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.

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.