January 21, 2010

What to do with Ghosts in the Bible?

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A few weeks ago in a Sunday Bible class we were studying Mark’s story about Jesus walking on the water (Mark 5:45-52)—and ignoring the elephants in the room! The elephants in the room are the broader historical questions about miracles—for example, how could Jesus walk on unfrozen water and still be human? Instead we “spiritualized” the story—meaning we talked about ourselves instead of the text. Thus our teaching guide summarized the lesson with the following spiritual moral: “like the disciples, we too can give in to spiritual hardness and fear and not recognize God’s presence and power at work.”

     Pondering the elephants in the room, however, I wondered what it meant that the disciples believed they had seen a “ghost”—or better, an apparition or phantom. An apparition is something apparent to the sight but has no actual independent substantial existence (hence, a ghost, a specter, a spook, etc.). So I asked the other members of the class: “does anyone believe in “ghosts” or “spooks?” My question fell on the table like a lead balloon—followed by silence!

     As the author, Mark has the final say on what words the disciples speak—therefore, it appears that Mark clearly believed that ghosts “existed” (in the sense that ghosts could register on the retina of the eye) because the disciples thought they saw “it” (i.e., an apparition) and were terrified (Mark 6:49)—hence spooks were frightening sights and part of Mark’s belief system. Had Mark not “believed” in ghosts, the ghost would not be part of the story (as is the case in John 6:16-21).

     Don’t be surprised that Mark believed in spooks. He also believed in other spirit-like “entities” affecting the human condition: spooks, mute spirits, unclean spirits, demons, angels, Satan, the Holy Spirit. For Mark, the world of sense perception was also inhabited by a shadowy class of spirit-beings in addition to humans and animals. Mark’s class of spirit-beings prompts the question: how much of this kind of thing is residual superstition of our primitive past and what can we comfortably square with living in the modern world? Most of those other-than-human “entities” thought to “exist” in our ancient past we seem to have outgrown. Such things as werewolves, fairies, goblins, ogres, dragons, magic charms, spells, etc., we now attribute to superstitious folklore (at least many do).

     How should the Bible be read? Should we read with the idea that the Bible is prescriptive for modern life in everything it says? Or is it an ancient book so firmly anchored to a pre-critical and naive age that it must be read carefully with discrimination, sorting good ideas from bad? Or does the truth lie somewhere between? Truth be told: until we acknowledge that the Bible belongs to a primitive age, those who value it are destined to dodge questions about spooks, unicorns, satyrs (all in the Bible), and other disturbing markers of its pre-critical antiquity.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 3:41pm

Hello Dr. H,

I've never seen or felt a ghost, so I cannot testify from experience. My husband, more primitive than I, perhaps, has a few stories to share. He would say, "The truth is out there!" a la X-Files. As for me, when I'm stuck in the "Did it happen-Did it not happen?" dilemma, I go back to something I heard someone say once: "I don't know if it happened exactly this way, but I know this story is true!" This frees me up to experience a moment and allow the story to speak to me to see if something resonates. If nothing resonates, even if it speaks truth, it's for naught--at least for now, for me. But, if something stirs my spirit, there's a lesson there for me. In Mark 6:45-52, I see one of the many "Do not be afraid" messages in the story. I think about myself and how I sometimes row hopelessly against the wind, afraid to lose control in a stormy sea, when it would be better to go below and just see what happens next. I have been amazed at solutions that I'd never have predicted or even had the sense to wish for, once I withdrew from the fray. True That!
Posted by Holly Thompson on 2/6/2010 at 10:55pm