New Narratives toward a Biblical Response to Animism: Perspective from Church History & Scripture

by Kelvin Onongha

The author shares selected scripture passages as heuristic devices to teach lessons relevant to the worldviews of animistic peoples.

Thirty years ago, anthropologist Allan Tippett predicted that at the rate Christianity was spreading in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, animism would be extinct in ten years to twenty years (1987, 120). However, in a recent survey conducted by Pew Research in Sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage of those who practiced animism was thirteen percent (2010). This figure is in addition to the varying segments of Christians found across the continent who still indulge in syncretistic and animistic practices. A cursory survey of the movies churned out every year by Hollywood is another strong indication of the fact that rather than being in a moribund state, animism is experiencing a resurgence, even in the West.

Depending upon the context and the discipline, animism is described in diverse ways by different scholars. Gailyn Van Rheenen defines it as

…the belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs and that humans, consequently, must discover what beings and forces are impacting them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power. (1991, 20)

Another popular notion among many is that animism is primarily a religion associated with tribal or primal cultures. Van Rheenen regards animism as a belief system that has no cultural or regional limitations but can be found in all human contexts. In the first chapter of his book, he outlines a well-documented argument to demonstrate how animism pervades Western and non-Western cultures. It is only when it is recognized in this light as a pernicious and persistent issue confronting the Church that sustained effort will be exerted to respond to this challenge.

Among the essential characteristics that define animism are the belief in spirits and forces, the belief in the power of supernatural control, the practice of divination, and the manipulation of spiritual agencies for good or evil. These features are all present in folk versions of all the world religions.

It is believed that more than eighty-five percent of Muslims are animistic (Love 1994, 87). Buddhism, a religion that is extremely eclectic in nature, also demonstrates a strong affinity for folk religious practices (Smith 1993, 126). Although no accurate statistics of the number who practice folk-Christianity is known, its presence is attested to by the number of Christians who use good luck charms, engage regularly in the practice of astrology, consult mediums and channelers, and venerate the dead.

In order to unravel the enigma of animism and its effect on the spiritual vitality of the Church’s mission and membership, it is crucial to first understand its nature and attraction. The reasons animism appeals to various people can be summarized by the following aspirations:

•  It is a means to cope with existential needs.
•  It holds a promise of power.
•  It offers healing in times of sickness.
•  It provides protection from malevolent beings.
•  It enables the discharge of obligations to supernatural beings with whom one interacts in this world.
•  It gives meaning to life, and in particular, meaning to pain and suffering.
•  It explains the source or origin of evil (Halverson 1996, 39; Hayward 1997, 156).

However, besides existential needs that lead people to seek for animistic solutions, another distinctive feature that characterizes animism is fear. The fear of malevolent spirits, capricious ancestors, envious neighbors and relatives, and the power of sorcery hold the minds of animists in a vise-like grip.  

At the Level of Worldview and Story
Although much has already been written on the subject of animism, for any enduring change to take place in the lives of its adherents, it must happen at the level of the worldview. Anything short of this would only result in conformation to expected behaviors and conduct, while incongruent beliefs would merely be swept under the rug. Paul Hiebert explains that, “If behavioral change was the focus of early Protestantism, and changed beliefs the focus of the twentieth century, transforming worldviews must be central to church and mission in the twenty-first century” (2008, 315).

Charles Kraft presents a paradigm on how worldviews such as animism can be transformed. He suggests that this is possible through a crisis (experience), or new answers (explanation) (1996, 56-57). It would appear that the preponderance of literature on this subject largely present insights how through power encounters and spiritual confrontations animism can be addressed. Although it is acknowledged that a balanced application of all three dimensions of encounter—truth, allegiance, and power encounters—are all necessary to fully address this issue, not enough attention seems to have been directed toward providing biblical explanations that will respond to the questions animism raises.

Animistic beliefs are taught and reinforced from birth to children born into such homes where they are practiced (Sitton 1998, 72). These are taught through stories that promote belief in the existence of malevolent spirits, the power and activities of ancestors, the power that some are believed to possess which enables them to mutate from humans to animals in order to wreak havoc on perceived enemies, and tales which depict the proximity of the unseen world and spiritual forces.  
A major strategy, therefore, that could counteract and transform animistic beliefs would involve new narratives which demonstrate the supremacy of God over evil, his presence and nearness in human affairs, his ability to direct and protect his own, and his overarching plans for humanity. The method to accomplish this will be through telling and teaching biblical stories.

Employing these stories as heuristic tools would lead to increased faith in God and create a new perspective to reality. Scholars have long recognized the primacy of employing narrative theology in primal cultures. These stories, artfully told and skillfully applied, have been known to be more effective aids in the communication of the gospel message. No wonder the Master Teacher employed this form to teach deep truths concerning the Kingdom of God.

Little wonder also that there are three accounts in Acts where Paul repeated to his audience the story of his conversion on the road to Damascus. In the world of business communication, stories are recognized to have great power and impact, for it is believed that “stories about reality completely change perceptions of what is true, important and thus real” (Simmons 2007, 3).

Similarly, Bible stories should be taught in such a manner as to respond to each bastion of the needs and fears of animistic theology. For as Annette Simmons postulates, “When you activate new stories you transport people to new points of view, change meaning, behavior, and in that way—you change the future” (2007, 17). In the following section a sample of selected scripture passages are presented as heuristic devices to teach lessons relevant to the worldview of animistic people.

Selected Narratives and Their Lessons
Narrative #1: Job 1-2. More than any other book in the Bible, the Book of Job starkly depicts the cosmic battle between right and wrong, good and evil, and God versus Satan. It provides a wonderful metanarrative of the biblical worldview of the unseen world. It also responds to issues such as the problem of evil, giving explanation to the malicious, and unseen forces that can cause untold damage to human lives. These powers are controlled and directed by the archenemy, Satan, and can be focused against the friends of God.  

One other important aspect of this narrative that makes it contextually relevant to animistic people is the acknowledgment of the adversary, Satan, that God had placed a hedge around Job, and for this reason he (Satan) could do Job no harm unless God acquiesced.

Using the narrative: Grandma Eki (pseudonym) had studied at a Christian college and later became an educational supervisor. Upon retirement, she and her husband settled in the village where stories of sorcery and witchcraft were rife. I remember sharing with her from Job the biblical explanation for evil and suffering that even believers are subject to in life.

Although sometime later she lost her stepdaughter to an illness, Grandma Eki’s faith in God was unwavering. Indeed, I observed how she helped her husband, who had always been cynical about Christians and Christianity, to begin to pray and attend church services before his demise a short while later. Several years later, leading a team to a women’s convention, she recounted to many the comfort and hope she had found as we studied from this and other passages in scripture.

In animistic cultures, witchcraft accusations are commonplace (Kunyihop 2008, 377). They may be regarded as “a serious philosophical attempt to deal with the question of evil” (2008, 377). What the Book of Job does is to provide a better explanation for the problem of evil. Also, Job’s patience, faith, and unflinching trust in the midst of overwhelming temptations are wonderful object lessons to animists who typically demand quick fixes for every problem. This has great appeal to people who typically adorn themselves with charms, amulets, talismans, and other devices in order to ward off evil powers.

Narrative #2: Colossians 3:1-3. Although this passage of scripture is didactic rather than narrative, I have used it a number of times allegorically, not necessarily hermeneutically, to illustrate God’s protective power. The thrust of the passage is found in verse 3, which states, “Your life is hid with Christ in God.” Clinton Arnold explains that, “The heavenly dimension is a place of security,” and that Paul’s use of the term “hidden,” simply “expresses the security of the people of God as they trust in him when they face their enemies” (1995, 307).

Using the narrative: A ministerial student who had undertaken a research assignment that entailed a personal interview with a local cult leader believed to be a sorcerer came into my African Religions class with a glazed look on his face. He had heard reports of the evil exploits of this cult leader who was held in awe by the people of that region. The young minister was convinced that even the servants of God were unsafe from attack from evil powers.

In class, I shared biblical passages that promised God’s protection from evil and finally arrived at this text. I then explained what it means when scripture declares that our lives as Christians are hidden with Christ in God: for the wicked to harm any believer, God must first be incapacitated.

To begin with, the wicked must travel to heaven, get past the army of celestial beings, neutralize the cherubim and seraphim that guard the throne of God, overpower the Holy Spirit, who is verily God himself. Then, they have to contend with Jesus, who has never lost any showdown against the devil, after which they have to lop off the left hand of the Most High so that they can reach my life, hidden safely in the right hand of the Commander-in-Chief of the inter-galactic forces of the universe.
As I finished explaining this, I observed a transformation not only in his demeanor, but in the entire class as well. At the end of the course, the student shared how that class was the best class he had taken and was glad he now could discern his authority and security in Christ.  

The Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria have a popular proverb which states, “It is only the dead that have no enemies” (Oyetade 2006, 81). The fear of perceived enemies and the constant yearning for protection are the issues that dominate the life and thought of those who subscribe to animistic beliefs. In contrast, a Trinitarian concept, which graphically portrays believers basking under the shadow of the Godhead, with all the angels of heaven on their side, cuts quite a comforting image. In societies engrossed with the quest for power, this allegory tips the scales of the power quotient in favor of believers whose lives are wrapped up, hidden, and inseparably joined with God.

Narrative #3: Matt 17: 24-27. In this passage, Jesus sends Peter to catch a fish which had sufficient money in its mouth to pay the temple tax for both Jesus and Peter. This obscure narrative recorded by Matthew alone responds to a principal need which leads people to search for animistic solutions. It is also responsible for inducing professed Christians along the pathway of dual allegiance—that is, the need for blessing and prosperity. An often-overlooked fact by gospel workers is the desire of people for a message that will bring improvement to their material lives and well-being.

African theologian Cyril Okorocha expresses this clearly when he states that for the African, salvation must be experienced in tangible ways, in other words, through material blessings, health, and good fortune (1992, 172).

Using the narrative: I have used this passage with my congregation to demonstrate the power of God, if he chooses, to provide for the faithful. While this may suggest mere dependence upon supernatural provision, it needs to be pointed out that this is the only recorded passage in scripture where fishing is done utilizing only a fishing line. This implies that effort with divine benediction results in sufficiency. Another connotation from this story, made more explicit elsewhere, is the fact that Christ is Lord of the sea. In many animistic cultures the sea is dreaded and worshipped. However, throughout scripture God is vividly portrayed as fully in control of the seas. He is Lord of all.

Animistic contexts are typically characterized by a heightened awareness of the power of evil. This is evident in the dominant discourses in private and public narratives. Stories buttressing this conviction are transmitted orally from generation to generation, and persist in spite of education, exposure, and “enlightenment.” Some university heads and clergy have even been accused of engaging in animistic practices. Perhaps this is a result of the power of oral traditions, which in some theological settings are treated dismissively. Otherwise, how else could religions without written creeds or scripture have endured for millennia?  

Throughout scripture, God discourages his people from turning to or focusing their attention on the powers and exponents of evil. Rather, he advocates that people should turn to him (Isa. 8:19-20) and dwell on his power and attributes (Phil. 3:10; Eph. 3:17-19). This counsel is even more imperative in animistic contexts.

As the cosmic conflict between the forces of good and evil rages, we need to realize that what goes in the courts of law also has application in missiology. Let me state it this way: The one with the better story always wins. Consequently, we need to tell and retell those stories that powerfully demonstrate the awesomeness of our God in order to meet the needs and dispel the fears of animists. We need to also reveal his concern and presence in human affairs in order for the transformation that occurred in the ancient Roman Empire with the early Church to recur today.

For as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Such a faith that comes from hearing and believing the word of God can truly transform an animistic worldview to a biblically-shaped worldview.

Arnold, Clinton E. 1995. The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae. Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr.

Halverson, Dean C., ed. 1996. “Animism.” In The Compact Guide to World Religions. 37-53. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers.

Hayward, Douglas J. 1997. “The Evangelization of Animists: Power, Love or Truth Encounter?” International Journal of Frontier Mission 14: 155-159.

Hiebert, Paul G. 2008. Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Kraft, Charles H. 1996. Anthropology for Christian Witness. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Kunhiyop, Samuel. 2008. African Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Love, Richard D. 1994. “Church Planting Among Folk Muslims.” In International Journal of Frontier Missions 11: 87-91.

Okorocha, Cyril C. 1992. “Religious Conversion in Africa: Its Missiological Implications.” Mission Studies 9: 168-181.

Oyetade, Akintunde B. 2006. “The Enemy in the Belief System.” In Understanding Yoruba Life and Culture. Edited by Nike S. Lawal, Matthew N. O. Sadiku, and P. Ade Dopamu. 81-95. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press.

Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 2012. “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Accessed May 17, 2012, from

Simmons, Annette. 2007. Whoever Tells the Best Stories Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact. New York: Amacom Books.

Sitton, David. 1998. “The Basics of Animism: Spiritual Warfare in Tribal Contexts.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 15: 69-74.

Smith, Alex G. 1993. “Insight into Frontier Missions among Theravada Buddhists.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 10: 125-130.

Tippett, Allan. 1987. Introduction to Missiology. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1991. Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. Pasadena, Calif. William Carey Library.


Kelvin Onongha is an adjunct lecturer and a post-doctoral student in the World Missions department at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 204-210. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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