In the Western world there has been an explosion of interest in the occult. In the media and entertainment industries
occult practices are regularly portrayed under the so-called “supernatural” genre. Many commentators are not surprised at this trend since the God of Christian faith has been largely evicted from the public square. People need to find awe and some level of transcendence in a materialistic society. Nature abhors a vacuum.
On the other hand in Africa a different struggle is going on. Occult practices have been part of African societies for centuries and the advent of Christianity did not fully displace them. There is a strong belief in supernatural entities that people need to be wary of. Nigerian and Ghanaian movies regularly depict occult practices. Art always imitates life. Many practitioners of traditional religion see Christianity as the white man’s religion. This view has a lot of sympathy in the public arena where traditional religions have the old gods and the Church has a new god called Jesus. When Western Christians talk about idolatry they usually mean overly focusing on something worldly as opposed to God. To the African Christian idolatry is no metaphor.
What is particularly alarming is that it is not uncommon in Ghana, and undoubtedly many parts of Africa, for professing Christians to solicit occult powers. Many are in the Church on Sunday and on Monday are at the shrine. Perhaps the reasoning is the Christian god is just one of the supernatural entities out there. The Christian Gospel in their eyes teaches this new god is quite slow and is difficult to persuade. The old gods are quick and effective and they largely do what you want, provided you can negotiate a good deal with them. Without realising it, they are tacitly acknowledging that the one true God cannot be manipulated. The problem does not end there with registered church members practicing the occult. The lines of distinction are further being blurred, unfortunately from the pulpit.
A lot of popular radio preachers and “prophets” behave in a manner very reminiscent of local shamans. My parents tell me some of the titles and nicknames of these preachers are actually names of old traditional deities. A lot of people in and outside the Church, including traditional priests, accuse them of colluding with occult powers which they vehemently deny. The explanation these preachers offer for the similarities goes something like this. The “spiritual world” is an open playing field for those who have access to it. Some derive their power from traditional deities whilst others take it from the Christian god. They have a similar conception of the spiritual realm but they are agents of different powers so it is not surprising their practices are similar.
For example most people have phones but there are many different carriers. Irrespective of the different phone brands and carriers the technology is largely very similar. The major difference is the packages that are offered and the quality of service from telecommunications networks. The preachers who display supernatural power have simply “tuned in” to the Christian god frequency.
The phenomenon I am describing is known as cultural syncretism. In the case of the Church it is where indigenous cultural practices are assimilated into the Church and are mistaken for being genuinely Christian. Sometimes it is not very serious. For example many people think dancing is a compulsory expression of worship. As Africans dance is just a part of us. Other times it is more worrying. This phenomenon is not new and the early Christians were constantly battling it, probably to an even great extent. Christianity had not yet gained dominance and they were surrounded on all sides with paganism. Many early Christian’s were themselves pagan converts and had to be careful not to revert to their old ways (Acts 19:18-19; Galatians 4:9.)
A good example of cultural syncretism are the Nicolaitans mentioned in Revelation 2:6 and 15. It is speculated that they were an early Christian heretical sect somehow associated with the deacon Nicolaus of Acts 6:5. They were situated in Ephesus and Pergamum which were major ancient centres of cult worship in the Roman Empire. The Lord Jesus in Revelation consistently compares them to Balaam. Arguably the cardinal sin in the Old Testament was idolatry of which Balaam was notorious for seducing Israel to practice (Revelation 2:14.) He is an archetypal false prophet in Bible (2 Peter 2:15-16.) The strong polemical language used against the Nicolaitans, similar to what you will find against idolatry in the Old Testament, suggests they were mixing elements of pagan worship with Christianity. With pagan worship invariably comes elements of occultism.
Occultism is an aspect of polytheism which has been the dominant worldview throughout much of human history. Polytheism, the worship of many gods, is diametrically opposed to biblical monotheism. The question of the nature of divinity is the question of the nature of ultimate reality. No matter who you are, you act according to what you think is real.
Now both kinds of theism agree ultimate reality is something other than the self. Polytheism says there is no single ultimate reality but there are various entities who govern or represent different aspects of reality. In polytheism both the deity and the worshipper benefit from the religious arrangement. The deity gains the obedience and service of the worshipper whilst the devotee gains the deity’s favour and protection. Serving one god however is not enough since it does not have absolute control. You therefore serve a pantheon of deities to keep them all happy and ultimately ensuring your personal flourishing.
There is no ultimate transcendent purpose. Everything is pretty much in the here and the now. The gods are seen as capricious, unpredictable spirits who need to be somehow controlled or they wreak havoc on human existence. On account of this religious pluralism i.e. the worship of many gods, there were no absolute moral standards. Whatever you did to protect yourself from the wrath of the gods or ensure your prosperity, including child sacrifice and ritual prostitution, was permissible.
Monotheism on the other hand says there is only one ultimate reality who transcends all else. This means everything else is dependent on that ultimate reality and must submit to this reality. Biblical monotheism goes on to say this ultimate reality is a good creator-God who intimately cares for his creation and has made humans in his likeness. Since there is only one God, one ultimate reality, there are absolute standards. Unlike polytheism, one ultimate transcendent being means there is one ultimate transcendent purpose for creation. This definitive purpose meant going against the Maker’s will is actually opposing your own wellbeing by resisting the very reason for your being. Therefore, worship i.e. serving the purpose for which you were made, can only result in your flourishing. The Bible explains the evil we see in the world is caused by sin, the cardinal overarching one being the refusal to acknowledge and serve your Maker (Romans 1:19-32.)
As you can see “God” in the Bible is a very narrow category that can only be filled by one being. Conversely, you could say it is too big and only the God of the Bible is great enough to fit that description. The Bible does not deny the existence of primordial elemental forces of nature otherwise known as spirits. (See Angel, demons and other mystic spirits for a more detailed explanation.) None of them can simply compare to the God of the Bible so they cannot be gods at all. Polytheism and biblical monotheism cannot be mixed because they are two completely different worldviews. They provide very different visions of reality and you can only subscribe to one of them. They both cannot be true.
The Bible in both testaments offer scathing, unrelenting criticism of the polytheistic worldview and things associated with it. Occultism is without exemption also targeted. Studying the occult in the Bible because of this is very difficult. The biblical record sees no need to give a detailed account of it. It would rather denounce and caution against it. Many occult practices are only mentioned by name in the Bible and it is difficult for scholars to figure out precisely what each one is (Deuteronomy 18:9-12; 2 Chronicles 33:1-9.)
Individual occult practices in the ancient Near East will differ from contemporary practices. So instead of trying to isolate individual practices I want to elucidate the general features of the occult. The word of God teaches us to stay away from the occult. I want to provide a biblical description of what it is so we can steer completely clear of it.
The first general feature of the occult is idolatry. What I mean by idolatry is the belief system founded on polytheism. Idolatry is dependent on polytheism and the occult is dependent on idolatry. Anyone who practices the occult is a polytheist. There is no middle ground. Either you serve YHWH or you do not. Idolatry as I have already noted is about a mutual arrangement between the deity and the devotee where both parties benefit. Images of these deities are fashioned according to the human imagination. There is a tangible representation of the deity so there can be interaction with it. The Old Testament often ridicules the conceit of man-made gods. Through their own devices, humans delude themselves into serving their own baser desires and instincts, vain projections of the human heart. On account of these things the Bible always associates sin with idolatry, that is a heart in rebellion against God. Idolatry is viewed as absolutely abominable and the moral manifestations of it support the observation e.g. child sacrifice, cult prostitution, self-mutilation etc.
The second feature is mysticism. It is at this level that we descend into the occult proper. The word “occult” means hidden. Mysticism also assumes there is a hidden knowledge only accessible to a privileged few. To have access to these secrets you must be initiated into the society of the designated custodians of these mysteries. Once you have been enlightened you gain understanding and power over certain mysterious of aspects of reality. You are also charged with the responsibility of preserving the secrets of the mystical order. This kind of epistemology only works if you have a worldview where you have deities who are not omnipotent and are also partial. This means in exchange for your absolute devotion you can gain access to privileged information. So in polytheistic societies there are always cult priests, gurus, shamans, witchdoctors etc. A group of people who have special access to the gods whom everyone has to rely on because of their privileged position. They are intermediaries without whom the populace would never know the right way to serve the gods.
The third feature is divination. Now you have a system of worship, complete with qualified mediators, you need to determine the future of the relationship. Of all the forces humanity wrestles with, the one thing that is most uncontrollable is the future. Destiny seems to be a cruel and irresistible force. If the gods control the world they are the ones who determine the outcome of events. Basically, divination tries to decipher tomorrow giving the worshipper the advantage of foreknowledge in the battle against fate. It is at this the level that God seems to particularly enjoy throwing the proverbial spanner in the works. Through predictive prophecy he frustrates the omens of the diviners, proving the world is his and he alone dictates what goes on in it (Isaiah 44:25-26.)
The fourth and final element of the occult is magic. Mysticism is like the theory whilst magic (and divination) is like the practice. Magic, along with divination, are the core practices of the occult. Magic, particularly sympathetic magic, is about the manipulation of nature by appealing to mystical forces. It is about exerting control over your environment by performing rituals on something that represents it. A basic example is that an idol is made so that what the deity governs can be positively influenced in the devotees favour. Treating the image well placates the controlling spirit of which it is a tangible representation. If it is a storm god, boisterous weather is calmed and the devotee can safely embark on a fishing expedition. Another example of simulative magic is the use of voodoo dolls and juju.
Essentially what we can consider as occult in the Bible falls under basically two categories of activities, divination and magic. They rely on the manipulation of spirits, that is, personified elemental forces, to achieve these supernatural feats. To support these beliefs you need a polytheistic worldview. The occult also has its own theology which is idolatry. Since the various forms of idolatry share a similar worldview, it is not uncommon for a deities from different pantheons to be worshipped alongside one other.
Finally there must be a sect, a group of intermediaries between the gods and the laity. These are the mystics who safeguard occult knowledge and practices. Based on worldview, theology, and sectarian practices you can identify the occult.