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.

Overrun with Elves

This month, I’ve noticed an interesting concurrence. My social media feed has been increasingly populated with pictures of elves while my supernatural news has dwindled to next to nothing. I’m willing to dismiss it as coincidence, but not without some consideration.

First, although it’s not in my nature to be a killjoy, but I don’t get Elf on the Shelf. In fact, I never got the Santa thing either. While my children were still young and I was still stolidly religious, I didn’t pretend with them about Santa, not out of a perceived interference with the sacred character of the holiday, but because I didn’t want to ask my children to believe in invisible things that I knew to be imaginary when I knew I was also asking them to believe in invisible things I thought to be real.

Mind you, my girls both believed ardently in fairies. Whenever they asked me to weigh in on whether or not they might “really be real,” I would answer vaguely that the world was a big place and nature was a wonderful thing and what did they think. I made a space for their belief to flourish, because it had grown organically out of their own hearts and minds. I didn’t plant it myself. If my children had come to me with a belief in Santa, I would have supplied their requests for milk and cookies just like I filled their orders for fairy tea parties.

I don’t find provoking belief in your child to be anything like playing pretend together. When you are playing pirates and sailing the couch across the living room only to be attacked by octopedes (one of my girls’ favorite words btw), you are participating together in the suspension of disbelief. The Christmas Elf get-up is orchestrated by adults to initiate and sustain belief. I’m not judging anyone who finds these games charming and fun. I’m only pointing out that as someone who treats ineffable experiences seriously, I can’t in good conscience counterfeit one to my kids. The tradition seems especially out of place in a culture where a scientific worldview predominates.

However, one of the things that I find endlessly fascinating about our most recent obsession with the paranormal is its quasi-scientific character. We are not merely giving social credence to experiences with the invisible, but we are attempting to document them with a sophisticated range of technological equipment. On the surface, this might just seem like a preference for evidence based verification. We prefer objective truth to subjective stories. However, watching how these stories play out, I think the technological investigation, which, although conducted carefully, still remains on the fringes of accepted science, has become a replacement ritual.  When watching shows like Paranormal State or Ghost Hunters, it is clear that, completely aside from the quality of the evidence collected and whether it is judged to confirm or disconfirm the presence of paranormal activity, the participants find the process comforting. I don’t think it’s unlike leaving a bowl of milk out for the brownies. And this is not to demean superstition and superstitious practices, but rather to put them culturally in their place regardless of their technological trappings.

In fact, some years ago, I read an article (anyone remember Omni Magazine?) asserting that accounts of alien abductions filled the same cultural space as stories of elves, brownies, and fairies. There were similarities not only in the descriptions of the creatures involved (small, androgynous, green and glittering), but also in the accounts of interactions (time lost, directional confusion, imprisonment). Stories of alien abductions might be technologically current adaptation of stories we have been telling for centuries.

So I just wonder, looking at my newsfeed, if some of the cultural energy we usually direct at bumps in the night and shadowy visages isn’t suddenly and seasonally being channelled into staging holiday hauntings for our children’s delight. As human beings, I feel we will always have a need to frame culturally our experiences of the invisible, regardless or even because of our technological savvy. More importantly, the things that we choose to believe together remain a potent source of community no matter what the time of year.