First let me apologize for last week’s news article. One should not write a news article when he is dog-tired at midnight. Things will come out in a confusing jumbled mess…but let’s let bygones be bygones. You live and learn, and we are moving on today with the topic of animism.
I have already gotten an email this week asking questions about what Animism is. I should have done a better job of explaining the definition that I gave. The short definition of animism I gave is the practice of manipulation and appeasement of both good and bad spirits that control everything in life. SO: What Am I saying? Basically animism is a religious system, albeit informal in most cases. Now, if I am living in an animistic system (if I am myself an animist) I believe that there are spirits all around me. Some are good, most are bad, but all can be controlled by me. How can I control them? Depends, but most animists will try prayers, rituals, sacrifices, offerings etc.
So, I am an animist, and I am trying to manipulate and appease spirits. Why? What do I believe that spirits can do? This is the interesting thing about animism. Spirit beings, in the animist mind, control everything in the world that happens. If it rained, the spirits caused it. If it didn’t rain, the spirits caused it. If my crops produced amazing crops, the spirits did it. If the crops die, the spirits did it. If I am healthy, the spirits allowed it. If I am sick, the spirits planned it. This isn’t just superstition, this is 100% sincere belief on behalf of the animist. They are 100% that this is reality. This isn’t guesswork, to them this is truth.
So, if the spirits have power over everything from nature, to animal kingdom, to things relating to humans: what does an animist do? He simply tries to figure out how to keep the bad spirits from doing bad things through appeasing them, and tries to figure out how to get the good spirits to do good things through manipulation. This is a religious system that encompasses every aspect of reality. The animist doesn’t simply go to "animist church" once a week for Sunday school and church service and then forget it the rest of the week (like some Christians). The animist lives his religion out every second of every day. This system of animism must be understood by the missionary before he can expect to begin teaching ANYTHING about truth.
Let me back up my last statement with a real life example. I don’t want to mention the country or the tribe, but there is a tribe where the traditional animistic beliefs kept them from understanding God’s truth. This particular tribe believed that the spirit’s could be manipulated by complementing them. So they had these chants and saying that they would do to manipulate the spirits. They would compliment the spirits on how great they were, and how great they looked etc. When they had flattered the spirits on and on they would finally ask the spirit for what they wanted. If they got what they wanted they thanked the spirit. If they didn’t get it they concluded that they hadn’t complemented the spirit enough.
Ok. This tribe was then contacted by missionaries and they began to teach them "how to be Christian" (I am not going to critique what they taught this tribe, that is not the point of this example). They taught the people to build a church, go on Sundays, pray, and sing to do what God wanted. The tribal people saw how rich the missionaries were and because of their beliefs perceived that the spirit that the missionaries served was pretty strong. So they all "came to God". They came to church and sang their hearts out, and prayed telling God how great He was and how glorious.
After awhile people stopped coming to church. One by one they would leave and tell the missionary they were "quitting God." Why? To them, they perceived that they were supposed to "flatter God" by singing and coming to Church and tell God how great He was in prayer. But since God wasn’t answering their prayers to become rich like the missionaries, they perceived (since they were animists) that either God had unreal expectations of flattery, or God could only be manipulated by white people. These are sad conclusions, and they could have been avoided if the truth of God’s word had been taught understanding how the animist thinks.
This is only briefing touching on the subject of animism. It is important because almost 100% of the time, unreached people groups are animistic. In Paraguay this is also the case. The unreached people groups there are animists. Next week I would like to unpack the subject of Syncretism and Folk Religion (which is a category of Animism) since that is more specifically the situation in Paraguay.
By the way, you can’t become a "scholar" on this subject by hearing a couple stories unfortunately. We are studying this subject hard and will continue to study hard. Some books I am currently reading on the subject are "Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally", "Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts", "Scripture and Strategy", "Contextualization and Syncretism", and "Understanding Folk Religion." "Building on Firm Foundations" is also a big help. I highly recommend all the above books, although I do not necessarily endorse everything in them.