Satanism, Witchcraft, and Spirit Possession – Nondialectical Postcolonialism in Barstow’s Witchcraze; A Review

Matthew Lipscomb

Dr. William Harman

Satanism, Witchcraft, and Spirit Possession- REL3690, 2/9/2011

Nondialectical Postcolonialism in Barstow’s Witchcraze



The history of witchcraft and the corresponding witch hunting that have occurred throughout history are things that weigh heavy on the minds of thinkers from many different traditions. Historians are tasked with the charge of recording the hunts and their occurrences while making sure that they are not lost to the current generation and merely consigned to the back of dusty history books. Sociologists are given the daunting job of trying to understand the how and why they occurred while trying to regain some measure of the humanity that was lost by those who were caught up within them. Theologians must grapple with all of these questions – along with the preponderance of guilt for their actual occurrence. Witchcraze, by Anne Llewellyn Barstow is an attempt to grapple with some degree of all of these traditions.

Witchcraze begins by confronting the reality of the fact that violence against women is increasing throughout the world today. Its premise is that as part of an understanding of what is happening today, we should look into the past – and in looking into the past – we may find some hope for finding a solution for not just tomorrow but today as well. In terms of an accurate historical record, Barstow presents us with a truly harrowing account – which, no doubt, must set some kind of record in terms of its unflinching and unvarnished view.

In the German language, the Germans have two words for “history.” The world historie means the chronological record of events as they occurred. In the sense of historie – Barstow pulls no punches and can be credited with making a significant contribution to the historie of the witchcraft trials. It is in the sense of the second German world for history that Barstow, I believe – falls short. This second word is called geschicte – and it, unfortunately, has no direct correlating word in the English. Geschicte means the meaning of history. It means the impact and the reason for it. For instance, the Historie of Perl Harbor is that on December 7th, the Japanese air force bombed the American Navy, as it lay anchored in Pearl Harbor. The geschicte of Perl Harbor is that it totally changed the minds and hearts of Americans as they related to war in Europe. The Japanese Admiral who lead the attack, Isoroku Yamamoto, was heard to say “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” This radical shift from pacifism and non-involvement to a ‘fight like hell’ attitude is only one aspect of Perl Harbor’s geschicte.

Barstow gets the historie of the witchcraft trials spot on. There is no doubt that everything that she writes of actually took place. There is no presumption that it might have been irreconcilable pulled out of some kind of false context.  However, I will contend that there are inescapable problems with Witchcraze’s geschicte. Witchcraze’s full title is Witchcraze – A New History of the European Witch Hunts. This can be thought to be a bit deceiving because of the before mentioned conflation or squeezing together of two different words – namely (in this case) that of historie and geschicte. The reader may readily acknowledge that Barstow is attempting a new historie –but may be deceived intoalso being foisted into a certain, specific understanding of a new geschicte.

All authors -either consciously or unconsciously and either directly or indirectly  – write from certain perspectives. Sometimes these perspectives are referred to as metanarratives, which are essentially overarching story ideas and motifs that can be found in the background of something. Among some writers and thinkers the term ‘worldview’ is employed. Regardless of how you describe it – it is the “big picture” that infuses the way we see the world and all the things within in it. For the remainder of this essay, the term ‘worldview’ will be used. For Barstow, there is a very marked and potentially hidden worldview – one that some readers may not readily recognize. But like a ship’s ballast, it is hidden deep inside where it is not readily visible – but it is there, nonetheless. Barstow is writing from a distinctly feminist and also what is called a “postcolonialist” worldview. The term feminist is itself a diverse word. The present writer is comfortable ascribing to his own self the term ‘Christian Feminist’ – but the term post-colonialist bears some unpacking. Postcolonialism is a term that is used to describe the general attitude of certain scholars towards other worldviews –namely- those worldviews of the past. If you want to make a postcolonialist scowl or even cry, use words like ‘Western Values’ or ‘Judeo-Christian Ethics’ because the essence of what they try to do is to re-write everything without these. Sometimes this is done out of legitimate and constructive curiosity. Other times – it is out of spite. This definition itself is potentially conflated or overly shrinking in its nature. I acknowledge that there are valuable viewpoints to be seen and unpacked through postcolonialist studies. When used appropriately it can be used to see things from a different, and instructional angle or viewpoint. At its worst it is the embodiment of vitriolic, oppositional thinking that thinly disguises ivory tower disgust with what it sees as the presupposed hopelessness  & degeneracy of the uneducated lower classes. If a politician says ‘those who still cling to guns and religion” then it can be argued that they could be speaking from a postcolonialist perspective. The issue is, that this study is at times done at the detriment and demeaning of all and everything that the postcolonialist sees as being “colonial.” This is damaging not just to the subject, but I would argue, potentially to the scholarship of the postcolonialist itself. They become like a carriage horse – they are blinded – blinkered – driven through the streets of academia willingly so by the long leather whips of this way of thinking. I used the term “foisted” before – because this is exactly what happens to the student who is under the influence of an abusively postcolonialist professor or writer- because they may not know how or even that they should have to ‘re-balance’ a postcolonialist’s potentially ingrained bias. Somewhere there is probably a postcolonialist who rails against the church everyday because he just simply hates the church because he is still bitter about having to go Sunday school against his will as a child. It is a terrible thing to warp young minds for nothing more then such reasons as this. But I think that it does happen. A professor here on this very campus once told me that he thought the world would be a better place – if every Christian were to just suddenly disappear. I found that to be a chilling postcolonialist comment.

A second and more important thing that is lost is the beauty and illumination of what is called ‘the dialectic.’ If I wrote one paragraph about how Steve Jobs is a maniacal control freak and obsessive boss to work for at Apple, and then wrote a second paragraph that told the story of how he saved Apple from bankruptcy and reintroduced their products to a new generation – the dialectic would lie between the two paragraphs. When two opposite ideas come together to form something that is a new and extraordinary thing or idea – this firework of the imagination is referred to as a Hegelian Dialectical Synthesis. But this ‘firework’ never takes place in Barstow’s book. There is no room the ‘other side’.  The gift of Postcolonialism, in my opinion, is to form this other side – to create the spark – to be able to ignite the firework called Hegelian Dialectical Synthesis so that we can see its beauty and light. There is no light here. Neither is there any beauty.

I wonder if there is a degree of bitterness is at work within Barstow’s mind. At every turn of her story’s carriage ride – Barstow places all the blame on the Church and on men. Nowhere will you read that there is a beautiful and powerful history of historical Feminism within the church and within the bible itself. Nowhere is the other side. Nowhere will you hear of Mary, the mother of Jesus being called causa salutis, or “cause of our salvation” as early as the 200th year of Christian history. Even today – Mary is sometimes referred to as being ‘co-redeemer’ of the world, because of how a woman simply had to give birth to Christ – and without her, any salvation as is understood in the Christian tradition would have been impossible. Nowhere will you read that the first witnesses to the empty tomb, after Christ had written- were in fact women- and that they were charged with the testimony of this –something that would have been unthinkable in the culture of the time. Barstow tells us about bride burning and forced mastectomies in India, but she could have told us about Amy Carmichael, who spent 55 years as a missionary to the children of southern India.  Her work, known as the Dohnavur Fellowship, helped young children, many of them little girls who had been forced into temple prostitution. The Fellowship would eventually be a safe place of refuge for over a thousand children at any given time. But the idea of missionaries influencing native culture can be bad for the Nondialectical postcolonialist – and anything she ever did would probably be seen as being evil in Barstow’s eyes. But it has to be asked – is this evil itself? By omitting any kind of ‘other side’ to the story – is Barstow herself trying to cast a spell – no pun intended – over us, herself? Can her work be seen to maintain a sense of academic integrity by never speaking of so much that is also a part of the issues – especially if the issue, as it is presented to be, is that of violence against women? Especially when the church has in fact done so much to actually combat it and to actually raise the status of women in society? Or is this – to borrow a descriptor from critics of Eli Roth’s Hostel movies – Postcolonial torture porn? For the student unacquainted with the grinding of the postcolonialist axe – it may actually be dangerously deceptive. My conviction is that Barstow’s book is terribly flawed in this regard. It may be great red meat to fringe, man-hating feminists and those who just love reading about the travesties of the church – and simply can’t countenance a more balanced history of it – but if you are looking for the dialectic firework – you won’t find it here. There is no light to fire any such kind of an imagination or hope. And that – is a sincere tragedy.


About hollerscholar

I'm a theology & philosophy student, writer, web developer, and medical laboratory professional.
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