Thursday, June 25, 2009

Faith Lost, Faith Restored

The movie The Exorcist caused quite a stir when it was released in 1973. Unfortunately, most of the attention went to the over-the-top special effects and horror-movie camp instead of the very good story that the movie tells.

The movie was based on the William Peter Blatty novel of the same name, and is based on a true story (see here and here) - though the details were changed considerably. In the real life case from 1949, the family lived in St. Louis and were Lutherans. The demon-possessed child was a boy rather than a girl, and the family first sought help from their pastor before being sent to the Roman Catholic Church.

The novel/movie is not primarily about the possessed child. It is rather a story about a priest who has lost his faith: Fr. Karras, the younger of the two exorcists. The elder priest, Fr. Merrin, was played brilliantly by Swedish actor Max von Sydow.

In 2004, a prequel to The Exorcist was released. Actually, two versions of the same film with the same actors were released: Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005). It seems there were artistic differences as to how the movie should look. At this point, I'm not sure which version I actually saw, but I thought the story was well-done. Like the original Exorcist film, this movie is about losing faith, and regaining faith.

The main character is Fr. Merrin as a young man - played by the extraordinary Swedish actor Stellan SkarsgÄrd - who looks very much the part of a younger Max von Sydow. The movie opens with a battle-scarred Father Merrin, who served in World War II, losing his faith after experiencing the horrors of war. He leaves the priesthood to become an archaeologist. The first clip below is a scene near the beginning in which Merrin is being recruited in a dingy bar in Cairo by a mysterious man for a project to excavate a newly-discovered site of an ancient Christian church. He is greeted by a younger cleric who greets him warmly as "Father" - to which Merrin replies curtly: "It's Mister Merrin."

As in the Exorcist film, the priest's wavering faith is restored by experiencing the very real battle between good and evil, between the forces of the Triune God and the forces of the devil.

The end of the film (below) is a fitting bookend to the beginning of the movie - in which the changed Merrin, this time in an open-air cafe in Rome, meets the same mysterious character he met early in the film - who says: "Au revoir, Mr. Merrin." The collared Merrin corrects him curtly: "It's Father Merrin."

It is a shame that the good storytelling and the very real battle between good and evil has been overshadowed by the Hollywood sensationalism. It calls to mind C.S. Lewis's observation from the preface to The Screwtape Letters that the two errors we make about Satan are thinking too much of him and thinking too little of him.

Ultimately, Satan's goal is to rob us of our faith: laypeople and clergy. In spite of the largely ignored recurring themes of faith lost and faith restored, these are actually quite good, and inspiring, works of fiction in which God triumphs over Satan, Christ triumphs over sin, the Church is victorious over darkness, and the faith is preserved in the Lord's servants.


Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

I found Thomas Allen's book, Possessed, to be very a very helpful window into the real world of demonic possession, too often sensationalized by Hollywood (though not by Father Hollywood).

Father Hollywood said...

Another book that similarly takes the Hollywood sizzle out of exorcism is the book "The Rite: the Making of a Modern Exorcist" by Matt Baglio.

It is a fast read, written by a rather neutral journalist, that is revealing for a number of reasons - one of which is how "ordinary" a lot of demonic activity is, and how needed training in spiritual warfare is in our seminary training - not only to deal with full-blown possession, but also less spectacular (and therefore perhaps even more dangerous) manifestations of evil.

It is an eye-opening and thought-provoking read.

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

I will check out Baglio's book, probably literally. Thank you.

Dixie said...

Dear Father...I hope you don't think this an inappropriate question but what are your thoughts that the Lutheran pastors were unable to accomplish the exorcism but the Roman Catholic priest could? Please don't misinterpret the intent of the question. I mean, the apostles also had trouble once and Christ had to do an exorcism and said that was a difficult case that required prayer and fasting. I am neither Roman Catholic nor Lutheran so I am not out to pick anything apart. It is just one of those things that has always nagged at me and I would appreciate your insight.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Dixie:

That is an entirely appropriate question, and a sharp observation.

Lutheran pastors have, and and continue to, cast out demons and carry out rites of purifying people and places of evil manifestations. These things tend to be shared with other clergy (and even then, somewhat sheepishly) rather than being made public. Obviously, these are matters of great pastoral sensitivity, discernment, and discretion.

My guess (and it is only a guess) is that in this famous case, the Lutheran pastor was unprepared in his seminary training and ministry for dealing with paranormal phenomena and exorcism. Aside from one or two anecdotes, I can't remember anything in my (thorough and rigorous) seminary training to prepare us for dealing with evil manifestations.

We (in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod) do have a recently published "Pastoral Care Companion" - a sort-of pocket sized agenda of prayers and readings for giving pastoral care, and it includes a chapter on demonic affliction. One of our baptismal rites in that little agenda has restored the ancient exorcism that Luther retained from the pre-Reformation rite - which was sadly dropped from the rite in more "enlightened" modern times. Both of these developments, I think, are very good things, and hopefully the start of more attention on this aspect of pastoral care.

Even among Roman priests, there has been a neglect of this aspect of pastoral training - at least until recently, as the Vatican has now renewed its emphasis on providing this kind of pastoral care and ministry in its dioceses.

I hope our seminaries will not only incorporate the theology of dealing with demonic activity, but also provide practical training in conducting exorcisms as well as other rites of deliverance.

I do believe we are moving into darker days. We are warned that as we approach the Lord's coming, evil will increase.

Thanks again for the question!

Anonymous said...

As one who is newly ordained, I must agree that the seminary did absolutely nothing to train or prepare us for demon possession. In fact whenever questions of such nature were asked, they were ignored. Aside from the short blurb in our Pastoral Care Companion, what resources do you recommend?

WM Cwirla said...

Mark Chorvinski has an interesting investigative article on the case documented in "Possessed." There always seems to be a bit more in the way of the mundane in lurking in the backstory. It begins here:

Luther's treatment of the demonic in his Letters of Spiritual Counsel stand in sharp and critical contrast to the Roman exorcisms of which he was aware.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear A.L.:

Like I commented earlier, I found "The Rite: the Making of a Modern Exorcist" by Matt Baglio to be a helpful read - especially as an antidote to the popular sensationalization of the topic.

I found Malachi Martin's "Hostage to the Devil" an interesting read - and as a bonus, the Roman ritual of excommunication (in English) is included at the end of the book.

You may want to ask close friends who are pastors for advice (I would be very discreet about it, though, as there are a lot of folks who simply dismiss such things out of hand and will try to attack your reputation for even asking questions about such matters - as though there is no devil and there are no demons).

I am a big believer in the blessing of homes - both annually and after some horrific event. We would do well to avail ourselves and our parishioners of this custom. I honestly believe this rite to be a form of exorcism and (for lack of better terminology) preventive maintenance.

We need to warn people about the occult and such "innocent" things as ouija boards. I'm not thrilled by the exponential targeting of young people with books having an occult theme (not to mention the blatant selling of Wicca/witchcraft especially to young girls).

I'm amazed at how many people take the Lord's blessing for granted - such as those who skip out of the service right after Communion. They act as though the pastor's benediction with the Word of God is meaningless. It isn't.

I'm also a believer in praying audibly over our food so as to consecrate that which goes into our bodies, not to mention surrounding our homes in reminders of the saints, of our Lord, and of the crucifixion. I'm surprised at how many Christian homes are decorated with posters of sports heroes or abstract paintings, with not a single crucifix to be found.

I think reading the Screwtape Letters is a helpful exercise in reminding ourselves of the spiritual warfare that rages and of the craftiness of the devil which we often chalk up to coincidence.

I know this is not very helpful, but it's all I can come up with now. We need to take our faith seriously, knowing that the devil is like a lion on the prowl. We Lutherans sometimes take grace for granted, and are less than careful to take precautions against the enemy.

George said...

A few brief comments: As to why the exorcism of the Lutheran pastor didn't "take," there's some evidence that the family in question continued to dabble in the occult after that exorcism, trying to contact a dead relative they thought might be influencing the possessed boy.

For further resources, there's a self published book by Darrell Arthur McCulley, copyright 2002, entitled "The House Swept Clean: A Biblically Balanced Pattern for the Diagnosis, Exorcism, & Pastoral Care of the Victims of Demonic Possession." Don't know if it's still available, though.

And on a lighter note...In seminary one of our professors told us, "Men, if you're faced with a case of demonic possession, call in a Catholic priest. They're expendable."

The Rev. J. Rinas said...

The books of Father Gabriel Amorth are most edifying. He himself is an exorcist and has two paperbacks in English devoted to exorcism and demonic activity. They have much to offer in the minister's handling of Bible class, preaching, and pastoral care. Though I wish that he had written more in each of the volumes.