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Superstition and the Gospel

April 9, 2024

Elisabeth Berger

It was the last session before lunch at the SCEN – the Evangelical Seminary of Sao Luis, a coastal town in northern Brazil. Eighteen eager students were discussing the topic of superstition in their Anthropology 201 class. How do superstitions affect human behavior? Why do they ‘work’ for one person, but not another? What role does cultural upbringing play? Are there superstitions that seem more prevalent in one part of the world over another? What apparent value do superstitions provide to people?

The class discussion allowed for plenty of examples of superstitious behavior from the students’ own environments. As a loose definition of the word ‘superstition’, they were thinking about a widely held but technically unverifiable belief in a supernatural cause which would lead to specific consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.

One such example was the belief that showering after a main meal, particularly the act of washing your hair, would bring bad luck. The behavior attached to that superstition, therefore, was that you never shower after lunch; you always shower before your meal. Since I had never heard of this belief, I had questions: what evil are we talking about - what would happen? What is the time frame associated with this belief - how long do we have to wait to be safe showering? Is there a counter-superstition that can be activated to thwart the evil consequences if needed? There were no good answers. 

In order to stay on track, I asked the class: what role does the message of an almighty and sovereign God play in the world of superstitions? In order to answer that, we had to ask ourselves: what fears do superstitions address, what control do they promise, and how do they end up controlling us? 

By the time lunch rolled around, the class had come to an agreement that their God was stronger and more in control of their well-being than the act of showering at possibly the wrong moment. As a German who had not been exposed to this potential pitfall, I could easily agree with them. However, my belief in the futility of this superstition was based firmly in the fact that my culture did not see this as a danger to my life. So pooh-poohing this behavior came easy to me. I had a sneaking suspicion, though, that my class was not completely with me. You see, they were raised to fear this particular danger. Why? Well, that is what our Anthropology 201 class was learning to think about.

How do we present the truth and the power and the freedom of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that speaks to the underlying, and therefore the most deeply held, belief system of a person and their cultural community? How do people actually get to the point of recognizing that the Gospel brings freedom from fear, rather than subscribing to the Gospel while looking over our shoulders in fear of repercussions? How does someone get to the point of recognizing they can utterly entrust their fears, for all of life, to almighty God?

How do we present the truth and the power and the freedom of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that speaks to the underlying, and therefore the most deeply held, belief system of a person and their cultural community?

As the bell sounded for the end of class, and the lunch bell sounded from the cafeteria, I looked at my students and said: see you all at lunch - and then, who is going to go take a shower to test the theory? The look of utter horror on their faces made all of us break into laughter. We learned an important lesson - you can't just talk people into believing the Bible. You need to take the time to dig deep and process the underlying beliefs that might be hindering them. THEN the Word of God will truly set you free. 

CultureBound is excellent at helping messengers of God think about how someone's belief system impacts their thoughts and their behaviors, and how that might then open doors for the truth of the salvation through the Word of God. 

Elisabeth Berger was born and raised in Brasil and spent her formative years living in isolated indigenous villages, as well as attending school in Belem, a major city on the mouth of the Amazon. Following her college and post-graduate education, she spent 4 years working with street kids, and then another 4 years as professor of Old Testament at a Bible Seminary in northern Brasil. She is currently the VP for Community Life at Crossworld.



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