“My first knowledge of you wasn’t in a positive light.” Q & R about demons

A reader writes:

I was in Dallas this past Saturday to hear you speak. It was an honor getting to meet you.
Your reading of that passage in Acts was very enlightening. And the explanation of the four spiritual stages was also very eye opening.
I grew up in church [Assembly of God] and was around the bible and christians all of the time. I was raised to believe that everything was either black or white, right or wrong and knowable. Very knowable. Of course I don’t regret growing up this way because in a lot of ways it helped shape who I am today.
In 2006 I became aware that a guy by the name of “Brian McLaren” existed. I was 19 and I was attending the one year internship at the Honor Academy in Texas, it’s connected to Teen Mania Ministries. I learned that we were in a culture war and I, along with many other interns helped organize the first “BattleCry” which was held in San Francisco.
So my first knowledge of you wasn’t in a positive light. You seemed to be on the other side of the culture war, from what I was told. I got the impression that reading any of your books would be slipping into heresy. So I stayed away.
Fast forward four years and I’m back in my hometown and am becoming increasingly restless with church, my current theology, etc etc. I read the bible and look around and I feel like we are missing something big.
So I get a Kindle for my birthday and the first book I buy for it is your book “A New Kind of Christianity”.
And the journey began.
A year later and I feel like I can breathe again. Jesus is real and relational and beautiful. I haven’t felt this way since I was a little kid. It’s like for the first 23 years of my life I was seeing everything in black and white. But this last year I have finally been able to see life in color. I have finally been able to hear sounds I have never been able to hear. I have finally been able to see things I have never seen before.
My faith is real now. Not just some set of beliefs but a real, vital, moving, breathtaking faith.
My friends think I have now shipwrecked my faith and gone into heresy but, if a faith causes you to love more passionately then I think it’s a faith worth keeping.
And that’s what your book “A New Kind of Christianity” helped do to my faith.
I was nervous at first. I felt everything falling down around me. Every previous held belief had to be reconstructed but I am better for it and I love Jesus more now then I ever had.
So, Mr. McLaren, thank you. Thank you for causing me to question and wonder and seek. And thank you for helping me find what I have been looking for for a long, long time.
So for every critical comment you receive just know that there are people out there who, like me, have been eternally influenced by you and will be forever indebted to you.
Thank you again.

On a slightly different note, I do have one question for you.

Here’s the Q:

Growing up in a pentecostal church I saw an emphasis placed on spiritual warfare, demons, satan, demonic possession etc. So these are some concepts that I’m still trying to wrestle with and figure out if there is a different way of viewing. What are your thoughts on demonic possession, demons, satan, and spiritual warfare? Do you think there is a real, literal satan? Can people really be demon possessed? I know it’s not a very popular subject in some circles and in others it is the main point of emphasis. So, is there an alternative way of thinking about these things? If you could point me in the direction of some books that have helped shape your understanding on these things then that would be very helpful as well.
Once again, it was an honor getting to meet you and I appreciate your writing and ministry very much. Keep spreading the gospel because it is changing lives.

Here’s the R:
First, thanks for your encouraging words. I do take them to heart and it means a lot to me that you’d write. You’ve been on an amazing journey … and I know the best is still ahead.
On your question about demons and possession. The Bible contains documents written in a number of contexts by a number of authors with a number of different world-views (for lack of a better term). In many of the biblical documents, demons, possession, and Satan don’t seem to figure into the worldview at all (Exodus, Proverbs, Amos, Micah, Romans, for example). In some biblical documents, they are very important (Job, Daniel, the Synoptics, for example).
The same is true in today’s Christian community. For some of us, demons aren’t terribly important on a day to day basis. For others of us, they are active and ubiquitous.
This raises a question. If the demonic is the window through which some biblical writers viewed the world, must we also? If we answer yes, we might ask, “If the economic system of slavery is the window through which some biblical writers viewed the world, must we also?” For “slavery,” we could substitute “the inferiority of women,” or “a flat earth in a 3-tiered universe” and so on. The question is tougher than it first appears.
In a very small nutshell, here’s my current thinking on the subject (based especially on research I did when I wrote “The Last Word and the Word After That,” and also from reading Walter Wink – whom I highly recommend, starting with “The Powers That Be”):
– A highly developed world view that includes Satan, demons, angels, etc. seems to have developed in Zoroastrianism and was adopted by some Jews – notably the Pharisees (whose name may in fact be a derivation of Farsi – or Persian, where Zoroastrianism originated). For those Jews who adopted this imagery, I have to ask what it brought them, what it gave them that they didn’t already have.
– Belief in demon possession provided a way, I think, for some people to identify self-destructiveness and evil that controlled other people – without simply identifying those persons as evil in themselves. It rendered them as oppressed people needing to be liberated from oppression rather than as evil people needing to be punished or eradicated. This, it seems to me, could be taken as a step towards greater compassion and understanding, and a step away from violence, scapegoating, and fear.
– The idea of spiritual warfare is, I think, critically important. Unfortunately, I think a literalistic understanding of demons only plays into the wrong side of spiritual warfare, because it distracts people from the primary manifestations of “evil spirits” in our world – racism, nationalism, religious and sexual chauvinism, addiction, greed, lust, dehumanization, scapegoating, ideology/idiolatry, and so on. These, in my view, are the “evil spirits” that take control of people and drive them to do things they wouldn’t do “in their right minds.” We must learn how to see the real enemy, the real opposition – not as people, but as these systems (Paul calls them “principalities and powers”) that control people, frame their behavior, and motivate them to harm.
– This is not simply a “naturalistic” or “rationalistic” dismissal of the demonic. It is, rather, an acknowledgment that all human language is powerful but limited, and needs to be understood rhetorically (for what it’s trying to do) not simply literally (for mental images that it is trying to convey as absolute and timeless). Just as an example from science – I’m quite certain that all of us are comfortable using the word “gravity.” Yet none of us has much of an idea of what gravity really is or why it is what it is. Of course, we know what it does. We can employ equations to predict its effects. Yet when it comes to what gravity actually is in its true essence and where it gets its power, we’re as clueless as we are with the word “light.” The words “gravity” and “light” name real things, as do, I think, the words “the satan” and “unclean spirits” and “possession.” But we shouldn’t become too enamored with anyone’s mental image – be it ancient, medieval, modern, postmodern or whatever – because those mental images and the words used to convey them are signs and symbols, not the things themselves. As Paul said, “We know in part, and we prophesy in part.”
We make one mistake, I think, when we exaggerate how much we know about the reality behind “the demonic.” Demi-gods (borrowed from Zorastrianism) or daemons (borrowed from Greek thought) or little monsters imaged in medieval woodcuts (with batlike wings and teeth) were certainly “real” in the minds of those who originated them, but that doesn’t mean we have to conjure the same images when we use the words today. But neither should we take our own mental images too seriously … reality is what it is, and our concepts or mental images are what they are, and the two ain’t necessarily the same thing.
Which brings me to a second mistake we often make … when we react to the first mistake and dismiss the whole business as superstition. When I was a kid, I was given an image of an atom as a little group of marbles with some grains of sand flying around them in orbit. Of course, we know that protons and neutrons are not like tiny marbles, nor are electrons like tiny grains of sand. But that doesn’t mean we dismiss the whole idea of atoms as superstition!
In between those two mistakes, I think there’s room for people who use the language in a variety of ways but are working against things that obstruct God’s justice, compassion, creation, and reconciliation in God’s world. I hope that helps … God bless you in your ongoing journey!