Battle Worship: Our Cooperation With God As Liberator
There’s a fascinating scene in The Two Towers, the movie based on the second book of JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which Frodo and Sam are being led through the Dead Marshes by Gollum. There’s a narrow path through the marsh that only Gollum knows, but there are ghostly men in the water all around them, giving off ghostly lights that entice and entrap. Gollum advises them sternly, “Don’t follow the lights.” But Frodo, enchanted by the cursed ring he’s carrying to its destruction, allows himself to be distracted by the lights, and finds himself falling into the water beside the path and seeing the dead as though they’d come to life. Gollum, seeing him fall, hauls him out of the water and exhorts him, “Don’t follow the lights!”
Christianity posits Earth as enemy-occupied territory in a celestial war. Humans, once granted dominion over the planet, invited demonic domination by sinning, and surrendered the planet into the hands of spirits rebelling against the reign of God. Every place in history where God intervened in the affairs of men constitutes a beachhead where God’s dominion has been re-established in some measure. Around those beachheads — the kingdom of Judah under righteous kings, the prophets, the Son of God and all those places where the Son’s followers obey Him — hover the unclean spirits as an occupying army, deceiving and destroying the souls who are their captives.
In ancient times, those who would follow and obey the true God and escape the influence of the occupying demons were given a task similar to Frodo and Sam’s journey through the Dead Marsh: don’t leave the path, keep your focus on God. This is the first of the Ten Commandments:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before Me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.
You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,
but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
The Ten Commandments, as the opening instructions in the Law of Moses, were commands to an ancient people in the peculiar position of being God’s first major beachhead on the occupied planet. There’s a metaphor here that’s particular to their situation — “a jealous God” — aimed at emphasizing the central importance of keeping their practices free of distracting elements. They didn’t realize how different they were, but God insisted on their unified focus to the exclusion of other gods for their own protection; every glance at other gods constituted a breach of their martial perimeter. (Imagining that God is literally jealous in the manner of ancient deities is like imagining, upon reading in the Psalms that God “will enfold you under His wings,” that God is a giant chicken. It’s a metaphor.)
It’s as though ancient Israel was Frodo’s and Sam’s fellowship in The Two Towers. Worship is the natural impulse of the soul, as we discovered in Part I. With the eyes of the soul fixed on the Almighty, one consistently remains on the path through the marsh. There are distractions to either side, but those distractions are demonic, like the souls of dead men in the Dead Marsh, and to be distracted by them is fatal. Don’t follow the lights; keep your focus on God, and on God alone. Unless you do this, you will eventually become unable to obey the other rules, as you become increasingly dominated by demonic influences.
When one’s focus shifts to some object of worship other than God, says the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, one worships demons (see I Corinthians 10:20). Paul was not speaking by analogy, but explaining truth as understood by Jewish theology. This explains why when humans worship lesser objects — statues of earthly objects and animals, heavenly bodies like the sun, moon, and stars, or imaginary beasts — they tend toward horrible practices, beginning with mindless, OCD-like repetitions, but at the extremities leading to the sacrificing of human beings, the drinking of human blood, burning children in the fire, and so forth.
With the coming of Christianity, the role of worship shifted. Whereas under Judaism the focus was simply keeping a besieging army at bay and protecting a tiny beachhead, under Christianity the task was invasion and re-occupation. The intent of Christianity was to push the demonic influences off the planet altogether, and establish the dominion of the Kingdom of God. In our Lord of the Rings analogy, it’s as though Christianity came to the Dead Marshes intending to drain them and clear them for building. Never mind “don’t follow the lights;” extinguish the lights. Bury the dead out of sight. Make the whole thing safe.
Here in the West, the sorts of demonic practices that usually characterize the worship of other gods died out a long time ago. It’s easy to take it for granted that such things are artifacts of a less enlightened past, but that’s just a Western conceit. Those practices died out in the West specifically because Christianity, the religion of the West, abhors them. They still go on in other places less influenced by the West, and as the West increasingly abandons the Christianity that built her, those sorts of practices will gradually reassert themselves.
This is why Christians denounce practices like Wicca. Wiccan rites seem relatively harmless, as the worship of false gods goes, but that’s because they were formulated in a culture still influenced by the habits of Christianity. As the Western knowledge of God recedes, the practices of those who worship other gods will become less and less harmless, and more and more demonic. They’re ceding ground to a vanquished army. They’re permitting a wedge that will become a breach.
I call the worship of God aimed at keeping us out of the demonic traps “battle worship,” recalling the fact that as servants of God, we’re engaged in recapturing the planet from the demonic warlords that occupy her. Wherever the worship of Christ displaces the worship of other things, God has influence to establish righteous behavior. It’s not an accident that the civilization built by Christianity is the one that abolished human slavery and introduced universal literacy and self-government. The knowledge of God pushes back the influence of the demonic; and while all Christian practices have the effect of establishing God’s influence here on earth, the first and foremost weapon for achieving God’s dominion is the worship of God. Worship has impact in the unseen world of spirits, pushing back the dark influences. Once the means by which humans could remain on a narrow path — “don’t follow the lights” — worship is now one of the primary tools for establishing God’s presence.