In this post I'll be discussing the relationship between the paranormal and the occult. Whether these are two different things, one and the same thing, or overlapping domains, is one of the issues I'll address.
This topic is of interest to Christians on several potential grounds:
- Evaluating paranormal claims raise much the same issues as evaluating miraculous claims.
- Unbelievers often claim that the Bible is incredible because it describes a world which is a world apart from the world we actually experience. But if paranormal phenomena happen, then the world of the Bible is not fundamentally different from the world we experience today. Of course, at that point the unbeliever might shift grounds. He might accept the paranormal, but try to explain it on secular grounds–then do the same with Scripture.
However, that still advances the argument. Instead of debating whether these events ever happen, we're not debating the proper interpretation of the event.
- Science and medicine are wonderful disciplines. But they have their limitations. For example, some medical conditions may have a spiritual or occultic source of origin. As such, they need a different remedy.
- There's an extensive literature on psi. Writers range from charlatans to philosophers and scholars. In addition, every ideological viewpoint is represented–orthodoxy, heterodoxy, secularism, occultism, &c. It's useful to begin sifting through this vast array of material and set down some basic guidelines.
- Psi. For the time being I'll use "psi" or "paranormal" as a neutral term to avoid prejudging its origin.
- Exorcist. This designation is associated with people who claim to cast out demons. I'll use it a bit more broadly for people who confront general occultic/paranormal phenomena, viz. possession, black magic, hauntings, &c.
- Energumen. I use this term to denote someone who exhibits paranormal powers.
- Paranormal. By this term I'm referring to things like telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, retrocognition, NDEs, OBEs, materialization, apports, &c.
- Occult. By this term I'm referring to things like possession, black magic, astrology, necromancy, divination, infestation, &c.
- Possession. In principle, spirit-possession can take three different forms:
i) Possession by the Holy Spirit
ii) Possession by evil spirits (i.e. demons)
iii) Possession by departed spirits (i.e. the damned)
(i) & (ii) are clearly attested in Scripture. Putatively speaking, necromancy is a paradigm-case of (iii), which is also attested in Scripture.
However, we have no direct access to the dead, so it's ambiguous what, exactly, the medium is contacting. It could be either (ii) or (iii).
iv) According to another theory of mediumship, the medium is contacting the living rather than the dead. Specially, reading the mind of the sitter.
Whether or not (d) is correct would depend, in part, on whether the medium knows something the sitter does not.
Also, to judge by the anecdotal literature, possession comes in degrees. It's not all of the Linda Blair variety.
- Sitter. Anyone other than the medium, taking part in a séance.
- Communicator. The (alleged) entity whom the medium is channeling.
III. General Criteria
- It's important to distinguish between the evidence for psi, and the interpretation of psi. For example, a writer may be a reliable source of information on case studies. He is accurately reporting the experimental or anecdotal evidence. The same writer may be unreliable when he attempts to interpret the case studies. His worldview will affect his interpretation of the data. It will promote one approach while demoting another.
A writer might be a Christian, secularist, heretic, or occultist. His worldview will favor or allow certain interpretations while disallowing other interpretations.
There are various, competing theories to account for psi. They posit different "mechanisms." But whether an event is well-attested is independent of the way we explain that event.
A witness might be a reliable reporter, even if his interpretation is unreliable. These are distinct issues.
- In evaluating a paranormal report, we should draw a rough distinction between public, observable events, and subjective impressions. This, in turn, correlates with the potential distinction between deception and self-deceptive. Where subjective impressions are concerned, it's possible for a witness to be honest, but self-deluded. He may sincerely believe what he says.
But in the case of public events, there's less room for the witness to be sincerely mistaken. That doesn't mean what he says is true. Rather, if it's false, the falsehood is more likely to be intentional.
This distinction is useful when we evaluate a witness. Which is more likely–that he is a liar, or the event really happened?
- It's customary for unbelievers to dismiss Biblical accounts of possession as "prescientific." We are told, for instance, that the demoniac in Mk 9:14-29 was clearly an epileptic. But aside from the question of whether possession can present standard clinical symptoms, there's a simple way of determining whether a malady like that is demonic or "natural": if conventional therapy is ineffective while exorcism is effective, then it's demonic; if exorcism is ineffective while conventional therapy is effective, then it's "natural." There's no need to speculate on the correct diagnosis. The treatment will select for the correct diagnosis.
IV. Theological Criteria
Is it appropriate to use theological criteria to rule out certain interpretations, or is that an exercise in special pleading?
- If the Bible is true, then there's no reason we shouldn't use the Bible as a criterion to exclude certain interpretations.
- Exorcism itself operates with a theological viewpoint. As such, it's not special pleading to evaluate a value-laden activity by its own value-system.
- To judge by the anecdotal literature, a successful exorcism can be performed by a Catholic (Amorth), Lutheran (Koch), Anglican (Richards), Congregationalist (McCall), nondenominational believer (Peck), &c. As such, a successful exorcism doesn't validate any particular Christian tradition. That being the case, it's not as if the raw evidence singles out a sectarian interpretation of the event. The evidence is not that specific. So it's not as if we disregard the evidence by an ac hoc appeal to Scripture.
- This raises the question of how different rites and ceremonies, representing somewhat differing theological presuppositions, can yield the same effect. Probably because the efficacy of the performance doesn't lie in the precise words which an exorcist uses, or the precise beliefs which the exorcist brings to the situation, but in the general faith of the exorcist and the indulgent grace of God.
God blesses imperfect prayers. He improves on our defective methods. The success or failure of an exorcism depends, not on the magical efficacy of the formula, but on the sovereign disposition of God, who honors or dishonors the exercise according to the spirit in which it was offered (cf. Lk 9:49-50; Acts 19:13-20; Aune 2006:407-11; Twelftree 1993: 40-43; 2007:148-53).
As one writer puts it:
"One must remember that it is not the superior magic of the exorcist but the power of Christ that overcomes the spirit. Ministers have told me of how God has used them in exorcism without any special gifts; they have simply acted according to Scripture" (Wright 1972:153).
"Some exorcists use adaptations of traditional Roman Catholic methods, including the sprinkling of holy water and salt that has been blessed; and some even use old Latin prayers, though one cannot see why a spirit should know Latin rather than English if it has chosen to manifest itself in England. I personally am not convinced that these things are the effective agents, and certainly they could not be a substitute for the name of Jesus Christ, which of course these exorcists use" (Wright 1972:153-154).
V. Biblical Data
What does Scripture have to say about psi?
- At a general level, Scripture ascribes to apostles and prophets of God the ability to perform miracles and predict the future. This is analogous to telekinesis and precognition.
- Visionary revelation is often analogous to an OBE. Ezekiel gives a number of examples.
- Xenoglossy occurs at Pentecost.
- Elisha apparently had the gift of clairaudience (2 Kg 6:12).
- Acts 8:39 seems to be a case of teleportation.
- The Ascension is, in part, a case of levitation. (However, Jesus didn't literally "ascend" to heaven. The "cloud" which receives him is probably the Shekinah.)
- Samson exhibits superhuman strength.
- The Third Commandment (Exod 20:7). In popular piety, this is treated as a prohibition against profanity, but in the original context, it probably had reference to things like perjury–as well as hexes (cf. Ezk 13:17-23).
On another front:
- The Egyptian magicians exhibit metamorphotic powers (Exod 7-8), which is analogous to telekinesis and materialization. For some reason, a number of conservative scholars, who ordinarily go out of their way to defend the supernatural character of the events in Exodus, balk at attributing magic to the Egyptian sorcerers. But while these naturalistic explanations (e.g. catalepsy) may be possible or plausible considered in isolation, this is at odds with the narrative framework. The ability to Moses and Aaron to outwit the legerdemain of some Egyptian charlatans wouldn't prove very much. It seems to me the point of this encounter is to demonstrate the superior power of God by defeating a genuine opponent on his own turf.
(Incidentally, cobras eat other snakes, including other cobras, so that's a realistic detail.)
- A demoniac exhibits superhuman strength (Mk 5:3-4).
- Another demoniac exhibits ESP (Acts 16:16).
- It's possible for a false prophet to accurately predict the future (Deut 13:1-3; Acts 16:16-18). Deuteronomy doesn't explain how this is possible, but Acts attributes this type of prognostication to demonic possession.
- A medium can summon the dead (1 Sam 28). Commentators frequently puzzle over this passage because they don't understand how the witch can see the shade of Samuel, but Saul cannot.
But that's pretty standard in the anecdotal literature, where the sitter is dependent on the medium for his information. The point of being a medium is to mediate this contact. In contrast to the sitter, the medium has access to a normally invisible realm (e.g. a psychic projection by the dead). So this is quite realistic.
- The malefice Black magic was a fixture of the ANE. Does the Bible endorse that?
i) The most celebrated case is the example of Balaam. Since, however, he is unsuccessful in cursing Israel, the narrative doesn't say for sure if he had that power.
There may be a suggestion in Num 23:23 that black magic was a potent force, but ineffective against Israel because Israel enjoyed a special immunity.
ii) By contrast, Ezk 13:17-23 presents a fairly unambiguous case:
"They performed magical spells as a means of prognostication. Ezekiel is directed to engage in a symbolic gesture, as in 6:2. Here it announces a virtual counterspell that puts the evil eye on these sorcerers...This inauspicious introduction allows a further characterization of the female prophets, with respect to their magical devices that evidently accompanied the spells...The prevalence of magical practices in Mesopotamia doubtless encouraged their use among the exiles, although such a tradition was also known in their homeland (cf. Exod 22:18; Deut 18:10). The female sorcerers' magical powers were evidently widely credited among the exiles. The accusation itself has no doubt about their effectiveness. These women evidently operated under the umbrella of Yahwism and doubtless incorporated his name into their spells, like later Jewish magicians" (Allen 1994:204).
"Whatever the nature of the kesatot and the mispahot, they appear to have been instruments of black magic, and their wielders may justifiably be designed sorceresses, evil magicians, witches. Where they learned the tricks of their trade we may only speculate, but given the prevalence of magic in ancient Babylonian and the presence of technical expressions borrowed from Akkadian in this text, some Mesopotamian influence appears likely...With their sorcerous invocation of the divine name, the women have degraded Yahweh in the public's eyes to the level of Babylonian deities and demons, who let themselves be manipulated by divination and witchcraft...By means of incantations, curses, spells, and mutilation of the images of their victims and alliances with evil spirits, they stalk the exilic community for prey and coerce the gods into serving their agenda. These are not prophets as Ezekiel understand the office; they are witches, black magicians, charlatans" (Block 1997:414,416-17).
- Divine healing (Jas 5:14-15)
"Given the overall teaching of the NT, in which healing is not consistently paired with anointing, we should not take this one verse [Jas 5:14] as mandating that oil must accompany all prayers for the sick. At the same time, there is no reason not to implement a practice like this one for some of the most chronic or life-threatening illnesses that church members face. Neither does this verse refer to a specific 'gift' of healing, but rather assigns the task of anointing the sick to the elders, the duly commissioned church leaders responsible for the leadership and nurture of the body as a whole. The descriptive phrase 'in the name of the Lord' reminds us that the healings done solely by the will and power of God. Given the use of the formula 'in the name of Jesus' throughout the early church, especially in Acts, the Lord here may specifically be Christ (Blomberg & Kamell 2008:243).
"This verse [5:15] makes the bold claim that if we pray in faith, God will heal the person for whom we pray...The promise of healing for the sick offers a much needed corrective for those of us who have trouble praying boldly, for we fear or even assume that God will not do what we ask of him. Instead, we ought to pray boldly, believing that he is a God of power and love and that he listens to the prayers of his people. A necessary caveat, however, requires us to remember that he choose how and when he heals, as Paul lays out clearly in 2 Cor 12:8–10, and that complete healing never occurs in this life" (Blomberg & Kamell 2008:244).
"Trying to identify an exact definition of the 'prayer of faith' is perplexing, but perhaps the best explanation appears already in 1:5-8, where we are instructed to pray 'with the confident expectation that God will hear and answer the prayer.' Still, these commands also assume the proviso of 4:15 in which everything for which we hope remains contingent on God's will" (Blomberg & Kamell 2008:244).
"The second half of the sentence forms a third-class condition, which counters the assumption that there must be some sin, or lack of faith, that needs God's forgiveness (recall the recurring, errant counsel of Job's friends). James does not, however, exclude the option that past sins may well have caused current illness" (Blomberg & Kamell 2008:244).
"I remember a Non-conformist minister giving me a lift, and my noticing inside the car a small phial of oil. Although I thought I knew the answer, I nevertheless asked him what it was. 'For anointing people,' he said. 'I didn't think your Church did that,' I said, to which he replied 'No, I don't think they do, but they did New Testament times, and I can't wait for my church to catch up!'" (Richards 1974:17).
- These examples have certain things in common:
i) The source of psi is either explicitly or implicitly supernatural.
ii) In most-all of the examples, the source of psi is or could be spirit-possession.
The distinguishing feature is the identity of the spiritual agent that empowers the subject.
In the case of God's servants, it's the Spirit of God. In the case of God's enemies, it's demonic.
So the Biblical evidence favors a supernatural explanation for psi. That doesn't necessarily preclude the possibility that some types of psi might be natural abilities.
While certain forms of psi might be distinctively supernatural, other forms might be supernaturally enhanced. But it's clear that the supernatural factor is present in at least some cases of psi. And in some cases, dabbling in the occult is clearly a factor.
Apropos (V), there are different theories of the paranormal. Such theories can be local or global, naturalistic or supernaturalistic.
- Local. Local theories try to explain a particular type of paranormal phenomena.
Let's take the example of the shlemazel. This refers to someone who is accident-prone. It goes beyond the fact that some folks are clumsy or oblivious to danger. Rather, the shlemazel suffers from a chronic run of "bad luck." Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
Although this is the stuff of comedy, it's a genuine phenomenon. And it's no fun for the shlemazel.
Here are two different theories to account for the shlemazel:
i) Braude (Braude 2007:148-149) offers a naturalistic explanation. He thinks the shlemazel is an emotional disturbed individual with telekinetic powers. He is subconsciously projecting his frustrations onto his environment.
Of course, this is also a paranormal explanation. I call it "naturalistic" because Braude doesn't attribute to schlemazel's telekinetic ability to an occultic source of origin.
ii) By contrast, Amorth (Amorth 1999:130-31; cf. McCall 1994:77-78; 1996:144-46) regards the shlemazel as a victim of black magic. He is under a curse.
At the same time, Braude (149-150) allows for the same possibility. On the other hand, he doesn't frame this in theological terms (pace Amorth).
iii) For his part, McCall (McCall 1996:124-26) regards the shlemazel as the victim of a family curse. He is living under the pall of departed ancestors who died in tragic circumstances. These restless spirits are reaching out from the grave. The dead take possession of a living descendent.
iv) Not only do these theories differ in principle, but they also differ in practice. If Braude is correct, then I suppose the only solution, if there is a solution, is for the shlemazel is to undergo counseling in hopes of resolving his self-destructive anger.
But Amorth is correct, then the only solution, if there is a solution, is to break the spell–through the appropriate ceremony.
And if McCall is correct, then the only solution, if there is a solution, is to truly put these restless spirits to rest–through the appropriate ceremony.
- Global. A local theory may presuppose a global theory, or it may be neutral on a global theory. A global theory tries to present a unified explanation. A mechanism that underlies these events. What are some global theories of the paranormal?
i) Radin (Radin 2006) offers a naturalistic explanation, based on quantum mechanics.
ii) As we've seen, McCall (McCall 1994:5-21; cf. Amorth 2002:133) offers a supernaturalistic explanation based on the malefic influence of wandering spirits. This is tied to an elaborate theory of racial memory, fetal memory, hypnagogic contact, proxy confession, and postmortem conversion (McCall 1996:149-52; 166-71; 195-210).
According to him, this works both ways. The dead can affect the living while the living can affect the dead. The living can prevent their departed loved ones from "progressing" by refusing to let them go (McCall 1996:195,205). Conversely, the dead can take subliminal possession of the living (McCall 1996:206-208).
In McCall's opinion, this isn't limited to extraordinary events. He applies it to many apparently ordinary medical or psychiatric conditions. The symptoms seem normal enough. But they resist conventional therapy. Although the outward effect is apparently natural, the source of original is supernatural.
iii) For his part, Koch (Koch 1973:53-74) generally classifies psi as form of mediumistic magic. And he also regards mediumistic magic as hereditary (Koch 1972: 186-187; 1973:61-62; cf. Amorth 1999:162; McCall 1994:75-77). The ergumen may not be personally guilty of dabbling in the occult. This is something he inherited from a relative or close ancestor.
Of course, he also thinks you can acquire paranormal powers through direct occultic practice, as well as transference–which, according to him, is weaker than heredity.
And one point he does allow for "traces of natural telepathy" as well as a "natural form" of astral travel (Koch 1973:58).
There is some overlap between McCall's theory and Koch's theory. Both attribute psi to the effect of the dead on the living. But they have a different narrative to account for that effect.
For McCall, the influence of the dead is more direct–a form of possession. McCall also believes in postmortem salvation. By contrast, I sure Koch thought our fate was sealed at death. For him, the influence is more intermediate–the way a sorcerer transfers his Shakti to his apprentice, who transfers it to his apprentice, and so on, down the line.
iv) Amorth (Amorth 1999: 157-58; 2002:160-61; cf. Wright 1972) draws a distinction between people with natural psychic abilities ("seers," "sensitives") and people with supernatural psychic abilities ("charismatics").
According to him, sensitives have a paranormal ability to perceive natural things (like disease), but charismatics have a paranormal ability to perceive supernatural things (like possession).
He also refers to healers and prana-therapists who possess a paranormal ability of "natural origin" (Amorth 2002:135).
On the other hand, he issues a warning about "voices" and "visions" (Amorth 2002:112-13). So even though he seems to classify this as a natural paranormal ability, he thinks it's spiritually treacherous.
On the face of it, his position appears to be a bit inconsistent. If it's a natural ability, you'd expect it to be innocuous or innocent. How do we account for this apparent inconsistency:
a) Perhaps the translation is ambiguous or misleading.
b) Perhaps the evidence is ambiguous.
c) Perhaps he means that a natural, albeit paranormal ability, while innocent in itself, can be a channel for evil forces.
d) Perhaps he is genuinely inconsistent.
v) Rahner (Rahner 1963) uses the term "parapsychological" for individuals with natural psychic ability (e.g. clairvoyance, prophetic dreams, premonitions of death), but he says, in the same connection, that "they seem often to be hereditary and endemic, associated with a particular region" (Rahner 1963:93).
vi) We may have competing theories because each theory is underdetermined by the available evidence. Different causes could produce the same effect. So it's hard to infer the cause from the effect.
What should we do in practice? Writers like Amorth think that some paranormal abilities are natural abilities. But Koch usually regards a paranormal ability as having an occultic origin. It comes at a terrible cost. As such, the energumen needs to renounce this ability for the sake of his own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around him.
I think Stafford Wright (Wright 1972) strikes a reasonable balance: "Obviously the proper thing is to pray that, if the 'gift' is not according to the will of God, He will take it away. If then it persists, we take it that He will use it if it is put into His hands" (Wright 1972:149).
vii) In this connection, we should keep in mind that the disjunction between nature and supernature is an essentially secular disjunction. The unbeliever draws this line to demarcate the possible (natural) from the impossible (supernatural), and, hence, the credible from the incredible—to his own way of thinking.
But from a Christian standpoint, there's no a priori reason why certain paranormal powers couldn't be God-given abilities. God endows certain individuals with these abilities to further his purposes. For example, I don't see any antecedent reason why God couldn't endow some Christian with the faculty of second sight.
I'm not stating this for a fact. If a paranormal power is traceable to a relative who was trafficking with the dark side, or if a paranormal power seems to be a magnet for "bad luck" or mental illness, then the energumen should clearly renounce this faculty.
How do these theories stack up?
- Amorth. The malefice is clearly attested in Scripture (Ezk 13:17-23). That, of course, doesn't mean that every shlemazel is necessarily the victim of a curse. But that's a live option.
- Koch. Does Scripture support the view that psi is hereditary? I don't see any specific teaching to that effect. However, it's possible that this dovetails with some other biblical teachings:
i) Scripture prohibits necromancy, which is a paradigmatic form of mediumship.
ii) Scripture also teaches that various sins like idolatry can defile the land (e.g. Jer 3:2,9). That indicates that one's ancestor's can do something which has a lasting, spiritual effect on the environment.
If it can have that effect on the land, which is inanimate, then something comparable, or worse, might well be possible in the case of people.
iii) There is also some suggestion in Scripture that demonic influence is more concentrated in some areas than others (Poythress 1995). In a sense, that's about space rather than time, but the two are related. People often reside in the same place from one generation to the next.
iv) On a (possibly) related note, we have the converts who burned their magic books in Acts 19:19. Did they do this because they thought the books were "infested"?
i) It's possible that the theory of racial memory has some basis in fact. However, Jung was hardly a reliable source of information. He himself was an occultist, with a number of relatives who were enmeshed in the occult. To some extent the same is true of William James.
ii) We can discount the heretical elements of McCall's eschatology on Scriptural grounds.
iii) Perhaps possible that the deceased can sometimes possess the living. We can treat that as a working hypothesis.
iv) A basic problem with McCall's methodology is that he operates with a pragmatic, outcome-based epistemology. And the problem with that methodology is that different techniques, representing different theories, can be equally "successful." Therefore, the cause is underdetermined by the effect. If more than one thing works, you can't infer a singular explanation.
v) McCall is terribly naïve about the dark side. He's so credulous and unsuspecting.
- Braude. His theory could be correct up to a point. But it doesn't run deep enough. It fails to furnish an ultimate explanation. What's the source of telekinesis? Black magic also involves telekinesis. But it has more explanatory power.
- Radin. Since there's no unanimity on the proper interpretation of quantum mechanics, it lacks the explanatory power to explain anything else. Like using one enigma to explain another. His explanation also suffers from a secular bias.
- Natural or Supernatural?
i) I don't know that we need to distinguish them. In principle, all paranormal abilities might have a supernatural source, whether divine or demonic (as the case may be). In Christian metaphysics, the fundamental distinction is not between nature and supernature, but between the creature and the Creator.
ii) In addition, nature is not reducible to a machine. It is ultimately directed by divine intelligence. God could have good reason for giving some people some abilities some of the time without giving everyone the same abilities all of the time. Endowing some human beings with paranormal abilities might further his plan, whereas endowing every human being with such abilities might hinder his plan–as they would work at cross-purposes.
How are we to evaluate descriptions of the afterlife furnished by mediums? According to Meynell, after summarizing the studies of Robert Crookall:
"Another point to be made in favor of Crookall's conclusions is that they do not fit very neatly with any conventional religious view. The popular Christian notion that we are to expect to see Jesus immediately after we die, and the common Protestant view that we are bound directly either for an eternal heaven or an eternal hell, find no support in Crookall's data...Catholics may perhaps take some comfort from the apparent corroboration of their doctrine of purgatory–which is to the effect that most people at least, even if they are ultimately bound for the vision of God in heaven, have to go through a great many trials after death before they attain it; and from the strong vindication of the practice of prayer for the dead" (Stoeber & Meynell 1966:37).
There are several problems with this conclusion:
- In a séance, you lack direct access to the dead. The medium is the conduit. Where is the medium getting her information? There are different possibilities:
i) She could be channeling the damned.
ii) She could be channeling a demon.
iii) She could be reading the mind of the sitter. Then telling him what he wants to hear.
These are not reliable sources of information. Indeed, we would expect all three to be deceptive.
- The composite picture of the afterlife assembled by another writer, drawing on the same sources (necromancy), doesn't bear any real resemblance to the Catholic dogma of Purgatory (cf. Fontana 2007:443-67). If, therefore, the necromantic data is thought to undermine the Protestant doctrine of the afterlife, it equally undermines the Catholic doctrine of the afterlife.
- Meynell is conflating popular conceptions with Protestant doctrine. But the Protestant doctrine of the afterlife posits a distinction between the intermediate state and the final state. The damned don't go straight to hell when they die. While they are hellbound, and their infernal fate is irreversible, hell represents the final state of the damned, not the intermediate state of the damned. So Protestant eschatology doesn't preclude the existence of wandering spirits.
- In addition to the necromantic data, we also have more recent data furnished by NDEs. In contrast to the necromantic data, at least some NDEs corroborate the Protestant doctrine of the afterlife (cf. Sabom 1998). Moreover, there are plausible explanations for apparent cases to the contrary (cf. Habermas & Moreland 1998:178-83; Braude 2002:113).
- To an outsider, the claim that necromantic data has a demonic origin may seem like special pleading: an attempt to save face by imposing a Christian interpretation onto the data. However, that this is not a reinterpretation of the evidence is borne out by a striking correlation between traditional shamanism and modern necromancy. As one scholar explains:
"There are very few studies from an anthropological perspective of spirit mediumship in Western society. This might seem surprising, since the phenomenon is relatively common. Most accounts of mediumship come either from dedicated believers, or else from parapsychologists chiefly interested in assessing the ostensible evidence for ESP. It may be that anthropologists are afraid of being tarred with these brushes. I think, however, that most people who have any substantial acquaintance with Western Spiritualism will recognize that many of the above observations about shamans and shamanism apply equally to Spiritualist mediums in our own society. It is true, of course, that the discarnate entities which are alleged to 'possess' or otherwise communicate through Spiritualist mediums usually (thought not always) claim to be just the spirits of deceased humans rather than of gods, demons, animals spirits and other beings which additionally manifest to shamans. But the outward forms of this phenomena present many analogies which it would be superfluous to pursue in detail. In fact there are few mediumistic phenomena for which the literature on shamanism cannot provide parallels, and few shamanistic performances to which Spiritualism provides no counterpart" (Gauld 1983:20).
In other words, the "communicator" adapts itself to the audience. For a modern séance, it impersonates a lost loved one, but for pagan culture, it impersonates a mythological god or demon or animal spirit, &c. To take a specific example:
"A choirboy once contacted his departed grandmother in this way. When the boy related the incident to his Vicar, the Vicar said, 'I remember your grandmother as a very devout Christian–ask her what she thinks of Jesus Christ.' When, after the next session, the Vicar asked the lad what had happened, the astonished boy said 'She swore!' 'Do you think it was grandma?' the Vicar asked. 'No I don't' said the choirboy.' 'Neither do I,' replied the Vicar, 'and I suggest you leave it alone'" (Richards 1974:63-63).
- In addition, necromancy is generally a two-stage process. The medium must contact a "control" who, in turn, facilitates communication with the dead (cf. Gauld 1983:30; Yap 1960:15). So even if we accept the necromantic literature at face value, there's no direct contact with the dead. Hence, no presumption that you are in actual contact with the dead–rather than a demonic entity.
- But let's assume it is possible to contact the dead. If the only departed spirits you can reach turn out to be damnéd spirits, then they will not be reliable guides to the true nature of the afterlife. Rather, they will be more like vampires, who try to "turn you" to the dark side.
- We should also note the fundamental asymmetry between Christian explanations and occultic explanations, for the occult is parasitic on the Christian worldview. For example:
"The exorcism practiced by British and European witches is more often directed against spells and curses which they believe have been uttered against them by other magic groups...Crosses are made with chalk on the doors...Sometimes holy water is sprinkled in each room–it having been stolen from a church–and white magicians say, 'I exorcise thee, O unclean spirit, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,' and in extreme cases it has been known for them to ask a clergyman not a member of the group, to perform the exorcism for them. Naturally he will not have been told of the curse which is to be lifted. He will have been informed that the house is haunted, or that a poltergeist is troubling the occupants...Where magic groups conduct their rituals by stealth in churches at night, it is not uncommon for the clergymen to have the church reconsecrated before holding another service there" (Johns 1971:101).
IX. "The Psychic Christ"?
Maurice Elliott once wrote a book entitled The Psychic Life of Christ, in which he tried to reinterpret the person and work of Christ as a great psychic.
If we credit the reality of psi, is that a legitimate interpretation? No.
- If, as I've argued, psi has an ultimately supernatural source of origin, whether divine or demonic, then offering a "psychic" interpretation doesn't furnish a genuine alternative, for we can already integrate psi into a Biblical worldview.
- Even if, considered in isolation, one could try to explain the miracles of Christ in terms of psi, that artificially compartmentalizes his miracles from his teaching as well as his redemptive mission. His miracles are not freestanding phenomena. They are thoroughly integrated into a purposeful and meaningful, religious outlook.
- Likewise, the "psychic" interpretation also isolates his miracles from Messianic prophecy.
- There's no historical record of a virgin-born psychic who returned bodily from the dead.
X. Annotated Bibliography
Ahmed, R. The Black Art (Senate 1994)
A standard monograph on witchcraft.
Allen, L. Ezekiel 1–19 (Word 1994)
A standard commentary on Ezekiel. To the left of Block.
Amorth, G. An Exorcist Tells His Story (Ignatius 1999)
A Catholic exorcist. In general, I find Amorth credible. Despite the rather sensational nature of his work, he writes in a business-like style. Just another day at the office. Pragmatic, practical, and down-to-earth.
_____, An Exorcist: More Stories (Ignatius 2002)
Arnold, C. 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare (Baker, 1997).
_____, Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul's Letters (IVP, 1992).
By Evangelical NT scholar.
Aune, D. Apocalypticism, Prophecy, and Magic in Early Christianity (Baker 2006)
By a Classicist and NT scholar. Learned, but liberal.
Bauckham, R. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans 2006)
Excellent discussion of criteria for sifting testimonial evidence.
Beauregard, M. Brain Wars (HarperOne 2012)
A noted neuroscientist documents the paranormal. Better for case studies than interpretation.
Beekman, S. Enticed by the Light: The Terrifying Story of One Woman's Encounter with the New Age (Zondervan, 1997).
Excellent source for case studies on psi, NDEs, and OBEs. However, his panpsychic theory isn't even consistent with the evidence he cites, where the subject retains personal identity/first-person viewpoint.
Berlinski, D. The Secrets of the Vaulted Sky (Harcourt Books 2003)
An erudite monograph on astrology.
Blomberg, C. & M. Kamell, James (Zondervan 2008).
A fine new commentary on James. Excellent discussion of 5:14-15 (pp 242-45).
_____, "James 5 (Commentary and Discussion with Craig L. Blomberg."
Bock, D. The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1–24 (Eerdmans 1997)
The standard evangelical commentary on Ezekiel. Exhaustive.
Braude, S. ESP & Psychokinesis (Brown Walker Press 2002)
Braude is a leading philosopher on the paranormal. Affirms the paranormal, but betrays a secular bias.
_____, Immortal Remains (Rowman & Littlefield 2003)
_____, The Gold Leaf Lady (Chicago 2007)
Good case studies. Good discussion of criteria for testimonial evidence.
_____, The Limits of Influence (RKP 1986)
Good discussion of criteria for testimonial evidence.
Burns, R. Miracles, The Great Debate on Miracles from Joseph Glanvill to David Hume (Bucknell University Press 1981).
Documents the fact that Hume's famous essay broke new ground, but was a latecomer to the debate.
Coady, C. Testimony (Oxford 1994)
The standard philosophical monograph on testimonial evidence.
Collins, C. John. The God of Miracles: An Exegetical Examination of God's Action in the World (Crossway 2000).
An evangelical study.
Cruz, N. Run, Baby, Run (Bridge-Logos 1988)
Among other things, describes his deliverance from occult bondage.
Decker R. & M. Dummett. A History of the Occult Tarot (Duckworth 2002)
An erudite overview of the esoteric tradition. Exposé of the lurid lives of some of its leading exponents.
Earman, John. Hume's Abject Failure (Oxford University Press 2000).
A secular critique.
Edwards, P. Reincarnation (Prometheus Books 1996)
Standard philosophical critique. Secular.
Fontana, D. Is There An Afterlife? (O Books 2007)
Useful compendium of case studies. Less reliable on analysis.
Garrett, D. Angels and the New Spirituality (B&H 1995)
An evangelical critique of new age angelology, with sections on some Catholic and Protestant aberrations as well.
Gardner, R. Healing Miracles: A Doctor Investigates (DLT 1987)
Contains extensive case studies by a noted physician.
Gauld, A. Mediumship & Survival (Paladin Books 1982)
Standard monograph by an English psych. prof.
Geivett, D. & G. Habermas, eds. In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God's Action in History (IVP 1997).
A standard reference work.
Goodman, F. How About Demons? (Indiana Press 1988)
Academic study by a cultural anthropologist.
Habermas, G. & J. P. Moreland. Beyond Death (CB 1998)
The standard evangelical work of its kind.
Higton, M. & Holmes, S. "Meeting Scotus: On Scholasticism and Its Ghosts." (International Journal of Systematic Theology 2002)
Hird, Ed. "Carl Jung and the Gnostic Reconciliation of Gender Opposites."
Exposé of Jung's occultic background.
Houston, J. Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume (Cambridge University Press 2007).
An academic critique of Hume.
Hufford, D. The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions (University of Pennsylvania Press; 2nd ed. 1989).
An academic study of Old-Hag syndrome by a noted folklorist.
_____, "Sleep Paralysis as Spiritual Experience," Transcultural Psychiatry 42/1 (March 2005), 11-45.
_____, "Visionary Spiritual Experiences in an Enchanted World," Anthropology & Humanism 35/2 (November, 2010), 142-158.
Inglis, B, The paranormal: An encyclopedia of psychic phenomena (Granada 1985)
Standard reference work.
Irvine, D. From Witchcraft to Christ (Life Journey 2007)
Inspirational story of bondage and deliverance. I'm sure she's sincere, and I think she's credible up to a point. I don't think she would invent her hardscrabble childhood or experience as a junkie and prostitute. On her career as a witch, I'd distinguish between her subjective impressions–which sometimes strike me as fanciful–from her eyewitness descriptions–which are more likely to be accurate.
Jones, J. Black Magic Today (Nel 1971)
By a British journalist. Based on historical investigation and personal observation. Often graphic and gruesome, but a useful window into the true character of the occult.
Kaigh, F. Witchcraft in Africa (Richard Lesley 1947).
An eyewitness account, with a forward by leading scholar on witchraft (Summers), which corroborates Kaigh's account.
Kee, H. Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times (Cambridge 2005)
Standard monograph. Liberal, but learned.
_____, Miracle in the Early Christian World (Yale 1983)
Koch, K. Christian Counseling & Occultism (Kregel 1972)
Koch was a Lutheran exorcist. In his generation, the leading evangelical writer on this topic. Useful for case studies and pastoral advice.
_____, Demonology: Past & Present (Kregel 1973)
_____, Occult ABC (Kregel 1986)
Koestler, A. "Anecdotal Cases," Alister Hardy, Robert Harvie, & Arthur Koestler, The Challenge of Chance (Random House 1974), 167-224.
Events that are too coincidental to be pure coincidence.
Lane, A., ed. The Unseen World: Christian Reflections on Angels, Demons and the Heavenly Realm (Baker), 1996.
Lloyd-Jones, M. Healing & the Scriptures (Nelson 1988)
By a physician and pastor. Chapter 10 lays down some criteria to distinguish possession from natural mental illness.
_____, Not Against Flesh and Blood (Christian Focus Publications 2013).
Addresses on the occult, paranormal, and spiritual warfare.
Martin, M. Hostage to the Devil (HarperSanFrancisco 1992)
A standard Catholic treatment. However, Malachi was a controversial figure. M. Scott Peck, who knew him, evaluates his credibility (see below).
McCall, K. A Guide to Healing the Family Tree (Queenship 1996)
McCall was a distinguished medical missionary, the son of another distinguished missionary. Useful case studies, but less reliable on analysis.
_____, Healing the Haunted (Queenship 1996)
_____, Healing the Family Tree (Sheldon Press 1994)
_____, The Moon Looks Down (Darley Anderson (1987)
Montefiore, H. The Paranormal (Upfront 2002)
Useful compendium of cases studies, but Montefiore is quite pluralistic.
Montgomery, J. W. ed. Demon Possession: A Medical, Historical, Anthropological, and Theological Symposium (Bethany 1976).
Montgomery, J. Principalities and Powers (Bethany 1973).
By the polymathic Lutheran apologist.
Mozley, James B. Eight Lectures on Miracles (BiblioBazaar 2009)
A classic Victorian defense of miracles.
Mullin, R. B. Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination (Yale University Press 1996).
Documents a division in modern Christendom, centered on the status of miracles.
Noll, R. The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung (Random House 1997)
Exposé of Jung's occultic background.
_____, The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement (Princeton University Press 1994).
Noll, S. Angels of Light, Powers of Darkness (IVP 1998)
Standard monograph by a British NT scholar.
Page, S. Powers of Evil: A Biblical Study of Satan and Demons (Baker, 1995).
By Evangelical scholar.
Peck, M. Glimpses of the Devil (Free Press 2005)
Peck was a distinguished psychiatrist. Describes two of his patients, whom he diagnosed as having been possessed, as well as their exorcism.
Poythress, V. "Territorial Spirits."
Useful review of the Biblical data.
Prince, D. Blessing or Curse (Chosen Books 2007)
Prince had a very distinguished résumé. So you'd expect him to be a reliable and insightful writer on the occult. Unfortunately, he's a terribly gullible and impressionable man.
_____, They Shall Expel Demons (Chosen Books 2007)
Radin, D. Entangled Minds (Pocket Books 2006)
Useful for case studies. Less reliable on analysis.
Rahner, K. Visions & Prophecies (Herder & Herder 1963)
Lays down Catholic criteria for private revelation.
Richards, J. But Deliver Us From Evil (DLT 1974)
By an Anglican exorcist. Thorough. Evangelical. One of the best all-around treatments.
Sabom, M. Light & Death (Zondervan 1998)
By a Christian cardiologist on NDEs. Good case studies. Good analysis of competing theories.
"The Shadow of Death."
Sheldrake, R. "Papers on Telepathy."
The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Scientific Enquiry (Coronet 2012)
Sheldrake is a scientific iconoclast who investigates phenomena which the scientific establishment ignores.
Sims, A. "Demon Possession: Medical Perspective in a Western Culture," B. Palmer, ed. Medicine and the Bible (Paternoster 1986), 165-89.
Stoeber, M. & H. Meynell, eds. Critical Reflections on the Paranormal (SUNY 1996)
Useful anthology of essays.
Taylor, G. Pastor Hsi (Overseas Missionary Fellowship 1997)
Biography of a famous Chinese pastor and exorcist.
Twelftree, G. In the Name of Jesus (Baker 2007)
Twelftree is a specialist on NT and early church miracles. Useful, but heavy on redaction criticism.
_____, Jesus the Exorcist (Hendrickson 1993)
_____, Jesus the Miracle Worker (IVP 1999)
_____, Paul and the Miraculous: A Historical Reconstruction (Baker 2013)
Explores a neglected aspect of Pauline theology.
Twelftree, G., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Miracles (Cambridge University Press 2011)
Standard reference work.
Unger, M. Beyond the Crystal Ball (Moody 1974)
Unger was a fine OT scholar. Unfortunately, this particular title is very dated.
_____, Demons in the World Today (Tyndale 1976)
After he changed his mind.
_____, The Haunting of Bishop Pike (Tyndale 1971)
Exposé. A cautionary tale.
Van der Toorn, K., B. Becking & P. van der Horst, eds. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Leiden: Brill, rev. 1999).
Standard reference work.
Wenham, D. & C. Blomberg, Gospel Perspectives VI: The Miracles of Jesus (WS 2003)
Wiebe, P. God and Other Spirits (Oxford 2004)
Philosophical defense of discarnate spirits.
Wright, J. S. Christianity & the Occult (Moody 1972)
By an English Evangelical Bible scholar. One of the best all-around treatments.
Yamauchi, E. "Magic in the Ancient World"
By an erudite evangelical scholar of ancient history.
Yap, P. "The Possession Syndrome in Hong Kong and in Catholic Cultures."
Online version of an article originally published in a peer-reviewed journal.o