Some years ago an Adventist friend told me about his being invited to participate in an exorcism. He and a group of others had gathered at the apartment of a woman who’d diagnosed herself as the B&B for an indeterminate number of devils. For some hours (the better part of a Sunday) they held her down on the floor and alternately prayed, and demanded the demons speak their names. They worked in shifts, while the victim writhed and fought, and spoke in eerie hoarse voices. “You could feel the devil in the room,” he told me. “It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”
He told the story with enthusiasm, almost glee — and it made me furious. First, because he’d treated it as a spiritual thrill, and second, because I pictured a woman who should have been under psychiatric care, instead being shouted at while pinned by a bunch of sweaty exorcists.
I still believe I am right about the first. Messing about with demons, not to mention someone’s person and personality, is not something one does for goose bumps. Rent a Stephen King movie.
I’m less certain I’m right about the second. Since he told me the story I’ve learned that such practices aren’t uncommon in some Christian ethnic communities. While I don’t feel comfortable with it, neither do I feel qualified to say with certainty that there isn’t some measure of efficacy in it when it’s done in that context. (Though my friend also told me this wasn’t the first time the woman had been through this process, which makes me think the desire to be exorcised may be related to why, according to Fawn Brodie, Victorian women swooned.)
As my congregation has become multicultural, I’ve been asked a few times by people from other countries to pray demons out of them or their homes. I do it, though without the drama described above. Those who ask such things of me will have to be content with my quiet mediation on their behalf with God, who I’m reasonably certain can work without my shouting at him.
The Bible has a number of stories about demon possession, most in the ministry of Jesus. Possession has historically had a place in Catholic theology (though seldom mentioned until Linda Blair puked pea soup), and was acknowledged in much of world Protestantism — excepting the analytical Western church. Here it has reemerged only in the last couple of decades, when the phenomenon jumped from hillbilly Pentecostalism to mainline evangelicalism, and demon expulsion became a calling for a few preachers with books to sell. Some Seventh-day Adventists did what we Seventh-day Adventists sometimes do: appropriated the ideas, added some Ellen White quotes, and acted as though they’d invented it.
The reason it wasn’t mentioned very much here is that we’d found medical diagnoses more useful. Our analysis of disease in physiological and chemical terms spilled over to mental illness. Though the pathologies of the mind are still less understood than those of the body, there is plenty of evidence that at least some mental problems have addressable chemical or physical etiologies. Give salts of lithium to people with extreme bipolar mood swings, and you’ll see a dramatic stabilization, one which veers toward what nearly everyone would call “normal.”
I find it interesting that most of the demon possessions described in the gospels sound very like conditions psychiatrists still treat. The demoniac among the tombs might have been a schizophrenia sufferer. A boy having violent fits that land him in the cooking fire sounds like epilepsy.
There are problems in saying that’s all there’s to it. Schizophrenia can’t be sent from a person into a herd of pigs.
Of course, in the world of the Bible physical illnesses were considered the result of spiritual activity, too. Yet we go to a physician for lupus, heart disease or an enlarged prostate.
This needn’t be seen as contradictory. Isn’t the evil one the author of all illness, mental and physical? We can, if we wish, call that demon possession, as the Bible does. But I’d still want someone hearing voices in his head to see a psychiatrist to find out if treatment with risperidone would help, just as someone losing his sight would consult an ophthalmologist for new corneas or retinal repair. Medicine is a weapon God has given us for use against certain kinds of evil.
Recently I’ve noticed a new use of the demon possession diagnosis: as a put-down, a nifty way of showing spiritual one-upmanship while sounding righteous and concerned.
A friend in my church told me of talking with another church member who, while enumerating what she considered my theological deficiencies, added that “our pastor is possessed by a demon, you know.” My friend didn’t know, and assuming I didn’t either, kindly warned me. I’m already quite aware of my own shortcomings, and could probably have pointed out faults in myself that that woman may not have noticed yet. But I’m pretty sure I’m no more demonic than a person who would say such a thing about someone else.
The devil is certainly at work, though perhaps not precisely as she supposed.