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Jason Byassee

If Death Is No Barrier

Spiritualism surveyed.

Bishops in the ancient Christian church did not routinely pass the responsibility of preaching to mere priests. But during worship one day in Jerusalem in the year 240, the presiding bishop did pass the buck. He did this for two reasons. The extraordinary theologian and exegete Origen of Alexandria was present, and could preach if called upon. And a chapter of 1 Samuel just read included the astonishingly strange story of Saul's consultation of the recently deceased Samuel with the help of a medium at Endor. Origen needn't have asked which passage from the four chapters just read the bishop wanted to hear exposited, but he did. "The one about the necromancer," he was told.1

Now, the convenient thing about having a low doctrine of Scripture is that you don't lose sleep over passages you can't square. The higher your doctrine of Scripture, the more explaining you have to do in places like 1 Samuel 28. Origen no doubt saw this clearly. While trying to buy time to think of what to say, he held forth on biblical hermeneutics first: "Is it true or not? To say that it is not true encourages faithlessness, and it will come back to haunt [!] those who said so, but if it is true, it is a problem that requires investigation." No kidding. The obvious question that follows: Is holy writ itself suggesting that however forbidden the pagan practice of consultation with the dead may be—it actually works?

That not a few people now think so is evidenced by the continuing popularity of televised psychics such as John Edward in Crossing Over, weeknight dramas such as Medium and Charmed, a host of popular films (Sixth Sense, The Others, and Just Like Heaven, among others), and storefronts offering Madam Whatshername's readings for five bucks. In my own pastoral practice, a fair number of my parishioners related strange but moving experiences in which they believed they had made some sort of contact with a dead loved one—and this in the face of repeated warnings over the years from ...

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