Alan Tippett was an Australian who worked in Fiji for twenty years before joining Donald McGavran at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary.
In the third edition of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, A Reader a chapter of Tippett’s is included on “The Evangelization of Animists”. That chapter is not included in the latest edition but I want to interact with it because I think many of the sentiments that are expressed are still common currency in missions. Much of what Tippett writes is good and helpful. He tries to resist the comparative religionists’ insistence of categorizing animists alongside other traditions such as Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.
Nevertheless, and while acknowledging the great variety of expressions of animism, for the sake of simplicity he deals with animists together, as a category in contrast to other categories – “a discrete enough philosophical ‘system’ among the religious,” as he calls it – and for this reason the chapter comes significantly unstuck. Put crudely animists, according to Tippett, are considered those that would not consider themselves to belong to one of the so-called Great Traditions.
But animism, or primalism as it is better called, deeply affects the religion of vast numbers of people globally, not just those belonging to tribal communities (with which the phenomenon is usually associated). There are many people that would identify themselves as Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim (or Sikh, Jain or Parsee for that matter) that exhibit primal tendencies in belief and practice, and plenty of people who identify themselves as Christians! Tippett himself is not unaware of this but seems not able to draw the logical conclusion that his categories need a shake up. Andrew Walls writes that “the word [primal] helpfully underlines two features of the religions of the people indicated: their historical anteriority and their basic, elemental status in human experience.” All other faiths, Walls adds, are secondary to that basic primal experience. A key aspect of the culture and religion of primal peoples is a shared belief in a multitude of spirits or other non-material phenomena that interact freely with the material world.
Now Tippett outlines six problems with which the evangelist to animistic peoples must come to terms. The first of these is that in the evangelization of animists we must expect a particular sort of encounter on the part of those who come to Christ. Citing the example of Joshua (24:15) and the Ephesian converts (Acts 19:18-19) Tippett asserts that “animists cannot drift into the Christian faith”. They need, he says, a visible demonstration that the old way is finished with, a rite of separation, to use Van Gennep’s phrase. It may involve the burning of fetishes or amulets or other such event.
Missionary stories often describe just such an encounter in the conversion of primal peoples. But I want to question the biblical basis for expecting or requiring such an event. To come back to Joshua’s story, the people of Israel had left Egypt several decades before. They had now come to occupy the vast majority of the Promised Land. But clearly all was not well with the people. The fact that they possessed ‘foreign gods’ to throw away suggests that there were some deep-seated issues of allegiance that had not been resolved. Perhaps they had carried these with them all the way from Egypt (as Josh 24:14 suggests). But this story is not that of the conversion of a tribe of primal people. This was the people of God, the people to whom the Lord had said, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exod 19:4). Judging by the cycles of infidelity over the following generations, neither did this incident prove so much of a turning point for the people. So I do not find it a helpful analogy to Tippett’s description of the kind of encounter he expects among primal peoples.
The incident in Ephesus is equally difficult. The description is not detailed enough to conclude much about the order of events but we are told that “Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds” (Acts 19:18). The Greek perfect participle suggests that these were already believers. This was no conversion event. So the biblical basis for expecting an “ocular demonstration” (Tippett’s phrase) at the animist’s conversion is simply non-existent.
This being so, perhaps those who work with tribal groups and others exhibiting primal tendencies need to re-examine this concept and seek a more robustly biblical and theological rationale for their expectations when they see people turn to Christ.
I will address the other five issues in the next post.
 Alan R. Tippett, “The Evangelization of Animists” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, A Reader (edited by R. D. Winter & S. C. Hawthorne; 3d ed. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1999), 629-40.
 Andrew F. Walls, “Primal Religious Traditions in Today’s World,” in The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of the Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996, 121.