Gods of Power by Philip M. Steyne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is quite extraordinary. The author presents a kind of Platonic ideal of animism, as he sees it, and then criticises it from the point of view of "biblical Christianity". As I read it I kept reminding myself of the saying, "To the person whose only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And so, for this author, everything looks like animism.
There is page after page about what "animist man" believes and does, because that is that the author tells us "animist man" believes and does. One page of vague generalisations follows another, often quite contradictory. "Animist man" we are told feels powerless in a universe where everything is controlled by powerful spirits, but with the right rites "animist man" can control and manipulate these spirits and become omnipotent. So the picture emerges of "animist man" as simultaneously powerless and omnipotent.
The main problem with such an approach is that "animism" appears as a purely external construct. The ubiquitous "animist man" is never asked for his opinion of what his beliefs and practices are, and there aren't even any empirical examples. The "Gods of Power" of the title is an abstraction, because none of the gods referred to is named or described.
"Animism" is a term used by anthropologist Edward Tyler (1832-1917) to describe and explain the beliefs of some people, who were not raised in the culture of Western modernity, that non-human life forms, such as animals and plants, and even objects regarded as inanimate by Western man, such as rocks, mountains and rivers, had their own personality or soul. Since it is an attempt to interpret one kind of culture in terms of another, such attempted interpretations often tell us as much or more about the interpreting culture than about the one ostensibly being interpreted.
Steyne, however, tells us nothing of this, but instead asserts, "Animism's chief presupposition is the sovereignty of man." This is almost diametrically opposed to Tyler's point, which was that animism's chief presupposition is that humanity is merely one life-form among many, and that other life forms have their own purposes which might not necessarily coincide with human ones.
There are lots of references and the book has a fairly comprehensive bibliography; one would only have hoped that the author had made better use of it.
I said at the beginning that this was an extraordinary book. Most of it is extraordinarily bad, in that one will learn very little about animism or a Christian evaluation of it from its sweeping over-generalisations, and even less about gods of power. The first 14 chapters range from mediocre to very bad. Chapter 15 is somewhat better, but of questionable relevance. The final chapter, however, is quite extraordinarily good, and contains some excellent missiological advice, whether one is evangelising animists or not.
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Well, that's my review though why anyone should now be interested in a review of a 30-year-old book I'm not sure. But for anyone interested (and if you've read this far you might be), here are some more personal thoughts on and inspired by the book.
I spotted this book on the library shelf and took it out because I was attracted by the title, Gods of Power. I was attracted by the title because I'm exploring a theme, or a trope, in a novel I'm writing. Yes, I am a missiologist, and that no doubt influences my fiction writing when it touches upon missiological topics, as in this case.
The theme that I'm writing about in my novel is what happens to gods of people when they lose their power? Neil Gaiman wrote on a similar theme in his American Gods, about what happens to gods when their worshippers are transported to a new environment. My theme is somewhat different, though -- it's more what happens to the gods of vanished empires who have lost their worshippers. Will they go searching for new sources of power in other lands?
Unlike Steyne, I don't think all such deities are "animist", or that they were worshipped by "animist man". Several religions in the ancient Near East had notions of divine kingship, where a god personified the power of the state, and was linked to the king. Regarding rocks, mountains and rivers as personalities, or at least as occupied by spirits, is animist, but seeing abstract entities, like the state, in the same way, it seems to me, falls outside the definition of animism. So Steyne's labelling them all as animist, without giving any specific instances, was of little use to me. So his book didn't suit my purpose, but does that mean that my reaction to it is just sour grapes? I don't think so. I think that if he had stuck to the generally accepted understanding of animism and based it more on empirical evidence of actual animist beliefs and practices to justify his description and labelling, it would have been a better an more useful book generally.
And in the mean time I'm still looking for stories of gods who have lost their power because no one worships them any more.