The Last Exorcism and Utilitarianism

I often use film as a teaching aid in class. In the first place, I love film. I have a visual imagination. Whether I am trying to work through a philosophical problem or a new poem, my brain “sees” main concepts in images which I can then “move” in relation to one another to “build” a solution. So film is a process I recognize, relate to and enjoy.

As far as my students are concerned, I recognize that we live in a visually saturated culture. I believe analyzing films offers my class an opportunity to connect with important philosophical concepts in a way that is relevant and meaningful to them. In addition, in the same way that I give my students tools with which to mine the meaning from texts, I feel it is important to expose my students to the reality that the content of visual story telling goes beyond the story being told to include the how of the telling. I encourage my students to become aware of not just what’s in the picture, but how the picture is framed and composed in understanding the author’s intent, presuppositions and underlying agenda. To sum up, films connect my students to the philosophical, connect the philosophical with their lives and help my students decode their visual universe (with the hopes that they’ll get all philosophical about it.)

This week in Intro to Ethics, we will be watching some opening scenes from The Last Exorcism. As many of you know, I’m a devotee of the exorcism film genre and this one is one of my favorites. The ending suffers from a Rosemary’s Baby over-reveal, but otherwise, the storytelling is really compelling. Ashley Bell’s performance is nuanced and intense. All well and good, but why show it to my ethics class?

In class, we are currently studying Utilitarianism, which along with Deontology and Virtue Ethics is one of three main schools of ethics we cover. The bumper sticker breakdown of Utilitarianism is “the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.” Different thinkers crunch the numbers differently, but on the whole, you are trying to solve for “good” in a way that maximizes that good for as many other members of your community as possible. In other words, utilitarianism is largely about weighing consequences (as opposed to character or intentions.) Utilitarianism certainly has its detractors (Elizabeth Anscombe for one), but it remains an important line of thinking (my favorite is Hutcheson).

Back when I first starting teaching the class, I was scouring my DVD collection and Netflix queue for movies that contrasted the different ethical schools. What I found was that it was really difficult to find any positive depictions of Utilitarianism. American story telling very much prefers a Virtue Ethics model for its heroes. In that story, the protagonist is faced with incredible odds that they navigate by the strength of their outstanding, inner character.

I get why this is a winning story. We want to believe that all our investments into building good character will yield good returns. We want to live in a world where good people persevere. However, it also suggests that the people who don’t get a victory, who can’t overcome their circumstances just might be bad people. Aside from being a gross miscategorization of our society, this is where the American meritocracy ideal goes wrong. It’s also the book of Job: if you’re in this kind of mess, then you must have done something to deserve it, because we know good people come out on the good. If Utilitarianism is depicted in films at all, it’s usually employed by villains or other characters that are opportunistic, self-serving and suspicious.

lastexorcism-09But not in The Last Exorcism. In The Last Exorcism, the main character, Rev. Cotton Marcus, is an exorcist trained from his youth in the church. After his son’s birth and subsequent medical problems, he loses his faith, but continues to officiate exorcisms because he believes that he is still helping people, people who believe that their maladies are supernatural. However, when he is confronted by the possibility that children, especially disabled children (a reality that is really frightening), are being harmed by the rite, he decides to expose exorcisms for the sham that they are. He is seeking the most amount of good for the most amount of people and acknowledges that children are a special class of vulnerable people that deserve a special kind of evaluation in his ethical math. He is portrayed very sympathetically, which is absolutely rare in American film. Now, of course, the movie unfolds in such a way that Rev. Marcus is confronted by a real possession in this last exorcism, but that doesn’t tarnish his portrait as someone who is trying to bring about good through his actions.

Can you think of another film that presents “the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people” in a positive light? I’d love to broaden my resources, but in the meantime, we’ll be watching The Last Exorcism.

Denomic Narratives and Contemporary Religious Experience

Really excited to be participating in the Balyor Fatih and Film conference at the end of this week. Here’s the outline that I’ll be using for my part of the panel presentation. I’d love your comments and questions as I continue to prepare.

If we accept that we way we portray monsters betrays our most deep-seated cultural fears, then horror movies provide an important peek into the darkened corners of our cultural closet, commenting on the source of our anxieties and mounting significant criticism of contemporary institutions and values.

In the same way that the recent proliferation of “zombie” narratives points to an unease with a strictly materialist account of the soul especially in contrast to our growing technical expertise in the area of bio-engineering, the new upsurge in “exorcism” movies and the abundance of demonic stories on television indicate a significant shift in popular beliefs concerning the nature of religious experience and the Christian church’s ability to effectively shepherd those experiences. I would like to briefly walk you through the some of the motifs standard in contemporary exorcism movies that form what I see as the basis of this criticism.

  1. Demonic narratives are constructed in an almost exclusively Christian context. One only has to survey the movie posters of recent exorcism films to observe a strong correlation. This strong identification with the Christian church is in marked contrast to the films of the same genre from the 1960’s (Rosemary’s Baby, Hammer Horror Films, Black Sunday) in which the demonic was portrayed as Satanic. By Satanic here, I mean a kind of evil for its own sake, not unlike the portrayal of other monsters with a more or less independent mythology, like werewolves or vampires. Evil comes with its own set of rules, its own set of rituals. Christian iconography is largely absent from these older films (or is only present in a perfunctory way), whereas the most recent batch of demonic films make extensive use of Christian symbols (The Rite, The Devil Inside). The confrontation is direct and even essential. Along these lines, in many exorcism films, the focal point of the ritual as per the film is portion of the rite in which the demon is asked to name itself. In a certain sense, the Christian Church is understood to identify and define the demonic. However, my point is not that possession is contemporarily understood as a uniquely Christian experience (although this is an interesting avenue of inquiry especially considering the Church’s unease with the prevalence of demonic stories within its canon), but rather my point is that the Christian Church has come particularly under scrutiny in the new demonic story. If we understand these movies to offer something of cultural significance, then they offer something specifically affiliated with the Christian Church.
  2. Demonic possession is portrayed as a genuine religious experience that resists traditional modes of religion enshrined by the Church. In a world that is otherwise dominated by modern secularism, demonic possession is depicted in a way that insists that the supernatural is valid, powerful and recognizably religious. The portrayal is predominantly physiological, including most notably bizarre bodily contortions, disruption of normal eating habits (either resulting in restriction leading to deprivation or manifesting in gruesome appetites), self-injury and visual and auditory hallucinations. These symptoms locate the portrayed experience well outside Christian devotion as it is commonly practiced or understood. Additionally, when religious help does arrive, it usually comes in the form of a rogue agent, a spiritual authority operating outside the institutionalized Church (Deliver Us From Evil, The Conjuring). Even in such cases that the church is officially involved, usually the individual agent is in some way pitted against the overarching institution (The Exorcism of Emily Rose). In this way, Church is portrayed as doggedly legalistic, embarrassed bordering on confused and often, ultimately neglectful. Perhaps more troubling, if demonic possession is depicted as genuine religious experience, then the Church, even functioning at its potential best, is seen as antagonistic to real spiritual experiences as they challenge its sincerity and the legitimacy of its authority.
  3. Demonic possession most often afflicts women, indicating that there’s nothing the Church finds scarier than women and women’s bodies. While general cultural stereotypes of women may be implicated, considering the strong ties between demonic narratives and pop-cultural perception of the Christian Church already discussed, I think it’s safe to suggest that the Church is perceived to capitulate to, if not intentionally propagate, the myth that women are spiritually more naive and vulnerable than their male counterparts. 9 times out of 10, the person possessed in the most recent crop of exorcism movies is female. Adding to this, the symptoms of possession usually include sexually suggestive or aggressive displays or are tied to the process of childbirth/menstruation (Asomdexia, The Last Exorcism). Exorcism movies indicate a public perception that the Church is downright horrified by women, sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular.

How is the church to contend with such criticism? I guess the first question is: should it? Considering the number of shows and movies that follow the formula that I just outlined for you, I would say that the church should be concerned with its popular portrayal. Again, it’s also that the new demonic narratives seem directed at the church in a way that’s noteworthy. However, it’s difficult to engage the subject of demonic possession without accusations of primitivism or supernaturalism. On the one hand, biblical stories of possession have been interpreted away from a literal understanding, favoring psychological or medical explanations for the afflictions related in those stories. On the other hand, spiritual warfare has become implicated with abuse of power (insert non-comment about Mark Driscoll or Bob Larsen here). I propose that postmodern philosophy of religion provides a way to turn the light on under the bed, to begin the work of addressing these fears without the necessity of perceiving demons around every corner.

  1. Post modern philosophy of religion allows us to focus on the spiritual experience without pre-validation. Exorcism movies often spend a lot of narrative time on “proving” that the demonic experience is “real,” both within the film and to the audience. However, for the purposes of philosophy of religion, subjective as it is, the experience recommends itself to be taken seriously. In Prolegomena to Charity, Jean-Luc Marion discusses the logic of evil. Marion writes, “Evil is experienced as the only indisputable fact, short of all delusion, that is exempt from the need for any proof or argument.” If people are having negative spiritual experiences, then it’s valuable to evaluate that experience and consider its mechanics and what it means.
  2. Post modern philosophy of religion urges the redress of suffering as a valid spiritual experience. This is along the lines of my first point, suffering in particular is a self-validating and genuine spiritual experience. American Christianity, being as it is wed to Modernist intellectualism coupled with a rejection of materialist accounts of humanity, has largely turned its back on the idea of physical, religious experiences, especially those that are negative. Protestant dread results in an expectation of suffering in the experience of God without dealing with the reality that suffering thoroughly sucks. Suffering is quickly reassigned as positive, having divine purpose, without authentically dwelling with the person suffering. To blame here also is the modern medical urge to treat, instead of be present with. Physical suffering as religious experience has a long history in the Christian tradition and while I am by no means in favor of a return to flagellation as a form of devotion, it’s time for the church to acknowledge the reality long embraced by eastern religions that spiritual events have a physiological component and to commit to patiently listening to those who share those experiences, especially when they are negative.
  3. Validate and incorporate the spiritual experiences of women. This is more of a historical argument than a philosophical one. While I applaud the efforts that have been made to push the envelope on this issue in some quarters, the fact remains that women’s voices and women’s experiences are not legitimized by the American church. Given the strong historical correlation between women’s spiritual experiences and physical experiences of religion (thinking particularly of the work of Caroline Walker Bynum in this regard), in order to meet the criticism launched by pop-culture conceptions of the demonic, the church need to reinstate women as leaders within the church. Not leaders of women. Or leaders for women. But instead celebrate women as leaders for the church, especially into areas that the church has neglected or ignored. I would also bring to your attention the work of Nel Nodding, in terms of “ethics of care,” the assertion that women bring a distinct ethical voice to the community, one that focuses on caring as a virtue. If the church wants to effectively deal with its demons, I would prescribe redrawing the lines of community around historically female religious experiences and embracing women’s bodies as wholly holy and not under seasonal reproof.

Mothman Prophecies: My Christmas Movie

Every Christmas, I watch White Christmas, Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman, Muppet Christmas Carol, Elf and The Mothman Prophecies. While the other picks may seem more intuitive, The Mothman Prophecies is an important part of my holiday.

For those of you who may not know, The Mothman Prophecies is a fictionalized account of the supernatural experiences preceding the unexplained collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Previous to the accident, which claimed the lives of 46 people, there were several unsettling sightings of a black, winged creature with red, glowing eyes. The movie interprets these sightings as portents of death and violence.

I make no claims that this is a great film. However, it remains on my list of must-watch Christmas movies for the following reasons:

  1. It takes places at Christmas. So there.
  2. It was filmed in PA in a small town where one of my friends grew up. Richard Gere is also from PA and his mother was involved in church circles with my grandmother. My grandmother always referred to him as “Dicky Gere Didn’t He Become An Actor.” These trivia facts lend a homey feel to the movie for me.
  3. I find the inevitability of death– despite all interventions well-intended, supernatural or otherwise– intensely comforting.

In the end, the movie suggests that death will find all of us in time and that the best we can do with the time that we have is to spend it, not trying to ward off death, but in loving and living well. There exists no agency, human or supernatural, which can undo mortality. Accepting this fact is not a source of despair, but an incredible relief and an opportunity to embrace community tightly.

This is a point not far off from that of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, which is a ghost story above all else. In the story, Scrooge is invited, on the occasion of Christmas, to consider how well he has spent his life in the company of his neighbors in light of the fact that life will some day soon come to an end. Scrooge is offered the opportunity to amend the quality of his life, as opposed to being offered an excuse from the inevitability of death. Death is not the thing to be feared in A Christmas Carol; rather, the most haunting spectre is a life spent strangled in stingy loneliness.

I think this is the character of the season- be it Christmas or Solstice or Chanukah. In darkness, there is light– a light around which we should draw as many faces as we can. It is with our backs pressed flat to the cold, firm promise of a final day that we can best enjoy the warmth we share with one another now.

Have a wonderful season with those you love.