"A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing: for still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal." — Martin Luther
With so much evil in our world, and especially with the rash of school shootings in recent years, I recently reread "The Exorcist" by William Peter Blatty (1971) and rewatched the 1973 film, which won an Oscar for Blatty in his film adaption. This is the question I was asking: Does possession by evil, symbolized by the devil or Satan, provide us with clues to the evil we saw in the faces of so many of those school killers?
I first read the book and saw the film when I was in theological training in Cambridge, Mass, in the early 1970s, and their impact upon me was beyond the normal captivation. I was working in a state mental hospital as a student chaplain, where I encountered many patients who claimed to be possessed by Satan. Plus, I was studying theology and biblical studies in the ivory towers of Cambridge. I have been interested in the crossroads where psychiatry and religion meet for more than 40 years.
At the time I saw the film, I was taking a course on the Hebrew prophets from a Jesuit priest. One stormy night, he had the class over to his apartment in Cambridge for wine, cheese and conversation. I asked Father Clifford, our host, "Have you seen 'The Exorcist,' and what do you think of possession?"
His reply I have never forgotten: "I don't put much stock in such things, but I will tell you this — I knew the Jesuit priests involved in that 1949 case in Georgetown upon which the movie was based, and the stories they told me make you wonder. That is all I will say on the matter. You have to wonder about such things."
When he answered my question, all conversation stopped. The only sounds were the rain hitting the window, the occasional thunder clap and the fire crackling in the big stone fireplace.
Like my professor, normally I look at the world through scientific eyes, but with some cases of mental disturbance the language of psychiatry fails to describe the reality of what one sees. Then the biblical language of possession seems more apt; but then it, too, fails to capture the horror of some cases of evil and some cases of mental disturbance.
Jesus believed in possession, and perhaps the one sure thing we can say about his healings is that he was an exorcist. One might say the Bible just depicts a “primitive” world view, but we demythologize our symbols of good and evil at our peril.
The movie "The Exorcist" dramatizes the limitations of medicine and psychiatry. Even the young Jesuit priest, Damien Karras, who is also a psychiatrist and first gets involved with this case in the novel as a doctor, remains skeptical until the end of the novel. He symbolizes the secular scientific world view; while the exorcist, played in the film by Max von Sydow, represents the "old" world view of biblical theology, which in the end has far more power over evil than what psychiatry had to offer in the film.
The movie, even with its Hollywood excesses, is riveting. If you look closely, you will see throughout flashes of the demon's face, which I missed in 1972. The film makes us, like my professor, wonder — wonder about good and evil, God and Satan; and wonder about the power of Jesus, then the church, to cast out demons, or cure mental illness in the “modern” language of psychiatry.
Has the contemporary church become too embarrassed by the image of Jesus as an exorcist that it is rarely discussed or preached about? Has the modern church neglected to emphasize sin and evil in its preaching and teaching because they are depressing and even terrifying?
I will let the novelist's exorcist, Father Merrin, have the last word here, in his words about the nature of possession to the skeptical Damien Karras in the midst of the exorcism: “How many husbands and wives,” he uttered sadly, “must believe that they have fallen out of love because their hearts no longer race at the sight of their beloveds! Ah, dear God!” He shook his head, and then nodded. “There it lies, I think Damien ... possession; not in wars, as some tend to believe; not so much; and very seldom in extraordinary interventions such as here … this poor child. No, I see it most often in the little things, Damien: in the senseless, petty spites; the misunderstandings; the cruel and cutting word that leaps unbidden to the tongue between friends. Between lovers. Enough of these,” Merrin whispered, “and we have no need of Satan to manage our wars; these we manage for ourselves.”
— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist