Grasping Demons

demon Another controversial preacher is making news. His name is Thomas Muthee, a Kenyan pastor who has preached at Gov. Sarah Palin's former Assembly of God church in Wasilla, AK and claims to have cast out demons. Both Newsweek's On Faith blog and The Christian Science Monitor ran stories about Muthee, and the two were entirely different in subject matter if not quality. In his story for On Faith, David Waters described the controversy, such as it is. He noted that in 2005 Muthee used the term witchcraft while delivering a public intercessory prayer at Palin's church; and that in 2006 Palin gave credit to Muthee for her victorious gubernatorial election:

Turns out, Muthee began his ministry with a witch hunt against a Kenyan woman he accused of causing car accidents through demonic spells, according to the Christian Science Monitor, which first reported the story in 1999. Muthee publicly declared the woman "a witch responsible for the town's ills, and order her to offer her up her soul for salvation or leave Kiambu . . . The woman fled."

This past June, in a speech at Wasilla AOG, Palin gave credit to Muthee for her 2006 election victory. In another now-famous YouTube video, Palin says, "As I was mayor and Pastor Muthee was here and he was praying over me . . . He said 'Lord make a way and let her do this next step.' And that's exactly what happened."

As far as I know, Waters described the remarks of Muthee and Palin accurately and fairly. What I do know is that Waters' later conclusion gets religion. Waters compares the hubbub over Muthee with that of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright:

Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's designated derider and host of Countdown, was all over Palin's witch hunter connection last Friday: "The Palin's preacher problem: The minister who laid hands on her at the Wasilla Assembly of God in 2005, the one she credits with helping make her a governor, it turns out he makes Jeremiah Wright look like Father Flanagan of Boys Town," Olbermann said in his opening.

Here we go again. People who were in a lather about Wright's sermons know as little about African American church rhetoric and black liberation theology as people who are in a state about Muthee's sermons know about Pentecostal church rhetoric and "spiritual warfare."

Waters makes an unappreciated point: For all of the controversy about the Rev. Wright's sermons, and to a much lesser extent those of Muthee, the MSM rarely shed light about their underlying theology. Roughly speaking, the coverage was the equivalent of CNN's motto -- All Politics, All the Time.

Getting religion is not the problem of The Christian Science Monitor's story.

Reporter Jane Lampman did an excellent job treating as a serious subject matter the casting out of demons, of which Muthee is a practitioner. Consider her lede:

Can the 'spiritual DNA' of a community be altered?" That's the question posed in a Christian video called "Transformations."

Kenyan pastor Thomas Muthee is convinced that it can be. In 1988, he and his wife, Margaret, were "called by God to Kiambu," a notorious, violence-ridden suburb of Nairobi and a "ministry graveyard" for churches for years. They began six months of fervent prayer and research.

Pondering the message of Eph.6:12 ("For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world..."), they prayed to identify the source of Kiambu's spiritual oppression, Mr. Muthee says. Their answer: the spirit of witchcraft.

Their research into the community revealed that a woman called "Mama Jane" ran a "divination clinic" frequented by the town's most powerful people.

After months of prayer, Muthee held a crusade that "brought about 200 people to Christ." Their church in the basement of a grocery store was dubbed "The Prayer Cave," as members set up round-the-clock intercession. Mama Jane counterattacked, he says, but eventually "the demonic influence - the 'principality' over Kiambu - was broken," and she left town.

The atmosphere changed dramatically: Bars closed, the crime rate dropped, people began to move to the area, and the economy took an upturn. The church now has 5,000 members, he says, and 400 members meet to pray daily at 6 a.m.

Lampman might have been tempted to dismiss Muthee's efforts. Instead, she explained the larger religious context in which it occurs; the controversy about it; and its theological basis. I particularly liked the quote below for its insight:

Russell Spittler, provost at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, Calif., suggests that the practices flourish most among Pentecostals. "Pentecostals approach Scripture literally, so they see the world populated with demons. It is not a far step to start naming them, assigning them territories, devising prayer strategies. For Pentecostals, 'spiritual warfare' is not a metaphor - it's reality."

The weakness of Lampman's story, however, was that it did not get journalism sufficiently.

Lampman takes at face value the claims of spiritual warfare's proponents without seeking to verify or question them. For example, did the efforts of one California pastor really renew the town or was it something else? and what do academics have to say about such claims? At a minimum, Lampman should have been more honest empirically, noting that a subject said such and such rather than conveying the impression that such and such was fact.

Top-notch journalism would only improve the fascinating nature of the story. Can religious people really drive out demons? As the CST story shows, religious leaders have to be as much at the top of their game as do journalists.

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