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.

Jesus the Teenage Exorcist

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.

Very interesting.

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.