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“The Gerasene Demoniac”: The Very Revd Jeffrey John


Meaning for Today

The Church…finds the issue of exorcism extremely difficult. Anyone presenting the symptoms of the Gerasene demoniac today would be rapidly committed for treatment for multiple schizophrenia…Nor is it un-Christian to observe that God works just as truly….through normal medical means. Nevertheless there is a good deal of evidence…that the ministry of exorcism still has a valid place…though the reality of ‘possession’ by external forces remains debatable.

But…personal exorcism is not what this miracle story is really ‘about’. Rather, it is about the promise…of God’s ability to defeat and re-order the disordered powers that afflict both individuals and communities… Walter Wink analyses the functions of the ‘demonic’ within human social systems. He starts from St Paul’s observation that all the powers…are…set in place by God with a good purpose, but that they become demonic by turning from their God-willed function…the unique method that Christ taught…is one of non-retaliatory spiritual resistance… One may temporarily have to submit to the powers in the sense of suffering their violence, but one never submits to accepting their…values.


One of the mechanisms by which the powers maintain their…domination is by rigidly classifying those who are included and those who are excluded…The profundity of this miracle story is shown in the fact that Jesus goes out to heal the very one…who is the symbol of the alien oppression…Jesus steps outside the territory of Israel into ‘unclean’ territory, heals the most untouchable of the untouchables, and makes him in effect his first apostle to the other Gentiles. And he does it unambiguously in the role of God himself…

[The Church in India reaching out to ‘untouchables’]

Church Structures

The Church in our own country…resembles the ‘powers that be’ far more than a counter-culture that might contradict them…the Church has usually been ready to sanctify violence and warfare by the State. Its own structural life is based on a hierarchical ‘domination system’ comparable to that of any political state…its effective values, by contrast with its theoretical values, are very much of this world. Of course, the Church will seek to…speak up for the underprivileged…but it generally does so at a distance…The [CofE] draws up reports about the underclass and their innumerable social ills.

It has argued in favour of justice and generosity for some of the most marginalised, and has recently condemned popular persecution of our two currently most ‘untouchable’ and hated categories – asylum seekers and paedophiles. It is only rarely able to do what Christ does…to embrace and include them. We rarely succeed in making ‘them’ part of ‘us’, partly because ‘we’ simply do not know how to do it, and partly because the ecclesiastical culture cannot contain such a degree of human difference.

Worse, the Church perpetuates its own special kinds of exclusion and oppression, which even the secular powers have learned to abandon. The Church’s current fear of the effect of human rights legislation is a shameful irony, which should alert us to the extent to which we have begun to see our very identity as Christians in terms of the rules by which we exclude others. This fearful, ghetto mentality is typical of the world’s worst domination systems. In every age, it seems, the Church must define itself by those whom it labels ‘outsiders’, so that the rest can feel more comfortably ‘us’. That instinct to judge and exclude, which earned Jesus’ harshest condemnation, makes the Church look to outsiders more like a sanhedrin of the self-righteous than a company of joyful forgiven sinners, and it is still keeping out just the kind of people whom Jesus wants in.

How can I love my neighbour as myself
when I need him as my enemy –
when I see in him the self I fear to own
and cannot love?

How can there be peace on earth
while our hostilities are our most
cherished possessions –
defining our identity, confirming
our innocence?

Eric Symes Abbott

The image is Mark 5:13 Gadarene Swine by: Alan Coustick via Seed Resources

The story appears in Mark 5.1-20, Matthew 8.28-34 and Luke 8.26-39. The place is variously written in the gospels as both Gerasa and Gadara (hence of course Gerasene and Gadarene).

The above extract from Chapter 7 of Jeffrey John’s book ‘The Meaning in the Miracles‘ is reproduced by kind permission of the publisher, Canterbury Press (see ). If you follow the link to ‘The Meaning in the Miracles’ above, you will be able to read the whole chapter through Google Preview by searching ‘Gerasene’ and then reading Ch 7, pp 84-97. (My own extract is required to be limited to 800 words).

The Meaning in the Miracles: The Very Revd Jeffrey John


Missing the Point: Mr Davies and Miss Tomkins

At school we had two Religious Education teachers – they were referred to as ‘Scripture Teachers’ at the time – called Mr Davies and Miss Tomkins. They were bewilderingly different in their approach to their subject. Mr Davies was an old-fashioned Welsh Non-Conformist, a part-time minister in the local chapel. For Mr Davies his religion was his Bible and his Bible his religion. He believed his Bible in its plainest, most literal sense; had they only appeared in its pages, he would have believed in leprechauns, King Arthur and Father Christmas too.

If we ever attempted to challenge Mr Davies’ s beliefs using archaeology, or the evidence for evolution, or by pointing out inconsistencies within Scripture itself, the response was always the same: ‘My boy, that is just human pride, and human pride must not challenge the Word of God.’ So arguing with Mr Davies was really rather a waste of time. Still, at least you knew where you stood.

Miss Tomkins was a different kettle of fish. She was an Anglican, and had ‘Modern Views’. She had read modern books by modern theologians such as Bishop John Robinson, and these books had inflamed her with the idea that religion had to be made ‘relevant to the young people of today’. Miss Tomkins’ main method of being relevant was to dismiss anything that sounded supernatural as being ‘primitive’ and ‘unscientific’. Her great speciality was demolishing miracles.

If Mr Davies told us about the parting of the waters at the Red Sea, Miss Tomkins would tell us it was all to do with winds and tides and sandbanks, as if you could walk through the Red Sea any old time. If it was Moses’ stick turning into a snake in front of Pharaoh, Miss Tomkins would tell us that snakes like that are two a penny in Egypt, and look just like sticks when they are frightened. When we came to the raising of Lazarus, she told us about cataleptic fits, which make people seem to be dead when they are not. And whenever it was a question of Jesus healing the sick, it was ‘psychosomatic’, she said. Miss Tomkins loved the word ‘psychosomatic’. Indeed, if Miss Tomkins was right, the incidence of psychosomatic deafness, dumbness, blindness and leprosy in first-century Palestine was a miracle in itself!

I recall these two characters here because they usefully sum up the two standard approaches – to Scripture in general and the miracles in particular – that are regularly encountered in schools and churches. Mr Davies embodies what might be called the literalist or fundamentalist approach. For Mr Davies everything in Scripture was to be taken at its plainest level of meaning, and must have happened exactly as it said. If one asked Mr Davies about the meaning of a particular miracle story, he would generally answer that the point was to prove the supernatural nature of Jesus. ‘Well, it goes to show that Jesus is God, doesn’t it?’, he would say. ‘After all, God can do what he likes.’ This meant that for Mr Davies, doubting that a miracle story happened exactly as it said in the Gospels was tantamount to doubting the divinity of Christ. Compassion came into it too, at least in the healing miracels. But essentially the miracles were about evidence, a demonstration of divine power.

Miss Tomkins, by contrast, was not concerned with defending the divinity of Christ or the literal truth of Scripture. Miss Tomkins’s was the reductionist approach: she wanted to reduce the miraculous element to something that could be readily grasped in this-worldly terms. Most of her explanations were naturalistic – ‘demythologizing’ in the most obvious sense. So, for example, when Jesus walked on the lake, there were convenient stepping stones just under the surface of the water – the disciples merely thought Jesus walked on the water, and this mistake was handed on in the tradition. The calming of the storm was a convenient coincidence. So were the shoals of fish that happened along just as Jesus told the disciples to cast their net. The changing of the water to wine at Cana was a practical joke of just the kind that guests perform at wedding receptions.

When Miss Tomkins’ explanations were not naturalistic, they were moralistic. When Jesus fed the five thousand, what really happened (she said) was that Jesus and the disciples shared out their own loaves and fishes just with the people nearest them; but then others, seeing this splendid example of unselfishness, were inspired to share what they had too, and so there was enough to go round everyone. ‘The real miracle’, said Miss Tomkins, ‘is when everyone discovers the joy of caring and sharing with others.’ Edifying as this was, it did not strike us as especially miraculous – or even very interesting.

Mr Davies’ literalism and Miss Tomkins’ reductionism may look like diametrically opposite approaches, but they are not as different as they appear at first sight. Both were treating the miracle stories in a naively historical way, as if they were straightforward descriptions of what happened or at least of what appeared to happen. The only difference was that Miss Tomkins wanted to look for this-worldly explanations of the apparent happening, while Mr Davies was more than satisfied with the supernatural one. Both assumed that the most – indeed the only – interesting thing about the miracles was the question of what did or did not happen. While they focused so narrowly on this unanswerable and therefore ultimately fruitless and boring question, they missed the point.

The real nature and purpose of the Gospel miracles, and the depths and dimensions of meaning which they are written to convey, passed both of them – and therefore us – by completely.


The above is an extract from the introduction to ‘The Meaning in the Miracles’ by Jeffrey John, published by Canterbury Press in 2001.

I have copied it out as part of our Saturday extracts from theological works.

The illustration is Miracles of Jesus mosaics (Chora Church) Paralytic lowered through the roof via Wikimedia
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