I was in Southern India several years ago and noticed an odd thing about most of the small children there: They all had little red strings tied around their bellies. These toddlers who were just learning to walk and run around were most often stark naked, save these shoelace-sized red bands tied around their middles.
I asked our host what they were for, and he replied rather matter-of-factly, “They are to keep the evil spirits away.”
Like many Asian countries, these Indians (even in Christian villages) observed ritual superstitions in order to ward off evil or bring good luck. In Thailand, for instance, every restaurant or business we entered had small shrines in the entryway with ornate ‘birdhouses’ with fresh food and drinks set before them. These, we found out, were to appease the evil spirits at the doorway and prevent them from entering the building.
It was kind of a demonic Passover.
In the Western world, we may scoff at such petty superstitions, dismissing them as sophomoric or ignorant. Of course the world doesn’t work that way! We say from our lofty towers of science and reason. As Christians in the West, however, we must remember two things: That our culture—including our faith—is heavily postmodern and influenced by the Enlightenment in ways many third-world countries are not; and that we each have our own sets of superstitions which may not be as apparent as a red string or food shrine.
We live in a culture defined by rationalism and empirical evidence. If something cannot be seen, touched, or logically explained, we tend to discard it and disregard it. One of my seminary professors said that we live in one of the few cultures in the history of mankind that has explained and reasoned ourselves away from God and the spiritual world. If we have grown up in this culture, it is incredibly hard for us to believe that there are invisible forces or spirits at work.
This is the tension presented to Western Christians: We believe in this invisible force (God), but are raised by a culture which has done away with everything related to the spiritual realm.
Enter, the American version of superstitious Christianity.
We may not consider ourselves superstitious, but humanity is fearful to the core, and what is superstition but an attempt to harness our fears into orderly submission? Catholic taxi drivers may hang their rosaries from the rearview mirror, or maybe you have a cross tattoo on your arm. We think that the amount of worship songs or sermons we listen to in a given week will sway the favor of the Almighty because of our obedience. More generally, we may keep a ledger in the very back of our minds of our good deeds and weigh them against our bad, just to make sure we’re keeping up our end of the salvific bargain.
These things tend to go unspoken by most Christians, but the pattern certainly holds true; we tend to feel better about ourselves the more we do good and avoid doing bad.
This line of thinking is certainly not new to Judeo-Christian history. In 2 Chronicles 17, David tries to win God’s favor by building Him a temple; but God never asked for the temple to be built. Fast forward several hundred years, and the Israelites have begun worshiping the temple more than the God for whom it was built. In Mark 13 when Jesus and His disciples are walking through Jerusalem, the disciples start to admire the stones which make up the temple, but Jesus states rather simply that they will all be destroyed. God never cared about things made by human hands, He cares about humans and making His home in and among them.
The Pharisees also seemed to fall into a ‘superstitious trap.’ Jesus rebuked them because they assumed their good works and observance of the law would save them. Isn’t that all superstition is? Doing certain actions in order to garner some sort of reward or good luck (or simply avoid bad luck)?
Christianity, however, is anything but superstitious. From beginning to end, the work of redemption is done by God and God alone. With the first promise to Abraham (I will make you into a great nation…) through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the job has been done by Him, leaving nothing for us to do. This is why Jesus’ powerful last words on the cross must be remembered: “It is finished.”
Meaning, there is no more work for us to do to hold up our end of the deal. Meaning, even if we tried, we cannot somehow add to our salvation.
If we really think about it, it’s offensive for us to try to earn God’s favor by doing good works. It’s a subtle way of saying What you did on the cross wasn’t good enough, Jesus…let me help you out…
So may we be Christians who flee from superstition in its many forms. May we be free to enjoy God rather than attempt to impress Him with religious superstitious actions or win His ‘favor.’ May we recognize our own use of talismans and return them to their proper places of decorations rather than magical relics or good luck charms.