In 2001, I saw a few exorcisms in Zambia. Participated in them, actually, by adding my prayers and laying my hands on some of the people. Not metaphorical exorcisms over psychological demons, mind you. The real thing – supernatural powers fighting over a lowly person. Casting out demons took some time, and generally involved a lot of screaming, thrashing, and frothing at the mouth of the person possessed. And when the demon left, the erstwhile victim would radiate tranquility, and brighten with the same glow runners have after a particularly successful 5k.
I wasn’t alone – I was with a group from college and we numbered over 20, and most of us struggled to reconcile what we saw with how we understood the world to work. As evangelicals, we profess belief in a supernatural realm, but I can say from experience that many evangelicals prefer that realm to remain hypothetical. If you never actually encounter a demon-possessed person, you never have to decide whether or not you really saw what you think you saw, and you never have to decide whether or not your friends are entitled to think you’re crazy. I say this, of course, because I’m aware that a fraction of you believe me, but most think I’m either lying, crazy, or preposterously superstitious. To which I say: I saw what I saw.
I’m teaching a short class on the Nicene Creed at my church right now, and last week we talked (for all of 7 minutes) about the fact that it affirms that God created “all that is, seen and unseen.” For those of you who don’t know, the Nicene Creed is one of a handful of church documents that predates denominations; long before my Methodists split from other Methodists who split from the Anglicans who split from the Catholics who themselves split from the Eastern Orthodox, the whole church agreed on the Nicene Creed, and it continues to be a point of unity among the many Christian churches. Which means that every church you or I have ever attended affirmed the existence of an unseen order of creation. Like angels. Like demons.
It also means, by the way, that many of you who don’t believe my account have stood in a church, affirmed the Nicene Creed, and lied your skeptical butts off.
When we came back from Zambia, three of us from the trip had dinner together once a week (more or less, as is always the case when college kids commit to something) for the rest of college. During these meals we talked about the things friends talk about when they talk, but every two months or so we repeated a very specific conversation: we explored whether or not we were naïve to accept that we had seen supernatural forces battling with people as pawns. One friend questioned more vocally – he was always more forthright with his honesty than the other two of us – and the other stayed quiet, listening and visibly wavering in her estimation of what she saw. I wavered too, but with the memories fresh, at the end of the day I always held the line: I saw what I saw.
I bring this up now because I just read Steve Marsh’s excellent Grantland piece on Adrian Peterson. I don’t usually write on sports – it seems prudent to impose some limitations on the portions of American culture on which I presume to comment – but this piece was so theological in nature that I can’t resist. I assumed that the piece would simply be a recounting of how Adrian Peterson – a Minnesota Viking football player and for a brief time likely the best running back alive – recovered improbably fast from a horrible knee injury to arguably reclaim his crown as the best running back alive. On that the story doesn’t disappoint, but Marsh manages so much more.
In choosing not to edit the frequent references to Jesus, God, and the devil by Peterson and his family, Marsh adds a spiritual component to the story of how Peterson’s knee healed in only 8 months. Understand: the knee injury that felled him in December of last year should have taken much longer to heal – in many cases, it can take 18-24 months for an athlete to return to form. That Peterson has returned to form as the best running back alive in under a year is unthinkable. Maybe even miraculous.
There’s only one kind of supernatural spirituality OK in American culture: a superstition-like belief in miraculous healings. Some of the same people who will tell you that stories of angels and demons belong on library shelves along with stories of dragons and leprechauns have no problem whatsoever suggesting that divine healing can and does happen. It’s an easier sell, after all. Tumors that disappear can be miracles from God without making the supernatural uncomfortably tangible in the same way witnessing an exorcism does. Nobody ever had to reevaluate their worldview or theology over a medical miracle. It’s easier, and easy works for most people.
During those post-Zambia dinners with my friends, we struggled with denial over what we’d seen not because we doubted our senses, but because life would be easier and make more sense if only we could return to our rationally ordered world in which the supernatural was merely hypothetical. We wanted to be able to lie our way through the Nicene Creed with everyone else, if only because that had always felt honest before. The problem for me – and perhaps I’ve mentioned this – was that I saw what I saw.
I knew Adrian Peterson had healed in a fantastically improbable time frame. I thought him a specimen or a freak, but I never thought that he was the recipient of a miracle until I read that article by Steve Marsh. I’m not saying that it was a miracle, mind you. Just pointing out that you might expect someone who believes he’s seen demons at work to remain sensitive enough to the supernatural realm to at least ponder the possibility of a miracle when medicine has no explanations. But I didn’t.
Maybe you don’t even believe in medical miracles. Maybe you do, but you draw the line at angels and demons. Or maybe – like me – you’ve seen enough that you believe in a supernatural realm, but think life would be easier to understand if you didn’t. For what it’s worth, the Nicene Creed affirms the unseen – without specifying whether the unseen is invisible, or simply unnoticed because it’s easier for everyone not to look. In any case, Adrian Peterson’s knee reminded me this week that if I don’t look, I don’t see.