Group Activity

While reading about various religious phenomena—both positive and negative—one of the recurring aspects that forces itself on our attention is contagion. Going back at least to the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, the idea of crowd sourcing religious frenzy can be disturbing. It involves groups of people and loss of control. Not only is the frenzy itself frightening, but also the apparent paranormal accoutrements to such enthusiasm. In more specific terms, the revivals of the “Second Great Awakening” and the mass exorcisms described by Michael Cuneo in American Exorcism both boast supernatural elements. I’m not saying there can’t be a scientific explanation, but I am saying what happens in such circumstances has been understood to be supernatural by educated, experienced people. Both demoniacs and new religious converts display superhuman strength and atavistic behaviors that one doesn’t otherwise see in a lifetime. Once they start happening, they spread.

This is one of the draws of charismatic Christianity. Speaking in tongues can be quite contagious, I’m told. According to Cuneo’s carefully anonymized accounts, so can demonic possession with its attendant paranormal activity. Some scientists have explored the idea of consciousness as a “hive mind” phenomenon. Many “minds” brought together can produce something greater than the sum of the parts. We’re used to this in the world of insects, but since humans like to be radically individual we miss the instances where it occurs among our own species. While not always so, such events are often religious in nature. People gathered together in emotionally charged settings, personal experience draws off of that of others, and suddenly a person’s doing something they formerly believed to be “impossible.” God and demons both have explanatory value here.

Despite our tendency to want to destroy each other, humans have great potential when we work together. Our petty fears and jealousies could be contained, disassembled, and repurposed, if only we possessed the will to do so. The desire to stand out in a crowd—not to blend in but to be a unique individual—runs strong in our fractured psyches. We hate being mistaken for somebody else. Religious experiences, much maligned these days, tend to be group experiences. Yes, a mystic may have a personal and highly individualized rapture, but in the presence of others the excitement may be shared. “Mass hysteria” and group hypnosis have sometimes been posited as the culprits behind such events. Those who participate, however, use other terms to describe what has transpired. They may not call it a “hive mind,” and they won’t be alone in rejecting the phrase.

Unseen Worlds

howaboutdemonsA few weeks ago I wrote about re-watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose. In anticipation of the inauguration I was in the midst of a spate of possession movies. I watched several others, including The Rite and The Possession. This got me thinking I should read Felicitas D. Goodman’s book How About Demons? Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World. Goodman was an anthropologist who’d done fieldwork among groups that practiced possession—keep in mind that many religions believe in good spirits as well as evil ones. Her book is one of the few that takes the larger picture seriously. Many writers simply dismiss the “demon haunted world” as naive and superstitious, but Goodman makes the point that possession is a real phenomenon and we don’t know the cause of it. Indeed, it’s impossible to say with certainty what the agency is because spiritual causes can’t be studied empirically. That said, science deeply informs her analysis.

I’ve observed people speaking in tongues before. It’s an uncanny experience. No matter what you decide the origin might be, it’s strange and not a little unsettling. It’s related to possession, as Goodman shows. So is multiple personality syndrome. Unlike most scientists, however, she doesn’t make the unwarranted leap that since these are all related they’re all the same. Speaking in tongues is usually considered a good thing while demonic possession is not. Interestingly, recordings of glossolalia—speaking in tongues—show the same pattern globally. This indicates that whatever it is, it originates biologically from human brains in a mostly predictable way. Many world religions allow for possession by good spirits or gods and alternate states of consciousness are accessible by learning how to reach them. Anyone can do it, but some have the gift of doing so easily. Those who do overlap with the pool of the possessed.

As the White House shows, we like simple answers. Possession, however, is a complex phenomenon. Throughout, Goodman refuses to equate it simply with the physical manifestations that have been observed and recorded. She was a true scientist. Reductionism is related to our love of simple explanations. I wanted to read How About Demons? because it contains one of the few serious academic studies of the case of Anneliese Michel, the young woman on whom The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based. I was expecting, since this is an academic treatment, that the cause would be nailed down simply and efficiently. I was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t. Well before the movie Goodman interviewed those involved in the case and wrote an entire book on it. Although she clearly believed in science to explain our world, as this book demonstrates, she didn’t give it more explanatory power than it actually has. In a complex world we need as many subtle minds as we can get.

Tongues of Fire

“Do you want to see?” she asked me, fraught with all the emotions of a teen far from home. I’ve often questioned the wisdom of church groups sending large numbers of high school students to retreats or conferences where shear ratios of chaperones to teens guarantees intrigue. She was an attractive girl, and despite my commitments to asexuality early in life, I found her plea compelling. We weren’t supposed to meet after hours without the adults around. I was insanely curious, however. “A few of us will be gathering behind the gym,” she said. I demurred, afraid to break the rules. “Do you want to see now?” she insistently asked. We were in a room largely empty, as the adults were headed toward the food, the way adults always seem to do. I agreed. Nervously she closed her eyes in prayer. When she opened them, they were glassy and far away. A stream of nonsense words effortlessly bubbled from her mouth. This went on for what seemed like minutes, although I knew it was only seconds stolen from a scheduled curriculum. She closed her eyes, and coming back to herself, looked exhausted. “What did you say?” I asked, breathless. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

This was my first experience of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. I was at the United Methodist Youth Annual Conference, and I’d just met the girl who’d revealed so much. Methodists, as a rule, aren’t much into glossolalia, but the Pentecostal movement has Methodist roots, and teens are the great experimenters of the human race. I can’t recall how I met her, or even her name. I felt an incredible attraction to a girl who could let herself be so possessed, however; so vulnerable to an Almighty deity. I decided not to go to the after dark gathering. Instead I sought out a minister I trusted. He explained that such signs, if truly divine, are only done in the presence of an interpreter. She was misguided. Yet I couldn’t get those glassy eyes out of my mind. Where had she been in those fleeting seconds when her mouth spoke a language she didn’t know?

While reading David Kling’s The Bible in History’s chapter on Pentecostalism, this all came back to me with incredible force. A few years later I attended a Pentecostal service with one of my college roommates who belonged to that tradition. Being in a room full of true believers speaking in tongues at the same time unnerved me. I never went back. Psychologists and neurologists have explanations for how glossolalia occurs. The standard evangelical explanation is quite different. For one young lady whose name I can’t recall, it was a sign she wanted desperately to share. A personal assurance that John Wesley himself encouraged his followers to seek. Not that Wesley ever suggested speaking in tongues. That only began in 1901, after a hiatus of nearly two millennia. To a teenage spiritual seeker in the presence of a young lady, away from home, it was a mystical experience indeed. The assurance, however, would have to wait.

Image credit: Phiddipus

Image credit: Phiddipus

Contextual Criticism

As I was reading Brian Pavlac’s Witch Hunts in the Western World, I learned about klikushi, or “shriekers.” These were Russian “witches” who appear as early as the seventeenth century and who are characterized by screaming, “wailing, barking, and writhing during worship services” (184). In that day this was taken to be a sign of witchcraft and women were arrested and tried for it. Fast forward a century or two. In the wilds of Kentucky what is generally called the Second Great Awakening was taking place. Manifestations of the Holy Spirit were, well, wailing, barking, and writhing, significantly, during worship services. These “signs” triggered the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, today one of the largest sects of Christianity. If the exact same behavior had taken place in a different context, the coverts would’ve been convicts.

It is safe to say that psychological explanations may be found for the bizarre activities of people living under a great deal of stress. No supernatural agency is required for glossolalia, spontaneous dancing, or canine vocalizations. If you look closely you’ll probably find any combination of the three in secular contexts during an average stroll through Manhattan. In a haunted country full of tales of the devil, they will be attributed to witchcraft. In a tent-meeting revival under the influence of an emphatic preacher, they will be called signs of the spirit.

Religions like to teach that they are universal, but in fact they are highly contextualized. What I used to tell my students about words applies also to acts—the meaning depends on the context. Whether somebody getting up off their ass is vulgar or merely a statement of fact depends on where the person is sitting. Religions are often rose-colored glasses, casting events in the shades we prefer to see. They are ways of interpreting the world around us and speculating on what, if anything, is outside our apparently closed system. There’s a lesson here to be learned by all. One person’s Monday may be another’s Thursday, but there’s no need for anyone to be crucified if they do it differently. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we only believed that?

It's all a matter of perspective.