Jul 13, 2007

Elemental spirits and vain philosophy

"See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ."
Colossians 2:8

I rely on the Internet to keep up with what is going on in the world outside of Venezuela. One blog that I regularly read is getreligion.org. On this site, professional journalists of various religious backgrounds post comments about how the "mainstream media" covers news about religion.

One contributor is Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who is also a member of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod and, in fact, a pastor's daughter. On June 28, 2007, she cited a Los Angeles Times article that she thought was a good example of writing about religion, especially for the sports section of a newspaper. The article actually had to do with Venezuela.

More specifically, it had to do with Santeria and Ozzie Guillen, the Venezuelan who is manager of the Chicago White Sox. Guillen became a national hero here after the White Sox won the World Series. Here is what sportswriter Kevin Baxter reported about Guillen:

"Guillen’s religion is Santeria, a largely misunderstood Afro-Cuba spiritual tradition that incorporates the worship of orisha — multidimensional beings who represent the forces of nature — with beliefs of the Yoruba and Bantu people of Africa and elements of Roman Catholicism. And Guillen, born in Venezuela, is one of a growing number of Latin American players, managers and coaches who are followers of the faith..."

“When you talk about that religion in the States, people think you’re a monster,” said Guillen, whose children were baptized in the Catholic faith and have become, like their father, babalaos (followers of Santeria). “Sometimes you have to be careful what you say about religion and when and how.

"Because in this country there’s so many different ideas, people get offended so easy.

“People call me a criminal because we do stuff with blood and animals. I don’t blame these people. They believe what they believe and I believe what I believe. Have I ever killed an animal in the States to do my religion? No. I did in my country.”

Ms. Hemingway's only criticism of the article was that the writer repeatedly described Santeria as "misunderstood" without offering any evidence of that being the case. My observation is that the rise of Santeria in Venezuela, Latin America and the United States is something to think about the next time you hear someone say there is no need for Christian mission work in Latin America.

In addition to Santeria, there are in Venezuela, as I have mentioned before,various other forms of witchcraft and occultism. For example, there is the cult of Maria Lionza, who combines aspects of a fertility goddess, a water elemental and elements of the Roman Catholic concept of the Virgin Mary. Even before I came to Venezuela, I was struck by pictures of a 15-foot-tall image of Maria Lionza located next to the Caracas freeway. The figure depicts a nude woman astride a tapir (a pig-like animal native to South America) who is holding a human pelvic bone above her head. Worshippers adorn this image (idol) with flowers and other offerings every year. Vibrations from heavy freeway traffic have done some structural damage to the statute and there has been talk of moving it. One proposal is to relocate it in the same district as the city's main mosque, synagogue and Maronite Catholic church. Needless to say, Muslims, Jews and Maronite Christians are as one in their lack of enthusiasm for this idea. (Ironically, the presence of a large Maronite church, and of Maronites, an ancient people from Lebanon and Syria, in Caracas is the result of native Christians fleeing the Middle East in the face of Muslim persecution).

Maria Lionza actually is supposed to "live"on a mountain in the western state of Yaracuy. Devotees gather there annually during which time it is said non-believers who value their lives are best advised to stay away.

Maria Lionza is said to be one of the three most powerful spirit-beings in Venezuela. The other two are Negro Felipe (Black Philip), an earth elemental who also represents the spirituality of African-Americans, and Chief Guaicaipuro, a wind elemental who represents the wisdom of the indigenous tribes.

In addition to these beliefs, you can also find throughout Venezuela Masons (despite the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to Freemasonry), Rosicrucians, Gnostics, practitioners of yoga and New Agery, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists (the last two being particularly numerous around Barinas).

July 12, 2007, marked the end of my fourth year of living in Venezuela. As the date rolled around, I took some time to reflect on some of the things I have described above and other things that I have learned during my time here. One important lesson has been the importance of apologetics (reasoned defense of Christian doctrine) in mission work. Even when working with children, as we do, a shallow understanding of what you believe and why you believe it is not enough. Subjective experience is not enough, nor, in the grand design of things, is your "personal testimony" particularly important. Above all one must present the promise of eternal life in Christ, revealed in Holy Scripture, as sure and certain. If you believe this yourself, you can do no less.

Many people want to reduce the faith once delivered to the saints to a series of vague platitudes that no one in their right mind would disagree with. For people in Latin America and other parts of the world where life is still a series of storms and trials, platitudes are not enough. Everyone needs solid truths to live by and to die by, when their last hour is at hand. If we believe we have the pure, apostolic doctrine, we cannot stand silent when there are so many peddling spiritual counterfeits.

This past Wednesday, July 12, was also the day that we had a graduation ceremony for the children that will be leaving us for first grade. Each one received a little banner inscribed with Psalm 16:7: "I will bless the Lord who counsels me and gladdens my heart."

Unfortunately I have no photos of this event. Nor do I have photos of the great progress that has been made on our new fence. My digital camera is broken (to make a long story short, it's the monsoon season here and I had to walk over a mile in a tropical downpour). Now I have to decide between getting it repaired (very expensive here; they want more than I paid for it in the first place) and seeing if someone will bring me a replacement from the United States, where anything electronic is much cheaper.

Finally I would like to note that we continue to pray for the family of Kent Heidenreich, a member of Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, Freeburg, Illinois, who recently died in a farming accident.

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