Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hidden Mickeyisms 4: Disney/Pixar’s Toy Stories and Parent-Child Separation

From Hans Christian Andersen, Disney successfully borrows the story of "The Little Mermaid" and converts it into the first of a new generation of very successful Disney animated musical motion pictures. It appears that Disney also gains from Hans Christian Andersen the inspiration for the first in a new genre, the computer-animated motion picture. Where does Disney find the central germinating idea for its hits, "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2," and "Toy Story 3"? The answer is suggested in Disney's "Fantasia 2000." One segment of "Fantasia 2000" pertains to the Disney version of Andersen's "The Staunch Tin Soldier." According to the Andersen classic, after "all the other tin soldiers went back into their box, and the people in the house went to bed . . . [t]he toys now began to play games--visiting, fighting, dancing." This is almost precisely what occurs in the Toy Stories of Disney. My son, Tristan Lindsay, corroborated my hunch that Toy Story owed its inspiration to the Hans Christian Anderson classic in his critique of Toy Story at “It started out as just a pitch, an idea to expand the animated short ‘Tin Toy’ into a Christmas special. The mad computer animation wizards in a company called Pixar Animation Wizards had decided to call it ‘A Tin Toy Christmas.’” With these allusions to tin toys, it seems unmistakable that Pixar was inspired by Anderson’s Tin Soldier. My son Shane Lindsay comments: “The Andersen fairy tale . . . probably inspired . . . Babes in Toyland . . . . But Fantasia 2000, as its name suggests, came out in 2000. Toy Story came out in 1995, and Tin Toy was released in 1988.” The tin soldier in Anderson’s classic was missing a leg. In the Toy Stories, broken toys (suggesting some sort of physical handicap)--such as a non-working squeaker in Wheezy the Penguin and a separated arm on Woody—seem to offer a justification for parent-child separation. Children easily interpret the child (Andy) as a parent who takes care of his toys, which are easily interpreted as Andy’s children. If Andy (or his mother) discards any toys, that act becomes the moral equivalent of child abandonment. The evil child who lives next door to Andy, Sid, actually intentionally handicaps and damages his and his sister’s toys. This makes Sid a villain on a par with the Wicked Witch of Snow White. He becomes a parent from whom children (i.e., toys) would be wise to flee.

Rhetoric, for Aristotle, involves finding in any situation "the available means of persuasion" (Rhetoric 1.2.1). Poetics, on the other hand, involves mimêsis or imitation. Disney's Toy Stories fall most easily into the category of poetics rather than rhetoric. Yet, until the watershed of Plato, Greeks possibly did not conceive a separation between rhetoric and poetics. We should find some persuasion in poetics. For example, in a text that is clearly in the poetics category, at the end of Act 2, Shakespeare has Hamlet say: "I'll have these players play something like the murder of my father before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks . . . the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." Surely, Shakespeare sees persuasion in poetics. If we study the ways in which poetics persuade we are studying "implicit rhetoric."

The greatest hit song of Kenneth Burke's grandson, Harry Chapin, was "Cat's in the Cradle". Chapin's lyrics tell the story of "my child" who "arrived just the other day," but upon his arrival found that his father had "planes to catch and bills to pay." The boy's learning to walk and talk occurred during the absence of his father, but the boy promised his father, "I'm gonna be like you, Dad." There is little if any explicit rhetoric in Chapin's song. Yet, the implicit persuasion is abundant. The song appears to implicitly champion close relations between parents and children. The problem that exists is a father who—due to his career--is separated “too much” from his son.

The Toy Stories supply a tragic-comic entelechy. In his original draft of "Form and Persecution in the Oresteia," Burke informs us, "the matters considered . . . were immediately preceded by . . . a section designed to show that . . . mimesis" is best understood "through [Aristotle's] concept of the entelechy, with its peculiar stress upon `fulfillment.'" (LSA 125). Burke states: "By entelechy, I refer to such use of symbolic resources that potentialities can be said to attain their perfect fulfillment" (DD 39). Burke has in mind something like Aristotle's Poetics with its perfect tragic victims—“those who are near and dear to one another.” (50).

The Aristotelian word Dorsch has translated "those who are near and dear to one another," Burke translates "intimates." He understands that there are "family tensions" in human patterns of experience that might best be perfected in the tragic "father-kill." Burke goes to some length in Dramatism and Development to assimilate both Aristotelian and Freudian views into his concept of entelechy. He sees Freud's interest in Oedipus as evidence that Freud considered these "family tensions" to be primal. Never mind that the primal father-kill is non-historical. Burke argues in Freud's behalf that even as a "hypothetical" pattern, the principle of the "father-kill" is a useful tool in analyzing psychological structures. This is an important observation for our purposes. While the tragedy genre typically addresses civic and social tensions in adult art forms, the basic family tensions envisioned by Aristotle and Freud more nearly represent the use of the tragedy genre in child art forms. The Toy Stories are about family tensions, not civic and social tensions.

Specifically, in terms of family/civic/social tensions, Burke understands Aristotle's concept of tragedy to involve the perfect victims (intimates), and takes catharsis to be a "purgation by symbolic victimage," wherein the audience "identifies" with the victim. This identification occurs not through the perfect "identification" of "love," but through what he considers to be a "surrogate of love," namely "pity." The tragic "pleasure" takes place when the one with whom the audience has "identified/shared pity" is "killed." Since "identification" has produced "consubstantiality" between the audience and the victim, it is as if in a sense the audience itself has died symbolically. Hence, the audience is free to take on a new identity; the old identity has been "purged." This new identity would be the (perfected?) identity that the audience member has sought. Thus, the tragedy has gratified "entelechy"--a sense of perfection (telos) within the audience. In the Oresteia, once again, Burke observes that "Greek tragedy was 'cathartically' designed" for the purpose of relieving "civic tensions" (LSA 125). He again discusses how fear is transformed to pity (as a surrogate for love). He develops at length his choice of "'pride' as the third major motive involved in tragic catharsis," to modify/explain "Aristotle's famous formula . . . 'pity, fear, and like emotions'" (LSA 125).

Of course, there is no specific father-kill in the Toy Stories. Yet, from a child's perspective, there is a type of intimate-kill. When, in Toy Story 2, the cowgirl Jessie is abandoned by Emily, her young owner (children understand: mother), at a (Goodwill) donation center, not killing but "something else of the kind is actually done." Similarly, when Andy's real mother places Wheezy the Penguin in the Yard Sale, we have a type of intimate-kill (children understand: grandchild abandonment). Certainly, when Andy (children understand: father) considers discarding Woody the cowboy because he has found a new favorite toy in Buzz Lightyear, the action serves as a type of intimate-kill. Children experience something similar to this parental abandonment when a new child comes into the home or when there is a divorce. Hence, children are able to identify with the victims. They have consubstantiality with Jessie, Wheezy, and Woody.

The Toy Stories, however, are not exactly tragedies. Disney stories have a tendency to follow a tragic-comic literary form. This formula may be best exemplified by the Christian gospel story. The intimate (Jesus) is abandoned by his human family. He is crucified by humans. Yet, he is resurrected to a new life with his family. Disney uses this formula in many if not most of its films. Sleeping Beauty is in a simulated state of death until she reawakens. Pinocchio dies saving Geppetto and comes back to life as a real boy. Snow White dies from the Queen's poisoned apple, then revives. Baloo the bear appears to die, but revives in The Jungle Book. The Beast appears to die, then becomes a handsome prince in Beauty and the Beast. Similar deaths and rebirths occur for King Triton in the Little Mermaid, Simba's father, Mufasa, in the Lion King, Robin Hood in Disney's version, and Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story. Although the Toy Stories are technically Pixar and Disney productions, they follow the tragic-comic formula with which other Disney films are identified.

Jessie never returns to her first owner, but receives a new "mother," Andy's little sister. Woody (Wheezy's "brother") risks his own life to save Wheezy from the Yard Sale. Wheezy thus returns to the family. The entire family of toys mobilizes to save Woody who has been "kidnapped" in Toy Story 2. Indeed, the two antagonist-stars of the Toy Stories, Woody and Buzz, frequently reciprocate in saving/rescuing each other. All toys are restored to a loving relationship with their "father," Andy. Familial love becomes the resource that saves the day, just as the kiss of true love wakes Sleeping Beauty. Pinocchio's unselfish love saves Geppetto. Beauty's love saves the Beast. This recurring entelechy permeates Disney's tragic-comic formula: True, unselfish love saves. Of course, the Christian gospel message is quite similar. The Disney entelechy owes much to the Jesus entelechy. In the Jungle Book, at the apparent death of Baloo the bear, Disney actually has Bagheera, his loyal panther friend, quote John 15:13: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

So, what tension is purged in the Toy Story tragedy? Children are not concerned with civic tensions. If, as Burke observes Greek tragedy is cathartically designed to relieve civic tensions, Toy Story tragedy is designed to relieve family tensions. These tensions occur due to selfishness in its various forms. One type of this selfishness is sibling rivalry. Another type is the rivalry among peers in combined families following divorce and remarriage. Yet another type is the tension that exists between child and parent when the child feels abandoned by the parent. In whatever way a child viewing Toy Story interprets the relationship between Woody and Buzz, it is clear that they are both "children" of Andy, and both vie for Andy's affection. After Woody and Buzz respectively risk their lives saving each other, the triumph of unselfish familial love is clear. Andy learns to show love equally to Woody and Buzz. The family tensions between siblings (or between children in combined families) in the young audience are cathartically purged through the first Toy Story tragedy. To a lesser extent, the family tensions between parent and child are cathartically purged through the tragedy of Toy Story.

These family tensions between parent and child are more clearly purged through the tragedy of Toy Story 2. Andy's mother had consigned Wheezy to the Yard Sale because his squeaker was broken. Eventually, after Woody is kidnapped in the process of saving Wheezy, then saved by his sibling toys, Andy's mother finds a new squeaker for Wheezy and restores Wheezy to full health. Emily, Jessie's first "mother," abandons her. Yet, Andy's little sister adopts Jessie and purges those family tensions. Woody envisions being discarded by Andy since his arm is torn. Yet, Andy sews the arm back and continues to cherish the toy cowboy.

What, then, can we say about the development in Toy Story 3, which ends with Woody “giving up” all of his toys to an new, younger owner? It must be based upon a rationale for those times when “adoption” is the course of true love. While Jessie’s abandonment—resulting in adoption by new "mother," Andy's little sister—is presented as a regrettable adoption entelechy, Toy Story 3 presents Woody’s “reasonable” decision to adopt out his “children” as the appropriate decision.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Hidden Mickeyisms 3: Disney and Parent-Child Separation

Among the most common situations (or exigencies) for which Disney offers entelechies is that of parent-child separation. What should children do when they are separated from their parents? Bambi’s mother dies. Tarzan is orphaned at birth and must be raised by animals. Mowgli (from the Jungle Book) is lost by his parents in the Indian jungle at birth and must be raised by animals. Hercules, the son of the Greek Gods Zeus and Hera, loses immortality as an infant and is separated from his parents, abandoned to Earth, and must become a true hero in order to reclaim immortality. In The Lion King, Simba’s father Mufasa dies, and Simba believes he is responsible, so he runs away. In Finding Nemo, Nemo accidentally gets lost from his father. His father pursues him. The Little Mermaid grows up and falls in love with someone from another species; hence, she leaves her home. Pinocchio is enticed by fame and pleasure to run away from Gepetto, but eventually risks his “life” to save his “father.” Snow White runs away from home to avoid being murdered by her stepmother. Toy Story 3 eventually finds Andy giving up his toys for adoption. And, in the most recent film, Rapunzel is abducted at birth and spends her life discovering her true identity. She ultimately finds her way back to her parents.

How do children cope with parent-child separation? Frequently, they rely on the entelechies available to their memories. Disney typically draws plots from classic children’s literature, but modifies the plots/entelechies to reflect a more contemporary set of cultural assumptions (or epideictic topoi), values, and psychological perspectives. Even so, Disney is frequently criticized. The goal of this commentary is not to prescribe changes to the Disney films. They are what they are. The goal is only to analyze the entelechies—to see what type of rhetorical medicine Disney is prescribing for children who may find themselves in one or more of Disney’s parent-child separation scenarios. Some of the implicit rhetorical strength of children's literature lies in the fact that children have fewer entelechies from which to choose than do adults. The Walt Disney Corporation has consistently produced literary entelechies with enormous appeal for children.

When Kenneth Burke describes literature as equipment for living, beginning in Counter-Statement (183) and Attitudes toward History (68), he has in mind some very basic appeals of literature. Calling a specific piece of literature a Symbol, he states:

“The Symbol is perhaps most overwhelming in its effect when the artist’s and the reader’s patterns of experience closely coincide. . . . A Symbol appeals: As the interpretation of a situation . . . By favoring the acceptance of a situation . . . As the corrective of a situation . . . A the exerciser of ‘submerged’ experience . . . [and] As an ‘emancipator.’”

Before a symbol accomplishes the task of interpreting, favoring acceptance, or correcting, however, it begins by naming the situation in which the child finds himself or herself. In Philosophy of Literary Form (300), Burke comments:

“A work like Madame Bovary (or its homely American translation, Babbitt) is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative . . . .”

For children who have experienced parent-child separation, one of Disney’s Symbols—Bambi, Tarzan, The Jungle Book, Hercules, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio, Snow White, Toy Story 3, or Tangled, for example—may begin by naming the situation/s in which they find themselves. Once the child has identified his or her personal pattern of experience as being represented by the pattern of experience described in the Disney Symbol, the Symbol appeals as an interpretation of his/her own experience. If the child has lost his or her mother to death, Bambi might favor “the acceptance of” that situation. If a child discovers that s/he was abducted at birth (as in various baby-stealing cases in contemporary society) or even adopted, Tangled might serve as the “corrective of the situation.” Alice in Wonderland or Pinocchio might engage the mind of a child who seeks parent-child separation—the chance to “run away.” Hence, these Symbols might serve as “the exerciser of ‘submerged’ experience.” The Little Mermaid might appeal to some children “as an ‘emancipator,’” suggesting that it is acceptable to voluntarily leave all of the cultural mores of one’s inherited culture.

To illustrate the principles of how entelechy operates within the Symbol, the Toy Stories of Disney will be considered, in-depth, in up-coming commentaries. Kenneth Burke's analytical methods will be illustrated in the analyses.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hidden Mickeyisms 2: Burke’s Circles and Mickey Mouse

In Chapter One of her book, Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film, Annalee R. Ward makes a strong case for the importance of studying the rhetoric of Disney stories. Citing Kenneth Burke’s essay “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Ward presents “one of the goals of [her] book: seeking to discover how Disney films provide equipment for moral living.” Ward draws support from comments by many others in asserting that Disney is a moral educator: William Powers of the Washington Post, Henry Giroux writing in the Socialist Review, John Taylor in his book Storming the Magic Kingdom, Michael Real writing in Mass Mediated Culture, and Benjamin Barber of the New York Times. Along with Robert L. Schrag, Ward argues that “children ‘are more vulnerable, more persuadable than adult audiences.’” Following Connor Freff Cochran, who analyzed the music of Hans Zimmer in Lion King, she states: “Film is a powerful storyteller; employing narrative, visuals, and music enhances its power to communicate a vision of moral living.” Ward cites Hayden White, asking: “Could we ever narrativize without moralizing?” She observes in “Kenneth Burke’s language of ‘terministic screen’ . . . or ‘frame of interpretation’” Burke’s use of the phrase “trained incapacity,” which she sees as a “limit [on] how a person is able to see the world.” What is that limit? She cites Robert L. Schrag: “[T]hese . . . stories are not subjected, in the minds of those young children who view them, to the test of narrative fidelity. These children are in the process of constructing the criteria against which they will judge the narrative fidelity of other stories.” Schrag has, in this comment, stated the essence of Kennethy Burke’s concept of entelechy, as it applies to Disney films. Disney films become circles by which the various other circles of the children’s own personal lives are critiqued.

Disney exercises vast global influence. Disney artistic creations are better known by children than those of DaVinci, Mozart, or Shakespeare. Through its films, Disney provides powerful entelechies to children and their parents. These films are cow paths that implicitly offer self-persuasive rhetoric to children. Just as cows mindlessly follow paths that have been established by the cows that preceded them from pasture to pasture, so children (and adults) mindlessly follow the psychological and interpretive paths established for them. Of course, parents and older siblings establish some of these paths. The proverb “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the oak” is illustrative. Children frequently grow up in the same patterns established by their parents. History, as children learn it, establishes patterns. Some people fear the coming of another Great Depression because contemporary historical data may appear to remind them of the earlier historical event. George Santayana said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Religion establishes entelechies. In earlier generations, Christian children were accustomed to attending Sunday School. At Sunday School (and, for that matter, in the public schools, in years past), the children became “biblically literate.” They learned stories about Jesus, Adam and Eve, Moses, Joseph, Abraham, King David, Daniel, etc. Bracelets, pins, and tee shirts proclaim: WWJD (symbolizing: What would Jesus do?). The catch phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” is designed to evoke Biblical entelechies to be followed by Christians. With the decline of Sunday Schools and the progressive exclusion of religious stories from the public schools, another moral force has stepped in to fill the entelechial void. Disney now establishes many of these paths for children through its films.

Kenneth Burke's term for the type of rhetoric implicit in Disney films is entelechy. More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle coined the term entelechy [entelecheia] to indicate a process. The process to which entelechy refers in Aristotle's writings is the most common process. Entelechy, according to Aristotle, refers to natural processes (such as the cosmic circles mentioned in the previous commentary):

Aristotle thought of seeds, for example, as possessing within themselves the "final cause" or telos--the goal of what the mature plant would be. He believed that there exists within a grain of wheat the formula that makes the seed first produce roots and a sprout, then grow a blade, which grows into a stalk, until finally an ear of new grain develops. The plan for the fully grown stalk with its ear of grain is implicit in the seed. To use a computer metaphor, the seed is "programmed" to produce a fully developed wheat plant. The telos (or goal) of the fully developed plant is held in the seed and in the plant throughout the growth process. Thus Aristotle called the process "entelechy." "En" means "within." "Tel" is short for telos, the goal. "Ech" means "to have." "Y" indicates "process." Thus, "En-tel-ech-y" means: the process of development (cf. Attitudes Toward History, hereafter ATH, 107) while having one's telos within oneself.

Burke extends Aristotelian entelechy from this biological realm to the symbolic realm. He finds it necessary, however, to replace the implicit determinism of Aristotelian biological entelechy with the implicit freedom of human action in Burke's concept of entelechy. The term entelechy, as Burke and Aristotle use it, may be defined as: the process of changing from what something is into what something should become, which process is directed by an internal principle of change which allows the thing to possess internally the final form toward which the thing is changing. In the Burkean variety, this internal principle of change supplies the implicit persuasion that directs human behavior. One major source of any individual's internal principle of change is the literature that individual consumes. The question becomes, what story are you living out? Each person's life becomes a story line, a plot with three stages--a beginning, middle, and end. Each stage of the story implicitly contains the other two stages.

There are clearly many potential sources from which each individual may derive his/her personal story line. As mentioned, many children derive their story lines from the life stories of their parents; hence, the proverb "Like father, like son." Aspiring political leaders derive their story lines in part from historical leaders such as Gandhi, Washington, Lincoln, even Lenin and Chairman Mao. Some individuals such as David Koresh derive their story lines from dreams, visions, prophecies, or interpretations of prophecy. Koresh feels, for example, that he must live out what his prophecy has prescribed even if that spells a fiery death. Many religious individuals, for that matter, see their story lines as the imitation of certain biblical characters--the suffering but faithful Job, Daniel being fed to the lions, the Apostle Paul converted from the sinful Saul of Tarsus. Burke sees that Milton developed his personal entelechy somewhat along the lines of Samson the great biblical hero whose strength was removed when Delilah had his hair cut. Yet, other factors such as Milton's religion (which forbade suicide) reshaped Milton's entelechy significantly (Rhetoric of Motives, 5). Just as it is the entelechy of many Christians to live out the Jesus story, it is the entelechy of many Moslems to be like Mohammed. Those opposed to powers or public institutions may see in Robin Hood, or Jesse James, or Osama bin Laden a story line for their own lives.

These are powerful entelechies. Yet, they are not deterministic in the Aristotelian sense of natural entelechy. Humans choose from those entelechies available to them. So, what are the entelechies available to children from the literary works produced by the Walt Disney Corporation? We will consider those entelechies in future commentaries.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hidden Mickeyisms 1: Cosmic Circles and Mickey Mouse

The universe is comprised of circles. As each fireworks display typically explodes into a circular image, the theme song of Epcot’s daily fireworks display states poetically: “Our dreams begin another thousand circles round the sun.” We understand a “circle round the sun” to refer to a year, 365 days. But is the poetry limiting us to an astrological year? Not only does the earth circle the sun, but other planets do, as well. The “thousand circles” may refer to a millennium, but each millennium is exponentially compounded by the thousand circles of other planets. How many millennia has the earth existed? And isn’t every decade, century, and millennium also a circle of sorts? The number of circles in the universe is again exponentially compounded. For that matter, while the earth is circling the sun once, it is also rotating in a circle on its axis 365 times. These are 365 additional circles to factor in. And once, every 28 days, the earth’s relationship to its moon creates another circle—a month (or as my Hebrew professor at Indiana University, Henry Fischel, called it, “a moonth,” since the word month was coined to recognize the circular pattern of the moon's cycle). Remember also that the sun is only one of billions of stars, all of which have their own circling planets, and those planets, their moons. The number of circles in the universe is mind-boggling. Don’t forget that these stars all seem to be circling within their own galaxies. The Milky Way is only one circular galaxy, with countless circles occurring within. Have you considered enough circles? We are not finished. Now, consider the atom with its nucleus, and circling protons and neutrons, and try to envision the number of circles in the universe, since every planet, moon, star, asteroid, and meteor is comprised of countless atoms. This is what I mean when I say the universe is comprised of circles.

Every one of those astrophysical and atomic circles to which I have just referred is what Aristotle refers to as an entelechy. Each circle has a beginning, middle, and end. And, once each circle completes one entelechy (one circle), it begins a new entelechy (a new circle). With all of these circles in the universe, we are bound to find a few “hidden Mickeys.”

Of course, Aristotle is not content to consider as entelechies only astrophysical circles. He is primarily interested in geophysical and biological entelechies. The circle of a drop of rain falling from the sky, running from a stream of water into a creek, then into a river, then into the sea, after which it evaporates into the atmosphere and helps form a cloud, until it becomes too heavy and eventually condenses and becomes a drop of rain again is an entelechy, a circle. A kernel of corn is planted in the earth. It puts forth roots, then a blade, which becomes a stalk. The stalk develops leaves, tassels, and ears—composed of husks, silks, and cobs. The cobs develop rows and rows of kernels. Once these kernels of corn have matured, that entelechy is complete, but these kernels are ready to begin new entelechies, new circles. My wife tells me all of these circles have her head spinning. But we have not reached anywhere near the end of even Aristotelian entelechial circles. There is the biological “Circle of Life,” as Disney’s Lion King names it. That circle includes not only the circle of biological reproduction and maturation of every single animal, followed by another reproduction and maturation, etc. It also includes the circle of the food chain, the circular nature of the respiratory, circulatory, and digestive systems of each biological organism, and so on.

Your mind is oriented to circles. Once you complete one circle, you start another. This series of commentaries on “Hidden Mickeyisms” is based on the many circles your life encounters. If you had wondered why we think in terms of circles, perhaps this consideration of cosmic circles has given you a hint. Small wonder, as Burke observes, that the human psyche is oriented to circles. We measure the human concept of time in circles, as the second, minute, and hour hands of our clocks go round and round in circles. We conform even the days of our lives into smaller circles than the astrophysical circles of years and months. We divide months into 4 circles which we call weeks. Arthur Miller discovered that 7 items are about the maximum number of items we can easily remember. So, we have only 7 days in a week. We have only 7 numbers in our basic phone numbers. Weeks are new, human-created symbolic circles. In academic “circles,” the completion of each grade in school, each level of education (elementary, middle, high school), each degree (Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctor’s), each college course, each paper written, each quiz studied for and taken, each book written, and each conference paper proposed, prepared, and presented is a circle—an entelechy—usually followed by another similar circle.

This series of commentaries will concentrate on a specific type of circle—that which is presented in Disney films. To understand these circles, I will rely on Kenneth Burke’s concept of entelechy. Burke is interested in the study of circles, but his circles are qualitatively different from the cosmic circles observed by Aristotle. Burke is interested in the type of circles humans invent. And, Disney is a very influential inventor and distributor of those circles. I will explain Burkean circles and how Disney films contain them in my next commentary.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Angels & Demons 33: Revelation and Aggadah Concerning the Origin of Demons

Bernard Bamberger, in his book Fallen Angels, pages 22-23, summarizes the story of how demons originated, as that story is presented in the Ethiopic book of Enoch, a second century B.C. work:

“One passage states that the giants [who were the offspring of the fallen angels and the daughters of men] became evil spirits; another, that the fallen angels became evil spirits, leading men astray to sacrifice to demons, while the women they married became sirens. But the usual view is that when the giants were slaughtered, in accordance with the punishment decreed for them, the evil spirits emerged from their bodies. In any event, the demons, once they made their appearance, remain at large until the final judgment.”

John, the author of Revelation uses this “usual view” of the origin of demons as a literary allusion, to describe the connection between the Roman Emperor Nero (the last of the Caesarean family) and the three primary Roman emperors who followed him (from the Flavian Dynasty): Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Revelation 16:12-13 states:

“And the sixth angel poured out his bowl onto the great river Euphrates. And its water was dried up so that the way of the kings from the land of the rising sun might be prepared. And I saw out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits coming out as frogs. And they are spirits of demons doing signs, which go forth to the kings of the land—even of the whole inhabitable world to gather them together to the war of the great day of God Almighty.”

For a thorough analysis of the identities of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet, I refer the reader to my book, Revelation: The Human Drama. Nevertheless, in the interest of brevity, I will summarize:

• All scholars agree that the Dragon is Satan.
• The vast majority of scholars agree that the Beast is Nero.
• Ford and others agree that the false prophet is the Jewish High Priestly Family in Jerusalem.

In my book (pages 41-42, and others), I discuss why the Roman Emperor Vespasian and his two sons who followed him as emperors (Titus and Domitian) are the clear referents to John’s literary allusion concerning the origin of demons. With G. B. Caird, I agree that Vespasian, Nero’s general whom he sent to wage war on Jerusalem in 66 A.D. is the easiest and clearest understanding of the Beast (Nero) who received a death blow and then came back to life. Nero committed suicide in 68 A.D., but in 69 A.D. his Jerusalem general Vespasian became Emperor. Vespasian then promptly sent his son Titus as general to Jerusalem to finish the devastating war on the Jews. Titus became Emperor after Vespasian, and then his brother Domitian became Emperor after Titus. It was as if the Beast died, but these three “demons” came out of his mouth (and the mouth of Satan and the mouth of the anti-Christian Jewish High Priest). John is able to tie a very negative connotation to Satan, Nero, the Jewish High Priesthood, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian by the very force of a demonic literary allusion.

While the story of the origin of demons in the Ethiopic book of Enoch is certainly Aggadah (Jewish folklore), John is not using the Aggadah as Homiletic Aggadah, as did I Peter, II Peter, and Jude (See Angels & Demons 10). John is not preaching a sermon as Peter and Jude were doing. Neither does the fact that John is alluding to this Aggadah suggest that John believed the Aggadah to be a true account of the origin of demons. As I pointed out in my previous commentary, Revelation 9:20 appears to agree with Paul—that demons (like idols) are nothing. John writes of unrepentant men who worshiped the “works of their hands”—“demons and golden idols, and silver, and bronze, and wooden, which are not able to see, nor hear, nor walk.” If demons are the works of men’s hands--neither able to see, hear, nor walk—demons do not exist as super-human forces that can take over the bodies of humans.

John is also illustrating the fact that one needs not believe in the historical truth of the stories from the various books of Enoch in order to use them for literary purposes. Likewise, Peter and Jude could use Fallen Angel stories from the various books of Enoch as sermon illustrations without believing them to be true historical accounts.

With this commentary, I conclude my series of commentaries on Angels and Demons. Perhaps, owing to my own scholarship in the field of Communication, I have a perspective on the nature of angels and demons that not many other scholars have. I can see that it is sometimes necessary to “personalize” our communication. We give “names” to our books, speeches, and literary documents and endow them with powers that make them seem to stand alone as separate from those who wrote the documents or spoke the words. Hence, the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence exercise authority over us as if they were actual people—even super-human people. The false teachings that are broadcast over our airwaves may have even demon-like power to possess the minds and behaviors of those who listen to and believe these falsehoods. Let listeners and readers beware! Angels and demons (in the form of godly and false communications) are floating in the air all around you. Be careful about those communications that possess you!

In my next series of commentaries, I will be exploring the “hidden” messages in the films of the Walt Disney Corporation. You may even find some angels and some demons lurking in the messages of those films!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Angels & Demons 32: Diagnosis: Demon Possession or Illness?

Jesus is presented in the gospels as one who could cure any type of malady—demon possession or illness. Nevertheless, the synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) find it useful to distinguish between these two major types of maladies. The gospel writer John, on the other hand, only presents Jesus as curing diseases or other bodily malfunctions (not casting out demons), and Paul (as I have pointed out in past commentaries) considers demons to be the equivalent of idols: false gods, who really have no existence whatsoever. Incidentally, John the author of Revelation (in 9:20) appears to agree with Paul—that demons (like idols) are nothing. He writes of unrepentant men who worshiped the “works of their hands”—“demons and golden idols, and silver, and bronze, and wooden, which are not able to see, nor hear, nor walk.”
The following list of illnesses and bodily malfunctions cured by Jesus is fairly complete:

• bent spine Lk. 13:10-21 (crippled woman)
• blind Jn. 9:1-41 (man born that way); Mk. 10:46-52; Mt. 20:29-34; Lk. 18:35-43; Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35
• deaf Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35
• diseases Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35
• epileptic Mt. 4:23-25
• fever Jn. 4:46-54; Mk. 1:29-34; Mt. 8:14-17; Luke 4:38-41
• lame Jn. 1:5-47; Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35
• leprosy Lk. 17:11-37; Mk. 1:40-45; Mt. 8:2-4; Lk. 5:12-16; Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35
• palsy Mk. 2:1-12; Mt. 9:1-8; Lk. 5:17-26 (paralytic?); Mt. 4:23-25; Mt. 8:5-13; Lk.7:1-10 (near death)
• plagues Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35
• raise dead Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35; Jn. 11:1-44 (Lazarus); Lk. 7:11-17
• sick on their beds Mk. 6:53-56; Mt. 14:34-36
• various illnesses Mk. 1:29-34; Mt. 8:14-17; Luke 4:38-41
• withered hand Mk. 3:1-6; Mt. 12:9-14; Lk. 6:6-11

Conspicuously absent from this list is any type of mental illness. There seems to be a strongly psychosomatic element in virtually all of the cases the synoptic gospel writers term “unclean spirit,” “evil spirit,” and/or “demon-possession.” Even though these gospel writers use this terminology, they do not themselves appear to be diagnosing the maladies. Rather, the diagnoses seem to be generated by the culture, sometimes, even by the families of those who have the maladies (and frequently, by the demon-possessed individuals, themselves).

In my previous commentary, I observed that a possibility existed “that the boy [in Matthew 17:14-20, Mark 9:14-29, and Luke 9:37-43] actually had epilepsy and that the father had misdiagnosed it as demon-possession.” A closer look at those accounts shows that, while Matthew 17:18 terms this demon-possession, in Mk. 9:14-29, the father diagnoses the malady as a dumb (or speechless) spirit. In Mt. 17:14-20, the father says he is epileptic; whereas, in Lk. 9:37-43, the father simply says he has a spirit. I have already offered my opinions concerning what may have transpired in this case. I mention the case here to demonstrate that the diagnosis of demon-possession was not always clear or conclusive in the various texts. Did the father believe his son was demon-possessed, truly epileptic, or just the victim of a false belief? Does the father even know? Whatever the diagnosis, the gospel accounts are in unanimous agreement that Jesus solved the problem.

The gospel writers themselves differ, even when discussing the very same cases, on whether the various cases should be termed “demon” or (unclean or evil) “spirit.” What Mt. 4:23-25 calls demon, Lk. 6:17-19 calls unclean spirit. What Lk. 4:31-37 terms demon, Mk. 1:21-28 terms unclean spirit. What Mt. 8:28-34 and Lk. 8:26-39 refer to as demon, Mk. 5:1-20 refers to as unclean spirit. Lk. 8:1-3 mentions Mary Magdalene from whom seven demons had gone, but Lk. 8:1-3 also refers to evil spirits. Mk. 6:13, Mt. 10:8, and Lk. 9:1 all use the word demon, but Mk. 6:7 and Mt. 10:1 refer to the same event with the words unclean spirit. Lk. 7:18-35 describes a case referred to only as evil spirit. Mt. 12:22-32, Mk. 3:20-30, and Lk. 11:14-23 and 12:10 describe another case with all gospel writers agreeing to the demon terminology. It appears that the gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, perceived no difficulty with substituting between the terminologies. This does not seem to support a conviction that demons in the Greek sense of the Greek word existed. I suspect that “demon” terminology had simply become a conventional way of referring to a problem with a “spirit.”

As I have been demonstrating ever since my commentary “Angels & Demons 23: Angels as the Personification of God’s Word,” the word “spirit” is the equivalent of the word “word.” When the New Testament contrasts the spirit of truth with a spirit of error, it is indicating that these “false words” (or spirits of error) are capable of “possessing” humans who believe them. This is especially true with highly suggestible individuals (including children). As a college professor, I have observed this phenomenon in more than one student. I know of male students who--because they speak with a lisp or have a high pitched voice or are interested in music, dance, or theater—have been told by their contemporaries that they appear to be homosexual. Thinking logically, lisping, voice pitch, and performance aptitudes have nothing to do with one’s sexual behavior. But, to the highly suggestible, the insinuation or suggestion that the male may be homosexual is enough to produce corresponding behavior. Likewise, a similar case exists with females who may have lower-pitched voices or athletic builds. Such suggestions or insinuations have the force of “spirit” for the individuals involved.

I have had students who were told they had aggressive tendencies, and they promptly lived out the implications of the terminology. I have had students who were told they were suicidal, and they succumbed to the force of this “spirit”/suggestion. Bi-polar. ADHD. Name the diagnosis, and, frequently, suggestible individuals so diagnosed will respond with the “appropriate” set of behavioral acts. I am not suggesting that there are not individuals who are truly bi-polar or who truly suffer from ADHD. I just wonder how many individuals who have received a “false diagnosis” or a “spirit of error” become somewhat “possessed” by the false word.
While it is easier to understand the terminology “spirit of error” as a “false word,” allow me to unpack the terms “unclean spirit” and “evil spirit.” Kosher is the Hebrew term designating proper dietary habits. Kosher is translated “clean.” Whatever is not Kosher is “unclean.” Hence, eating mutton, beef, or venison is Kosher or clean. Eating pork, horse meat, or dog meat, on the other hand, is unclean. Jews were promised, in the Law of Moses, that if they would eat Kosher foods, they would be afflicted with fewer diseases. We all know that anyone who eats pork that has not been thoroughly cooked, for example, may be susceptible to Trichinosis. The dietary laws were designed, primarily, to keep the population healthy. There were also Kosher laws concerning cleanliness and what one should do if one becomes ill. Those afflicted with leprosy, for example, were required to quarantine themselves from the healthy population. To warn others of their illness, they were required, even in New Testament times, to cry out “unclean.” Notice that the New Testament does not provide for anyone the diagnosis that he or she has “a demon or spirit of leprosy.” That is because leprosy had quite visible and empirically-detectable physical symptoms. Likewise, while Jesus healed many with “fevers,” no one had a demon or spirit of fever. If someone has no specific, empirically-verifiable physical symptoms, but still behaves as if he or she is afflicted with a disease, you could say that the person is not actually “unclean,” but had a “spirit” of “uncleanness”—or, an “unclean spirit.”

Similarly, the less-used terminology “evil spirit,” the word “evil” as applied to a spirit is used seven times by Luke (in his two works, Luke and Acts). Other than those seven times, the term “evil” is only applied to the term “spirit” once—in Matthew 12:45, discussed in the next paragraph—and even there, Matthew did not use the phrase “evil spirit.” The Greek term translated “evil” in all of these cases is the same term Jesus uses in his prayer: “Deliver us from evil.” It corresponds to the Hebrew word used in the name of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, in Genesis. After Adam and Eve ate from the tree, they and all their descendents were infused with both good and evil inclinations. This is not a term that refers primarily to the spirit world; it is a term that refers primarily to HUMAN characteristics (albeit, less than desirable characteristics). The word does not conjure up for Luke super-human “evil” beings. It describes that human nature that leads one to sin. As Jesus’ prayer states (in a parallellism): “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Whether the “evil words or thoughts” affecting the one who was afflicted were the words or thoughts of that person so afflicted, or whether they were the “evil words” inflicted upon the victims by the malicious “curses” of other humans, they could be termed “evil spirits.”

Jesus himself is never specifically quoted as diagnosing a case as demon-possession, but in Mt. 12:38-45, Jesus offers a parable of someone having an “unclean spirit.” I think Jesus was saying that the man in his parable believes that he has an illness and that that sheer belief is enough to produce those “unclean” (or illness-like) symptoms. If the man is cured of this false belief, but does not replace this false belief with true beliefs, he is susceptible to many other false beliefs (or spirits) more evil than the one that first afflicted him. In other words, unless he learns the truth, he remains very suggestible—very susceptible to erroneous spirits.

Many times, in the New Testament, the one doing the diagnosing of the presence of a demon or unclean spirit is the individual who is so possessed. The case of the Gadarene/Gerazene demoniacs is a case in point. They identified the name of the demon/s who possessed them: Legion (because they diagnosed themselves as having many demons). They also knew who Jesus was and believed him capable of casting out the demon/s. When Jesus taught in the town of Capernaum—a village very close to Jesus’ home town of Nazareth—Mt. 4:23-25, 8:14-17, Mk. 1:29-39, Lk. 4:38-41 write of several unspecified cases of demon-possession. Interestingly, all demon-possessed individuals knew who Jesus was. He grew up in the region. Similarly, in Acts 19:15-16, a man possessed of an “evil spirit” knows who Jesus and Paul are, but Jesus and Paul are not the ones performing the exorcism. It seems that whenever the “demon-possessed” individual has a (self-diagnosed) self-recognition of his or her own demon-possession, and a belief in the ability of the one exorcising the demon to do so effectively, success results. In the Acts 19 case, some Jews (unknown to the demon-possessed man) tried to perform the exorcism and failed.

Before we leave the discussion of diagnosis, we should list the several clear cases of misdiagnosis of demon-possession in the New Testament. In Mt. 11:19 and Lk. 7:33-34, Jewish opponents misdiagnose John the Baptist as having a demon. In Mk. 3:19-30 and Mt. 12:22-37, scribes misdiagnose Jesus as having an unclean spirit (Mk.) and using power of Beelzebub to cast out demons. This accusation, Jesus calls the unforgiveable sin. I believe he does so, because the scribes should know (as Paul does) that there is no god or demon called Beelzebub. Rather, Beelzebub is a transliteration of the words Baal Zebul--one of the Canaanite gods. These idols or false gods did not exist! Any scribe who has personally completed hand-written copies of the Old Testament would know that! It is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit to suggest that such false gods are capable of acting at all--let alone attributing the works of the Holy Spirit to these false gods! In Mt. 9:27-34, Pharisees misdiagnose Jesus as using power of Beelzebub to cast out demons. In Jn. 7:20 and 8:48-52, Jewish opponents misdiagnose Jesus as having a demon. In Jn. 10:20-21, Jewish opponents misdiagnose Jesus as having a demon and being insane. In Acts 17:18, Paul’s Stoic and Epicurean opponents falsely accuse him of being an announcer of foreign demons. Just because culture or society (or even very religious people) diagnoses someone as being demon-possessed, the diagnosis is not necessarily accurate.

Who is doing the diagnosing? It may be the demon-possessed person himself or herself, the demon-possessed person’s parent, malicious individuals who may have cursed the individual, or the culture in general who cannot discover empirically-recognizable reasons for the unclean or illness-like symptoms. Jesus is not reported as diagnosing any specific individuals, himself—just curing them. Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to use indiscriminate diagnosis terminology—demon, unclean spirit, evil spirit—but it is not clear whether they are attempting to diagnose or just reporting the consensus (cultural) diagnosis. John the gospel writer does not use any such terminology; he reports no case of casting out spirits or demons. John the author of Revelation sees “demons” as he sees “idols”—the works of human hands. And, Paul says that demons are like idols and false gods—they don’t exist.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Angels & Demons 32: The Rite, The Exorcist, and Severe Demon Possession in the Bible

Last weekend brought the debut of the movie “The Rite,” starring Anthony Hopkins. The film opened at number one at the box office for the week. In the film, Hopkins’s character is an exorcist, in Rome. The demon-possessed characters do not levitate or spin their heads around in complete circles, as the demon-possessed Linda Blair had done in the 1973 movie “The Exorcist.” Other than appearing to know things that the demon-possessed character should not have otherwise known—like, that a U.S. dollar bill was hidden in a bag and that a young priest’s father would soon die—the demoniacs of “The Rite” do not seem to accomplish any super-human feats. A pregnant girl who is chained to her bed apparently loses her unborn child and fatally hemorrhages. Eyes turn red, bodies experience contortions, and fingers are cramped into claw-like configurations, but “The Rite” moves the genre of exorcism movies much closer to the believable than some of its famous predecessors.

“The Rite” even incorporates significant counterarguments to the thesis that the individuals presented as being demon-possessed are so in actuality. As I discussed in Angels & Demons 30, the Apostle Paul argues that “idols” and “demons” are the same thing. He also states (rhetorically) that “idols” are “not anything.” In I Corinthians 8:4, he states, “We know that no idol really exists; that there is no God but one.” In “The Rite,” the character portrayed by Colin O'Donoghue, a skeptical American priest (presented almost as an atheist), also resists the notion that demons exist, but he does not offer any argument from scripture. Instead, his argument is presented as an atheistic argument.

The O’Donoghue character argues that, rather than being demon-possessed, the individuals so presented just believe that they are demon-possessed, and their false belief is what motivates their behavior. I also made this argument in my previous commentary, Angels & Demons 31, but “The Rite” offers the argument in such a way that it must be considered atheistic. Why? I guess it makes for better theater.

The O’Donoghue character even argues that some individuals are actually psychotic—that they need psychiatric attention, rather than an exorcism. I have written an entire book on what I call “psychotic entelechy.” While asserting that there are several major secular psychotic entelechies, I focus the book on the dangers of Spiritual Gifts Theology. This is the notion that someone actually receives personal communiqués from the supernatural realm. While, similar to Kenneth Burke following John Dewey, I do not use the term “psychotic” in the psychiatric sense, I do argue that if one believes one hears voices or receives messages from the supernatural realm, the messages one receives have the capacity to induce extremely dangerous behavior on the part of the one receiving the messages. This is, in my opinion, in the realm of what the Bible might term “demon-possessed.”

When I say “the Bible,” I mean “only the New Testament.” The Old Testament does not include a single case of demon-possession. I state in Angels & Demons 1:

“What is significant, however, is that the discussion of the creation of angels and the Fall of the Angels did not occur until much later than the supposed event. It was not until the Hellenistic period of Jewish history (between 300 and 50 B.C.) when Jews were under the control of the Greeks (Alexander the Great and his successors) that the Fall of the Angels became a topic of much conversation. Yet, in those years following the completion of the Old Testament, there is a flood of literature containing information on the subject.”

What is true of Fallen Angels is also true of Demons. Demons are a Greek concept, not a Jewish concept. They are not even always bad or evil, in Greek thought. Socrates, with a positive air, claims to have a demon, in his Apology. At his trial, he says he is not an unbeliever, because he hears a voice that is a demon instructing him to be a philosopher. The Greek word for “fortunate” is EUDAIMŌN—meaning “(having a) good demon.” That the Apostle Paul—who has received an education as a Roman citizen—would reject the existence of demons on the basis that they are the same as idols is not surprising. They are false gods who make up a part of the Greek pantheon.

Demons in the New Testament are never capable of inducing levitation or head-spinning, as with Linda Blair’s character in “The Exorcist.” The vast majority seem to be less remarkable in the sense that the demon-possession was exemplified by a physical malady, such as non-speaking, that was effectively cured by casting out the demon. In Angels & Demons 31, I report:

“Acts 19:13 suggests that some Jews had the power to cast out demons and Jesus seems to corroborate this fact in Matthew 12:27 and Luke 11:19. One might assume that ANYONE who is capable of persuading someone who believes in the existence of a nonexistent physical malady that the nonexistent malady does not exist might, thereby, effectively cast out a demon.”

Such is the case with the vast majority of New Testament demoniacs. However, a few do deserve closer attention. In Matthew 8:28-32, Mark 5:1-17, and Luke 8:26-33 one or two demoniacs dwelt in tombs and menaced people who traveled nearby. They wore no clothes and were very ferocious. People were fearful to travel past them. People had even attempted binding them with chains, but the chains were broken by them. When Jesus traveled there, the demoniacs called him “Son of God” and pled with him to cast (the demons) into a herd of swine. Jesus granted the request; the herd of swine, then, ran down the steep embankment into the lake and were drowned. The demoniac/s surely would interpret this visible development—a herd of swine racing down an embankment into a lake—as a sign that he or they were no longer demon-possessed. Apparently, the former demoniacs were freed from whatever ailed them. Luke 8:35 reports that the people came out to see what had happened. They found the formerly possessed man sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed, and sane.

So, what happened here? If we take Paul’s word that demons are like idols and false gods—and, hence, do not exist—we have men who mistakenly believed they were demon-possessed. They, therefore, behaved as they assumed the demon-possessed behaved. They even believed that they were possessed of multiple demons, because, when Jesus asked, “What is your name?” the answer was “Legion,” because (t)he(y) believed (t)he(y) had many demons. We have men who believed not only that they were demon-possessed, AND that Jesus was the Son of God, but ALSO that Jesus had the power to cast out demons. Hence, when Jesus granted the request they believed had come from the inner demons, they believed that he had, in fact, rid them of the demons. Except for the possible super-human act of breaking chains and for the notable occurrence of a herd of swine racing into a lake, there is no compelling evidence of the existence of a supernatural being (in the form of a demon) at work, here. Perhaps, Jesus granted the request to see swine run into the sea as a means of thoroughly persuading the demon-possessed that they had no demons. So long as the formerly possessed BELIEVED they were free of demons, they behaved sanely.

Another possible explanation that would be short of granting the existence of personal beings called demons would be that whatever mental problem the men were experiencing was transferred into the minds of the swine. In other words, the men may have been psychotic in the psychiatric sense and this psychosis was, then, transferred to the swine. However, the psychotic behavior of the men caused them to ferociously attack humans. The swine displayed no such antisocial behavior. Instead, they committed suicide. I am more inclined to believe that Jesus created a sense of panic in the swine, as a visual means of persuading the possessed men that the demons were gone. Incidentally, even this (counter-argument) explanation of exorcism was presented in the movie, “The Rite,” as Anthony Hopkins’s character appeared to use a frog—pretending to extract it from a young man--to persuade the young man that he had removed the demon.

In another demon-possession case, in Matthew 17:14-20, Mark 9:14-29, and Luke 9:37-43, a boy since early childhood displays epileptic symptoms. He cannot speak, convulses, rolls on the ground, foams at the mouth, and sometimes falls into the fire and sometimes into the water. While Jesus could have simply “healed” the boy and, thus, corrected any actual physical malady he may have had, this case was diagnosed (by the father) as demon-possession, as Jesus’ disciples attempted in vain to cast out the spirit. The boy’s father says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, help us.” Jesus calls attention to the implicit doubt in the words the father has used—“If you can do anything?” (In Luke, Jesus exclaims, “O faithless and perverse generation!”) Jesus states that everything is possible for a believer. The father changes his tune: “I believe.” The child throws himself into another fit, Jesus rebukes the spirit, and the boy is cured.

In this case, the child appears to believe what his father believes. In the field of communication, we call this a type of “altercasting.” It is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. The father does not believe it is possible for Jesus’ disciples to cast out the spirit (so, neither does the child). The father even questions Jesus’ ability, but after some confrontation, he tells Jesus he believes. Then, Jesus is able to successfully cure the child. While it is true that an actual physical malady such as epilepsy exists, there is no compelling reason to believe that this child had that illness. He did, however, display such symptoms. If the symptoms were related only to a psychosomatic illness, as I discussed in my previous commentary, Angels & Demons 31, just removing the belief that the boy had an incurable disease was required.

Another possibility, in this instance, is that the boy actually had epilepsy and that the father had misdiagnosed it as demon-possession. This possibility suggests the need to look at the cases of demon-possession in the New Testament to discover WHO is actually doing the diagnosing. I will follow that thread in my next commentary.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Angels & Demons 31: Demons, Voodoo, Hypnosis, Hexes, and Psychogenic Illnesses

What do demons, voodoo, hypnosis, hexes, and psychogenic illnesses have in common? They are all physical manifestations of things that do not exist in any realm other than the symbolic. They do not actually exist in the physical realm and they are not truly divine beings. Nevertheless, they do have the power to affect human beings, because humans are by nature symbol-using animals, according to Kenneth Burke. As I stated at the end of my previous commentary, one might even go so far as to suggest that the “false information” itself becomes a spiritual force that affects humans.

Since the author of I John contrasts the Spirit of Truth with the Spirit of Error, we may assume that a spiritual force of false information does indeed exist, according to the Bible. And, as I have demonstrated in “Angels & Demons 23: Angels as the Personification of God’s Word,” the word “spirit” is to be equated with the word “word.” A spirit is a word. Hence, the Spirit of God may be understood as God’s communicative nature. Angels are also God’s spirits, as Hebrews 1:7 claims: “And of the angels he says, ‘Who makes his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.’” The author of Hebrews is quoting Psalm 104:4. If we stipulate that, according to the Bible, angels represent the communication of true information, demons represent the communication of false information. The huge difference for the Apostle Paul, as I discussed in my previous commentary, is that the true information emanates from an actual being—the one true God. But, Paul disputes that there is any actual divine being from which the false information emanates. Demons are the same thing as idols—which, for Paul, are nothing/nonexistent.

Kenneth Burke attributes a good deal of power, however, to hexes and psychogenic illnesses. In Language as Symbolic Action, pages 6-7, Burke explains:

“In referring to the misuse of symbols, I . . . think of ‘psychogenic illnesses’ . . . . A certain kind of food may be perfectly wholesome . . . . But our habits may be such that it . . . may be nauseating to us. (The most drastic instance is, of course, the ideal diets of cannibals.) . . . Instances of ‘hexing’ are of the same sort (as when a tribesman . . . finds . . . that . . . those in authority have decreed his death, by magic, and he promptly begins to waste away and die . . . .”

Burke tells of the anthropologist Franz Boas. Trying to establish rapport with a tribe of Esquimaux, he ate from a pot of what he thought to be whale blubber. Overwhelmed by the disgusting nature of this thought, he rushed outside to vomit. When he found out that the food was not blubber—but dumplings—Boas was able to eat the food without vomiting.

Similar to symbolically-induced food-based nausea, hexing, and psychogenic illness, is the practice of casting spells on voodoo dolls. According to the (voodoo-sympathetic) website,, “Voodoo is a powerful mystical practice that can bring spectacular gifts and rewards to anyone who believes . . . .” That much is probably true: that the mystical practice brings results to anyone who BELIEVES. Even though the information is false, if someone BELIEVES it, s/he is under the power of the false information.

As a high school student, I viewed a demonstration of hypnosis. While under hypnosis, a student was given a post-hypnotic suggestion. He was told that there was a bucket on stage in the path of his exit. He would not actually see the bucket as he exited the stage, but that upon taking three steps toward the stairs to exit, he would trip over the bucket. There was no actual bucket on stage. Yet, upon being brought out of the hypnotic state, the student walked toward the exit stairs, and (as suggested) tripped over the nonexistent bucket. The audience exploded with laughter.

Demons may often be understood to be in the same category as voodoo, hypnosis, hexes, and psychogenic illnesses. While there are a few biblical accounts of demons that are difficult to fit into this description, the vast majority of demon-possession cases fit easily. I previously mentioned Mark 19:17-25, which refers to a “speechless spirit,” and Luke 13:11, which refers to a “spirit of weakness.” Both terminologies possibly indicate the type of affliction each spirit visited upon its host. Both physical results—speechlessness and weakness—could be replicated by post-hypnotic suggestion, hexing, or voodoo (for the believers in those practices). David Edwin Harrell, in his book, Oral Roberts: An American Life, states: “Oral was keenly aware of the emotional and psychosomatic nature of much of the healing under his tent. . . . He unashamedly laid claim to psychosomatic healings.” I assume that, so long as someone who believed s/he had an illness or physical condition that DID NOT ACTUALLY EXIST believed that Oral Roberts (or Jesus working through Oral Roberts) had the power to heal that nonexistent physical malady, the symbolic act of healing imposed by Roberts would effectively cure the nonexistent malady. Acts 19:13 suggests that some Jews had the power to cast out demons and Jesus seems to corroborate this fact in Matthew 12:27 and Luke 11:19. One might assume that ANYONE who is capable of persuading someone who believes in the existence of a nonexistent physical malady that the nonexistent malady does not exist might, thereby, effectively cast out a demon.

I, therefore, wonder how many “demons” exist in people as a result of the preaching and teaching of Bible-believing Christians who seek to persuade the populace that (contrary to the teaching of the Apostle Paul) DEMONS DO EXIST AS ENTITIES! How many novice Christians have been led to believe that they are under the influence of these entities (that Paul says do not exist)? Perhaps, even my writing of this commentary will be capable of exorcising some demons. I will address the more difficult demon-possession passages in the New Testament in future commentaries, but for now, just as is the case with those who believe the “false information” communicated in voodoo, hypnosis, hexes, and psychogenic illnesses, those who are willing to replace such false information with the true information may see their resulting physical maladies disappear.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Angels & Demons 30: Demons as False Entities

The communication of God has elements that stand in direct opposition (“vs.”--in Burke’s shorthand) to elements on the false communication side:

Prophet vs. False Prophet

Spirit of Truth vs. Spirit of Error (or Unclean Spirit or Evil Spirit)

Angels vs. Satan

There is no direct opposite of “God.” This is uncomfortable for the human psyche that derives comfort from identifying such polar opposites. Some religionists have, therefore, attempted to present Satan as the opposite of god. The ancient Persians taught that there was a good god constantly at war with an evil god. See my commentary “Angels & Demons 4: ‘The Great Satan’ of Iran” for my discussion of why Judaism and Christianity rejected this dualism. The huge theological obstacle that blocks such dualism for Jews, Christians, and Muslims is the doctrine of Monotheism. Deuteronomy 6:4 states the doctrine: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God --the Lord is one.” The first commandment (found in Exodus 20:3) states: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”

Hence, the Apostle Paul is not particularly bothered by the possibility that Christian believers might accidentally eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. He reasons this way in I Corinthians 8:4-6:

“Relative, then, to the food that has been dedicated to idols, we know that no idol really exists; that there is no God but one. In case there are so-called gods either in heaven or on earth,--such as there are gods many and lords many,--yet for us there exists one God, the Father, from whom all things come and who is our goal; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things exist and through whom we are” (Berkeley).

Paul, then, regards the eating of any meat (whether or not it has been sacrificed to idols) to be innocent (not a sin). Nevertheless, he recommends not eating meat offered to an idol, if a Christian brother might mistakenly interpret the eating to indicate that we are worshipping the idol. He states in I Corinthians 8:13: “Therefore, if my eating causes my brother to stumble, I shall eat no meat forever, so that my brother shall not be tripped up” (Berkeley).

In I Corinthians 10:18-26, Paul returns to the issue of eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols, and introduces the way he understands and uses the term “demons”:

“Observe those physically the people of Israel! Are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers of the altar? What then is my suggestion? That an idol offering amounts to anything or that the idol itself is anything? No, but that what they sacrifice, they are offering to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the Lord’s cup and a demon’s cup. You cannot participate in the Lord’s table and in a demon’s table. Or shall we provoke the Lord to indignation? Are we mightier than He? Everything is allowed, but not everything is helpful. Everything is allowed, but not everything is constructive. . . . Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscientious scruples, for the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s” (Berkeley).

Clearly, the question of whether one should eat meat that has been offered to idols is not a major issue in the Christian world today. I am not citing this passage in order to resolve that issue. I am writing about demons, and whether they exist, according to Paul. Paul has asked a rhetorical question: “What then is my suggestion--that an idol offering amounts to anything or that the idol itself is anything?” When asking a rhetorical question, no answer needs to be given, because the answer is obvious. Nevertheless, Paul actually answers this one—just to be sure that everyone understands: “No, but that what they sacrifice, they are offering to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to fellowship with demons.” In a Burkean sense, Paul has made “idols” equal “demons.” He has stated (rhetorically) that “idols” are “not anything.” Earlier, in I Corinthians 8:4, he had stated, “We know that no idol really exists; that there is no God but one.”

If there is no God but one, and idols do not therefore exist, and offering to idols is the same as offering to demons, we may conclude that “DEMONS DO NOT EXIST.” THEY ARE FALSE ENTITIES. If Paul had thought that there really were true entities called demons, who were at war with God, could he ever have concluded that eating meat he claims is “offered” to them might be called innocent? Could he ever have suggested, “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, without asking questions,” if he thought the meat had been associated with an existing entity at war with God? The entire basis of his reasoning that allows the conclusion that it is not sinful to eat meat sacrificed to idols is that idols are nothing. They are like demons—they do not exist.

Now, of course, the carved or sculpted statues that represent the false entities do exist. Paul was not claiming that the graven images, themselves, do not exist. He was claiming that there is no personal identity in existence who is represented by the graven image. Likewise, he was not claiming that the “false communication” about the existence of a god other than the Judeo-Christian God does not exist. He is simply claiming that such an alternative god (or demon) does not exist. One might even go so far as to suggest that the “false information” itself becomes a spiritual force that affects humans. I will follow that thread in my next commentary.