that I’m Islamophobic. “What can men do against such reckless hate?”

We are facing a fundamentally spiritual crisis and – channelling MacIntyre – it is our unawareness of the nature of the problem that is the most important part of the problem. Secular thinking has run aground, the only question is what will take its place.

Such horror.

The divine circumlocutions

Can’t quite believe that it has been two months since my last post here… but then, I know what I’m like. So no reckless promises.

I continue to find much that is worth spiritually reflecting on with McGilchrist, in particular about the way that language works (which I think might be an un-teased-out confusion in TMWT). Yet it has been helpful in refreshing my appreciation for the way in which G-d cannot be captured in words, that the divine name cannot be spoken and so on. We use language to grasp – and God is forever ungraspable. For me, I find it useful to use an abundance of words (ie be cataphatic), the collection of which I think of as ‘the divine circumlocutions’.

So I feel happy to use the following expressions: the divine, the Lord, the creator, God, Father, the source, the Word, the logos, the holy. None of them can finally capture the reality for reality cannot be captured in words, it can only be pointed to.

We really need to recover this understanding; it’s at the root of what has gone wrong. But that’s a story I’ll tell on the substack.

For now it is enough to say “hallowed by your name” – hallowed, treated as holy, as set apart, as not a thing like other things – to use the divine circumlocutions with an awareness that in the end, “I am unworthy — how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer — twice, but I will say no more.”

All that music has meant

Possibly my favourite Wittgenstein remark (of at least 20 contenders for that title): “It has been impossible for me to say one word in my writing about all that music has meant to me in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?” (that’s from memory, so may not be word perfect)

I feel the same way, always have. Yet one of the wonders about McGilchrist’s work (I’ll be referring to him a lot this year) is that it provides a way of getting a handle on what is going on. Put simply the form of attention that we give to music is an attention rooted in the right hemisphere, whereas the critical thinking about it is rooted in the left hemisphere.

I think there is a moment in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where Pirsig is discussing jazz and gets told ‘man, if you have to ask the question you won’t understand the answer’.

So music for me – and, more broadly, poetry, humour, fantasy, immersion in nature, also worship (liturgy) when it is done right – all these are ways of immersing myself into the more deeply human forms of life; or, to phrase that from the opposite side, they are ways of escaping the tyranny of the discursive, detached, verbal intellect, the left-hemisphere forms of attention.

In a word, music is a major part of how I pray, how I bring balance to my emotional life. Whereof one cannot speak 😉

I don’t listen to classical music half as much as I used to, although I expect that to change back again over time. I discover that I really enjoy jazz, and I really, really enjoy live music. At the moment I am discovering the band James – one of their songs will be written up as the ‘song of my sabbatical’ in a few weeks time – but this one is rather good, with a very clever video:

Of deserving and thanksgiving

I watched the TV series Yellowstone earlier this year and was very struck by a moment in season 4 involving my favourite character, Rip Wheeler. Rip has been effectively adopted by the family that owns the ranch, coming from his own traumatic family background. Over time he becomes the real lynchpin for the running of the ranch. There comes a point when his wife has brought in a ‘stray’ – another boy, Carter, also running from a broken down situation. When Carter asks Rip how he managed to not just survive but thrive in the environment of the ranch (something that Carter is struggling with) Rip says, “Don’t think you deserve it. You don’t deserve it. And you never will.”

I like this because there is a real Holy Spirit about it. I’m not suggesting that Rip is a Christian – those familiar with the programme will know why not – but because this spirit of acceptance, of not taking things for granted, of not feeling entitled, seems to me to be exactly how we are to live as Christians within the world; and this, not in response to a soul-crushing ‘ought’ but as the means, the only means, by which we can discover joy in the world.

What I mean is this: it’s all a gift. In the end we either accept the ticket (Dostoyevsky) or we reject it. If we reject it we are expressing a sense of entitlement, an entitlement which brings forth cynicism and bitterness when reality doesn’t co-operate with our expectations. If, instead, we expect nothing we can be grateful for whatever comes, we fundamentally say ‘yes’ to our existence, a ‘yes, thank you’. On such a basis life becomes the vessel and vehicle for authentic life.

Barth famously said ‘gratitude follows grace as thunder follows lightning’. I want to cultivate my sense of gratitude as the appropriate response to the presence of grace in my life. I hope that it will counter the cynicism and bitterness and despair into which I sometimes sink.
So I might start including the general thanksgiving prayer with compline each night, which runs like this:

ALMIGHTY God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

Amen

Spiritual journalling

My writing output here has, in the last few years, declined to almost nothing. I put that down mostly to being depressed since 2009 or so (and that depression fed into further trauma which made more depression and so on). Yet I’ve been moving in the right direction for a few years now and this sabbatical has really accelerated that process. I feel able to write again.

I am on substack here and I plan to use that avenue for work-related, ‘public’ writing – so material related to my PhD research, church issues, and commentary on cultural collapse. (Some of the PhD work can’t be published yet, but when it can be it will go there).

Here I plan to resume my spiritual journalling, as I think that will help me emerge from my long melancholic slumber; hopefully it will also allow me to be more gracious in my writing as a whole.
I am minded to try and write something every day, sometimes – often! – something very short, but we shall see how it goes. There will be a little cross-posting with the substack, but not much.

For now, here is a picture, which I think is a fair representation of where I am ?

LLF: a left brain car crash

In my studies I am starting to think about Iain McGilchrist’s work, and I have begun to work my way through his ‘The Master and His Emissary’, which is an exploration of the different functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and the impact this has had upon our culture. There is a good Youtube explanation of his work here.

Some of his comments seem especially pertinent when considering the Anglican predicament of our time. Put simply the left brain seeks certainty and order, using existing knowledge – think of a chess board, or a machine – whereas the right brain is all about meaning and relationships, ie how to discern the context in which something is understood. Where there is right brain damage then a person loses the capacity to ‘get’ a joke, to empathise with others, to understand their relationship with a wider whole.

What we have in this culmination of the LLF process at General Synod is, it seems to me, the product of two groups captivated by a left-brain dominant approach to the question at issue. On the one side we have the mechanic logic of ‘the bible says it, I believe it, that’s the end of it’ – no subtlety or nuance there. Yet on the other an equally secular and mechanical process of ‘equality and rights you bigot’. Each has an internally consistent and complete world-view, which clashes fundamentally with the other. As McGilchrist puts it (p82 of my edition): “So the left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right. The right hemisphere makes it possible to hold several ambiguous possibilities in suspension together without premature closure on one outcome.” The left side lacks empathy and awareness of ‘the other’ – both in the sense of other people and also in the sense of a higher authority, like God. Which is ironic – something else that the left-brain dominated are unable to appreciate.

So a left-brain conflict inevitably descends into a political struggle, with more or less transparent moves to exercise control (another left-brain feature). Those familiar with the conflict will recognise the increasingly blatant power manoeuvring on both sides.

The interesting question is always: what is to be done? I have a memory of one comment, I think from Evelyn Underhill, but almost certainly mediated through a Susan Howatch novel, to the effect that ‘when the two wings of the church have exhausted themselves fighting each other it is the return to the mystical path that brings life to the church again’.

Which is a right-brain process. What might that ‘return to the mystical path’ look like, and in particular what might it look like amidst the aftermath of General Synod? Well the right-brain is about ambiguity, and relationships, and the group, and about stories and imagination and metaphor.

So what we need from our bruised and battered and fearful leadership is a re-presentation of our founding stories, emphasising what is held in common and placing each left-brain chessboard into a much larger portrait of meaning. We need leadership of poetry not prose, communication not speech, awe and wonder not compromising pragmatics.

It may be that this needs to be done before making a conclusion to the LLF process – yes it has been dragging on for years, but fruitlessly because the more fundamental spiritual work has not been done (and the same applies to the ordination of women – that argument is now mostly over not because of a winning of hearts and minds but because of political reality).

So what might this more spiritual work look like? For me I would emphasise a few things, where I believe – where I hope! – it may be possible to forge a consensus. So: the Anglican quadrilateral; the autonomy of the Church of England; the sinfulness of taking offence; the shape of discipleship in the world; the demonic nature of the Modern world and so on. With agreement on big things (the right brain stuff) the left brain approach would find its proper place. As it is LLF is the proverbial tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Ah well. One last quotation, and I shall ‘let the reader understand’ the relevance: “The right hemisphere is also much more realistic about how it stands in relation to the world at large, less grandiose, more self-aware, than the left hemisphere.”

So that was 2022

Well now, that was quite a year – some exuberantly joyful moments, some soul-crushingly dark moments, overall simply one of the most intense years of my life.

All the usual things apply – didn’t achieve all I wanted, didn’t lose weight, didn’t get fit, didn’t read as much as I wanted blah blah blah. That’s not really what I want to talk about though.

Over the last ten years I have greatly enjoyed watching and re-watching the TV series Breaking Bad, which documents the fall from grace of Walter White, a chemistry teacher who in response to a cancer diagnosis turns to the industrial production of methamphetamines to pay for his hospital bills (only in the United States of America is such a concept plausible). A pivotal moment in the story comes when Walter rejects financial support from friends. As with great literature, this choice is presented in an understandable way, and is not a wholly wrong choice, but it is at heart an assertion of Walter’s pride – and it is that pride, and the outworkings of that pride, which is the essence of the story and what I have been reflecting on in my own life.

‘Until that moment I never knew myself’ says Austen’s Emma, at the moment of crisis and anagnorisis. My last few years have been increasingly stressful – changing home and work, divorce and years of legal strife, redundancy, and the consequent correlated ill-health that one can expect from such things – and like Emma I find that these strains have increased my self-knowledge. Most especially, I have come to a greater awareness (I dare not say a full awareness) of the way in which my actions over many years have been an outworking of injured pride. I know much more about narcissism than I ever expected to.

Yet I am not Walter White, despite having identified so strongly with him in previous years. Most especially, in my darkest and most desperate moments, I have found that I have family and friends who love and support me, no matter how much of a plonker I’ve been, and from whom I have received, especially this year, remarkable blessings, practical, moral and spiritual. I am grateful to and for them.

In contrast to Walter I believe, I hope, that my experiences of breaking over the last several years – what I sometimes think of as my ‘decade of disaster’ – is ultimately becoming an experience of breaking good. The Lord is teaching me a proper humility – not an abasement, not humiliation and self-abnegation, but a sense of the truth of who I am, and a sense of who I am in the midst of a web of relationships. I find myself frightened to experience a sense of obligation towards others that have been generous towards me, and then I ponder what someone lovely said to me, “That’s what friendship is mate,” and I relax.

So I find that my journey this year has been one where the injury to my pride is being healed by a sense of gratitude, to my family and friends, and to God for never letting me go despite how far I wander from the path. There is much further for that process of healing to go, but my children are healthy, I enjoy my work, I’m actually doing my PhD (!), I have a roof over my head and food and wine on the table, I have a sabbatical next summer to look forward to, and so I am minded to say… I have found Felicity in my life

“Forgiveness is letting go of the hope for a better past”

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021.

Book Review: Christianity and Depression (Tasia Scrutton)

Christianity and Depression, Tasia Scrutton
London : SCM Press, 2020

Tasia Scrutton’s ‘Christianity and Depression’ is an attempt to engage with the challenge of mental illness, specifically depression, from a broadly Christian point of view. She considers several different frameworks for understanding depression, such as depression being caused by individual sin, demonic possession, biological causation and so on. She also spends time on more metaphysical questions such as divine impassibility. The book is very good but somewhat uneven; in particular there is one significant omission in her treatment, which is very surprising given her explicit theological and political commitments.

In this review I will briefly outline her key points chapter by chapter before engaging in discussion.

Outline of chapters
In her introduction, Scrutton begins her work by articulating four caveats: that she is concerned with Christian understandings of depression; that concentrating on the interpretation and experience of depression is philosophically legitimate; that she will evaluate and assess the different Christian understandings giving a verdict on their worth; and finally that she will treat the various understandings as embodied in communal practices not just as individual belief-systems.

With respect to the definition of depression itself Scrutton chooses – very sensibly in my view – to consider as depression “anything that might reasonably be diagnosed as a depressive disorder by a doctor, whether or not the person has been to a doctor and been diagnosed”. She then clears further philosophical space by briefly addressing the hazards of a naïve dualism (mental vs physical) and the nature of what an illness is.

Scrutton’s first chapter is devoted to the idea that a person experiences depression as a result of sin in their life, that is, that the person has sinned and they experience depression as a consequence of their own sin. Scrutton rejects this understanding, on the grounds that it presupposes an incomplete understanding of human freedom; that it is in conflict with significant parts of the Christian tradition; and that it places unsustainable burdens upon those who are already vulnerable. In particular this approach deflects attention away from the social causes of depression in an individualistic manner.

The idea that depression is a result of demonic activity is the subject of Scrutton’s second chapter. Here she engages with the biblical record and integrates the exorcisms of Jesus into the wider inauguration of the Kingdom of God which was the principal characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. Again Scrutton largely rejects this framework for understanding depression, in particular on the grounds that “spiritual warfare should not be seen as an individual battle against the devil or some demons vying for our souls. These ideas have much more in common with element of contemporary US pop culture than they do with the gospel.”

For her third chapter Scrutton considers the idea that depression is an essentially biological problem like a broken leg or diabetes. In this chapter Scrutton argues straightforwardly for a ‘bio-psycho-social’ account of depression, which is a mainstream perspective within psychiatry that argues a) depression cannot be reduced to the biological but b) the biological is a necessary feature of clinical depression. Scrutton emphasises here that there is a rich Christian tradition that affirms our bodiliness, especially the fundamental doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

What is called ‘the dark night of the soul’ is the subject of Scrutton’s fourth chapter. Here the idea considered is that depression is something that is sent from God in order that the soul might grow closer to God through the experience of suffering, looking in particular at St John of the Cross. Scrutton argues that there is no direct correlation between depression and the dark night experience, and that it is important to keep the two concepts distinct.

Building from this, and starting to move away from interpretive frameworks, in chapter five Scrutton interrogates the idea that depression is something that can have a transformative effect upon the person experiencing it. Whilst the expectation of transformation can be oppressive, especially when that glides into the idea that the depression is not an evil as such, Scrutton supports the view that depression can be a redemptive process within which an evil can be transformed into a good, drawing in particular on the writings of Henri Nouwen to explain how.

I will take chapters six and seven together as they both deal with the issue of divine suffering (passibility). Chapter six is presented differently to the work as a whole, as an imagined dialogue between two guests on a radio show, one of whom believes in divine impassibility – the classical Christian position – and one of whom believes that ‘God suffers in Godself’, which is a view that has become more popular from the mid-twentieth century onwards. This chapter explores each view without taking a position. In the next chapter Scrutton considers whether the idea of a suffering God is actually helpful or consoling to those who suffer in this life, arguing that there is no advantage to the passibilist perspective in this respect and that, in particular, the way in which devotion to different saints happens in, eg, the Catholic tradition, enables an effective religious form of consolation for those who suffer.

Finally in her summary chapter Scrutton outlines her overall approach. Depression is not to be understood as the result of individual sin, nor as the consequence of spiritual attack by demons, nor as a gift from God given for spiritual growth but rather as a fruit of a disordered society: “If we wish to combat the root causes of depression, we need to think socially and politically about how our culture can enable people to live as communities and with sensitivity to the needs we have as human animals, rather than foster anxiety, loneliness and alienation”iv.

Discussion
I found Scrutton’s work to be philosophically rigorous and properly humble, in that she is explicit about her philosophical presuppositions and deductions. In writing clearly it becomes straightforward for a critic to engage and highlight differences. My principal objection is that Scrutton essentially reduces the phenomenon of human depression to being a product of an unjust social environment, effectively a social construction of depression. In contrast to this I would argue that depression is a phenomenon whereby multiple causes lead to similar outcomes and that the cardinal mistake to avoid is to conflate all the different experiences into a single form with a single cause.

So, for example, in the first chapter Scrutton argues against the view of depression as a result of sin committed by an individual, and that this presupposes an extreme voluntarism or exaltation of human freedom that is effectively Pelagian. I agree with much of this but would wish to insist that there are occasions when sinful choices lead to the experience of depression. Feelings of guilt and regret do in fact give rise to feelings of sadness, and if unaddressed that sadness can become malignant and meet the definition of depression that Scrutton depends upon. This does not invalidate the criticisms that Scrutton makes more generally, it is simply to insist that both the blanket allocation of depression to individual choice and the contrary blanket allocation of depression to social forces are equally in error. Much, perhaps most of depression in the West can be attributed to social contexts, but not all, and it seems that a fully Christian account of depression has to leave room for a form of depression that is the result of human sinfulness and rebellion against God.

Similarly, when considering demonic attack as a cause of depression Scrutton rightly draws together Jesus’ casting out of demons through exorcism with his wider proclamation of the Kingdom. Yet there are some significant gaps in her treatment of this issue, especially with regard to New Testament criticism. To begin with, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom is bound up with a call to repentance, which can be both individual and corporate. Secondly, although Scrutton is correct to refer to the small number of exorcisms within Jesus’ ministry she does not address their programmatic nature and the way in which the evangelist treats them. So in Mark’s gospel the first action which Jesus takes is an exorcism and this is not an accident; rather this is the prototypical way in which Mark portrays Jesus as acting in power against the hostile spiritual forces of his time. This logic is taken to its conclusion with John’s gospel which does not contain an account of a personal exorcism but where the crucifixion itself is portrayed as having the character of an exorcism – “now is the Prince of this world cast out” (John 12.31). Thirdly, whilst correctly grounding this process of exorcism and spiritual warfare in the social context, Scrutton under-emphasises the importance of this to the wider New Testament writers such as Paul (see Walter Wink’s work). The language of principalities and powers, and the integration of the spiritual and the political that such language describes, is central to the Christian scheme of salvation. This is a surprising omission given how neatly it would fit with Scrutton’s overall approach.

Which leads to my most fundamental criticism of Scrutton’s work which is the absence of any critique of the practice of contemporary psychiatric care, specifically the way in which the pharmaceutical companies act unethically. There is plentiful evidence (see Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma as a starting point) of the way in which, following the logic of industrial capitalism, pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer support the expansion of diagnostic criteria to include more and more human behaviours as ‘illnesses’ – which the companies can then develop treatments for in the form of patented drug therapies, through which they can generate continued profits. In addition to this the companies will systematically distort the scientific process in order to protect and increase their market shares. The social context that Scrutton rightly criticises as a principal factor causing depression cannot be understood without properly assessing the power that these actors bring to bear. These are in fact precisely the ‘principalities and powers’ that Christians need to be engaging with – and I see the absence of engagement with this as a missed opportunity on the part of Scrutton. I would wish to insist upon a properly Christian hermeneutic of suspicion in this context.

There remains much work to be done to develop a fully prophetic understanding of depression within the Christian tradition, but Scrutton has definitely moved the conversation forward and I would happily recommend the book to Christians interested in a deeper understanding of mental illness.

Gospel frameworks for understanding exorcism

I have started my doctoral research, and had my first supervision last week. I am so conscious of my brain having atrophied for the last decade or so (since writing my book), but it has been a joy to start to engage with intellectually stretching material. It is like an infusion of oxygen into my soul; now I just have to work out how to breathe again. I thought I’d share a discovery with you, which has come from looking at Graham Twelftree’s work, and which is about how to understand exorcism in the gospels.

Before the extract from my paper let me spell out the conceptual issue which is going to be one of the main themes that I shall be pursuing over the coming years. Exorcism necessarily talks about the demonic, for exorcism is about the expulsion of the demonic from someone suffering (“ἐκβάλλω” is the word used in the gospels, meaning to cast out or expel). What is it that is being cast out? To give a framework for seeking an answer to that question, when the Christian tradition uses the language of the demonic is it a) describing the effect of an intelligent, malevolent entity, or b) describing a disorder that is taking place within the suffering person? My working assumption is that most often the answer is b) but that it is essential to retain the possibility of a), as that is what the tradition has stated down the ages: sometimes there really is a malevolent entity that needs to be dealt with. (Also, as an aside, the scientistic/materialistic insistence on the unreality of the intangible needs to be opposed! Oops, my prejudices are showing.)

What I have discovered is that within the gospels themselves, that is, from the earliest practice of Christian exorcism, both a) and b) have been understood to be part of Christian ministry. Which I didn’t know, and which I find quite exciting.

~~~

That Jesus himself was a practicing exorcist is not a controversial claim1. According to Twelftree, “Exorcism was a form of healing used when demons or evil spirits were thought to have entered a person and to be responsible for sickness and was the attempt to control and cast out or expel evil spiritual beings or demons from people.”2 With regard to Jesus in particular, “From the sayings and narrative material in the Synoptic Gospels I have surveyed it would seem that we could only conclude that exorcism was a part of the ministry of the historical Jesus.”3 In his subsequent work, ‘In the Name of Jesus’4, Twelftree writes in more detail that exorcisms “loom large as one of the most obvious and important aspects of his ministry”, adding “We know of no other healer in antiquity for whom this was true.”5

However this still leaves much that needs to be explored if we are to understand the nature and variety of exorcism as practiced by Jesus and the early church:
1. Styles of Exorcism: “there was probably a range of kinds of exorcisms and exorcists that would have been known to the early Christians”6. A key distinction was between a magical exorcist, wherein the exorcism is conducted through the use of particular words and phrases, and a charismatic exorcist, wherein the exorcism is accomplished through the personal force and ‘power-authority’ of a particular individual. Twelftree concludes that, although there are some moments when it would seem that Jesus is using the set phrases of a magical exorcist7 he is best characterised as a charismatic exorcist: “Jesus used the emphatic “I”, for which I can find no parallel in any other incantation or exorcism story in the ancient world. It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that, in light of his statement that he was operating by the power-authority of the Spirit or finger of God, Jesus was particularly confident in his ability to use or even be identified with that power source… Jesus deliberately draws attention to himself and his own resources in his ability to expel the demon.”
2. Different gospel emphases: there is a marked difference between the presentation of Jesus’ struggle with the Enemy (the devil, satan, demons8) between the Synoptic gospels on the one hand, and the Johannine literature on the other. Mark’s gospel treats this aspect of Jesus’ ministry as central and paradigmatic, including by making it the first reported act of ministry in Jesus’ life9; in contrast, in the Gospel of John, there are no exorcisms at all. Part of the explanation for this lies in the different motivations for each Gospel writer. Following Bauckham10 I accept that the accounts given in the gospels are rooted in eyewitness testimony, and that Mark in particular is rooted in the stories told by St Peter in prison in Rome in the mid-60s AD. “Mark views exorcism as a battle in which people illegitimately held by Satan are taken, so that Satan is seen to be overthrown.”11 John’s gospel is composed at a later date and is conditioned by a much more developed theological perspective. For our purposes the most important Johannine distinctive is that the defeat of the Enemy is focussed upon the moment of crucifixion (“now is the ruler of this world cast down” – Jn 12.31), and this is presented as the climax of a stupendous cosmic drama. “In a single act involving the heavenly realm, Satan is to be dealt with directly, without recourse to his malevolent minions on earth. In this way the Fourth Evangelist is able to affirm that the lies of Satan’s control of this world is far more pervasive than the possession of individual people, and that the defeat of Satan requires more than isolated activity by Jesus.”12 In sum, for both Mark and John the struggle with the Enemy is central, but in Mark this is accomplished through the healing through exorcism of individual people whereas in John it is accomplished through defeating the Enemy by the one climactic act of crucifixion and resurrection.
3. Exorcisms in the early church: it seems clear that Jesus commissioned his disciples and gave them authority to carry out exorcisms (Mark 3.15, 6.7) but that the different communities gave contrasting emphases to this ministry. In particular the tradition associated with Mark’s gospel and centred on Rome gave most importance to exorcism as a continuing practice.13 This was a form of charismatic exorcism in which the power-authority invoked to compel the demon was that of Jesus himself.
4. Conversion as defeating the Enemy: In the Johannine tradition, in contrast to the Markan, “Satan is not confronted in the form of sickness caused by demons but in the form of unbelief inspired by the father of lies. So exorcism is not the response to the demon possession; truth is its antidote.”14 Thus the crucial way in which the Christian community continued its struggle against the Enemy was by apologetics and through conversion of new believers, “the demonic is confronted not by exorcism but by truth.”15 In other words, “perhaps because of an increasing intellectual sophistication, … an understanding that the demonic could be doctrinal and dealt with and defeated other than through exorcism.”16

Bringing those four elements together it is fair to say that within the emphasis upon Jesus as an exorcist and one who defeats the Enemy there lie different patterns of behaviour rooted in different spiritual frameworks. These do not need to be understood as contradictions, and have not been within the mainstream Christian tradition17 What they have in common is that the struggle with the Enemy is seen as a characteristic of Christian ministry and that there is a duty placed upon the church to continue this struggle ‘in the name of Jesus’. In doing so the church is continuing the ministry of ‘Inaugurating the Kingdom’.

Footnotes:

1See Twelftree, G. H. (1993) Jesus the Exorcist : a contribution to the study of the historical Jesus. Tübingen: Mohr (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. 2. Reihe, 54); hereinafter JtE.

2JtE, p13.

3JtE, p137.

4Twelftree, G. H. (2014) In the name of Jesus: exorcism among early Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic; hereinafter NoJ.

5NoJ, p46

6NoJ, p35 and following.

7“Be silent!”, Mark 1.25 and parallels.

8The metaphysical status of all these and associated terms will be considered in detail in a later chapter.

9Mark 1.21-28

10Bauckham, R. (2006) Jesus and the Eyewitnesses : the gospels as eyewitness testimony. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

11NoJ, p114

12NoJ, p196.

13NoJ, p289 inter alia.

14NoJ, p282

15NoJ, p283.

16NoJ, p290.

17See subsequent chapters…