14 June 2022

Introduction to Mythology (book review)

Introduction to MythologyIntroduction to Mythology by Lewis Spence
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found this book in the local library, and after reading the first few pages I nearly took it back unread, because it simply reeked of the spirit of arrogant modernity. It was first published a century ago, in 1921, at the height of modernity, and the attitude of the author is shown in passages like this:
It will now be clear that in the present volume our concern is with the science of myth alone -- tht is with religious beliefs and conjectures as to the nature of things of primitive, ancient or barbarous peoples and not with modern religious science, philosophy or theology.
And in this the author displays the temporal chauvinism that is characteristic of modernity at its arrogant worst. The author's own time and culture are civilised, intelligent and wise; others are barbarous, savage, irrational and stupid. And so the author displays his own sense of supreiority by the frequent use of terms like "barbarian", "savage" and "lower races" for the people he is discussing. The arrogance is shown by the frequent use of words like "obviously" and "undoubtedly" when discussing a debatable or speculative point for which he has given no evidence. And so the author excludes from discussion the modern myth of progress, in which he so obviously and undoubtedly believes.

I once made a similar criticism of another book, Bantu Prophets in South Africa by Bengt Sundkler. That book was about African Independent Churches, and my article was Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism. In that case, however, Sundkler gave a lot of very useful factual information. It was his opinions, interspersed between the facts he gave, that needed to be deconstructed. So I decided to read Spence's Introduction to Mythology in the hope that the usefulness of the facts would outweigh the arrogance of the opinions. And so, to some extent, it was.

.One of the more useful pieces of information I found in Spence's book (p 24f) was on fetishes and fetishism:

... a fetish is an object which the savage all over the world, in Africa, Asia, America, Australia, and, anciently, in Europe, believes to be inhabited by a spirit or supernatural being. Trees, water, stones are in the "animism" phase considered as the homes of such spirits, which, the savage thinks, are often forced to quit their dwelling places because they are under the spell or potent enchantment of a more powerful being. The fetish may be a bone, a stone, a bundle of feathers, a fossil, a necklace of shells, or any object of peculiar shape or appearance. Into this object the medicine man may lure the wandering or banished spirit, which henceforth becomes his servant; or, again, the spirit of its own will may take up residence there. It is not clear whether, once in residence or imprisonment, the spirit can quit the fetish, but specific instances would point to the belief that it could do so if permitted by its "master."

We must discriminate sharply between a fetish-spirit and a god, although the fetish may develop into a godling or a god. The basic difference between the fetish and the god is that whereas the god is the patron and is invoked by prayer, the fetish is a spirit subservient to the individual owner or tribe and if it would gain the state of godhead it must do so by long or marvellous service as a luck-bringer. Offerings may be made to a fetish, it may even be invoked by a prayer or spell,; but on the other hand it may be severely castigated if it fail to respond to the master's desires.

I was both a contributor to and editor of a book, African Initiatives in Healing Ministry, in which one chapter, by Lilian Dube, described the ministry of a Christian prophet from an African Independent Church, Agnes Majecha, one of whose ministries was the neutralising of a kind of fetish called a chikwambo. These were popular in parts of Zimbabwe, where a n'anga (traditional healer) would trap the spirit of a dead person in a chikwambo and sell it to people who wanted to prosper in love or business. The problem was that as time passed, the chikwambo wanted sacrifices, usually blood sacrifices, initially of small animals, but later of larger and more valuable animals, and eventually of human beings. At this point, if not before, the owner would approach someone like Agnes Majecha to neutralise it. I found Spence's description of that general class of objects, fetishes, quite useful.

Spence also gives useful descriptions and summaries of various myths and mythologies from various cultures around the world, and also of the ways in which mythologists in preceding generations, up to his time, had evaluated them. But I found his own evaluations more repellant than many of the others.

In the end, I fall back on the Orthodox philosopher, Nicolas Berdyaev, and prefer what he said about myth in his book Freedom and the Spirit:

Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept. It is high time that we stopped identifying myth with invention, with the illusions of primitive mentality, and with anything, in fact, which is essentially opposed to reality... The creation of myths among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real indeed than that of abstract concepts and rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language memory and creative energy of the people... it brings two worlds together symbolically.

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09 June 2022

Who are the "Evangelicals"?

Someone recently posted a link an article by Nathaniel Manderson: So who are "evangelicals"? And how did they become such massive hypocrites? in a Facebook Group on Progressive Orthodox Christianity. According to that article,

What are these evangelicals? Currently and historically, they are nothing more than a political action committee. They have nothing to do with the foundations of the Christian faith. Their political agenda is based on hate, rejection, condemnation and self-righteousness.

Now to me it seems that that article embodied what is commonly called "hate speech" -- it was calculated to stir up prejudice, bigotry, and hatred, and to judge from the comments it elicited in the Facebook group, it succeeded.

Let's start with "historically". 

Historically, those who call themselves "evangelicals" sprang from the evangelical revival of the 18th century, led by people like John and Charles Wesley, the early leaders of the Methodist movement. Evangelicalism had some roots in earlier Protestant Christian movements, like Puritanism in the UK and Pietism in Central Europe, but was essentially about responses to the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

People like the Wesley brothers (both of them Anglican priests) were concerned that many of the people who attended their church services did not appear to respond to the Gospel, the Evangel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. It did not seem to make any difference to their lives. 

The evangelical movement then spread, emphasising the need for a personal response to the gospel, and a changed life. This, and not "a political agenda based on hate, rejection, condemnation and self-righteousness," is the core of historical evangelicalism. And it is right there in Orthodoxy too. The Gospel, the  "Good News", the "Evangelismos" of Jesus Christ is proclaimed on the Holy Doors of Orthodox temples throughout the world, showing the Archangel Gabriel announcing the good news to Mary, the Mother of God, and the four Evangelists who wrote it down afterwards, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

And the core of evangelicalism is right there in the Orthodox baptism service, where the priest asks the candidate not once, but three times, "Do you unite yourself to Christ?" and the candidate answers "I do unite myself to Christ?” And just to make sure, the priest then asks three more times "Have you united yourself to Christ?" and the candidate again answers three times "I have united myself to Christ".

And the priest asks "Do you believe in him?" and the candidate answers "I believe in him as King and God."

And that is the core of evangelicalism, which in Protestant Evangelicalism has been ritualised as the "altar call". 

In Protestant Evangelicalism the person who does that is said to have been "born again", but in Orthodox theology the person is not actually born again until they have been through the baptism that follows.  In Orthodox theology everyone who is baptised in an Orthodox Church is a "born-again Christian" and this is known as "baptismal regeneration" (John 3:5; Titus 3:5 -- "regeneration" is just a fancy Latin word that means "born again").

The difference between Orthodoxy and Protestant Evangelicalism does not lie in uniting oneself to Christ and believing in him as King and God, but rather in what follows. One could say that the Orthodox Church often appears like a ladder with the bottom four rungs missing. The way baptisms are often performed rushes through  these questions and answers without explanation, and often in a language not understood by anyone present, so that their significance is obscured. Protestant Evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to emphasise these beginning steps almost to the exclusion of anything else. The ritual of the "altar call", in some Evangelical churches, is repeated every Sunday, so that Protest6ant Evangelicalism often looks like a ladder with only the bottom four rungs and nothing above. They substitute decisional regeneration for baptismal regeneration, and regard "decisions for Christ" as the measure of success in evangelising.

So for Protestant Evangelicals "evangelism" meant preaching for a verdict, the aim was to get a person to make a decision for Christ. But Jesus didn't say "collect decisions", he didn’t say “make converts”; he said "make disciples". The early Methodists recognised this, and tried to make disciples with their class system. They recognised that conversion needed to be followed by "sanctification", which is not all that different from the Orthodox notion of theosis. But eventually the Methodists abandoned that, and many of the other evangelicals never adopted it in the first place.

For this reason Anglican Evangelicals were called "Low Church" -- they thought that the church was not so important. What was important was "decisions for Christ". What came after the decision did not matter so much.

The problem was what one sociologist described as "the routinisation of charisma". A new generation grows up with something that was new and fresh to the previous generation, and so there is a need for revival, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries travelling evangelists would go round preaching revival, and setting up tents in various towns where they preached.

One branch of such revival movements found that something that was neglected in the eagerness for "decisions for Christ" was that the first followers of Jesus did not really begin preaching until they had been filled with the Holy Spirit, and so the Pentecostal movement started at the beginning of the 20th century, as an offshoot of the Evangelical movement, emphasising the need for being filled with or baptised in the Holy Spirit. And they developed a new doctrine, that the "initial evidence" that a person was filled with the Holy Spirit was "speaking in tongues".  Many traditional Evangelicals disagreed, and so "Evangelicals" came to be distinguished from "Pentecostals". Many of the Pentecostals were kicked out of Evangelical and other denominations, and so a number of new Pentecostal denominations started and spread their message.

At about the same time, there was also the rise of Fundamentalism. which was quite different. Some 19th-century German Protestant theologians began, as a result of historical and linguistic studies, to question some of the events recorded in the written gospels, and some of the doctrines based on them. Fundamentalists opposed this doctrinal revisionism, and demanded a return to traditional doctrine, to the doctrines they saw as fundamental, like the virgin birth of Christ, the inerrancy of Holy Scripture and so on. Some Evangelicals were drawn into that, but they were different movements. Evangelicals thought Fundamentalists were so concerned about doctrine that they neglected the importance of commitment to Christ. Fundamentalists thought that Evangelicals were so concerned about emotional conversions that they were vague and woolly about the importance of right doctrine. 

Fifty years after the appearance of the Pentecostal movement, a new version of it began to appear among non-Pentecostal denominations, which came to be called the charismatic renewal or charismatic movement. Like the early Pentecostals, they became aware of the downplaying of the Holy Spirit. Like the Pentecostals, they had a renewed awareness of the importance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Unlike the Pentecostals, however, they believed that any of the spiritual gifts mentioned in I Corinthians 12:8-10 could be evidence of being baptised in or filled with the Holy Spirit, and not speaking in tongues only. In some cases, these spiritual gifts appeared spontaneously among groups of non-Pentecostal Christians and they had to find a way of dealing with them. It appeared in many Western Christian groups, including Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Baptists and even among explicitly Evangelical denominations. Many charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations sought advice from Pentecostals, and some of them simply took over Pentecostal pneumatology uncritically. This also happened with some Orthodox who were involved in the charismatic renewal, and they were regarded with suspicion by other Orthodox mainly because of their attempts to import Pentecostal pneumatology into Orthodoxy, whole and undigested.

I met one such person from the USA, who visited South Africa as a self-invited evangelist. He objected to singing Orthodox hymns in any language other than Greek, but was keen on teaching Orthodox Christians to sing Protestant Evangelical hymns in English. In his mind there was a complete separation between the two. For him, Orthodoxy was Greek, and no English or Zulu was allowed to touch it. But for him the Holy Spirit was English, and had nothing to do with Orthodoxy. 

 The charismatic movement flourished from about 1950 to 1980, and then began to split up. Some charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations, unhappy that their denomination did not accept everything they said, went off and formed or joined one of the many Neopentecostal denominations that were springing up around that time. The 1970s were also the age of the cassette tape, and many spiritual loose cannons appeared, announcing that they had new revelations of the Holy Spirit, which were not tested by the Church because of the fissiparousness of Protestantism, but spread all over the world by means of cassette tapes, both audio and video. 

Such were Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland, who came up with the “prosperity gospel”, which was adopted and adapted by many (though not all) of the Neopentecostal denominations (which often, somewhat misleadingly, called themselves “nondenominationaal). 

Traditional Evangelicals often initially opposed the charismatic movement, believing that spiritual gifts had ended after the time of the first apostles. Many Evangelicals had been influenced by another Protestant movement, Dispensationalism, which believed that different parts of the Holy Scriptures were written for different periods of time, called “dispensations”, and so were not applicable to others. They tended to become especially concerned with one of these “dispensations”, which they called the “End Times”, about which various theories were developed, with names like premillennial, postmillennial and amillennial (Orthodoxy, by the way, is amillenial, regarding millennialism, also known as chiliasm, as a heresy). 

Along with the rise od the “prosperity gospel”, the late 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of the “moral majority” movement in the USA, which attracted some evangelicals. and developed into “religious right”, and which the US media now, misleadingly and inaccurately, call “Evangelicals”. And the article by Nathaniel Manderson uncritically adopts their terminology and the spin they put on it. 

I had some acquaintance with one of these former evangelicals who became an enthusiastic supporter of the religious right. This was James D. Kennedy, who, as an evangelical Presbyterian minister, developed a method of training lay people in evangelism, called “Evangelism Explosion” or EE III. When he became part of the religious right, however, he had little to say about evangelism, and nearly all his publis statements were moralistic and political. And it is in this that we can see that the people that Nathaniel Manderson writes about are not Evangelicals, but pseudo-Evangelicals. Because James D. Kennedy appears to have undergone a transformation. 

Evangelicals take that epithet from the Gospel. True Evangelicals tend to see Gospel and Law, Evangelism and Moralism, as essentially opposed to each other. But James D. Kennedy clearly shows a change of focus, from being evangelistically minded to being moralistically minded. He appears to have undergone a kind of conversion. He seemed to stop evangelising and start moralising. 

Before 1980 many Evangelicals tended to be a-political. They regarded political involvement as a distraction from the main task of preaching the Gospel. At the time I thought their attitude was counter-productive. How can you preach good news to the poor and oppressed while removing the “good” from the news? But during the 1980s in South Africa, many Evangelicals were becoming woke -- that is, aware of social injustice, and the irrelevance of their manner of preaching the gospel to the poor and oppressed, and many sought ways to remedy that. But at the same time the message of the US religious right, made up of ex-Evangelicals and others, was spreading around the world. So I believe that the article by Nathaniel Manderson is dangerously simplistic, and promotes prejudice and bigotry that feeds hatred. 

Orthodox Christians do have theological differences with Protestant Evangelicals, but should not get their information about Evangelicals from such simplistic caricatures. It would be better to meet real Evangelicals, and not the fake ones of the US religious right, who have abandoned their evangelical faith for the political pottage of this sinful world, and have failed to realise, as one Evangelical pastor put it, when writing about the US civil rights struggle in the 1960s, that “what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us”.



This article was written primarily for Orthodox Christians, who often know little about non-Orthodox Christians, including Evangelicals, and are often unaware of the differences between Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Fundamentalist, Dispensationalists and the Religious Right. Though there are some overlaps, those are all distinct groups. Not all Evangelicals are members of the Religious Right, and vice versa. I am aware that some deprecate the use of phrases like "not all". But I believe that though not all those who deprecate the phrase are bigots, many of those who do deprecate it are bigots, and do it in order to promote bigotry. 

Dr Stephen Hayes is an Orthodox deacon living in Tshwane, South Africa. 

He has degrees and diplomas in church history, history, theology and missiology from the Universities of KwaZulu-Natal, Durham and South Africa. 


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