Martin Luther and the Goblins sounds like a great title for a book, doesn’t it? The sixteenth century beer-drinking, tough-talking German monk goes around solving mysteries, fighting ghouls and driving out demons. Dr Who meets Brother Cadfael.
I work in television. Sorry. This is how we think.
I realise Martin Luther and the Goblins sounds truly fanciful. We know the Martin Luther story. Because of his restless and troubled conscience, and endless confessions, Luther began the Reformation by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral on All Hallows Eve, 31st October 1517.
Luther had gone back to the scriptures and re-discovered the doctrine of justification by faith alone – not through the sacrament or any kind of good work - and he distilled these thoughts into the 95 Theses. Except that isn’t quite how it happened.
In 1517, Martin Luther was concerned about the sale of indulgences. He was appealing to the Pope to intervene in this form of spiritual extortion. The truth is more complicated, but all the more fascinating for it.
If you want to hear the story – with songs and jokes – I recommend getting hold of A Monks’ Tale, a show I produced for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. It is family-friendly, funny and surprisingly faithful to the history and the Bible. You can also get the MP3 download here.
No Goblins Allowed
I mention all this because a couple of weeks ago, I queried our dogmatic unbelief in dragons. Over the next two articles, I would like to continue the spirit of Chestertonianism and look askance at our reluctance to believe in goblins, not least because Martin Luther believed in them.
Why don’t we want to believe in goblins?
Our attitude to All Hallows Eve, now known as Hallowe’en, might be revealing. While Hallowe’en gets bigger and starts earlier every year, this is a festival that modern evangelicals have been very reluctant to join in with, myself included. It is understandable. We do not wish to celebrate demons, witches, sorcery, spectres, ghouls and goblins.
This is very convenient for evangelicals who are functionally rationalistic. We may say we believe the Bible but do we really?
Evangelicals prize reading, learning, books and education. Most evangelical leaders have passed through secular universities, and often the elite institutions. In these places, almost all of which began life as Christian places of study and learning, science rules and superstition is not just scorned but assumed to be dead.
For nearly two hundred years, Christianity itself has been under the microscope and subjected to scrutiny. This is of course entirely reasonable, but the enterprise rapidly became one of demythologisation.
During my academic Theology degree in Durham, I learnt all about ‘The Quest for the Historical Jesus’. This was the attempt to dig out the fact from the fantastical fiction in the Christian story. What could we corroborate? Only the moments of Jesus’s life attested by external sources.
Anything deemed scientifically impossible was rejected. The virgin birth is rejected as virgins can’t give birth. Miracles are rejected because people can’t be healed instantly by saliva-soaked mud or a touch or a word. The resurrection is rejected because, well, dead people cannot come back to the life. The ascension is rejected because humans can’t fly. These are all scientific facts.
Much of this was argued by people who called themselves Christians. It is telling that the whole movement was kicked off by the son of a Lutheran pastor, Albert Schweitzer, who studied medicine as well as theology and philosophy.
I realise that science and religion are not as opposed to each other as many assume. In fact, I think the best thing I’ve ever written is a play about this very subject, called The God Particle. You can go and watch a 75-minute high quality video capture of that play right now. But when science crushes religion, we have as big a problem as when religion crushes science.
Modern day evangelicals, then, live and move and have their being in an enlightenment culture dominated by science to the exclusion of all other paradigms and ways of looking at the world. The miracles of Jesus are, therefore, hard to defend, let alone preach.
Explanations about how Jesus fed five thousand people still abound. Apparently, the little boy’s offer shamed people into producing their packed lunches. Plenty of Christians kind of believe that, even though that makes no sense of the story as presented. Either Jesus is showing he is the one who leads his people from slavery providing manna, like Moses in the desert - or he isn’t. And if you believe in the resurrection, why wouldn’t you believe that Methuselah was nearly a thousand years old?
But what about the world of demons?
Demons and spirits are absent from John’s gospel. But they are incredibly hard to avoid in Matthew, Mark and Luke. What are we to make of them?
Jesus’s first miracle in the gospel of Mark is driving out an unclean spirit. Sitcom writers (like me) know that first impressions are powerful and intentional on the part of the writer. But conservative evangelicals (like me) tend to nod sagely and say ‘Jesus has power over demons. Isn’t that great? Now let’s move on to chapter two where Jesus forgives sins.’
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait.
What is this unclean spirit? Why are they all coming out of the woodwork in this three year period during Jesus’ ministry? Where did they come from? Some were driven into pigs, who charged off into a lake and drowned. Where did the demons go then? And where are they now?
These are good questions, and I rarely see them discussed. I think this is partly because they don’t fit into the neat, popular Biblical overview of: Garden-Fall-Flood-Law-Temple-Jesus-Spirit, and the (central) doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
What We Are Not
Perhaps we are reluctant to engage with this because conservative evangelicals define themselves by not being ‘charismatic’. We tend to think they are preoccupied with signs, wonders and the spiritual realms. We don’t recommend people read This Present Darkness, on which I have written before.
But we should have the confidence to engage with this area because the scriptures, especially the gospels, presents us with demons, unclean spirits and all kinds of false gods – which are more than just dumb statues.
Perhaps a reluctance to engage with Hallowe’en stems from our ignorance of how Satan and demons relate to our own cherished Reformed spiritual framework.
And we don’t want to scare the kids. Even though we don’t need to be scared. Demons were terrified of Jesus, shrieking in fear and begging for mercy. If His Spirit is in us, we are safe.
But what about goblins?
We’ll get to that next time. If you’ve not subscribed, please consider doing so.