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.

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