In his introduction to The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis, who very much believed in an unseen spirit world, wrote:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
Yes, the devil is happy to produce in man a smug atheism or a belief in the occult—anything so long as it is not belief in Jesus Christ. Traveling around the world, one gets the distinct impression the strategy is working. In Europe, which is all but dead to Christian belief, secularism—atheism’s political manifestation—is the fashion. That worldview, such as it is, is gaining ground in America.
But don’t be fooled. Belief in the occult is very much alive. If you have been following this trip, you will know that I encountered it in Africa. I remind you of my exchange with Jwan Zhumbes, the Anglican Bishop of Nigeria, on the eve of my ordination at the cathedral. Looking over my vows, I read this:
I swear that I am not a member of any secret societies…
Sitting in the bishop’s office, I asked him the meaning of this. “Jwan, what is this vow all about?” I then read it to him. “Is this a reference to Freemasonry?”
He laughed heartily at my naiveté. “No, my friend,” he corrected me. “It is referring to ancient African religion, secret societies that involve the eating of human flesh and drinking of human blood. This is very prevalent here and exists at all levels of society.”
Fast-forward two weeks from the publication of that article and I am in Rio de Janeiro talking with a Brazilian convert to Christianity. His name is Alex. He owns a taxi service. The conversation was not scheduled or planned, he just happens to be driving when I start asking him questions. Doing what I often do in such situations, I gently steer the conversation toward spiritual things. I ask if he is a religious man and he tells me he is. I bore down into that a bit and discover that he is an evangelical Christian. He goes on to tell me that prior to his conversion, he was raised to believe the teachings of Candomblé, a secretive Brazilian cult.
As he starts to explain what practitioners of this cult believe, it feels like a repeat of my conversation with the bishop—ritual sacrifices, dark forces, possession, Linda Blair-like projectile vomiting … okay, I made that last bit up. But you get the picture.
“Was this religion imported from Africa?” I ask.
“Yes. With the slaves who were brought to South America.”
“Did your whole family believe this?”
“Yes,” he said. “My father was a leader in the cult. My parents, sisters, aunts and uncles, and our friends were part of it. Cults like it are very popular in Brazil.”
At this point, I was wondering how many Brazilians held these beliefs, but such statistics are useless because secret societies are, by definition, secretive. Alex estimated 3 out of 10 Brazilians were members of such groups. Who knows?
Alex then tells me that it was his father’s conversion to Christianity that changed everything. Once his father converted, one by one, the family left Candomblé and converted, too, bending the knee to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Even family friends became Christians. Alex said that his father is now a pastor in a local church. I asked to meet this remarkable evangelist, and a dinner meeting was hastily arranged.
Alex’s father, who I will call Célio, kindly accepted our invitation. Sitting across from Zachary and me, he told us his story in Portuguese as Alex translated. What he had to say is different from the conversion stories you hear in your Sunday school class. I will paraphrase what he said:
I came from a family that believed in Candomblé. I was taught it by my mother and grandmother. I talked to a spirit just like I am talking to you. I could see it. It could appear anytime, anywhere. Through it, I could talk to my dead relatives. When my grandmother died, I could talk to her. Or thought I could. It was just the demon assuming her voice. I was unhappy. Oppressed. I tried to commit suicide at 10. The demon always demanded sacrifices: an animal, my money, my food or possessions, a relationship. Something. In return, it promised me many things, but never gave them. I wanted to know why it didn’t help me! I asked and would be told of something else I had to do.
(At this point, I interrupted and asked if the demons ever demanded human sacrifice.)
Not in my particular branch, but in some, yes, they sometimes demand that people be killed. When I was married and Alex was 16, I was at a club dancing. For reasons I cannot explain, I started crying uncontrollably. A Christian who had probably strayed from the faith—he shouldn’t have been in this kind of place—saw me and told me about Jesus. I went to church. The demon appeared to me and told me that if I went again, he would kill Alex.
(At this point Alex looked startled, stopped his translation, and talked with his father in an animated manner. He then turned to us and said, “I did not know this!” His father said, “I didn’t want to frighten you.” His father then continued.)
I decided to defy the demon. He had never helped me. Maybe Jesus would. I started going to the church to explore Christianity, but the demonic oppression got worse. I developed sickness. Then one day I made the decision to receive Christ as my savior and Lord. I felt I had to tell others in the cult that I was no longer one of them. So I went to the Candomblé temple …
(My word. They look like houses and are spread throughout the city. Alex drove us by one. Creepy.)
… to tell them and my demon that I had become a Christian. When I left, I fell unconscious in the street. My brother called an ambulance. I was declared dead on the scene, but I was having an out-of-body experience. I could see my body in the street, my brother, and medical personnel all around me. I suddenly woke up. It was like I had died to that cult. From that moment, my life changed. I never saw the demon again. For the first time, I had peace. My friends and family could see that something in my life had changed, and they wanted the peace I had. Some, still in the cult, started following me to see where I was going and what I was doing. [He laughs at the recollection.] Soon they became Christians, too. That was twenty years ago. Fifteen years ago, I became a pastor in the church.
That is his story. You can choose to believe it or dismiss it as a bad acid trip. Either way, I offer this: Célio believed it. And he struck me as a perfectly rational man. Furthermore, such conversion stories are common in Africa and South America.
The next day, Zachary and I took a tour of the Brazilian rainforest with a local naturalist. Again, I steered the conversation toward the spiritual.
“Do you have any religious beliefs?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I believe in dinosaurs,” he said with a chuckle, deflecting the question.
“So, you don’t believe in God?”
“Sometimes. Whenever I am in trouble!”
In the space of 24 hours, I had, in C.S. Lewis’s terminology, met a materialist and a (former) magician.
G.K. Chesterton is credited with saying, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” Regardless of who said it—no one has ever been able to definitively source the quotation—the statement is true.
In developed countries, atheism has not produced a belief in nothing. On the contrary, it has produced a belief in anything. Romans 1:18-32, warns that when man suppresses belief in the One True God, which gives order and understanding to his world and serves to anchor him in rationality, that this is what inevitably happens. In the Apostle Paul’s words, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” Such foolishness is manifest in the developed world’s growing inability to distinguish between man and animal, man and woman, and right and wrong.
We have mistaken our sophisticated use of technology with a sophisticated understanding of life and its meaning. The combined intelligence of Microsoft, Google, and Apple, while able to create self-driving cars and the put the power of a supercomputer at our fingertips, cannot give us purpose or answer life’s basic question: Is there a god and, if so, what does he want from me? So ideologically committed are some Western scientists to the proposition that God does not exist, that they have embraced idiotic notions like panspermia, the idea that life was planted on earth by space aliens. Fools, indeed.
By contrast, the Third World is much more spiritually sophisticated than is the First World. They generally need no convincing that the spiritual realm is real, but the pendulum often swings to the opposite extreme. There we find people who believe in every kind of spirit, every kind of god. These are the magicians of whom C.S. Lewis (possibly) spoke. Such belief has an irrationality all its own. Talking with Célio and Alex and noting the prevalence of occult practices in South America, one gets the sense that without the many Christian missionaries who penetrated these countries long ago, we might be looking at Apocalypto on a continental scale.
The Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 1:19-20, a chilling warning, are nevertheless a gracious call to recalibrate our spiritual bearings:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Rating Brazil is difficult. There is so much to like. The beauty and color of the country is breathtaking. The people I met both on this trip and on previous trips were hospitable and friendly. But like the rest of South America, corruption of public officials is rampant. It is a country of haves and have-nots. The extraordinary poverty of the favela, the Brazilian slums that are comparable to those that we saw in South Africa and India, feels so vast and insurmountable. There is reason, however, to harbor a tentative hope for Brazil where one simply cannot for its southern neighbor, Argentina. Authentic Christian belief is growing.
Brazil star rating: 4/10