The Exorcist

I remember when I finally saw the classic horror film, The Exorcist. It’s reputation preceded it. I’d seen clips and references for years. But at some point in college, it was on TV and I committed.

I remember laughing a lot. Maybe it was too late at night and I was tired, but I definitely smirked more than the director intended. It just seemed- what’s the word? Campy? Outdated? Hammy? Pea soup and levitating beds.

I was underwhelmed and moved on. But if the themes of that movie is true (the reality of aggressive evil, the vulnerability of humanity, and victory of good), perhaps the shtick of that movie does more than just fail to hold up. There’s a trivialization that comes with it. If all it costs to see a portrayal of spiritual realities is a movie ticket, they’re just another commodity to be consumed or ignored at my convenience.

The ancient Christian Church had an approach to exorcism that I find fascinating and instructive (if we can curb our “chronological snobbery”). The brilliant 2nd century theologian Origen tells a story of what happened once when he was preaching on the call of Hannah (1 Sam.2). A demon-possessed person in the congregation stands up and starts screaming. Origen calmly lead the church in repeating Hannah’s phrase, “My heart exults in the Lord,” until the spirit left this person. As a result, many of the people who had been skeptics were converted. (See Origen, Homilies on Samuel, 1.10.)

What?

What do I make of that in 2019? Is it campy and outdated? Well, certainly, the 2nd century didn’t seem to see spiritual realities as commodities to be bought for the price of admission. Origen knew that this sort of thing just happened. And when the power of God squashed the enemy so visibly, a lot of people were moved to conversion. Origen called them the “traces of that Holy Spirit who appeared in the form of a dove [that] are still preserved among Christians” (Origen, Contra Celsus, 1.46).

In 2nd century Gaul (modern France area), Irenaeus tells us that Christians “in Jesus’ name…drive out devils, so that those who have been thus cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe and join themselves to the Church.” Tertullian knew this. When demons are exorcised through prayer, it “regularly makes Christians” (Apologies, 23.18). In the early 4th century, Lactantius, writing from the imperial capital of Trier, reported that when people struggling with demonic forces experience or taste the power of Christ, they discover that is more powerful than the evil that oppresses them. As a result, the church was able to “bring a great many people to God, in wonderful fashion” (Divine Institutes, 5.22.24).

I recently began reading Justin Martyr’s first and second apologies from the early 2nd century. He points out four specific sins that he thought he could trace directly to demonic oppression and enslavement: sexual compulsions, the magic arts, the desire to increase wealth/property, and hateful violence. But when Christians prayed for grace, Christ freed those who were enslaved. The pattern seems to hold. When evil was exorcised and the person was freed, they were able to believe the gospel and come to faith in Christ alone.

Exorcism took on an almost formal role in discipleship later on in the 4th and 5th centuries. Before a catechumen (a person who had been learning the faith) was baptized, the exorcist would come alongside this baby believer as the last step before getting triply dunked. And yes, churches had exorcists. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian- these fathers all just assumed that any Christian could exorcise demons. By the middle third century (like most things), exorcism had become a specialized skill set in the Church.

On the day of baptism, the bishop himself would come and exorcise the baptismal candidate. This was important for Christians to know who they were renouncing, not just to whom they were pledging allegiance. The Apostolic Tradition (an Egyptian 3rd century book of church order) tells us that the weeks preceding baptism were this constant process of fighting through enslavement to sin and confessing sins in which Christ dominated the “stranger” in the Christian’s life (the Enemy) and the Christian went through a “detox” from the dominant culture (Apostolic Tradition, 20.4).

All that to say, I think we could benefit from seeing the Christian life as something of an exorcism. I’m not saying we fill up our SuperSoakers with holy water and run riot through the streets. But as our struggle is against spiritual wickedness (Eph. 6:12), we need to withhold all opportunities from the devil (Eph. 4:27). I’m suggesting that Christian sanctification could be seen as a gradual and lifelong form of exorcism.

The more we are filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18) and resist the devil (James 4:7), the more we draw closer to God in obedience and faith. As we detoxify our souls from the surrounding world (Rom.12:1-2), the Spirit is transforming us more and more into Christ’s likeness. This need not be as visibly dramatic as it was in the early church (and still is in many parts of the Global South). But the daily grind of fighting your sin and mocking the devil is just as dramatic and awful.

It’s part of the greatest story ever told. I bought that ticket. And Christ will see me through past the end credits.

I Have a Confession.

Jack has this awesome essay collected God in the Dock in which he looks at the phrase “miserable offenders” in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s a stark pair of words that comes from the general confession portion of the Morning and Evening Prayer liturgies.

But Lewis asks, is this morbidly introspective? All this confession and gloomy naming of sins, isn’t it all just the sad pathologies of repressed and guilty people working itself out through religion? Not at all, he insists. It’s actually healthy. The alternative to not looking your own sin in the face is to constantly have your nose in the sins of others. Lewis says it’s like the difference between the pain of having a tooth that needs to be pulled and the pain of the tooth having just been pulled.

He then offers the text of the Ash Wednesday collect at the end of his essay. It’s a beautiful prayer that is worth repeating in full:

“Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 That is the prayer that begins the season of Lent. And how can we worthily lament our sins if we mumble over them in a fuzzy, vague sense of not living up to our full potential? We face the full truth that we are, despite our best efforts, “miserable offenders” that need forgiveness. This is not just a Lenten discipline. This is a daily practice. Or at least, it should be.

What’s refreshing to me is that Jack practiced this. While he was careful not to prescribe it in his public writings, he himself went to confession. It might surprise Protestants to know that the Church of England has procedure for confession. But unlike in the Roman Catholic system, the Anglican priest proclaims what God has done and reminds the penitent of what the gospel says.

Lewis used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, went to confession weekly, and took an annual retreat for a few days as part of this worthy lamenting. All this seems fairly dry and rote to a great many evangelicals, I’d bet. Anything “liturgical” must be dead and boring and lifeless.

But one of my favorite passages in Jack’s writings is in his little Letters to Malcolm (a book which horrified his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien). Every church service, Lewis argues, has a structure of acts and words. Even if it’s just announcements, three songs, and a sermon, that’s a liturgy. But what about the structured rhythm of day-in, day-out church calendar days playing out over and over again in the same way? Can any confession nestled in such mechanical practices be genuine?

It can be as genuine as learning to dance.

“As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of, our attention would have been on God” (Letters to Malcom, p.12).

Once the movements and the words become part of you, part of your habits and your heart, the Holy Spirit begins to play the melody while you dance the rhythm. God uses those simply practices of confession and prayer and responsive reading and kneeling and singing and who can say what else.

Corporate confession, private confession to a pastor or trusted friend, a prayer whispered or screamed to the Father- these things are far from rote and mechanical. They are as shot through with life as the four seasons painting a forest awake through a whole range of natural, daily, and yearly patterns and systems.

Whatever your spiritual rhythms or your liturgical tradition, confession is like coming up for air. It’s the disciplined joy of coming in from the cold. It’s firelight in the dead of winter. I remember before I became a Christian, I would mumble a quick incantation after I knowingly sinned. I would curse (often only in my head) or say something hurtful and then I would immediately say, “Father, forgive me.” A dead heart, asking his genie for a little relief from his guilt.

But what a different picture we see in St. Luke’s Gospel, where that prodigal son “comes to himself” in the pig sty. He prepares this very moving speech in which he essentially confesses and worthily laments himself to be a miserable offender to his father. But he doesn’t even get to finish his confession before his father showers him with eager affection.

He hates nothing he has created. He is the God of all mercy. And as Henry Newman rightly observed repeatedly through his career, one of our main tasks is to rest in our status as the beloved. We are the beloved of God, lavished with his great love because of the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior and King. While we confess our specific sins specifically, while we are still a long way off, our Father runs towards us.

It’s not an exercise in self-flagellation or repressed guilt or dealing with our woundedness. It’s the turning from darkness and being wrapped up by the hearth. It’s the knowledge that you are loved even those who have miserably offended the one who loves you so relentlessly. It’s the nonsensical nature of grace.