WHEN THE SPIRIT MEETS THE SPIRITS: Book written by Julie Ma, Review by Teresa Chai

Julie Ma was on the faculty at Asia Pacific Theological Seminary (APTS) from September 1987-2006. She earned her PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. Presently, she serves as a Research Tutor in Missiology for the Oxford Center for Mission Studies (OCMS). She is also a faculty at Oral Roberts University. She is married to Wonsuk Ma, who is the Dean and Distinguished Professor of Global Christianity in the College of Theology and Ministry at Oral Roberts University. While teaching at APTS she was also a missionary to the Kankana-ey tribe. This book discusses the fruits of her research among these communities; she basically discusses and describes their worldview of the spirit world. She has also published books among which are Mission Possible: Biblical Strategies for Reaching the Lost (2005), and edited with Wonsuk Ma, Asian Church and God’s Mission (2003). This book was originally published in 2000 by Peter Lang, and has also been translated into other languages, but now in its second revision is published by Wipf and Stock.
Ma has taken a “slippery slope” type of topic and made it very tangible. She has sufficiently tackled the issue of “spirits” within the worldview of the mountain tribe of the Kankana-ey. She begins by painting us a very clear picture of the historical roots of missionary work among these people beginning from the Roman Catholics, Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ in the Philippines, Southern Baptist and finally resting on the Pentecostal heritage, which stems from a woman by the name of Elva Vanderbout. It is amazing how this widow obeyed God and came from the United States to the Philippines, and specifically to the mountain people. Ma writes, “Until she launched her work in the mountains, no missionaries or national workers of the Assemblies of God has attempted mountain ministry” (74). Ma summarizes Vanderbout’s ministry:
From the initial time of Vanderbout’s ministry in 1947 until the year 1959, eight churches were constructed under her direction. There were over one hundred preaching points throughout various mountain areas. She reached more than one hundred villages with the gospel. In the year 1955, Vanderbout has started to work in villages of the head-hunting people, a singular accomplishment of the thirteen years of her service in the mountains (Vanderbout 1959). Besides the ministry of evangelism and church planting, Vanderbout did not neglect training devoted young people. As a result of her labor, approximately one hundred young people from the mountains went to Bible school, and a majority of them became ministers to reach their own people. Vanderbout, out of necessity, erected an orphanage to care for poor, neglected and abandoned children. She took care of fifteen of the original children of the orphanage (Vanderbout 1959) (85).
Following the historical survey of ministry among the people living in the Cordillera mountains (Chapters One to Three) is the anthropological perspective (Chapter Four). In this section, Ma is very specific and detailed on the Kankana-ey tribe’s array of spirits. She uses a grid to analyze spirits, priests and rituals, which is made up of domain, taxonomy and theme. The charts that Ma has constructed illustrate the use of this grid well. It shows clearly the relationships of spirits, priests and rituals giving specific names, ranks and functions.
In Chapter Five, which begins the theological foundation section. Ma introduces three encounters: power, truth and allegiance. She changes gears in Chapter Six as she interacts with Power Encounters in Scripture. She deals with the manifestations of God’s power in healing, war, punishment even life and death using Old Testament characters and events to illustrate her points. Likewise, in the Synoptic Gospels, Ma deals with similar themes but points out some stark difference in manifestations when Christ takes authority over nature and demons. These accounts tended to be events rather than specific characters. She supports her points well and gives a holistic and strong biblical support on this topic. This chapter caps off with a Pauline understanding of the power of Christ in salvation, love, justification, reconciliation and the perfection in resurrection. She also explains clearly the inner-workings of these three encounters stating: “Each helps to sustain growth and assurance” (159). Using a chart that she borrows from Charles
Kraft, one of her professors at Fuller, Ma shows the progressive stages of these three encounters in a believer’s life into spiritual maturity.

Ma does an ethnological analysis of the Kankana-ey’s Christianity by comparing non-Christian Kankana-eys, Pentecostals and Pentecostal Kankana-eys (Chapters Seven and Eight). She asks her respondents who are both men and women about their view of God in the aspects of blessings and curses. These aspects are put in concrete terms: blessings relating to their work on farming and mining, and curses relating to non-believers when they reject the gospel. Other topics probed are: healing, revelation and the spiritual world after death.
This book concludes strongly with missiological implications and practical applications for the church in terms of: power ministry, mobilizing of the whole church, women in ministry, contextualization, social work, family planning, the environment, serving in the community, sensibility to cultural differences, evangelization, discipleship and missionary work. Ma recommends that the ministry among the Kankana-eys would be successful when they see the demonstration of the power of the Spirit. This has been proven in their history and growth of the church. It is also clear that the whole church should be serving. The most effective way is people to people. Geographically the mountains are very vast in terms of coverage and the small number of full-time ministers cannot cover all the places. This is where the grass root members should be trained to do ministry. Presently such training is on-going.
Ma gives strong encouragement to women not to hold back but to be involved in ministry. They have the examples of Vanderbout and even Ma herself. Majority of her interviewees were women. Thus, they are a majority in the local churches. One of her hopes is to see a “Kankana-ey Pentecostal theology” emerge as the churches in the mountains contextualize church, theology and practice to fit into their culture. In order to achieve this education will need to be the focus, so that a new generation of Christians strong in the Word and other skills will serve their own people. However, a practical measure that needs to be taken is in the area of family planning. There is a steady population growth that cannot properly be sustained by the region.
In the beautiful mountains of the Cordilleras, “Indiscriminate logging has caused massive erosion.” (p. 241). As recently as September 2018, part of the mountain slid down taking in its wake a Pentecostal church which has a group of youth in it. The death toll reached hundreds. The same can be said about the mining done which has left parts of the mountain vulnerable. Another observation that Ma has is that there is a need for improved social services. Along with evangelism must be a concern about the living conditions of the Kankana-eys. Pentecostals have to catch up with this aspect of ministry.
Ma recommends that anyone coming from outside the immediate vicinity should be culturally sensitized to the culture and customs of the Kankana-eys. To come in “blind” to these will cause many misunderstanding. In order to minister and preach effectively cross-cultural workers must know the people well. This especially applies to the main theme of the book about the belief in spirit beings. The main reason for this is for the “outsider” to catch a glimpse of the insider’s worldview.
The Kankana-eys have been receptive in their acceptance of the gospel. However, with the rapid social changes and modernization of the area this simplicity of faith may change. There may be more “push back” by younger members of the community. Also many are unwilling to endure the hardship and challenges of even going to the remote mountain places to evangelize. Then it is important to also stay and disciple new believers in these areas so that they may grow in the understanding of God’s word.
This is not only the one tribe in the area according to Ma. There are more such tribes as the Bontocs, Ibalois, Kalanguyas, Ifugaos and Kalinga-Apayaos who have yet to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Who will go to them?
As hinted at the beginning of this review, what impressed me most was that Julie Ma manages to take such a complex and broad reaching topic and make it measurable by providing some tangible tools in the forms of grids, which make up the two triangles of (domain – taxonomy – theme) and (power – truth – allegiance) quite useful to understand her findings on the Kankana-eys. That said, as she shows the change of allegiance of the Kankana-ey to Christ, she seems to follow the dangerous line of syncretizing Kankana-eys tribal religions and Pentecostalism.
An area of weakness that she points out among the Kankana-eys is the fact that there is still a strong dependency of this tribe on external financial support from foreign missionaries after all these years. This missionary example is a case of “fishing the fish” and not “teaching them to fish”. In terms of organization, the book shifts between biblical or theological foundations and the practical or ministry aspects that is confusing. However, the high quality and thorough research done in the process of writing this book shines through brilliantly. As Gary B. McGee summarizes Ma’s work, “She successfully defends her thesis that to understand the evangelization of this people group, one must see the impact of physical healings and other miraculous happenings in response to prayer as fundamental to their acceptance of the Christian faith.” (“Book Review,” APTS 2001 4 No. 2 (2001): 335).

Dr. Teresa Chai is the John Bueno Chair of Intercultural Studies and Academic Dean, She is also the Book Review Editor of the Journal of Pentecostal Studies Asia Pacific Theological Seminary, Baguio, Benguet, Philippines. email: chaiteresa@gmail.com

Leave a Reply