Tag Archives: exorcism

Body or Soul?

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.

Changing Times

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.

Wolves Again

Although I don’t read movie reviews until after I’ve seen a film, I have a confession to make. With rumors swirling of The Conjuring 3, and since a chapter of Nightmares with the Bible will involve The Conjuring, I was a little curious what it might be about. Word on the street—and by “street” I mean “internet”—is that it will feature the case of Ed and Lorraine Warren that’s presented in Werewolf. Co-written by William Ramsey (the victim) and Robert David Chase, the book describes the strange malady of Ramsey, who never actually changed into a wolf, but for inexplicable reasons (at the time) thought himself a wolf and took on a wolfish look as he attacked people. The reports suggest he had preternatural strength at such times.

Since most of the Warrens’ books are concerned with demons, it should come as no surprise that in this case that was the diagnosis as well. With no real reason given, once upon a childhood evening Ramsey was possessed and occasionally broke out into violent fits. He landed in a psychiatric hospital a couple of times, but was eventually released. Noticed by the Warrens on one of their trips to England, Ramsey was invited to come stateside for an exorcism. According to the book, the rite was successful at least up until the time of publication. That’s the thing about demons—you can’t always tell for sure when they’re gone.

It’s pretty obvious why such a story line would appeal for a horror flick. You’ve got a werewolf, an unnamed demon, and an exorcism—there’s a lot to work with here. Weird things happen in the world, and there’s not too much to strain the credulity in this case. It would seem possible that a mental illness could cause much of what’s described as plaguing Ramsey, though. Its episodic nature is strange, I suppose, and the Warrens had a reputation for spotting demons. I did miss the conventional elements of the exorcism, however. No demon forced to give its name, no levitating and no head-spinning. Not even a bona fide bodily transformation. They’ll be able to fix that in Hollywood, I’m sure. Credulous or not, there will always be people like me who feel compelled to read such books. And since there’s no final arbiter but opinion in cases of the supernatural, that can leave you wondering.

What’s the Story?

Belief is truly an amazing phenomenon. Even as we see it play out daily in the news, rational people ask themselves how people can accept something that all the evidence decries; just take a look at Fox news. In any case, those who study demons come up against the name of Fr. Gabriele Amorth with some frequency. Amorth was a true believer. Earlier this year I read one of his books and I wondered if he might reveal more in An Exorcist Tells His Story. Forgive me for being curious, but I really am interested in his story—how did this man become the passionate spokesperson for exorcism being reestablished in every Catholic diocese? What were the personal experiences that led him to this? Who was he?

Some people can’t write about themselves. Some, and I suspect clergy often fall into this trap, can’t write without the material becoming a sermon. This book is such an extended homily. Along the way Amorth does discuss a few cases of demonic possession and how it is to be confronted, but mostly he discusses the theology of his view of Catholicism and how that is essential to understanding demons. What is most odd about this is the inconsistency of a true believer in Catholicism admitting that Protestants too can drive out demons right after declaring the Roman Ritual is the only way for Catholics to do so. And only bishops, or those priests appointed by them, are permitted as exorcists. Is this a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Protestants, according to the theology he espouses, shouldn’t be able to do this. If they can, why doesn’t it make him question his faith?

Known for his thousands of exorcisms, Amorth continues to have a healthy following. Anyone reading this book for a consistent outlook will be left wondering. How can Catholic exorcism work only if it follows the rules, and Protestant exorcism work when it is done by those who believe falsely? The same applies to his assertions that those who are possessed are not morally at fault, for it is the demon that makes them do evil things. At the same time those who lead “immoral” lives—according to Catholic standards—are more likely to become possessed. A few pages earlier we’d been told about saints who’d been possessed. I don’t mean to suggest anything about Amorth’s faith commitments—it’s celestially clear that he was a true believer. His commitment to help those who were possessed was legendary. Perhaps it’s just that demons are agents of chaos, and in such circumstances even theology can become a victim. I’m still wondering about his story, though.

Secularcist

It should be fairly obvious that I’ve been researching demons lately. In the current political climate, it feels like a natural thing to do. Where there are demons, there are also exorcists. Many times those who write books on their experience in this realm will lapse into something along the lines of, “If there are demons, then Catholicism has to be true. All of it.” Or something like that. I have to admit that reading the better written accounts makes me start to think that way. R. H. Stavis’ Sister of Darkness: The Chronicles of a Modern Exorcist is another approach altogether. A secular exorcist, Rachel Stavis doesn’t use the time-worn rituals of movie fame. And her book offers an interesting rationale for her exorcisms—she sees entities.

I have often wondered if “growing up” isn’t largely teaching ourselves to discount what we perceive as children. I’m sure I’m not the only kid who was told there are no such things as monsters but didn’t fully internalize that “fact.” Besides, some things are worse than monsters. In any case, Stavis states that she sees entities and it’s clear from the book that she does indeed believe this. This isn’t for show. She describes various types of demons and how she learned to exorcize them. It’s a fascinating account. Her explanations won’t convince everyone, and her answers of where demons come from remain somewhat vague, but her clients swear by her methods. And she’s upfront about wanting her work to increase the good in the world by banishing evil.

I know many Christians who’d be ready to stone a pagan even for such a good deed as exorcizing a demon. Stavis doesn’t belittle any religion, however, and leans a bit toward Wicca herself. As I read I imagined what a reader convinced of the rectitude of one and only one religions would say. Only Jesus can drive out demons? (Judaism had, and still has exorcists, as do some sects of Islam.) Since a demon is a Christian monster, only a Christian can drive it out? One of the more interesting facts of the history of exorcism is that it was, in the Middle Ages, sometimes an interfaith exercise. The three major religions represented in Europe (the Abrahamic triad) recognized that any of the three could drive out demons. Each welcomed the help of the others. We’ve gone backwards since then. We haven’t again yet reached the stage where we realize that anyone doing good is on the side of good. Even demons, it seems, are conservative these days.

Re-reading the Rite

I’ve written on The Rite before. My current book project, however, led me to reread this account after watching the movie based on it a couple of times. The film dramatizes, of course, the somewhat understated demonic activity in the book. The protagonist loses about 30 years in age and isn’t yet a priest. As is usual, the book is better than the movie. Matt Baglio’s story follows Fr. Gary Thomas from parish ministry in California to his discovery of possession and appointment as an exorcist. As part of the Vatican initiative to have an exorcist appointed in every diocese, Fr. Thomas was sent to Rome to take a course on exorcism. His experience was all academic until he began to attend actual exorcisms with an unconventional Capuchin monk. Very little described in the book is difficult to believe.

This time around the curses nabbed my attention. Among exorcists of the Roman Catholic stripe, there is a strong belief in the reality of curses. Not only the reality of curses, but the belief that curses can lead to demonic possession. Knowing that Catholicism has struggled with accusations of being unsophisticated and behind the times, the fact that this isn’t more widely known is pretty self-explanatory. Growing up Protestant, I was always taught that curses are make-believe. They don’t really have any influence on a person’s life. The world of demons, however, is a supernatural one and the concept of curses still holds sway in this universe, as the book shows.

Another arcane aspect that resurfaced when I reread this book is just how elaborate the Catholic backstory is. Many Catholics, it’s clear, distance themselves from such topics as the Devil and demons, but there’s no escaping the Virgin Mary and the drama of Jesus versus the powers of evil, as well as the intercession of saints. The problem is that many of the players are personified in the Bible. It’s pretty hard to say the Good Book got it wrong. That worldview lends itself to belief in supernatural impingement on this sphere. Not that that’s a bad thing. Many people, however, would rather believe in a materialist world with physical cause and effect being the main operating paradigm. Demons complicate all that. But then, so does the idea of Mary being a perpetual virgin, and even the patrilineal heritage of Jesus himself. The Rite brings to the light something many would perhaps prefer to be kept under a bushel. Strange things do happen in this world, and they do tend to respond to the backstory that’s been told. That makes such books difficult to classify, even with the backstory.

Belief Matters

What you believe matters. This is shown clearly in the case of exorcism. Brian P. Levack admits to personal reasons for interest in this dark subject. His The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West is a masterful treatment of a topic that it considers from many angles. As a form of Christian practice it goes all the way back to the beginning—Jesus’ initial fame was as an exorcist of sorts. He didn’t require any ritual or authority to expel demons, but he became a public figure largely because of his ability to do so. Levack’s study focuses mainly on the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. The latter was the high-water mark of possessions until the resurgent interest of the post-Exorcist twentieth century.

An aspect of exorcism that had raised my curiosity more than once was its Catholic disposition. Many Protestants believe in demons, but only the Roman Church has the grand ritual to drive them out. There are Protestant exorcisms, but they have a different goal—they’re intended to eliminate sin. This leads Levack to a strong contrast between Catholicism and that most extreme of Protestant traditions, Calvinism. Few Calvinists suffered from possession. Those who did were not held blameless, as in Catholicism (if you were being controlled by a demon you could hardly be held responsible for your actions). Calvinists believed only the sinful could be possessed and since their God is Republican you can hardly count on any mercy. In fact, if you were possessed, chances were you would become a witch. And everyone in early modernity knew what the cure for that would be.

We tend to think that the Enlightenment drove such beliefs extinct. In fact, the height of both witch hunts and demonic possession came after the scientific paradigm took hold. Levack makes the point that this is a kind of theater—performance undeniably plays a part in exorcisms. Both science and Calvinism, taken neat, can leave a body feeling cold and in need of some emotion. As the book notes, you could generally find a Catholic priest who’d be glad to drive out your demons. It seems that the great forces of good and evil play themselves out not only in the spiritual realm, but in the varieties of religious experiences in the all-too-political world of the church. The Devil Within is a fascinating book with a plausible thesis written by an author who understands that ideas have consequences that aren’t always easy to expel.