Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Ghosts Skew Better

Like many Europeans, Marianne Haaland Bogdanoff, a travel agency manager in Norway, does not go to church, except maybe at Christmas, and is doubtful about the existence of God.

But she believes in ghosts. Even calling in a clairvoyant to solve some troubling supernatural occurrences which were happening in her office.

She’s not alone.

While Norwegian churches may be empty and belief in God in sharp decline, “belief in, or at least fascination with, ghosts and spirits is surging. Even Norway’s royal family, which is required by law to belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, has flirted with ghosts, with a princess coaching people on how to reach out to spirits.”

“God is out but spirits and ghosts are filling the vacuum,” said Roar Fotland, a Methodist preacher and assistant professor at the Norwegian School of Theology in Oslo.

It’s an important dynamic to understand.

Pitirim Sorokin, the founder of Harvard University’s department of sociology, famously argued that the pendulum of civilization generally swings in one of two directions: the “ideational” and the “sensate.” 

The ideational civilization is more theological and spiritual, and the sensate world is more rational or scientific. Sorokin contended that the classic ideational period was the medieval. From the Enlightenment forward, we have lived in a sensate world. Now, in our struggle with what the modern world has given to us – or more accurately, taken away – there seems to be a swing back toward the ideational. 

Sorokin’s thesis rings true.

We live in a day that is more open to spiritual things than ever. Yet in light of the ongoing process of pluralization, along with the increasing skepticism toward a single story which encompasses all of reality (and reality itself considered a matter of personal perspective), it is less spirituality that people are pursuing as the supernatural. 

There is a keenly felt emptiness resulting from a secularized, materialistic world that has led to a hunger for something more, but many are unable to go further than the search for an experience. As a result, an extraterrestrial will serve as well as an angel; a spiritualist as well as a minister. Borrowing from the late historian Christopher Dawson, we have a new form of secularism that offers “religious emotion divorced from religious belief.” 

So God is out, but ghosts are in.

It reminds me of something CBS head Leslie Moonves once said when unveiling a fall television line-up heavy on the occult in order to reach a younger demographic in a state of cultural change. After canceling Emmy-nominated and critically acclaimed “Joan of Arcadia,” where a young woman speaks to God, in favor of “The Ghost Whisperer,” a supernatural drama about a woman who communicates with the spirit world, Moonves declared,

“I think talking to ghosts may skew younger than talking to God.”

Sadly, he was right. 

But not only does it skew younger,

…it skews wider.

James Emery White



“Norway Has a New Passion: Ghost Hunting,” Andrew Higgins, The New York Times, October 24, 2015, read online.

James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press, 2004).

Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, Revised One-Volume Ed. (1991).

Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History, ed. by John J. Mulloy (ISI Books, 2002).

“CBS cancels ’60 Minutes’ Wed., ‘Amy’ – Jennifer Love Hewitt in new series,” CNN.com, Wednesday, May 18, 2005; “Networks hoping viewers feel lure of supernatural” (ABC, NBC, CBS preview 5 new shows based on paranormal), Aimee Picchi/ Bloomberg News, Charlotte Observer, Tuesday, May 14, 2005, p. 4E; “CBS Moonves: ‘Ghosts Skew Better Than God,’” Drudge Report, May 19, 2005.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.


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