Photograph by A. Sycholt in Africa: A Continent
Revealed by Rene Gordon (London: Country Life Books, 1980)
Topics in Chapter
Because many missionaries do not begin as learners, as described in Chapter 2, they typically make two fundamental mistakes in animistic contexts. First, they assume that their own cultural categories are universal. Second, they communicate on the level of high religion rather than on the popular level of low religion. This chapter will discuss these two fundamental mistakes of missionaries, call for a learning mentality, and suggest that causes of syncretism frequently stem from failing to deal with issues of low religion.
I am forced to deal with these two mistakes with much humility because they reflect some of my inadequacies while initially ministering among the Kipsigis people of Kenya. One evening Samuel Lang'at, a new Christian, arrived at our home. He was accompanying his hyperactive mother, whom I immediately diagnosed as "mentally deranged." Samuel informed me that he was taking his mother to visit a "doctor" and asked if I would take them to where he lived. I mentally translated the Kipsigis word for "doctor" into the secular category of "physical healer" and readily agreed to transport them. Instead of seeking to understand Samuel's dilemma through his cultural lenses, my immediate concern was where Samuel and his mother would spend the night. Because of the unpredictability of Samuel's mother and the security of my children, I concluded that they could not stay in my home. I went into the town and found a hotel where they could stay that night. Upon returning, I studied and prayed with Samuel as my wife prepared the evening meal. Our studies that evening did not pertain to Samuel's situation. I did not yet realize that God's message had anything to do with the problems of Samuel's mother. I diagnosed them as this-worldly psychological problems rather than cosmic problems related to spiritual warfare. Only later did I learn that Samuel's "doctor" was a traditional practitioner who divined the animistic causes of the spirit possession. I was forced to ask if such possession is real, what the biblical message is in such cases, and the role of those who believe that Christ is sovereign.
In a similar vein, Tippett tells of teaching a class of Fijian theological students about classical Hinduism. This class was to prepare them to evangelize the Indians who were moving onto the island. Tippett described the class as a dismal failure both because the Fijians could not conceive of the metaphysical categories of classical Hinduism and because the common Hindu moving to Fiji did not conceptualize reality in those classical categories. Tippett vividly described the content of his course as being power of the wrong voltage:
I had procured a generator of 240 voltage, although my functioning apparatus was only 110; and it was impossible to tap the power of the former and to achieve the functioning of the latter. A missionary geared to a metaphysical level of evangelism in his generator cannot drive a motor of shamanistic voltage. It is a tragic experience to find oneself with the right kind of power but of the wrong voltage. (1960, 412-413)
Cognitive domains are the broad categories into which a culture divides reality. These domains are used by people of a culture, either consciously or unconsciously, to compartmentalize reality. These broad classifications of reality vary from culture to culture.
Too many missionaries never learn to differentiate Western domains of culture from the domains of the culture in which they now minister. Alan Tippett rightly says, "Far too many missionaries by name never achieve their missionary identity because, though sent to a foreign land, they have never learned to leave the West behind them" (Tippett 1960, 414). These missionaries assume that Western domains are universal categories.
It is apparent that the missionary who has not sorted out the domains of his own culture will not be able to comprehend the domains of a host culture. Implicit domains must be made explicit. The missionary must learn Western categories of thought and contrast them to animistic categories of thought.
Western culture tends to cut reality into two big slices: the natural and the supernatural--the secular and spiritual. These two domains are the large categories into which Western people divide reality. In Escape from Reason Schaeffer traces this division back to Thomas Aquinas (1215-1274) with its roots in Aristotelian thought. Aquinas differentiated "nature" and "grace." "Nature" was the lower realm of the created, the earthly, and the visible. "Grace" was the higher realm of God, heaven, and the unseen. Over a period of time the realm of nature became autonomous from the higher realm and began to consume it. Schaeffer writes, "It is destructive when nature is made autonomous. As soon as one accepts the concept of an autonomous realm, one finds that the lower element begins to eat up the higher" (1968, 209-214).
Contemporary Western cultures continue to reflect a two-tiered view of reality which segments the natural and supernatural. Spiritual beings are relegated to the realm of the supernatural where they can only be perceived by miracles and visions. Humans are thought to dwell in the natural realm where they have little contact with spiritual beings or forces. Few, if any, spiritual beings and impersonal forces are thought to exist in the world. This mental differentiation between the natural and the supernatural is diagramed as follows:
Figure 2: A Western Cultural Domain
Hiebert, in a insightful article entitled "The Flaw of the Excluded Middle" (1982, 35-47), suggests that Western culture has neglected the realm of this-worldly spiritual beings and forces which exists between the natural and the supernatural. Belief in this middle realm began to wane during the Age of Enlightenment with "the secularization of science and the mystification of religion" (Hiebert 1982, 43). Reflecting their Western heritage, almost all missionaries exclude this middle realm and, consequently, are ill-prepared to communicate the gospel in animistic contexts where this realm is emphasized. Hiebert testifies, "As a scientist I had been trained to deal with the empirical world in naturalistic terms. As a theologian, I was taught to answer ultimate questions in theistic terms. For me the middle zone did not really exist" (1982, 43). When Hiebert entered an Indian context where rakasas ("evil spirits") and ancestors were known to impact life and had to be manipulated and controlled, he had no answers to questions of the middle realm (1982, 43). Likewise, O'Brien, who taught at a theological seminary in Asia, began to rethink the nature of principalities and powers when his students considered the Pauline perception of the powers "perfectly intelligible in their own cultural contexts" and critically objected to the Western commentaries which failed "to take seriously the accounts about demons, exorcism, and Christ's defeat of them" (O'Brien 1984, 130). Thus while those of an animistic heritage emphasize the excluded middle, missionaries sent to teach them have little conception of this realm.
Those borrowing from Western culture frequently do not distinguish between the natural and the supernatural but mix the two. This blending of categories both shocks and amuses Westerners. For example, the motifs of a Christmas pageant among the Telugu of South India are mostly drawn from Western mythology. The Telugu, however, enact the drama depicting the nativity in an entirely new way. At the end of the play Santa Claus jumps out with song and dance to present gifts to Jesus, his earthly parents, and the shepherds. He becomes the hero of the saga! Hiebert, who once witnessed the drama, was stunned because in Western cultures Jesus and Santa Claus are of entirely different cognitive domains. Jesus belongs to the supernatural domain and Santa Claus to the natural. Missionaries who introduced Christmas to India assumed that the hearers would be able to distinguish between the Christian celebration, expressing the significance of the incarnation of Jesus, and the secular celebration, depicting a fictional myth of gift-giving when youngsters live up to social expectations (1985a, 13, 15).
Animists do not make the typical Western dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural. This is true even in North American animistic contexts. For example, a foundational concept of the New Age movement is that the physical world and the spiritual world are "interrelated, interdependent, and interpenetrating" (Groothuis 1986, 18-20). Tina Lucia, a New Age therapist living in Stone Mountain, Georgia, uses crystals for healing purposes because "physical problems are manifestations of spiritual problems" (Friedrich 1987, 64). John Taylor, writing about an African context, says, "No distinction can be made between sacred and secular, between natural and supernatural, for Nature, Man and the Unseen are inseparably involved in one another in a total community" (1963, 64). In animistic contexts no distinction can be made between the natural and the supernatural. "Whatever happens in the physical world has its spiritual coordinates . . . . Everything man is, does, handles, projects, and interacts with is interpenetrated with the spiritual" (Steyne 1989, 39).
While not segmenting the natural and the supernatural, animists have their own cognitive domains. These domains typically distinguish between the body and the spirit. An analogy of a pitcher full of water helps Westerners understand these domains. Animists believe that spirits are fluid like water, which can be poured into or out of a pitcher. The pitcher is like the body and the spirit(s) like the water. The Nuer of Sudan use these domains when they distinguish between kwoth ("spirit") and pwony ("creature"). When Nuer pray to and make sacrifices to their totems, they distinguish between the kwoth and the pwony of the totems. The Nuer do not pray and sacrifice to the pwony but to the kwoth of these totems. The missionary should never compare Western domains with these animistic domains. Evans-Pritchard says, "There is no abstract duality of natural and supernatural, but there is such a duality between kwoth, Spirit, which is immaterial rather than supernatural, and cak, creation, the material world known to the senses" (1956, 77).
Although a spirit may leave a body at various times while a person is living, this differentiation is especially apparent at death when the spirit permanently leaves the body. Kipsigis of Kenya differentiate between tamirmiriet ("spirit") and borto ("body"). Kipsigis Christians use scripture to prove this dichotomy: Matt. 27:50 says that Jesus "yielded up his spirit" at death, inferring that the body and spirit were separated, and Jas. 2:26 equates faith without works with a body without a spirit. As we were leaving Kenya, numerous Christians told our family, "Although we will be apart in body, we will be together in spirit."
Animists believe that life is poured out not only at death but also at different times while one is living. Dreaming is one such time. The spirit journeys while the body sleeps. Many animistic peoples believe that a sleeping person should not be awakened too quickly. If he is dreaming, his body might be caught without the spirit and be killed. Both death and dreaming prove that life is fluid. At times the spirit lives in the body but at other times departs from the body.
If one accepts that bodies and souls can be separated at death and while one is dreaming, an obvious conclusion is that spirits can exist apart from bodies. Spirits of the dead exist in a disembodied form. There are therefore ancestors and ghosts, spirits of the dead who are in a disembodied state. In some societies these spirits are thought to go directly to heaven or to hell. In other societies, they stay around for a period of time until they are satisfied and then depart. Some are benevolent, some malevolent.
As missionaries communicate God's eternal message in the contemporary contexts of the world's people, they cannot assume that other people accept their cognitive domains and, as a consequence, communicate the Christian message through those domains. They must learn the domains of their recipient culture and judge whether Christianity can be communicated through those categories or whether other categories of reality must be introduced.
When religions emphasize high gods and cosmic ideologies but have little to say about animistic beliefs and customs, they are called high religions. Low religions, on the other hand, are animistic. They emphasize how to manipulate and control spiritual powers in everyday life and de-emphasize reliance on high gods, like Yahweh or Allah. Missiologists Allison (1984, 167-170) and Hiebert (1985a, 222-224) have taken anthropological writings about low and high religion (Horton 1962, 197-220; Wilson 1970) and applied them to understanding animistic beliefs. Differentiating these categories helps the missionary understand how Christianity might be accepted on one level but Animism continued on another level.
The major religions of the world--Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism--are high religions. These high religions have similar characteristics which set them apart from low religions. First, they are concerned with the cosmic questions of life. They answer questions concerning origins (From where have we come? How have we become what we are?), destiny (Where are we heading?), and ultimate meaning of life (What is the ultimate purpose of human existence?). Second, they have written texts, like the Bible, Qur'an, and Rig Veda. These texts serve to freeze thought at the times in which the texts were written. While the culture continues to change, the authoritative body of beliefs remains the same. Commentaries, however, make these writings meaningful and applicable to contemporary times and cultures. Third, high religions are institutionalized. They have their own specialized leadership roles, bureaucratic organizations, and credal formulations which set them apart from other institutions. Temples, church buildings, and schools for training leaders provide locations for institutional activity. Fourth, high religions provide ethical and moral directives for religious participants. A moral god(s) is in conflict with the forces of evil. Howells describes high religions with the following words:
The great faiths are messianic, being founded on historical figures of great personal force, like Jesus or Mohammed. Secondly, they are strongly ethical. Thirdly, they might be called world religions, because they have a missionary character allied to their messianic one. They see no boundaries, each considering itself the one true creed; they are imperialistic, going out to bring into the fold others than those people among whom they grew up, so that Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism now have the vast majority of their adherents beyond the borders of the nation where their messiahs first preached. . . . They have . . . a great exclusiveness in belief; a jealousy of their own doctrines and an intolerance of others, which they relentlessly seek to blot out. Each is basically a sufficient philosophy, propounded by the messiah and worked upon by his followers in the endeavor to make the whole thing into a single logical and ethical structure. (Howells 1962, 5)
The characteristics of low religions contrast with those of high religions. First, low religions are concerned with immediate issues of everyday life. They deal with crises of disease, death, and drought. Solutions are sought when a wife is barren, when determining the success of a new business venture, or when planning an auspicious time for a daughter's wedding. Second, low religions have few authoritative texts. Beliefs are conveyed from person to person--and from generation to generation--by oral traditions, duplicated rituals, and reenacted dramas. Because these beliefs are not frozen in writing, they change imperceptibly--without people being aware of the modification. Conceptions are reinterpreted for changing occasions and to reflect solutions to new problems. Animism therefore is dynamic, always reformulating as interpretative models of reality change. Third, low religions are informally organized. Leaders are charismatic personalities who are able to creatively deal with new circumstances rather than specialists who deal in areas of expertise and who depend upon the wishes of the bureaucracy. Buildings are not significantly important. Fourth, low religious systems are amoral. While the Christian God is moral and provides a model of morality for all believers, animistic powers are amoral. Personal spiritual beings of animistic religions might be either good or bad, benevolent or malevolent. Because their qualities are analogous to human qualities, they provide no ethical standard of morality beyond that which exists in human cultures.
When considering cognitive domains and the distinctions made between high and low religions, the missiologist is led to ask some penetrating questions: Why do many missionaries not visualize low religious customs? Why must missionaries communicate the nature and reality of cosmic warfare in animistic contexts? How can syncretism be avoided?
Perceiving Low Religious Customs
Frequently low religions and high religions exist side by side and even within the same person. Missionaries immediately see the high religion of their area and have categories to understand its nature. Low religious beliefs and customs, however, are less overt and harder for the missionary to perceive because of his Western presuppositions and lack of training to understand animistic beliefs.
For example, all orthodox Muslims follow the same Five Pillars of Islam. The functions of these pillars are so parallel to Christian rites that their high religious meanings are apparent. The Muslim confession of faith (the shahadah), "There is no God but one God, and Muhammad is his prophet," is expressed numerous times daily. The haunting and beautiful summons to ritual prayer (salat) is heard five times each day. Muslims give alms (zakat) to the poor very much like Christians. During the lunar month of Ramadan, the entire Muslim culture observes a fast (sawm) from daybreak to sundown. Much publicity is given to those who are going on their pilgrimage (haji) to the Kaaba in Mecca. These pillars of Islam are universal public rituals wherever Islam has become rooted.
However, when these same pillars are used animistically, they are much harder for the missionary to understand. The confession of faith is used to counter the forces of evil eye and to magically ward off jinn which usurp people's loyalty to Allah. The words become power words rather than a confession of belief. When used in this way, the confession becomes paradoxically a denial of its very content. The motivation for saying prayers, giving alms, fasting during Ramadan, and going on the pilgrimage to Mecca is to gain baraka, an impersonal spiritual power which, when stored up, helps a person obtain power for life. Understood animistically, baraka is disconnected from Allah, its source in orthodox Islam, and is used to manipulate reality. Other animistic customs, like veneration of pirs, power personalities who stand between the living and Allah, and Zar ceremonies, in which spirits are called into practitioners for the purpose of divination, are more difficult to understand than Muslim high religion.
Similarly, African missionaries have walked past various designs of ancestral shrines and perceived them to be unique chicken coops. Missionaries without anthropological and theological training in Animism frequently overlook or misunderstand low religious customs.
Even when these missionaries begin to grasp the extent of Animism in a culture, they frequently deny the validity of these beliefs and customs and call the people superstitious. Jinn are not considered real spirits, and belief in baraka is understood as myth. The people's animistic beliefs become another rationale for missionaries' latent ethnocentrism.
Communicating the Nature and Reality of Spiritual Warfare
Missionaries trained in Western universities and seminaries typically see evangelism as dealing with the cosmic issues of high religion, not the immediate problems of everyday life. The common people of the world, on the other hand, are more deeply concerned about low religion than high religion. While the people are asking low religious questions, the missionary is preaching on the level of high religion. Norman Allison testifies that, when he first began ministering in Jordan, he taught the abstract theological propositions formulated in Western institutions of learning. The people who gathered in his living room for religious discussion, however, were deliberating on things that to him were unrelated to the study of the Bible:
Killing a lamb and placing its blood on the front of a new car to keep away the "evil eye" seemed to be a significant spiritual experience for them. In the case of a sick person, placing a book of Psalms under the pillow to speed recovery was very important.
Only when Allison began to teach concerning the sovereignty of God over the spirit world did the group, with great interest and response, begin to discuss the concepts of the Bible (1984, 165-166).
In an animistic context the message must center on the cosmic conflict between God and the gods, between Christ and the demons, between the church and the principalities and powers. Christ's kingdom confronts the kingdom of Satan, and in the cross Christ has already become victorious over the domain of Satan. Christ came to the earth so that he might "destroy the works of devil" (1 John 3:8). In this great confrontation with the forces of Satan, Christians will overcome because Christ, who dwells in them, is greater "than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4). With these theological presuppositions, the issues of high religion have a direct relationship to the issues of low religion.
Burnett concisely describes a holistic theological approach to animistic peoples (1988, 218-220). On the level of high religion, there must be "truth encounter." All peoples must understand the nature of God. He is "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness and truth" (Exod. 34:6). As Creator, he expects all of his creation to worship him and relate to him. When they serve other gods instead of him, he becomes jealous and punishes his creation in love in order to lead them back to himself (Exod. 34:7; Prov. 3:11-12; Heb. 12:5-11). God's love is manifested in what he has done in Jesus Christ. His son died to break the power of Satan and to redeem his alienated creation back to himself. True meaning and fulfillment can be found only by living in a relationship with eternal God in Jesus Christ. All must declare their allegiance to the God of the universe. There can be no other gods. These eternal, universal truths must confront every culture.
On the level of low religion, there must be "power encounter." The issues of everyday life are dealt with in relation to the reality of the sovereignty of God and our allegiance to him. The idols of pagan gods must be torn down. Ungodly magic must be shown to be ineffective before the mighty power of God. Those oppressed and possessed by animistic powers must be freed by God's mighty hand. The inroads of Satan into our institutions and customs must be confronted and the ethics, morality, and purity of God reestablished. These confrontations with the forces of Satan require visible demonstrations of the power of God in animistic contexts.
On the level of the technological or natural, there must be "empirical encounter." In secular societies the God who stands behind all natural order must be affirmed. Christ, as the creating force of God, is the one who holds all things together (Col. 1:17). The world is not a "closed universe," existing independent of its creator. God must be brought back into science.
So the Christian message in animistic contexts is holistic. It entails proclamation on all levels of culture.
Avoiding Syncretism by Presenting a Holistic Message
When the Christian message is proclaimed in a non-Christian context, there is always some type of synthesis between the message and the culture. If eternal Christian meanings are internalized in contemporary Christian forms, the result is healthy indigenization. If, on the other hand, Christian forms are given non-Christian meanings, the result is syncretism. In such syncretism the essential meanings of Christianity are lost (Hiebert 1981, 378).
When Christianity does not answer the problems of low religion, new converts will respond in one of two ways. Each of these responses reflects a type of syncretism. The first response is reversion to the traditional practices of low religion. This reversion might be total. For example, a Kipsigis Christian of Kenya who goes to a shaman to determine the cause of an illness concludes that he is not faithful to the Lord and that it would be hypocritical to attend church meetings. Kipsigis firmly feel that Christians cannot follow two contradictory ways, as implied in their proverb "Two walking sticks cannot be burned together." In other contexts, the reversion might be partial. Converts might look to high religion to answer cosmic questions concerning origins, destiny, and ultimate meaning in life but revert to the old low religion to deal with immediate problems of life, such as illness, death, and drought. As Steyne says, "Many . . . converts [hold] the Bible in one hand and their traditional religion in the other" (1989, 16). Among the Luo, an ethnic group adjacent to the Kipsigis, it is not unusual for a Christian to worship God on Sunday while consulting the shaman during the week. While a Kipsigis might totally revert during such times, the Luo would allow his shamanism to coexist with his Christianity.
The second response is surface accommodation. Converts in animistic contexts take the symbols from high religion and attribute animistic meanings to them. Among Folk Muslims the confession of faith and names for Allah become power words, rather than words of adoration and praise. The Qur'an is used as a book of magic rather than a divine revelation with a message. In Christo-paganism a cross, the symbol of a suffering savior, is put on a house as a protective symbol to ward off evil spirits. The Bible is used as a magical fetish, not as a book of eternal knowledge. Among Brazilian spiritists names for old Yoruban gods were brought over by slaves from West Africa and equated with names of Christian personalities and Catholic saints. Yemanja was equated with the Virgin Mary, Oxala with Jesus, Xango with both John the Baptist and St. Jerome, and Ogum with St. George (St. Clair 1971, 62-64). Although the high religion appears Christian on the surface, the content is animistic.
This tendency for syncretism is amplified by missionaries who turn to religion for ultimate meaning in life and to science for issues of everyday life, like the healing of disease. The answers to the problems of low religion have become secularized. When missionaries unconsciously project this philosophy as a part of Christianity, they become a secularizing force. Because missionaries have frequently separated religion and science, they have become secularizing rather than Christianizing forces (Miller 1973, 99-107; Newbigin 1966).
To counter such syncretistic tendencies, the Christian message must be presented holistically. The message of a sovereign God who desires his people's trust and allegiance-- beliefs on the level of high religion--is reflected by his power in defeating the principalities and powers on the level of low religion. Belief that God hears when we pray and that he is with us in his spirit enables the animist to trust in God when confronted with evils of the immediate life rather than seeking to manipulate spiritual powers to do his bidding.
When I first preached about prayer using the story of Hannah, the barren wife of Elkanah, the Kipsigis were enthralled. The story of two wives, one blessed with many children and the other blessed with the love of her husband, reflected African sentiments. The heartrending tears of Hannah touched them as they empathized with the dilemma of a woman without a son. They knew the lack of respect, the ridicule, that Kipsigis women without sons feel. At this point I asked, "What did Hannah do because she did not have a son?" All was silent for a long moment. Finally someone spoke, "Hannah prayed, and God gave her a son." Hannah's joy and triumph were felt by the Kipsigis listeners as they heard of this woman who prayed and was given a son. This son eventually became God's prophet and priest in Israel. The Kipsigis realized that if they were in Hannah's situation they would also praise God and say, "There is no one holy like the Lord. Indeed, there is no one besides you, neither is there any rock like our God" (1 Sam. 2:2). God eventually opened the womb of Hannah so that she gave birth to three sons and two daughters (1 Sam. 2:21). "Is it not true," I asked, "that God is the one who gives children?" (Ps. 113:9; 127:3).
I then began to apply the story to the Kipsigis context. "What would a Kipsigis woman do if she did not have a son?", I asked. Once again silence filled the room. The men grinned; the women hid their eyes because such a traditional question was voiced in public. Hearing about Hannah praying to God was enjoyable; the story expressed ideal Christian beliefs. But this question was startlingly unpredictable. Finally, one brave Christian woman voiced what all knew to be true: "Typically when a woman is barren, she goes to the Chepsogeiyot," the female diviner who determines why the woman is barren."
We then compared the faith of Hannah to the faith of a traditional Kipsigis woman who had gone to the Chepsogeiyot. While Hannah relied on God and waited faithfully for him to act, the Kipsigis woman, following the dictates of the diviner, sought to overcome the curse of a recently deceased aunt. She sought to appease through a propitiatory sacrifice. Hannah related to sovereign God, the one who is the source of all power. Hannah's relationship to God was one of praise (1 Sam. 2:1-10); the traditionalist had an allegiance which blocked her relationship with God (Isa. 8:19).
At the conclusion of the lesson, the unusual happened. A lady stood up and said, "Would you tell this story again?" That day I realized that stories with contextualized applications holistically communicate biblical theology. Issues of high religion and low religion do not have to be segmented but can be brought together. Sovereign God was shown as actively working in his world and must be proclaimed as the God who acts.
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