Demons, Lies and Shadows: A Plea for a Return to Text and Reason
Pierre Gilbert. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred Press, 2008. 177 pages.
In the closing pages of Demons, Lies and Shadows Pierre Gilbert claims that indifference is not a plausible response to his book; that “Either the reader will enthusiastically embrace its thesis, be profoundly troubled and challenged by it, or oppose it vehemently” (144). While only time may tell if some readers will meet this book with indifference, there is little question that Demons, Lies and Shadows will be problematic for readers drawn from at least two general circles, though for quite different reasons.
Gilbert, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at Canadian Mennonite University, has subtitled this book “A Plea for a Return to Text and Reason,” and some may conclude that he has placed too much weight on reason, while others will find that he leans too heavily on a particular way of reading biblical text. In the former category, there will be those formed in the various pentecostal and charismatic schools of thought for whom Gilbert’s position will represent a dramatic minimizing of the power and destructive potential of the demonic. In the latter will be those whose thought has been formed in the liberal tradition of the modern West, who will conclude that Gilbert’s insistence on the literal existence of demonic entities is simply not defensible in the twenty-first century.
One of the more helpful insights in this book is Gilbert’s critique of the “demonic warfare” approach, an approach which has a great deal of currency in much of North American evangelical church culture. For Gilbert, this approach—which has been developed by such well placed and influential leaders as C. Peter Wagner of Fuller Seminary and popularized through the Christian fiction industry—has more in common with the animist and occult worldview of ancient Mesopotamia than it does with the worldview of the biblical landscape.
Gilbert understands the creation narratives of Genesis 1–3 to contain “the blueprint of a biblical worldview.” His treatment of these texts is sophisticated and reasoned, as he remains steadfastly disinterested in the questions of the mechanics of how things came to be. Instead he focuses on the theological and spiritual proclamation that God is the Creator, and that the created order has been named as good. Gilbert is clear in his understanding of how these narratives address the question of demons and magic: “By emptying the physical universe of its deities, the author destroyed the very existence of magical power and the possibility of manipulating it. It was a way of declaring: ‘A piece of wood is just a piece of wood!’ No gods . . . no magic!” (57). Gilbert wonders if the worldview which informs much of the “demonic warfare” model is in fact one which includes a great deal of magic, as well as a fairly thorough skepticism about the “goodness” of the very creation itself. In other words, at the heart of his critique of that model is a set of theological convictions regarding the nature and character of God and creation.
However, given how heavily this book relies on the concept of worldview, it must be noted that it is not entirely accurate to speak of a single biblical worldview. Frankly, to treat Genesis 1–3 as “the blueprint of a biblical worldview” does not contend seriously with the reality that our Scriptures come to us from multiple writers, times, political contexts, even worldviews.
To be fair, Gilbert does pay close attention to the texts which suggest that the church cannot be indifferent to the reality of the demonic order. “Demons are real,” he writes, “but their reality is mere illusion in the presence of the absolute reality of God” (135). As such, the only power which the demonic holds is that of persuasion, and Gilbert is quite clear that the human will is such that it can be persuaded or not. In his view, one of the worst things that we can do is to forfeit a theology of human freedom, and replace it with one of an overwhelmingly powerful demonic sphere. In short, to say that “the devil made me do it” is indefensible theologically.
It is important to recognize how heavily Gilbert’s argument relies on the assumption that human beings are creatures of reason and of what would seem to be unimpaired will. He does not contend, for instance, with St Paul’s critical insight into his own disordered will and fractured self: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).
Nonetheless, Gilbert offers some extremely important insights, which are likely to have resonance for anyone who has confronted the rise (and inevitable fall) of some sort of purported occult activity or oppression in his or her ministry context. This reviewer spent several years ministering as chaplain at an adolescent treatment center, and observed that throughout the child welfare system rumors of occult activity and ritual abuse would periodically surface. Here the case workers and front line staff most likely to become caught up and focused on such rumors were either people formed in churches committed to “demonic warfare” or they were people of little or no faith.
This provides some anecdotal support for Gilbert’s thesis that the demonic has only the power that is freely given it, and also bears out his observation that no one is more vulnerable to misdirected occult beliefs than those who have no broader theological framework from within which to understand such matters. Those otherwise secular and non-religious staff members were among the quickest to react, and to do so out of both fear and an almost morbid interest in the macabre. Gilbert is unflinching in his conviction that the answer to these questions of evil and the demonic is not simply to become increasingly secular in our worldview, but rather to be rooted in a thoroughgoing theological proclamation that steadfastly names it as empty lies and illusory. Whatever the shortcomings of the book, this is a challenging and timely invitation to move to a place of theological depth and sophistication.
One final observation. The first few pages of this book will leave the reader unclear as to where Gilbert is headed, as the opening section appears to be something of a catalog of moral outrages committed through the influence of a very crafty, personal devil. As the chapter moves along, one begins to see that Gilbert has begun this way in order to connect to the general reader accustomed to such an approach, and then to begin to move toward challenging such a view. In fact, much of that introductory chapter should have been dispensed with, and replaced by a slightly edited version of the much stronger closing chapter, “A Few Final and Sobering Words.”