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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...




What? Me Superstitious?

By John W. Kennedy
Sept. 25, 2011

Culture, family often indoctrinate Christians into not-so-innocent beliefs

Practicing Christians aren’t likely to rub a lucky rabbit’s foot or throw spilled salt over their shoulder in an effort to find favor or avoid disaster.

But some superstitions have become so engrained in culture that followers of Christ subconsciously utter such expressions as “good luck,” “knock on wood,” “if the fates allow,” “bad karma” and “keep your fingers crossed.”

George Paul Wood, director of Ministerial Resourcing for the Assemblies of God, says Americans have a fairly casual view of the superstitious because of cultural, familial or peer influences.

“It’s not a way of life as it was in the ancient world, where people used astrology, necromancy, magic, idolatry and consulting diviners to avoid the vagaries of life,” Wood says. “But, at some point, we choose to participate.”

Numerous random practices are more irrational than systematically harmful, Wood believes. Superstitious beliefs are regularly on display at a baseball game, where a pitcher will avoid stepping on the foul line going to the mound, a batter will readjust a batting glove after every pitch, and players in the dugout wear “rally caps” backwards when the team is behind.

“If you studiously avoid stepping on sidewalk cracks or you start to cry when you break a mirror, then there is a spiritual problem,” Wood says.

R. Daniel Shaw, co-author of the book Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices, says there is more folk religion in the typical American church than in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, where he spent 13 years working as a Wycliffe Bible translator. He believes Pentecostals can fall into a superstitious behavior pattern in their practice of prayer.

“If we get results with a certain kind of prayer and we repeat that prayer, we look for the same results,” says Shaw, who teaches a course on folk religion at Fuller Graduate School of Intercultural Studies in Pasadena, Calif. “We view it almost like magic. Shamans in the jungle understand that. It’s classic folk religion.”

Wood agrees, saying a self-help mentality has permeated the thinking of some charismatics.

“Some believe if they say a few magic words — ‘I claim this,’ ‘I come against that’ — God is somehow contractually obligated to give them wonderful things,” Wood says.

Parents and grandparents often pass down superstitious habits. Most superstitions that persist are hundreds if not thousands of years old. Many have a religious — or pagan — origin, either as a way to ward off evil or bring about wishful results. This extends from wearing amulets to blowing out candles on a birthday cake.

“The general motivation is an attempt to control or safeguard yourself against the dangers, hazards or ‘unlucky’ happenings of life,” Wood says.

Folk religion, even among Christians, can be a powerful influence in other nations, according to Eloise Neely, who has been an Assemblies of God missionary in the Middle East and Europe since 1970.

Frequently a symbol of an eye will be found in Middle Eastern homes, Neely says, ostensibly as a hedge to protect occupants from destructive spirits. When Neely’s landlady visited to see her newborn daughter, the woman called the baby ugly in an effort to detract the “curse of the evil eye” that otherwise might have settled on the attractive infant.

The phrase “God bless you” after someone sneezes doesn’t have a heavenly genesis. Rather, one hypothesis suggests that the saying started because of the belief that Satan could enter a person’s soul during an unguarded moment after a sneeze — and God’s blessing supposedly counteracted such a danger. Another theory proposes that when someone sneezed his spirit might be lost unless another person invoked God’s blessing.

Among Americans, warnings to avoid certain behaviors in order to keep vague “bad luck” at bay are widespread, such as a bride and groom keeping out of each other’s sight on their wedding day before the ceremony. Other notions include: not opening an umbrella indoors; steering clear of walking under a ladder; making sure a black cat doesn’t cross your path; not stepping on a crack in a sidewalk; and refusing to stay on the 13th floor of a hotel — if the establishment even labels a 13th floor as such, and most don’t.

A superstitious worldview begins with the assumption that life is chaotic and the only way to avoid its negative effects is somehow to appease fickle and unloving gods, Wood says.

“The fundamental spiritual reason why superstition is bad is because it is an attempt to control rather than to have faith,” Wood says.

“It opens us up to spiritual forces and activities that are not of God,” Neely says.

Wood notes that Scriptures such as Isaiah 2:6, Ezekiel 13:18 and Revelation 21:8 condemn superstition and magic as idolatry.

While superstitions vary from culture to culture, commonly they are fear-based. Wood advises Christians to heed Christ’s advice in Matthew 6.

“Jesus says God cares for us, we are valuable, and we don’t need to worry,” Wood says. “We don’t have to perform religious practices to ward off bad things.”

Even if seemingly innocuous phrases are popular, Neely says Christians need to be careful about the verbiage they use.

“Saying ‘good luck’ detracts from the realization that our total dependence is on God,” Neely says. “Satan will use misdirection to drag us into his realm.”

Shaw concurs that folk religious practices boil down to spiritual forces of good and evil.

“God wants to be first,” Shaw says. “He wants to be in relationship with His creation. He doesn’t want us to have wandering eyes to go after foreign gods and ideas.”


JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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