Before I really knew who Ed and Lorraine Warren were, I watched a made-for-television movie called, I think, A Haunting in Connecticut. Unlike many television movies, it was actually quite scary. Fast forward several years and I find myself writing a book that involves the Warrens. I felt obligated to read all the books they “wrote”—all of them ghostwritten—and I’d been holding off on the one titled In a Dark Place, which is the story behind this television movie which was subsequently made into a theatrical movie. The book is by Ray Garton and the parents of the family involved (Carmen Reed and Al Snedeker) are also credited. The story is indeed a dreary one, not something I expected would bring any holiday cheer. About that I was correct.
Why do I do it, then? A concern with veracity drives me. Throughout history enough people have told stories like this that either we have to lump our species together as a bunch of lying attention-grubbers, or there might be something to what they say. The academic and official responses have long been to state that such things can’t happen, so they don’t. When compared with how we come to know other things about life, we quickly realize that it involves experience. In cases where experience is anomalous we tend to dismiss it. We are great conformers. What if there really was a demon in the Snedeker house? Others have told similar tales. If there’s any reality to it, shouldn’t we know?
As a former academic, I always thought that if we really wish to learn the truth, no subject should be off-limits. That’s not the same thing as credulousness. We don’t have to believe everything overwrought people say, but the subject should be worth consideration. Of course, those who ghostwrote for the Warrens claim that they were given liberty to stretch the truth to make a better story. They also tend to claim that the basic elements of the story are true. When someone’s writing a book, there’s likely some hope of remuneration involved. And sometimes the truth isn’t quite flashy enough for major presses with the bottom line in sight. Still, the question of what really happened is left open. The internet is a place where credulity reigns. We can seek truth there only with great caution. Maybe that is the lesson to apply to books like this as well. Although In a Dark Place is scary, there was money at stake, and as the wise say, money changes everything.
I feel compelled to say that this book was not among the overwritten tomes I mentioned in yesterday’s post. Indeed, although the title reflects the outlook of the author, you need to get to the subtitle to find out what the book’s about. Although I work at an academic press, I disagree with academic book pricing models. Graham Twelftree’s previous book, Jesus the Exorcist, had to be picked up in a paperback reprint edition before it could be affordable to the likes of mere mortals. After reading it I learned that Twelftree had written a more popular book on the topic—Christ Triumphant: Exorcism Then and Now. Putting much of the material from the previous book in less technical terms, this version goes on to ask questions that can’t be put into a standard dissertation, such as “should exorcisms still be done?”
The academic is necessarily a skeptic. One of the biggest problems our society faces is the open credulity of those who haven’t been taught to think critically. Twelftree is a rare academic who keeps an open mind while approaching the material with a healthy skepticism. Often it’s too easy to suggest that disregarding that which doesn’t fit a theory is the only way forward for an academic. Sweeping off the table that which we don’t like. The word Twelftree uses is “residue”—that which remains after the majority of possession cases have been explained medically. The usual response is to disregard this small fraction of anomalous material and claim “case closed.” In this book Twelftree dares to go further.
The supernatural has become an embarrassment for many, even in believing communities. An interventionist god, or demons, would set off chain reactions that would distort the known laws of physics, so such things simply can’t exist. Things which we can’t explain only exist because we haven’t got all the variables yet. I recall how cold that made me feel when I first encountered the idea in physics class. “Scientific determinism” it is sometimes called. This little book rehearses the New Testament material covered in Twelftree’s dissertation, but goes on to raise the implications from that study and apply them to modern times. It’s a brave thing to do in an academic world where brushes and brooms are very common. Where residue is wiped up and tossed away without a second thought. Those who stop to think through the implications are rare, which makes them so much the more interesting reading. And not being from an academic press, such books are often affordable.
Posted in Bible, Books, Deities, Higher Education, Monsters, Posts, Sects
Tagged Christ Triumphant, demons, Exorcism Then and Now, Graham Twelftree, Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus, skepticism
Something’s wrong with Buddy Love. He doesn’t act like a professor. Meanwhile, Sherman Klump, heavyset but brilliant, feels that human companionship is passing him by. Still, he’s a professor and has the support of a major university—at least as long as he brings the grant money in. The Nutty Professor, a re-envisioning of the 1963 Jerry Lewis film, is instructive to watch. One of the immediately obvious things to those of us who’ve been professors, is that movie makers don’t really understand what it’s like. And it’s not just comedies—Indiana Jones doesn’t get it any more than Dean Richmond does. Academics who watch these films shake their heads, if they think about the presentation of their profession. Indeed, for being high profile, it is a job the public does not understand.
That’s not really what this post is about, however. Although it’s been a few years, I suspect The Nutty Professor still has some currency. In case I’m wrong, here’s the gist: it’s a modern, funny version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. An overweight professor invents a formula that leads to instant weight loss. The formula, however, also has side-effects, such as a boost in testosterone levels that leads to instability and violence. In the climactic scene of the movie, Eddie Murphy transforms back and forth from Sherman to Buddy while on stage at the alumni ball. Papa Klump, who has paid to attend, calls out, “Someone had better go and call the exorcist!”
Now, this is screwball comedy. Still, it reflects something that I’ve been struggling with in my current book—the public view of possession. Demons aren’t generally known for changing body mass indices. They’re after the soul, after all. Still, there’s an element of truth, according to church teaching, about what Papa Klump says—demons are bodily afflictions. Traditionally, they can’t impact a person’s soul. In fact, possession is not considered a sin, and those under demonic influence aren’t held responsible for sins they commit while under that influence. The soul is considered, unlike the physical body, something that cannot be “possessed.” I know not to take movies like this seriously, but they do contribute to the pool of public “knowledge” about possession. In this way, at least, it’s important to pay attention. Such films may not really comprehend what the lives of professors are like, but they do reflect, even if in a nutty way, what people believe.
Posted in Higher Education, Just for Fun, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged demons, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Eddie Murphy, exorcism, Jerry Lewis, The Nutty Professor
The other day I had to go somewhere that I knew would involve a wait. I’ve always thought of waiting as a theological problem—time is very limited and I don’t have it to squander while dallying about for my turn. That’s why I take a book. The problem is that many books I read, I feel, require explanation. That’s because many of them are the 6-by-9 format preferred by publishers these days. The idea behind the paperback that fit into your pocket—the “mass market paperback”—was that it was essentially disposable. Cheap, easily printed in large quantities, it was handy for taking along while on a bus, plane, or submarine. It didn’t take up too much space. It was easy to keep private. I miss the mass market paperback.
The majority of my books—fiction as well as non—are larger than the mass market. That’s the price you pay for reading books that don’t sell in those quantities. If your interests aren’t the lowest common denominator, you have to buy a copy that won’t easily slip into a pocket. And everybody can see what you’re reading. I work in publishing, so I get it. The idea is that the book cover is a form of advertisement. The thing is, reading is generally a private activity. I post on this blog most of the books I read (but not all!). I want to support those who write and actually manage to find publishers to advocate their work. But I’d really like to be able to put the book into my pocket between appointments.
The waiting room is a kind of torture chamber of daytime television and insipid magazines. Most of the people in here are looking at their phones anyway. I have a book with me, and I’m vulnerable with everyone freely able to read my preferences. I want to explain—“I’m writing a book about demons, you see. It’s not that I believe all this stuff…” and so on. It would be so much easier if the book were small enough to be concealed by my hands. If others want to know what I’ve been reading, they can consult this blog. Well, the stats show they haven’t been doing that. They might, however, if my own books had been published in mass market format. Available in the wire-rack at the drug store or vape-shop. Then the readers could easily hide their interest by putting it into their pocket. None would be the wiser.
Demons are an embarrassment. The typical scholar of the historical Jesus can’t avoid the fact that one of Jesus’ main activities is exorcism. You can go the whole way through seminary not hearing about that aspect even as you become very well acquainted with the two-source hypothesis. That’s why I found Graham H. Twelftree’s Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus so refreshing. Here is someone willing to address the topic generally swept off the table. If the gospels are to be believed, then Jesus was an exorcist. And if he was an exorcist, that must imply a thing or two about demons, no matter how embarrassing. There’s a lot to this question, of course, and things are never as simple as they seem.
Many of those who look for the Jesus of history suggest that the Galilean sage simply accepted the framework of his era in which various diseases such as epilepsy were considered demonic. As he healed such people—also somewhat of an embarrassment since it implies the supernatural—he understood their maladies in the same way his contemporaries did. That tidy package, however, doesn’t sit well with narratives that assume a world full of demons. Things have changed since the first century, of course. After the Middle Ages demons fell out of favor. And yet, the gospels remain pretty much unchanged, trying to fit into a new worldview. This is the uncomfortable place in which those who seek the historical Jesus find themselves.
Twelftree approaches and analyses the text at its word. The casting out of demons was an eschatological (end-times) act. It was the beginning of the end for the evil spirits that torment this world. Of course, two thousand years have come and gone and, according to some, demons are still with us. The number of requested exorcisms has been on the rise. The end times have lasted a lot longer than anyone anticipated. It’s beginning to look like politicians can do what God seems reluctant to affect. Bringing about the end of the world is no matter of clearing the house of demons, but rather letting evil take the helm. If that’s a mixed metaphor, let’s just say demons are masters of confusion. Since medical science has given us a great deal of comfort and relief from suffering, we’re glad to let demons go as the explanation of diseases. But that doesn’t make things any easier for those looking at the first century when, as Twelfree demonstrates, Jesus was an exorcist.
Posted in Bible, Books, Monsters, Posts, Religious Violence, Science
Tagged demons, exorcism, Graham H. Twelftree, historical Jesus, Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus, medical science, supernatural