Greetings from Rev. Mike Woods

Greetings St. Liz,

The Woods family is very excited to begin our time with you this coming week. It has been a long hot summer for us as I am sure it has been the same for you.

I am writing this after standing outside with our oldest daughter, Harper, as we watched a nice little summer rainstorm pour down upon us. It was just long enough that it knocked the heat out of the air and left a cool breeze in its wake. It was cool enough that we actually felt like spending more than ten minutes outside after the storm passed. ...Read More

Why We Recoil from Religious Speech that is Reckless and Unkind

by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on February 6, 2020
A great many of us know what it feels like to hear a fellow Christian say something about God or the Christian life or Christian morality that seems to us deeply misguided, insensitive, or just plain wrong.  We usually experience this discomfort at a gut-level: our reaction is intuitive and instinctual, and after the fact we might put some language on why the utterance was troublesome.  Sometimes, however, we come up blank with this second round of reflection.  It just felt wrong, but we’re not sure why.  Today, I want to walk through one recent instance of an utterance by a Christian leader that felt wrong to many.  In so doing I want to suggest that our instinctive recoiling can be a sign that the utterance lacks grace and is therefore untrue.
 
First, the instance in question.  During a sermon from her City of Destiny Church in Apopka, Florida earlier in January, Spiritual Adviser to the President Paula White-Cain used the following words:
 
In the name of Jesus, we command all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now.  We declare that anything that’s been conceived in satanic wombs that it’ll miscarry, it will not be able to carry forth any plan of destruction, any plan of harm.
 
You can see a video of this segment here (including the predictable variety of responses).  This link to a Concordia University professor’s Twitter feed has some short reflections on Paula White-Cain’s prayer, as well, including reference to other Christian voices speaking from a similar perspective.
 
There are three interrelated problems here.  One pastoral, one exegetical, and one theological.
 
The pastoral problem is most quickly named, for this is the one that rubs most of us the wrong way.  To command miscarriage in the name of Jesus (or in any other name, for that matter) is reckless to the point of cruelty, even if the language of miscarriage is intended metaphorically.  To use miscarriage metaphorically in this way is to value one’s poetic license above the actual experiences of those for whom one is responsible.
 
Paula White-Cain gave her sermon on January 5th.  Since that time, statistically speaking, someone in the United States who trusts her ministry and preaching has suffered a miscarriage, and because of this trust this person is now perhaps haunted by the phrases “satanic pregnancy” and “satanic womb.”  Is her miscarriage the result of Paula White-Cain’s prayer?  Has the metaphor become literal?  These are the kinds of doubts no one should ever suffer.  To preach like this abrogates the pastoral responsibility of the preacher to her congregation.
 
The second problem is exegetical.  Exegesis is what preachers do with a text of scripture: to exegete is to unpack, explain, pull meaning from.  Paula White-Cain has responded to criticism of her sermon with the following:
 
I was praying Eph 6:12 that we wrestle not against flesh and blood. Anything that has been conceived by demonic plans, for it to be cancelled and not prevail in your life….That is- any plans to hurt people.
 
She is certainly in good company using the language of spiritual struggle against demonic forces.  This language is all over the New Testament, and though it makes many contemporary Christians uncomfortable, it is an orthodox and viable metaphorical scheme through which to pray, preach, and otherwise communicate the gospel.  Furthermore, we find this spiritual warfare trope in Ephesians, particularly in the “full armor of God” passage in which we find Eph. 6.
 
The exegetical problem arises precisely in Paula White-Cain’s defending her words by linking them to Eph. 6:12.  Nowhere in any part of Ephesians does St. Paul make use of pregnancy or miscarriage as metaphors.  There’s language about walls coming down, husbands and wives, children obeying parents, armor, warfare, adoption—any number of evocative images.  But pregnancy and miscarriage aren’t among them.[1]  If the goal is to pray for the foiling of demonic plans, her chosen text has resources to facilitate such a prayer, but it does not support “satanic pregnancy” and the like.
 
The third problem is theological.  While the images of spiritual warfare are all over the New Testament, this does not mean that the two sides of this conflict are equal, or that they have the same ‘weapons’ available to them.  The battle is won; Christ has banished the infernal legions (Mark 5); and by his death he has destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is the devil (Heb. 2:14).  This is not to say that we do not struggle with sin; nor is it to say that we cannot articulate this struggle by using “satan” and “demon” language.
 
But again, the battle is over and the victory is won.  Why?  Because Jesus Christ became incarnate by the Virgin Mary, lived and died as one of us, and on the third day God raised him from the dead.  It is by Mary’s real human pregnancy, by the real human birth of this child from Nazareth from a real human womb that God began his overthrow of the spiritual forces of darkness.
 
The metaphor of satanic pregnancy suggests that the spiritual forces of darkness have a potency equal to God’s: that they, too, could somehow try to ‘re-invade’ the earth in a way that is like the birth of Jesus, i.e. via ‘satanic’ pregnancy instead of Mary’s.  But this would be to say that the spiritual forces of darkness have strength and means akin to God’s. 
 
They do not.  To suggest otherwise is not a Christian worldview; it is functionally dualist.  I say ‘functionally’ because Paula White-Cain does say that the blood of Jesus is ‘superior,’ but this is akin to my proclaiming vegetarianism while eating a cheeseburger.  Even if the language of satanic pregnancy is metaphorical—and again, this defense is slim given that Ephesians lacks this metaphor entirely—the thought-world inaugurated by the metaphor is one in which demonic forces can generate life as God does.  Thus, this metaphor is one that attributes to demons power akin to God’s.  This is decidedly outside Christian orthodoxy. 
 
Taken together, these three problems show a connection between the insensitivity of religious language and its theological falsehood.  The case in question also suggests that where we find these two, we are likely to find a third: the misrepresentation of scripture.  This is not surprising because, for the Church, scripture is nothing if it not a truthful collection of religious language.
 
Based on this evidence, it seems that when we recoil from a religious utterance that is reckless and unkind, it is worth considering whether our reaction is symptomatic of the statement’s falsehood.  I want to be clear: we cannot diagnose a simple causal link between the two, as though what makes me uneasy must necessarily be a lie.  This would be to make my own individual sensibility the final arbiter of the truth, which is dangerous.  But for Christians, a correlation does exist between religious language that is reckless or mean and falsehood.  We might say a correlation exists between religious language that is mean or reckless and religious language that is unorthodox.
 
Why might this be?  The task of the theologian—whether a preacher, an academic, or a churchgoer helping a friend through difficulty—is to articulate what God’s relationship to the world and its creatures is like.  “God is love” we read in scripture (1 John 4:8), and God’s loving relationship to the world has a name: Jesus Christ, whom God sent into the world because He loved the world (John 3:16). 
 
Yet this Jesus is also the truth (John 14:6).  We see here, then, that for the Christian theologian of any stripe, truth and love inhere in the same person.  When religious speech lacks one of these, what we are hearing is not the Word of God.  We recoil.
 
In Ephesians, St. Paul writes that our language must be “only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that [our] words may give grace to those who hear” (4:29).  We recoil when we hear preachers use phrases like “satanic pregnancies,” “satanic wombs,” and the command to miscarry in the name of Jesus because there is no grace in them.  We should not be surprised to find them riddled with exegetical and theological problems, as well. 
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
[1] In preparing this piece, I went looking for “satanic pregnancies” in the New Testament.  I reread Revelation 17-18, which features the infamous “whore of Babylon” image, the woman seated upon the waters who fornicates with the kings of the earth.  There’s fornication, and a reference to her being the mother of earth’s abominations (17:5).  We are much closer to “satanic pregnancies” here, but Revelation goes to great pains to make it clear that this woman is actually a city (17:18).  With all the references to “merchants” and “luxury” (18:3 and 18:7), it seems clear that what the author has in view is greed and other systematic injustices, primarily (but not exclusively) economic.  Thus, even in the context of Revelation we would be obliged to conclude that “satanic pregnancy” and the command of a spiritual miscarriage are dubious images to choose because the “abominations” are already here in the form of violence and economic injustice; we’re not waiting on them to be born.
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