Introduction: God is Dead
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the philosopher Nietzsche famously pronounced that God was dead, and that we had killed him. By the middle of the twentieth century pundits were suggesting he was right. It was believed that advances in science & secular reason were extinguishing forever religious belief & practice, and the steady decline in church attendance seemed to back this up.
But rather than becoming a secular atheistic nation as many predicted, 21st century Britain has undergone a spiritual revival. BUT, it has not been a Christian revival. Instead Britain is increasingly embracing a post-Christian spirituality. It poses both huge challenges and great opportunities to the church.
From Scooby Doo to Most Haunted
We can see how the spiritual temperature of the country has changed by looking at what is shown on TV.
Scooby Doo – first broadcast in 1969. In the cast of Scooby Doo you have Fred, who is the leader and a determined detective, then there is Velma, who is an intelligent analyst, and Daphne who is danger prone, and Shaggy and Scooby Doo, who are more motivated by hunger than any desire to solve mysteries. In the show it was always assumed that the ghosts or demons weren’t real. At the end of each show, the ghost or demon would be unmasked as being the disgruntled care taker or mayor.
Now we have programs on TV shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Charmed which centres around three sisters who are witches, and the new UK show Switch, which is a supernatural comedy-drama centring on a quartet of young, glamorous witches known as "The Witches Of Camden".
And then so called ‘reality’ shows such as Most Haunted, Great British Ghosts and Paranormal Investigation: Live. These programs often use mediums, participate in séances and even on occasions use Ouija boards to try and contact the dead spirits. This is being aired on main stream TV, at peak viewing hours.
On Freeview there is a channel called Psychic TV, where you can speak to psychics and mediums, and have your fortune read.
What these shows demonstrate, is the great interest that now exists in the paranormal and how the paranormal has gone main stream.
Many people view this as simple harmless entertainment, but there is another much more dangerous side to all of this that we will explore later.
We have also seen the growth in interest of the New Age - spiritualism, fortune telling, aromatherapy, meditation, crystals, astrology, eastern mysticism and various self development techniques have become big business. Psychic fairs are springing up all over the place, in pubs, community centres, and town halls. I even heard of a school in Walsall where the PTA were planning a psychic fair was a school fund raiser.
Then there is the growth of Spiritualist Churches, which quite often describe themselves as ‘Christian’. For example, St Michael’s Healing Sanctuary in Birmingham state on their website “This wonderful church is open to all, whether it be for healing, messages from their loved ones, who have passed to Spirit, or simply, for guidance for their own pathways of life.” On their website they state “Many Spiritualists follow the example and teachings of Jesus the Christ.” They do not see any conflict between what they are doing, and what the Bible teaches. But on this issue the Bible is clear, Leviticus 19:31 states “‘Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them.”
This is just one of many prohibitions against getting involved in spiritualism and the occult.
The things I have so far mentioned, may not be things we have personally experienced, but how many of us have read a horoscope? Or do you ever say ‘touch wood’, in order to avoid bad luck? Do you know that the expression touch wood, derives from the pagan belief that malevolent spirits inhabited wood, and that if you expressed a hope for the future you should touch, or knock on, wood to prevent the spirits from hearing and presumably preventing your hopes from coming true.
Then there is the growth of alternative forms of treatment, such as Yoga, spiritual healing, crystals, Reiki, etc, which more and more people are exploring and getting involved with –
The spirituality of the new age
What is the difference between this new age spirituality and Christianity, and why are so many people being drawn to it?
Steve Hollinghurst, who is a researcher in evangelism to Post-Christian Culture at the Church Army Sheffield Centre, writes that we now live in the age of DIY spirituality. Personal experience and belief, rather than tradition or reason, are the determinants of new beliefs, and with that almost anything can be believed, provided it makes no claim to be true for anyone but you. Any faith that makes a claim to universal truth, like the Christian claim that Jesus is ‘The Way, The Truth and The Life’ is treated with great suspicion.
Spirituality has become a commodity, people pick and mix what they want from different religious beliefs and practices.
What people are searching for are things that work for them. They are looking for answers. Why do people go to fortune tellers or read horoscopes? In order to know what the future holds for them. Why do they go to clairvoyants? Because they want to believe there is life beyond death, they are looking for hope. Here we can see how as Christians we can start to engage with these people, and offer them the message of true hope in Jesus Christ. Because what many of these people are looking for is a genuine spiritual encounter with a God who works in miraculous ways. BUT they don’t see the church as the place for such an encounter. Why is that?
What the Bible says
Many of the people involved in new age spiritual practices, see no harm in what they are doing. Those engaged with alternative therapies, such as channelling, crystals and Reiki, genuinely want to help people. You may ask the question, does it matter. The answer is yes it does, because involvement in these new age practices can have serious spiritual consequences.
For example only this week I heard from one Vicar who told me that in the last 2.5 years he has been called to around 10 homes, where people have been experiencing some very strange and terrifying things after visiting clairvoyants. For example earlier this year he visited the home of the daughter of one of his church members. This young woman had visited a clairvoyant in Walsall, and as a result a lot of fear had been brought into the home, and they were experiencing very strange phenomena in the house such as unexplained noises, changes in temperature, seeing people that weren’t there, being grabbed, and so on. This same vicar has also been called to do exorcisms in several homes after people visited a spiritualist church based in Darlastan. What he says is that a lot of people are coming to him filled with fear as a result of these encounters. He said to me “many people around Walsall are involving themselves in the occult - clairvoyance, palm readings, Ouija boards, 'Spiritualist' evenings and parties - and they seek knowledge, power and security from these things. At some point they end up further confused and oppressed by very dark forces.” What the clairvoyants are doing is offering knowledge, and therefore power, in ways that are not sanctioned by God, and are therefore open to much deception.
We are in a spiritual warfare. Paul in Ephesians 6:12 writes “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” And the apostle Peter writes “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
Pope Benedict said “The more one understands the holiness of God, the more one understands the opposite of what is holy, namely, the deceptive masks of the devil.” We need to recognise that the Devil comes to deceive, trap and destroy, and that the Devil will do all he can to draw as many people away from Christ as he can.
Jesus likened the devil to a thief who comes "to steal, kill, and destroy" (John 10:10). And Paul warns that Satan often “masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). The devil is the great tempter, who uses deception and darkness to bring about confusion and doubt, in order to lead us away from Christ. He wants to undermine our faith and trust in God.
The Venus Fly Trap works by attracting its prey with sweet smelling sap. Unaware of the danger, the prey is lured in, and the jaws of the Venus fly trap close trapping its prey inside. Like an insect attracted to the Venus fly trap, many people are unaware of the dangers involved in astrology, and horoscopes, and new age practices. Satan uses it as a trap, it is extremely easy to become obsessed by them, and for them to start controlling your life.
In a book titled Horoscopes and the Christian, Robert Morey says, “Astrology is an all-consuming world view which can potentially dictate every aspect of our daily lives. Astrology would ultimately bring about the destruction of reason, hope, meaning, significance and love” When people get involved in astrology, fortune telling, horoscopes, and so forth, they are opening themselves up to spiritual powers and forces that are not of God, which ultimately lead us away from God, and can lead to spiritual death.
This is why the Bible makes it clear we should have no dealings whatsoever with occult practices. In Deuteronomy 18:9-13 the Lord says, “ Let no one be found among you... who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord…. 13 You must be blameless before the Lord your God.” And 1 Chronicles 10:13-14 tells us that one of the reasons Saul died was because ‘he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, 14 and did not inquire of the Lord.’
In Acts we read about Paul’s experiences in the city of Ephesus. Ephesus was considered a centre for black magic and other occult practices. The people sought spells to give them wealth, happiness, and success in marriage. Superstition and sorcery were commonplace. But through the ministry of Paul many people became Christians and Luke writes that “A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. [A drachma was equivalent to a day’s wage] 20 In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” (Acts 19:19-20)
We need to recognise that to be involved in these alternative spiritual and new age practices is idolatry, and should have no place in the life of the Christian. Instead we are called to place our faith and trust in the God of love. We are called to ‘be holy and blameless’ in God’s sight, and to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
Our lives are not determined by the stars or movement of planets, or what is written on our hands, but by the God of love. In Jeremiah 29:11 we read ‘For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ It is to God we must place our hope and confidence. It is to God we must entrust our lives.
Challenges & Opportunities
I have talked a lot about the challenges that we face with the rise of alternative spiritualities, and the new age, and how many people have rejected traditional forms of Christianity. But I also believe this gives us great opportunities to share the Gospel.
Whilst we hear a lot in the media from people like Richard Dawkins, the truth is that the vast majority of people in this country do believe in some sort of God, and people are much more open I believe to discuss issues to do with spirituality, belief and faith. This gives us a unique opportunity.
In Acts 17 we read about Paul in Athens. The first thing Paul did on arrival in that city was to look around the city, to take time to take in his surroundings, and we read that he was ‘greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.‘ (Acts 17:16) And so he started to engage in dialogue with people in the Synagogue and in the market place, before being invited to speak at the Areopagus. It was in the Areopagus that Paul said “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22-23)
What is clear from Paul’s debate in the Areopagus, is that he had taken time to understand the people to whom he was talking. The way Paul addressed this Greek gathering, which included Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, was different to how he debated with the Jews. He even quotes Aratus, a Cilician Stoic philosopher in his speech.
The lesson for us is that Paul took time to understand the culture and religion of Athens, and knew therefore how to communicate with the people in a way that they could understand. He drew on images and examples that his audience could relate to.
In 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 Paul writes 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
This is where the challenge lies for us. How can we take the message of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, to people who are caught up in the New Age?
It is not about watering down, or changing the message of the Gospel, but about finding a way to engage with people who would otherwise reject Christianity.
In Lichfield Diocese we have some people who now attend Mind, Body and Spirit Fairs, in order to be in the place where people are searching. Someone has even developed Psalm Reading cards. These are cards, which in appearance look fairly similar to tarot cards. But on them they contain a different reading from the psalms. People are invited to pick a card, and read it, and then the message of the reading is explained to them. This can lead to great conversations on spiritual matters.
Of course, some people may have concerns about whether it is right to participate in such fairs. Could there not be a risk that our presence at such events may in some ways be seen as condoning what is going on in these fairs, or sending the message that Christianity is just one or many equally valid paths to spiritual enlightenment? This is a question I think we need to wrestle with ourselves, but personally I feel it is better that we try to meet people where they are at, and point them to God, rather than standing on the margins looking on disapprovingly. After all wasn’t this what Jesus did – seeking out the lost? Steve Hollinghurst agrees, he says “we need to be taking our faith to them in their environment rather than expecting them to come to us.”
People are searching, they are in desperately need of God, and we have a message of hope and salvation that the whole world needs to hear.
Steve Hollinghurst writes that the rise of the New Age and paganism challenges the church to look at what we say and what we do. He says that we must not only talk about the transforming power of Christ, we have to demonstrate it as well.
And because we are in a spiritual battle, we must clothe ourselves with the armour of God.
So that we wear the belt of truth, so that we can resist Satan’s lies and deception, and are firmly established in the truth of God’s word. We need the breastplate of righteousness, so that we are in a right standing before God, so that we are walking in obedience to the leading of the Holy Spirit and in accordance with Scripture. We need the shoes of the Gospel of peace, so that we carry the message of God’s love into the world. We need the shield of faith, so that we place our faith, trust and confidence in God. And we need the helmet of salvation, which protects our minds from doubting God’s saving work for us. And because we are in a battle we need the sword of the spirit. Any soldier, before entering into battle, first has to learn how to use their weapon. And so we need to know how to handle God’s Word properly, because it is a powerful tool. The Word of God is described as living and active, and sharper than a two edged sword, so it has the power to penetrate the heart, and lay open the motives and feelings of those it touches. The more we know and understand the word of God, the more effective we will be in standing against the enemy of our souls.
There is much that I haven’t touched on, for example I haven’t explored issues to do with Reiki, crystal healing, psychic healing, reflexology, meditation and other forms of spiritual healing that have become increasingly popular in recent years. It is possible that maybe you, or someone you know, has been offered these alternative therapies. As Christians we need to be aware of what lies behind these various therapies, to not just accept them at face value, but to look at the philosophy that lies behind these practices, and ask ourselves is this compatible with what the Christian faith teaches? Is the practitioner a Christian? And where is the healing power believe to come from?
I want to finish by telling you the story of Pamela Schuffert. She was looking for love and truth and power and for God, but she couldn’t find any of this in her local church, so instead she started to look for it outside the church.
Living in an area with lots of new age bookstores, she brought herself a Ouija board, and started buying books on the occult and New Age religions, astrology, palm reading, karma, reincarnation and much more. Around the same time she started to become very ill, and despite surgery she never properly healed, and instead began to suffer seizures. Despite the help of doctors, no cure could be found. They told her mother that unless there was a miracle, she would die.
Two weeks later Pamela and her mother found themselves attending a church service at King Street Church of God in her home town of Washington DC. For the first time she heard the Gospel preached, and that only Jesus could change her life.
Pamela writes: “My NEW AGE RELIGIONS had FAILED MISERABLY. When I was dying, my CRYSTAL BALL remained BLANK, my OUIJA BOARD never moved, there WERE no "voices from the beyond" to help me....NOTHING. I learned that the only ANSWER that ever worked, was JESUS CHRIST!”
Going forward to receive prayer and to give her life to Christ, Pamela said It was as if a terrible cloud of darkness and doom was lifted off her mind and her life. “JOY that I did not have, came into my life. PEACE replaced the terrible fears and nervousness I lived with constantly. HOPE replaced the sense of utter despair that filled my life. AND IN THAT MOMENT, I KNEW that JESUS CHRIST was REAL and the ONLY TRUE WAY TO GOD.”
She went home and destroyed all her books on paganism, her Ouija board, and crystal ball, and replaced them with the Bible, and attendance of her local church. It was there that she received healing from all the health problems she’d been wrestling with. When she went back to see her doctor he was amazed, he said “NO doctor and NO drugs could possibly do what HAS HAPPENED TO YOU! WHAT did you do?" She looked at him and said, "Sir, JESUS CHRIST saved my soul and HEALED MY BODY."
Hope and salvation can be found in Christ alone.