My internet alerts have been lighting up with reports that the History Channel is developing a new series dramatizing Jesus’s life as a teenage exorcist.
To begin with, the series is reportedly the brain child of horror film pros, including Eli Roth and Eric Newman of The Last Exorcism films. Although I chose not to see the sequel, the first film in the series was a standout in my mind.
First, it positively portrays a main character making utilitarian ethical decisions. American films almost always favor narratives that are based on a virtue ethics model. In other words, we prefer stories that tell us how good character prevails against all circumstances and all odds. On the other hand, people who make decision based primarily on the consequences of their actions are depicted as self-serving and calculating. I completely appreciate the sympathetic depiction of Rev. Cotton Marcus as a man who has lost his faith in God, but continues to perform exorcisms to support his disabled son until he is confronted with the possibility that his actions and the actions of other exorcists might actually be putting vulnerable children in danger. This is not only rare storytelling, but suggests a subtlety in the subject matter that goes beyond a strict faith lost/faith restored dichotomy native to most exorcism films. It admits officiating religious ceremonies is a job prone to professional decisions. Caring for those that suffer is a task that sometimes pushes beyond previously demarcated, black and white lines.
In addition, I thought the film compellingly depicted the afflictions experienced by the young girl, Nell Sweetzer. Negative, invasive spiritual experiences have characteristics similar to, and may be therefore confused with, other negative, invasive experiences (e.g. sexual abuse, violent assault, severe illness). While firmly testifying to the sincerity of her sufferings, the film’s careful portrayal of those sufferings lead to a healthy ambiguity about their source. The result is an unapologetic emphasis on the credibility of her personal experience over any theological or religious context. I think this is at the heart of my own exploration of negative, invasive spiritual experiences. People experience something, the real question is not what they are suffering but how.
This leads me to my final point– for the moment –because I am well aware that if this thing actually hits the airwaves we’ll be talking about it for a while. Paired with the utilitarian perspective mentioned above, a primary emphasis on the unquestionable sincerity of suffering might lend to a portrayal of the young Jesus as a man interested in healing hurts rather than driving out demons (the article announcing the project indicates as much). This would not amount to a new reading of the exorcism accounts that litter the New Testament. However, in my experience, the reading that dismisses demonic suffering as a misdiagnosis often comes close of stripping the experience of its credentials in calling out naiveté. In other words, it doesn’t seem to take seriously that the experience of suffering a medical illness as possession might be a profoundly different experience than experiencing medical complications alone (although likely more closely aligned in Jesus’s time than ours).
Of course, on the other end of the spectrum you have Christians who insist that every kind of affliction and accident should be addressed as a demonic attack (a quick search will reveal how disturbingly prevalent this approach is). This perspective leads to praxis that, at the very least, unnecessarily entangles effective intervention and, at worst, saddles suffering with spiritual condemnation. Saying everything is demonic is no more helpful than dismissing all demonic experiences.
All this to say, I think Christians have a lot of unease with the prevalence of demonic experience within the tradition. I’m sure the series likely will take historical liberties (the name History Channel notwithstanding), but all the same it is also likely to flush out some of those fears and hopefully result in some serious conversation.