On Wednesday morning, I had to drive to a school in order to take an assembly. The fog that had been around at the time of the school run had thickened, even on our suburban estate. Immediately, I put on dipped headlights. Within thirty seconds, I had amended that decision: fog lights were necessary.
Other drivers were on fog lights or dipped. A few had just side lights on. But what astonished me was the number of drivers who didn’t put on any lights at all.
I say ‘astonished’, but it’s a fault I’ve seen around here quite a few times. Another besetting sin of local drivers is the desire to overtake on roundabouts. In Medway, where we previously lived, there was another example: many drivers there seemed to regard red traffic lights as purely advisory. It’s as if each area has characteristic sins – particular driving habits seem like an easy example to me.
These are not the first places where I have seen this. When I trained for the ministry in Manchester, I noticed that the city was infused with a spirit of rivalry. Rivalry with London, rivalry with Leeds (which was becoming a comparable financial centre in the north of England at the time) and rivalry with Liverpool. Indeed, I saw one visiting speaker effectively take down the smugness of some evangelical Christian leaders in Manchester once, when he told them there were more evangelicals in Liverpool, a city they had written off as ‘hopelessly Catholic’.
Some of my fellow charismatic Christian friends have an answer for this, in terms of the doctrine of ‘territorial spirits‘. Many years ago (again, while in Manchester) I did some research into the claimed biblical basis for this belief, which is particularly dependent upon Daniel 10, and concluded it was nothing like as biblical as is popularly claimed in some circles. I don’t have time to rehearse my entire argument here, but to give one quick example I find no evidence in Scripture that fruitful evangelisation of a city depends on binding the ‘ruling spirits’ of that place first. I don’t see either Jesus doing it in the Gospels, nor the apostles in Acts or the Epistles.
However, the topic was clearly of interest to some Christians at the time. Upon buying a book on the subject in one major Christian bookshop in the city, the sales assistant serving me asked, “So what do you think the spirits over Manchester are?” There was just an assumption in some circles that the theory was true.
Nevertheless, I am convinced both of the existence of demons (on the grounds of Jesus’ own testimony, which I find hard to demythologise) and that places seem to have a kind of ‘corporate character’. This has some similarities with a belief in structural sin, I guess, and I think there is something in that, although I don’t find it sufficient alone.
It has also been noted in similar ways by secular writers. One example would be Peter Ackroyd‘s history of London, entitled ‘London: The Biography‘. Biographies are about people, and Ackroyd knew that when he chose his title and method. There is a danger of taking this the wrong way and it turning animist, but I remain pretty sure that particular geographical areas exhibit particular characteristics.
What might explain the notion that a certain area has characteristic sins? Might it be something to do with the way the culture operates? And might it admittedly be possible for demonic forces to take advantage of that? Walter Wink took us so far with structural sin, but might we need to go further without swallowing the territorial spirits theology?
What do you think?