Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 7, Number 2


Contrasting Secular and Animistic Interpretations

Tod K. Vogt


West Africa was once know as the Slave Coast and provided many of the slaves to Brazil, the Caribbean and the United States. Spiritism of Brazil, Santeria of Cuba and Voodoo of Haiti find their roots in the traditional religions of West Africa. However, Benin is commonly accepted as the cradle of Voodoo. The ancient city of Abomey was the seat of the Dahomean kingdom and today is a center of world Voodoo. I am deeply curious about the reality of the spiritual realm, the existence and power of Satan and his demons, their influence over Christians and the proper response to their activities. My experience and my ministry as a missionary among the Fon people of Benin provide the rationale for this investigation into the interpretations of demonic possession found in the Gospel of Mark.

When asked to pray for someone who is being tormented by evil spirits, how should we respond? Should we explain the non-existence of such spirits? Should we take them to the hospital? Should we accommodate their pre-scientific understanding, pray for them while maintaining disbelief in their plight? Or, perhaps there are evil spirits tormenting them and our job is to confront them in the name of Jesus and offer to the person the freedom which Jesus offered to many throughout the Gospel of Mark. I do not propose to answer definitively these questions. In an attempt to uncover interpretive models rather than develop a theology of demons in the Gospel of Mark, I chose only three passages to investigate. I believe this approach will demonstrate the differences that exist on the worldview level between Western theology and the theology of Fon Christians of Benin, West Africa.


The Secular Animistic Axis

In his book Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts (199l) Gailyn Van Rheenen, citing Timothy Warner, identifies a worldview continuum that contrasts Secularism with Animism.


Van Rheenen defines secularism as the "belief that there are no spiritual powers" (1991:96). He defines animism as the "perception that all of life is controlled by spiritual powers and human beings seek to manipulate these powers" (1991:96). According to Van Rheenen, "secularists disavow any power that cannot be perceived, studied, and analyzed by the five senses. God is relegated to the spiritual realm where he is allowed little authority over the world he created. Only natural powers that can be empirically analyzed are thought to operate in the natural world" (1991:96).

Like anthropology, western theology has tended toward secular explanations. Van Rheenen identifies three ways by which western theologians express their secular worldview (1991:96-97).

  1. They ignore the concept of spiritual powers in biblical writings.
  2. They assert that though spiritual powers existed in the past, their existence ceased with the death of Jesus.
  3. They have used various secular interpretations to explain that the powers are not personal spiritual powers (i.e., spirits, demons, etc.).
Western theology has reflected the philosophical transformation of western culture. As Western culture has become more secular, western theology has followed.

Myth versus History

Adela Yarbro Collins properly identifies the temptation of Western theologians to interpret Scripture from a secular point of view. "A recurring issue in the analysis of biblical narratives ... has been the tension between myth and history. The miraculous and the supernatural elements in biblical narratives...have led modern critical historians to deny that these narratives may be defined as historical narratives" (1992:23). She shows how Western theologians refuse to allow for realities outside their worldview and, therefore, make a distinction between myth and history; myth being all supernatural elements found in Scripture and history being what is left.

Common Explanations of Possession

Most secular theologians offer one of three explanations for demon possession. These explanations are not mutually exclusive, often being employed in tandem. First, many authors offer medical interpretations which fit the descriptions of possession. Wm. Menzies Alexander devotes his entire text to an analysis of the biblical text through the filter of history and medicine. He writes, "In every case (of possession) a consistent and reliable diagnosis is attainable" (1902:10).

Second, scholars interpret the conflict with demons metaphorically. Rawlinson states, "It is not impossible that (in) this Marcan conception of our Lord's ministry ... we ought to see a Christian spiritualization of the ancient Jewish conception of the 'Messianic War" (1949:1). Rawlinson refuses a space-time occurrence. From His perspective Mark was not reporting an historical occurrence but weaving a tale, capitalizing on the beliefs of the day to speak of a wholly different subject.

Third, scholars reinterpret the demons to be any or all sin. C.S. Lewis employs this method as he recounts his conversion, "For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion" (1955:213). Lewis implies that finding a variety of sins within oneself is equivalent to the Gerasene demoniac's possession by Legion. He denies the uniqueness of demonic possession and makes it a phenomenon common to all people. The demons are no longer the personal spiritual enemies of Jesus, waging war against the Kingdom of God, but are expressions of natural, human weaknesses.

Jesus & the Demoniac in Capernaum: Mark 1:21-28

Secular Interpretations

"The narrative [Mark 1:21-28) abounds in primitive features" (Taylor 1952:171). Perhaps Taylor's analysis of the passage as 'primitive' is representative of the secular approach. W.C. Allen prefers accommodation. He implies that demons do not really exist but that Jesus accommodated the prevailing understanding of first century Palestinians (1915:59). Scholars have commonly used accommodation to explain difficult passages, not the least of which are passages describing demon exorcisms.

Other scholars prefer reading the passage metaphorically, not having occurred in space and time, but having a larger, thematic meaning. Barnes interprets the exorcism of demons as the freeing of a sinner from sin. In essence Barnes reduces the exorcism to an experience common to all who come to Jesus.

Other authors emphasize the symptoms of the possession and interpret them medically. Wm. Menzies Alexander claims of the demoniac, "The whole conduct of this demoniac proves that he is laboring under a maniacal attack of an acute and dangerous kind" (1902:67). He concludes by saying "the final diagnosis is reached without difficulty. The case is one of epileptic insanity (1902, 68)." C. Leslie Mitton adopts the same interpretation. He chooses to view the demoniac not as one who suffers under the oppression of evil spirits but rather a pitiable man full of fear, guilt, shame and the like. For Mitton, he is a neurotic not a demoniac. Alexander and Mitton do not reflect the prevailing thinking among scholars. Most scholars tend to interpret Mark 1:21-28 either as a projection of Jesus' identity or as expressive of his authority over evil. Earle emphasizes the theme of power or authority. Hurtado writes, "Mark obviously intends this part of the episode as an illustration that Jesus was much more than simply another teacher, and that the authority claimed in his teaching represented a real authority, not simply an empty claim" (1983:27).

Fon Interpretations

Mark 1:21-28 is not particularly difficult to Fon Christians. They take it literally. For the most part, they accept the details of the account as they are presented in the text and are not tempted to reinterpret the details as referring to other phenomena or as having a larger thematic meaning. They see a confrontation between Jesus, the emissary of God, and an underling of his arch-enemy. They see a battle waging, albeit between unevenly matched foes. In general, they see Jesus saving.

For modern Western Christians, salvation is primarily spiritual but for the Fon Christians salvation has very real physical dimension. This exorcism demonstrates this physical dimension of salvation. Salvation and liberation from the forces of evil are synonyms. Salvation for animistic peoples, including the Fon has the immediate result of providing power with which they can fight against the evil spirits or evil forces that torment them. They focus on verse 24. "And he cried out 'What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, The Holy One of God." Where Western theologians give emphasis to the identity of Jesus, Fon Christians give emphasis to the power of Jesus. Their concerns are earthly versus the predominantly cosmic concerns of Western theologians.

For the Fon Christian there is little difference between the authority of Jesus and his power. When Fon Christians consider Jesus' authority they are really concerned with the power he has to affect this world. His authority is not a nebulous concept or cosmic truth but a this-worldly power that is manifest in healings, exorcisms and miracles. For the animist, the authority with which one speaks is verified by the power which he exhibits. They see that Jesus is not subject to the same forces to which they have been subject. They see a manifestation of power that promises to help them live their daily lives.

Jesus & the Demoniac at Gerasa: Mark 5:1-20

Secular Interpretations

The story of the Gerasene demoniac poses several interpretive problems for the Western theologian. Paramount among these is the question of the pigs. If one accepts a secular interpretation of the existence and activity of demons, namely that they do not exist and/or have no influence in the natural world, the problem still remains: What of the pigs?

Allen concedes, "The attempt to explain the demons in the New Testament in cases of demoniac possession as personified diseases meets with great difficulty in this narrative" (1915:88). Though Allen admits that this passage challenges the validity of a medical interpretation of demonic possession, he adopts such an interpretation referring to the possessed man as, "the lunatic possessed with the belief that a number of evil demons have taken possession of his body and have made it their home" (1915:88). But how does Allen explain the pigs? "The impelling force was probably the demoniac himself, who by shouts and yells would drive from him the now "demon-possessed" (quotes mine) swine" (1915:88). Allen is not alone in this interpretation. Attributing the action of the pigs to the rantings of the demoniac is the most common explanation.

Alexander categorizes the affliction as a psychological phenomenon. Referring to the condition of the demoniac, he uses phrases like; "pathognomic of acute mania," "mental derangement," "madman," and "dismal state of mind" (1902,73,76,77). He concludes decisively, "The demoniac of Gerasa {suffers} from acute mania" (1902:80-81).

For Earle the behavior of the demoniac illustrates the destructiveness of sin. Others embrace similar metaphorical interpretations. In an attempt to find this passage useful, Western theologians search for metaphorical meanings in the details of the account. The destructive behavior of the demoniac becomes the result of sin. The need of the demoniac to be freed from the possessing demons becomes every man's need to be freed from the bondage of sin. The plea of Legion for Jesus to leave him becomes every man's aversion to change. The story is no longer about a man possessed of a demon but about every man's struggle with sin and the weaknesses of human nature.

Fon Interpretations

Fon Christians interpret this passage similarly to Mark 1:21-28. They typically search for immediate application in their lives. They see the power of Jesus demonstrated. They see healing. They see salvation coming to a man. They see the Gerasene demoniac was distinctly different after his encounter with Jesus. His encounter changed the quality of his life. Fon Christians expect that encountering Jesus will change the quality of their lives as well. They believe this because of the power that they see demonstrated in this exorcism. Power and physical salvation are the key issues on which Fon Christians focus.

Fon Christians perceive an ordered spiritual realm. They believe that there are greater and lesser spiritual powers. They believe there are personal spiritual powers and impersonal spiritual forces. When they read the Bible, this perception is confirmed. They observe the demons and their reaction to Jesus and understand Jesus to be near the top (if not at the top) of the spiritual hierarchy. In this passage they see the inability of human beings to control the demoniac and the ease with which Jesus casts out Legion.

Jesus & the Demoniac Boy: Mark 9:14-29

Secular Interpretations

Typical interpretations of this passage are not markedly different from the interpretations of Mark I :21-28 or 5:1-20. Again, the secular interpretations can be categorized as either medical or metaphorical.

W.C. Allen denies the existence of demons and contends that Jesus accommodated the prevailing beliefs of Palestine. Barnes classifies the symptoms "as marks of violent derangement or madness" (year unknown, 67). These authors prefer stock explanations and avoid delving deeply into the difficult questions surfaced by the text. Such as, if this was simply a case of epilepsy, why could the disciples cure it when they had presumably cured other similar illnesses (see 6: 13)? What makes epilepsy more physiologically or psychologically difficult to cure than acute mania? What is it about prayer that makes it necessary for the cure of epilepsy but not for other physical or mental disorders?

Hurtado attempts a metaphorical interpretation. "This story immediately follows the mountaintop transfiguration in all three Synoptic accounts, probably because the writers intended an analogy between this incident and the incident in Exodus 32 in which Moses returns from his mountaintop encounter with God to find faithlessness on the part of Israel" (1983:147). Hurtado walks a fine line between relegating the exorcism to mere metaphorical status and making an apt application of evident principles.

Fon Interpretations

The Fon Christians generally agree on the central issue of this passage. They believe that Jesus is addressing the centrality of faith in the life of one who wants to follow Him. However, some Fon Christians address the faith of the disciples and others address the faith of the father of the boy.

None of the Fon Christians consulted adopt a medical or metaphorical interpretation to explain this passage. They interpret it practically. There is a general acceptance of this type of demon possession and this passage gives them clues as to a proper response. Fon Christians believe demon possession of this nature is common and there is little or no temptation to seek larger thematic meanings. They quickly identify with the possession of the boy and are glad to receive teaching on how best to deal with this possession.


Of all secular interpretations offered, perhaps the most tempting is that of accommodation. Accommodation finds support not only among western theologians but also among modern, secular anthropologists. However, assuming that Jesus accommodated the prevailing beliefs of first century Palestinians concerning demon possession leads one to wonder if he accommodated other beliefs. Which beliefs? If the exorcisms which we find in Scripture are examples of Jesus' accommodation, the authenticity of all Scripture comes into question and we open the proverbial can of worms.

Generally, the difference between the secular interpretations and the animistic interpretations is the difference between the cosmic and the earthly. Western theologians subsequently interpret exorcism accounts in cosmic terms, as shedding light on Jesus' identity or representing salvation for humanity or emphasizing the uniqueness of Jesus' teachings. However, Christians from animistic cultures interpret these passages in earthly terms; protection, power, healing, freedom, etc. Where Western theologians largely address ideas worthy of reflection, Fon Christians address daily problems which anyone doing biblical interpretation, be he American, German, Brazilian or Beninese, brings to his study a lifetime of suppositions, values, beliefs and attitudes. It would be naive to believe that one can divorce himself from his pervasive sense of reality. His reality, his worldview, significantly shapes his conclusions. For the vast majority of the world's Christians, the Good News is not that they are deluded, pre-industrial, and superstitious or that they suffer from epilepsy, but that One exists with the power and the will to cast a demon or a legion of demons from their lives.

Developing a Theology of Demons for Africa

Osadolor Imasogie, a leading African theologian, asserts that a Western worldview is synonymous with a secular worldview, or in his words, "a quasi-scientific worldview" (1983). He claims, "Traditional Christian theology has been ineffective in Africa because it is conditioned by a quasi scientific worldview which blinds it to, and thereby makes it unresponsive to, the reality of the African's self-understanding within his own worldview (1983:47). He continues, "Such a quasi scientific worldview is bound to deny or, at best, to ignore the African worldview and thereby renders the resultant theology irrelevant to the existential needs of the African" (1983:47). So, missionaries working in Africa need to develop a theology of demons that speaks to the African worldview while remaining faithful to the biblical text. Historically, however, missionaries have ignored this need and pushed forward with their Western interpretations of scripture. In this quagmire of worldviews, methods of interpretations, presuppositions, scientific progress and cultural sensitivity, where is the truth? How can one reconcile scientific progress with the African experience? How does one develop a theology of demons for Africa?

The Existence or Absence of the "Excluded Middle"

In his article, The Flaw of The Excluded Middle (1982), Paul Hiebert alludes that Western culture has ignored a spiritual realm which exists between the natural realm and the supernatural realm. This realm he calls the "excluded middle." In this realm are thought to exist spiritual beings such as evil spirits, ancestors, imps and the like and spiritual forces like mana, fate, magic and sorcery.

The authors consulted and the Fon Christians interviewed for this paper aptly picture the tension between a belief in the existence or a belief in the absence of the middle realm. They aptly demonstrate how one's cultural presuppositions will radically affect one's interpretation of Scripture. Where does reality lie? Does a middle realm exist?

The Secular-Animistic Axis, presented earlier identifies three points along the continuum: secularism, theism and animism. Van Rheenen defines theism as the "conception of God as sovereign over his world but allowing people to choose their allegiance in life" (1991:96). Where the secularist refuses the existence of powers vying for the allegiance which rightly belongs to God and the animist believes that powers exist and wield enormous influence over humans to the point of controlling them, the theist believes that the powers exist in contrast to the sovereign God but humans are free to choose to whom they vow their allegiance.

Should Western Christians begin to accept the middle realm? How does one sort-out the spiritual realities? Explanations offered by Christians from animistic cultures do not necessarily reflect the spiritual reality. They perhaps attribute too much power to a wide pantheon of spirits. Likewise, explanations offered by western Christians do not necessarily reflect reality. They perhaps ignore the spiritual altogether or at least pay so little attention to it that functionally it does not exist.

A proper understanding of the gospel of Mark is not one that denies the existence or activity of the demonic nor accepts demons hiding under every rock and behind every bush. Mark presents a view of the spiritual realm that is theistic. Evil spirits exist. They permeate life. They exercise power to harm and to persecute. However, they are not omnipotent. Humanity is not wholly at their mercy. Power is available and salvation is offered.

Secular interpretations of the demonic in the gospel of Mark are inadequate, they ignore both scripture and human experience. Animistic interpretations are also inadequate, they see everything in terms of the demonic. A middle road leading to the middle realm accepts the existence and activity of the demonic while leaving God on the throne a sovereign. A proper interpretation of the demonic passages in the gospel of Mark is to see Satan and God vying for the allegiance of man. Man, then, must choose to whom he will offer allegiance.



ALEXANDER, Wm. Menzies.


ANDERSON, Janice Capel and MOORE, Stephen D.

BAKPE, Constant

BARNES, Albert


COLLINS, Adela Yarbro


DAVIDI, Nicholas

EARLE, Ralph


GERSI, Douchan

GUELICH, Robert A.



IMASOGIE, Osadolor

KATO, Byang H.

LANE, William L.




MITTON, C. Leslie,




TAYLOR, Vincent

THOMPSON, Ernest Trice



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