To begin, can you share some of your background, where you grew up, your studies in Australia, and what brought you back to the States?
John Smulo: I grew up California in a largely nominal Jewish family. After becoming a Jesus-follower at twenty, it was only a few years before I found myself in Australia. I was supposed to be there for a six-month trip, but it turned into nine years. During this time I studied at Morling College primarily for pastoral ministry. However, I did an honour's year where my thesis focused on an incarnational apologetic to Satanism. After I graduated I was invited to found the School of Apologetics at the Centre For Evangelism and Global Mission at Morling College, and subsequently was invited to be on faculty part-time. I moved back to California to plant a church, though am currently teaching at Capital Bible College.
MM: You have the "distinction" of being one of the few evangelicals to engage in academic study and writing on Satanism. You have also done the same on Wicca and Witchcraft. What is it that drew you to these alternative forms of spirituality?
John Smulo: When I was studying at Morling College I took an Alternative Religious Movements class that was taught by Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson. The main assignment was an essay covering an alternative religious movement. About this time I noticed that there were a number of television shows, books, and other media related to Witchcraft that appeared to be everywhere. Though Witchcraft wasn't covered in the class I asked special permission to do my essay on this topic.
While researching for this essay I discovered, by comparison with primary source literature and interviews with Witches, that the overwhelming amount of Christian literature on this subject was grossly inaccurate and sensational. I decided at this time to invest more time in building relationships with witches, getting to know what they believed and why, and also to write more in this area.
I subsequently had churches invite me to speak in different settings on what witches believed, and what I thought about things like Harry Potter. One of the questions that would always come up was something along the lines of, "Isn't Witchcraft and Satanism the same thing?" or "Don't witches worship Satan?" I knew that the answer, contrary to Christian misperception, was "no". However, I didn't know much about Satanism. This led naturally to me choosing to study Satanism during my honour's year.
MM: Did anything suprise you as you engaged in your research?
John Smulo: There were lots of things that surprised me. I was surprised at how "normal" witches and Satanists appeared. I was surprised at how many Christians had been proven liars in regard to their claims about being Satanists and Witches, and how many Christians still read their books anyway. I was surprised at my own fears that were based on personal biases and stereotypes.
MM: What types of reactions have you gotten from your perspectives on and interactions with adherents of these spiritual pathways, from Christians as well as from Satanists, and Wiccans?
John Smulo: When it comes to Satanists and Wiccans, they've often responded cautiously to me at first. They are all too familiar with Christians who have written slanderous misinformation about them; others who join their online forums to give them a quick "you're going to burn in hell!" only to unsubscribe to their forums as quickly as they joined; and so on. But I've equally found that when I've demonstrated that I wanted to tell the truth about them, even if I disagreed with most of it, that they welcomed me. I've also had many of my best "spiritual" conversations with Satanists in particular. I've spent countless hours online and off talking with adherents of both groups about heaven and hell, and everything in between. Because the majority of Satanists and a large segment of Wiccans come from Christian backgrounds, they've often experienced hurt or disillusionment with Christianity. I've found many of them who have desired to interact with a Christian who will respectfully dialog about their struggles and questions.
When it comes to reactions from Christians I've had positive and negative responses. Because many Christians use an unspoken hierarchy of "most tame to most evil religions", with occult religions being at the top of their "most evil" list, I've had many Christians who have greatly struggled with my research and relationships. On the positive side, I've had Christians thank me for helping them get over their fear of adherents of other religions. On the negative side, I've had Christians who've tried to get me fired from the church I was pastoring; fired from the college I taught at; my ordination revoked, and more.
MM: You have been involved as a contributor to the book Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic and Professional, 2004) and a member of the Lausanne issue group on postmodern and alternative spiritualities. How have you found these experiences, and what draws you to the missional approach rather than a traditional counter-cult approach?
John Smulo: I have found these experiences encouraging. The missional approach followed in these settings is still a minority in the wider church, so it's important to be around other like-minded people.
What draws me to the missional approach rather than a traditional counter-cult approach is primarily my experience. For a number of years I employed a counter-cult approach and found that it alienated people from me; created more heat than light; and created boundaries instead of bridges to the gospel. However, I think it's important that those who take a missional approach don't get lazy, and continue to question, "How can we most effectively communicate the gospel in a pluralistic world?" I also should note that there are aspects of other apologetic methodologies, such as evidential and classical apologetics, that I find helpful as one part of a missional apologetic.
MM: Do you have any projects and activities in the works that we can look forward to?
John Smulo: I'm developing an online Missional Apologetics course that will be hosted at the Missional Apologetics (http://missionalapologetics.com/) website.