Documented Error

Back in September I wrote a post on documentaries.  One of those I’d watched was Hostage to the Devil, on the life of Malachi Martin.  Curious, I began looking for biographical information, only to find conflicting reports.  Robert Blair Kaiser, a journalist, was interviewed in the documentary and he claims that Martin is not to be trusted.  Given that Martin had academic credentials and academic publications, it’s clear that something is up here.  So I decided to read Kaiser’s Clerical Error.  As an award-winning journalist, Kaiser had written a book on Vatican II that sold fairly well, establishing his own credibility.  Clerical Error is a book, in large part, that was intended to discredit Malachi Martin because Martin had an affair with Kaiser’s wife.  That spices things up a bit.  (And explains the cover photo.)

It’s an odd book, overall.  Kaiser begins by describing how he became a Jesuit.  Autobiographical works are generally most interesting during the early years, and Kaiser does a good job illustrating how he was naive and probably joined the Jesuits out of fear of sexuality.  Some of the disciplines (including self-flagellation) are difficult to reconcile with the twentieth century (when they took place) but demonstrate the command religion can have over life.  Confronting church politics, he decided to become a journalist instead of a priest.  When he was assigned to Vatican II a couple things happen—his book gets lost in the weeds, and, he meets Malachi Martin (spelled Malachy throughout).  At first taken with Martin, the two became friends.  Martin helped him access places in the Vatican that would’ve otherwise been blocked to him, as a layman, even if a former Jesuit.

Then the tale becomes sordid.  According to Kaiser, Martin, still a Jesuit priest, began an affair with his wife.  The final third of the book has the draw of a soap opera as Kaiser tries to confirm what he suspects.  Overworked, he checked into a mental health facility, and this fact gave his detractors the grounds for claiming that Kaiser was mentally unbalanced and that Martin was really as he presented himself—a Jesuit priest, academic, and exorcist.  According to this book, which never made a large splash, the evidence is clear.  And the ability of the church to cover up scandals is legendary.  The most damaging parts, in my purposes for reading the book, are the allegations that Martin was a pathological liar.  (Why do we have so many of these?)  If true, nothing he wrote can really be trusted.  This is the very reason that of late I’ve been obsessed with the idea that lies are a clear sign of the one the Bible calls “the father of lies.”

Documentary

It all comes down to people and honesty.  Given the bald-faced lies that come from the White House these days, honesty is at a premium.  There are, however, always people involved.  And with people you never know.  This issue arises because I’ve been watching documentaries.  A documentary is classified as a nonfiction genre, but it will nevertheless have a point of view.  You need to question yourself about the motives of the writers and directors.  What are they trying to say?  Are they slanting the narrative a little too much in their own direction?  In cases like Ken Burns’ works, there’s little doubt everything is well researched and well funded.  They inspire confidence.  But I also watch more questionable films.

Recently I saw My Amityville Horror, a prolonged interview with Danny Lutz, the oldest child featured in the book and film.  In true documentary style, others are interviewed, some of them skeptics.  The film pointed notes that Lutz’s brother and sister declined to be part of it.  Lutz makes the case throughout that these things really did happen.  He’s obviously not a rich man—he drives truck for UPS—but he’s sincere.  Others interviewed cast doubts on the memories of over three decades’ fermentation.  The point of view here is one that seems to believe Lutz, who is a no-nonsense kind of guy.  At the very end when asked if he’d take a lie detector test, however, the subject seizes up.  It leaves the viewer wondering if we’ve all be taken down the garden path.  Is he an honest man or is he hoping to supplement his income?

A couple weeks later I watched Hostage to the Devil, a documentary on the life of Malachi Martin.  Martin was never a figure without controversy, and it seems that he enjoyed it.  Interviews with friends, and even the agent who did quite well from his book that shares the title of the documentary, argue for his sincerity.  The major players in the field, those who are still living, in any case, all make appearances.  The question that hangs in the air, although the documentary seems to lean towards his validation, is whether Martin was an honest man.  We always have to ask that question when money is involved.  Martin’s book, Hostage to the Devil, has sold over a million copies.  It made a living for an ex-Jesuit who then became part of the media circuit.  It leaves more questions than answers.  I wonder how Ken Burns would handle such topics.

Let It Lie

At the grave risk of over-simplifying, the list is brief: destructive scapegoating behavior, intolerance of criticism, concern with public image, and deviousness.  These characteristics, back in 1983 (note well the next year), were widely considered the description of evil.  Now look at the White House.  What do you see?  I know that I’m reading into the current situation, but how can one not?  I have never read anything by M. Scott Peck before.  Growing up I saw The Road Less Traveled on many, many bookshelves of friends and clergy.  I recently picked up Peck’s People of the Lie because, along with Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, it convinced many in my generation that demons actually exist.  At the time, still pretty much a Fundamentalist, I didn’t require any convincing.  Reading Peck’s People, however, in the era of Trump is a frightening thing.  And not just for the politics.

I always find books by psychologists and psychiatrists difficult to read.  I admit to having had a less-than-ideal childhood, and although self-healing is possible such books make me think I should spend my free time in therapy rather than writing.  In any case, People of the Lie is difficult in another respect as well—the labeling of evil.  Peck advocated for the scientific study of evil.  Good and evil, however, have generally been considered values rather than facts.  Science studies the latter while religion and philosophy deal with the former.  Not that lines in the sand are intended to be permanent.  Still, what one person calls evil may not be what others call evil.  Peck focuses primarily on narcissism and laziness as sources of evil.  He may very well be right, especially with the narcissism aspect, but some of the patients he described certainly didn’t seem evil to me.

Many aspects of this book could be discussed on a blog like this.  No doubt many of them will be, in sublimated form, in future posts.  Books, however, are part of the context in which they’re read.  In Peck’s day, the great political evil still fresh in many minds was the Vietnam War.  Today’s world, however, is one where Vietnam, Watergate, and even to a great extent the tragi-comedy of the W administration have all been eclipsed.  The cult of personality headed by one of the most obviously narcissistic individuals this nation has produced makes what Peck labeled “evil” seem perfectly normal.  And those who have the authority to do something about it either sit idly by, or worse, use it for their own means.  Roads less traveled indeed.

Measuring Immeasurables

Are demons getting more active, or are people just believing in them more? Quite apart from what’s happening in the District of Columbia, there’s been a surge of requests for exorcisms. This is according to a WBUR story my wife sent me. I’ve been researching demons for a few years now. Initially my concern was avoiding Hell (something I’d still like to do), but as an adult trained in rationalism, I wondered why people still believed in them. Trying to keep an open mind, I read accounts. Yes, misperception is possible. Alternative interpretations. But still…

Fundamentalists say that demons have to exist because Jesus said so. Historically speaking, people have recognized demons from the earliest writing cultures and probably before. What they thought demons were differed pretty wildly from place to place. A good case has been made that demonic possession, as we recognize it today, became popular after The Exorcist. William Peter Blatty researched the topic, and most of what he uses for Regan MacNeil’s symptoms came from medieval accounts. Although some of the descriptions are somewhat extreme, the actions themselves aren’t new to either movie or novel. In other words, according to the eyewitness accounts we have, such things do happen. And when they do, who ya’ gonna call?

Exorcists were mostly extinct by the 1960s. A decade later, after the movie’s release, reports began to increase in number. Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, which I reviewed here some time ago, was a bestseller. It reinforced the idea planted by Blatty. And the number of exorcism requests hasn’t started going down yet. Are there more demons about, or are we all imagining things? It’s a question not easily answered.

The fact is science can’t measure phenomena that don’t consist of matter or energy. Occam’s razor shaves away the whiskers of the spiritual. Perhaps nature intended for us to be a bit hairier. Spirit is something that has always resisted science and its metrics. We know it when we see it in someone. Or perhaps when it impacts a person’s actions or motivations. It doesn’t impact a scale. It has no visible spectrum. Conventional wisdom says if you can’t see it, hear it, or otherwise sense it, it must not be there. We know this to be shortsighted thinking, however. “There are more things in heaven and earth,” Shakespeare wrote, and we would do well to pay the bard his due. Are there demons? I can’t say. I do know that people have been asking for the services of exorcists more and more. For that there is ample evidence.

Night and Day

Jim was aghast. The joke had been entirely inappropriate. I had asked him about the Pentecostal service we’d just left. Jim was my college roommate and had invited me to see what his tradition was all about. I’d witnessed speaking in tongues before, but never on such a scale. That wasn’t what was bothering Jim, though. The minister had told a joke about a demon. It had something to do with a man possessed by a coffee demon. The exorcist declared to the demon “You have no grounds to be in him!” Inappropriate. It might make people think there weren’t real demons. We used to disagree on many points, but remained friends. I lost track of Jim. He dropped out of college to go follow a spirit-filled man in Waco who’d learned Hebrew and Greek without ever having studied them. His concern about that joke, however, raises an interesting question.

I’ve just finished reading Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool’s book, Deliver Us from Evil: A New York Cop Investigates the Supernatural. It’s hard not to like Sarchie. A rough and tumble associate of Ed and Lorraine Warren, he is most sincere law enforcement officer (now, at my age, retired). Openly believing in the supernatural, claiming his traditionalist Catholic faith, he hates demons for the misery they cause both humans and God. I admire such unquestioning faith. At the same time he’s clearly aware of his own foibles and weaknesses—something we might like to see more often in the police force. He doesn’t doubt, however, that demons are real. The concern, however, is that he might sometimes be a bit harsh on non-Christian religions. He admits that he’s not the most studious of demonologists.

No doubt, belief is important. Belief with knowledge is even better, it stands to reason. Problem is, academic or scientific studies on demons are sorely lacking. Sarchie was an associate of the controversial Malachi Martin (whose book Hostage to the Devil I blogged about some time ago). I feel for someone who wants to know more but runs into the limits imposed by academia. Where do you find information if the recognized specialists in a discipline don’t write about it so regular people can read it? It is a real dilemma. A scientific approach would declare the events in Deliver Us from Evil (also published as Beware the Night, before being released as a movie) are anecdotal. This is technically correct. No laboratory procedure exists to confirm something science denies exists in the first place. The only weapon against such a foe is faith. Thinking back to college, I don’t know what happened to Jim, but on this point I’m sure he would have agreed.

True Possession

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Demons are among the earliest of supernatural creatures. Although sources can be spotty, they appear in the first advanced civilization known, that of the Sumerians. Even with their technology and scientific sense, early people still knew that demons had great explanatory value. Why did things sometimes utterly fall part? Why did some people act so weird? Why did the good will of the gods not always shine through? Demons, while not exactly tricksters, are the demoted gods who cause problems. They also harbor possibilities too, if an article sent by a helpful relative is anything to go by. According to the BBC, a trio of styled and battle-trained young exorcists are about to take to the airwaves to ply their trade in a show called Teen Exorcists. Savannah and Tess Scherkenback join preacher’s daughter Brynne Larson as a trio of demon-dropping debutants ready to take on the powers of Hell. All three, according to the article, are home-schooled.

I’m not quite sure what to make of demons. Aware of more rational explanations of human psychoses and inevitable misfortune, there doesn’t seem to be much room for second-rate deities in the world any more. Still, writers like Matt Baglio and Malachi Martin narrate enough strangeness to make you wonder if we might’ve been a little too hasty in dismissing the supernatural. Especially after staying up late to watch The Exorcist. And it’s not just that it’s three young girls casting demons into the pit—according to Acts Philip’s daughters were prophets and Mark says people who didn’t even know Jesus were pretty handy with the rite. It’s the whole issue of demons. According to the BBC, the girls believe England is especially afflicted because of the Harry Potter novels. (The spells, they say, are real.)

The team of three and Rev. Larson do, unlike Ghost Hunters, charge for their services. And even a duck hunter on television can strike it rich. Simon, later known as Simon Magus, offered the apostles money to gain the power of the Holy Spirit, according to Acts 8. Rebuffed, Simon turned against the fledgling Christians. If there were reality shows back then, I suspect he’d have had one. The three girls are black belts in karate, adding to the television appeal, but demons, we’re told, are incorporeal. That’s right—they have to be fought without physical violence. Armed with Bibles and crosses (no crucifixes, since this is a Protestant exorcise) three young girls take on the dark side of the spiritual world. The chief of the demons, however, is named Mammon. Against that one there seems to be no defense.

Holy Hostage

HostagetotheDevilA chance glimpse at a textbook shelf in a university bookstore made me aware of Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, although it is several years old. I was intrigued that a major, secular, state university would offer a course requiring a book about demonic possession. I’m not completely naive about college students, but this seemed just a tad extreme. Nothing is more dangerous than a book dangling in such a context, like the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred. The world of the demonic is freighted with arcane rules and a decided Catholic superiority. Even to the rational it can be insanely frightening. As I read Martin’s account, I frequently found myself puzzling over the unseen world he so meticulously describes—after all even the Bible has little to say about it. And Martin is a great lover of verbosity, detailing more than the reader needs to know about the five exorcisms he elaborates. If you want to know what a dying priest looks like, in great detail, you’ve come to the right place.

Perhaps the most jarring aspect of reading such a book is how such obviously intelligent people can come to such diametrically opposed worldviews while looking at the same evidence. Here was Malachi Martin, convinced that demons lurk about the world in great numbers. There is Richard Dawkins, convinced that we are nothing but particles and proteins walking around. Manhattan—the haunt of countless demons, or the febrile accident of firing synapses that means ultimately nothing? Although much of what Martin describes could probably be mental illness, one has the distinct impression Dawkins has never attended an exorcism. Both write with great authority and even greater conviction.

Hostage to the Devil is not an easy book to read. Martin’s style is smooth, like a novelist, but the length of his book keeps demons on your mind for a protracted period. Rationality can be worn down by attrition, and even the non-believer can be made to wonder. Would priests and their chosen attendants lie? Do the possessed really levitate, and contort, and cause objects to fly around the room in defiance of the physics so highly valued by atheists? For over 450 pages Martin will keep you wondering. You’ll also find out what an exorcist ate for his boyhood breakfast back in Ireland decades before facing the Prince of Darkness. Hostage to the Devil is a deeply disturbing book where the monsters we’ve all learned to shove deeply into the closet come springing back out. And the only effective help in the known world is the Catholic priest who happens to be an exorcist. And who can argue with that?