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Spirit World in Cultural Comparisons
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Marguerite G. Kraft
Understanding Spiritual Power:  A Forgotten Dimension of Cross-Cultural Mission and Ministry (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1995.  144p.)

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Some would think of this book just in terms of religious concepts and contrasting western Christianity with African or Asian animism.  This is not about "religion," however, it is about worldviews and the assumptions hidden beneath the visible and organization structures we see.

The focus here is on concepts of the unseen world beyond our senses and visions.  She does not focus on concepts of the afterlife, but the now-life of the universe at large.  What are the assumptions about the status of the dead?  Do they still live around us interacting to some degree, as most cultures of the world believe?  What about non-human entities, non-physical entities?

The materialist, rationalist western scientific view tends to discount such realities, and claim they are just fictional or mythical concepts to deal with the unknown.  These ideas are related to a dualism espoused and promulgated by religious and non-religious alike in the modern, western worldview.

The materialist thinks of the ideas of gods and spirits as just useful for the unknown.  Thus as we learn and control more of life and our environment, the "box" for God gets smaller and smaller.  There is less and less for God to do.  Western religious people also seem to think about God primarily in terms of what we can't do for ourselves.  So the greater scientific and technological abilities grow, they begin to realize all they have left is a diminishing realm of dependency, which contradicts the western value of independent individualism.

Kraft in these pages probes the practical and social dimensions of the beliefs about the unseen aspects of our universe in four cultures, the western secular materialist and three "traditional."  Marguerite references three case studies in disparate non-western cultures she has researched at length:  The Navajo in North America, the Kamwe in Nigeria and the Thai in Southeast Asia.  She references these three in regard to various aspects of social and religious or technological aspects of cultural worldviews, and suggests practical ways to make connections to bridge the gap.

The goal is to understand and to communicate more clearly.  She references various anthropological sources and other academic technical resources in analyzing this question.  As expected with titles from Orbis Books, this book is insightful in both theoretical and practical spheres.  The reality of the spirit world is a challenge for westerners, even those professing to be Christian, and yes, even those calling themselves "evangelicals."

And many evangelicals deny the power of even God to do miracles in the current era.  Some denominations actually have that in their statements of faith.  "The time for miracles has past," etc.  Kraft makes us rethink that.  But more than trying to settle the question of whether spirits exist, she provides a perspective of the integrity of traditional cultural worldviews, and illustrates how important it is to understand their understanding of the spiritual character, the alive-ness of the universe around us.

The social structures and language cannot make sense without this.  To communicate, the westerner, Christian or otherwise cannot make sense in the other worldview.  We are not treated as students or novices in Kraft's approach.  She writes out of her own experiences as a cultural learner, living in West Africa, then extended periods of time with the Navajo and the Thai investigating their daily lives, learning how to communicate as she probes their concepts of reality.

We are given the privilege of sitting in as observers after the fact.  Kraft clearly outlines the Problem in part 1.  What she means is the problem that the Western worldview has in communicating with other worldviews which have different concepts of the spirit world.  She then proceeds to line out the Perspective, including the references to the spirit world, powers and spirits in the Bible, and the apparent worldview concepts behind the writings, of the Old and New Testament.

Then she presents simple case studies from the cultures in focus.  The fourth section presents practical strategies for communication and what she calls "Missiological Application," since she is writing in a context of Christian Mission to non-Christian cultures.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[review] South African Spirituality
[review] Sympathetic Insights towards Traditional Worldviews
[review] Umbanda, Spirits and Demons and Christianity
[review] Why Wicca is So Attractive
[reviews] Yoruba Religion in the Americas

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First written 3-4 May 2007
Posted on Amazon and Thoughts and Resources 16 May 2007
Last edited 16 July 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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