Eyeing the value of an exorcism
While I was at divinity school I heard an interesting story concerning an American pastor visiting a church in Africa.
After the introductions had been made the pastor of the African church suggested that the American pastor might like to perform that night’s exorcism. This threw the American pastor for a loop; he belonged to a denomination that did not place any emphasis on exorcism and had never performed one before.
But he could hardly refuse the offer and agreed to perform the exorcism. Fortunately he had seen many movies involving exorcism and by imitating what he had seen he was able to successfully exorcise the demon.
I suppose I should be glad that Hollywood can get at least one aspect of the Christian faith right. However many Christians might wish Hollywood would concentrate on depicting accurately other parts of the faith.
For believers living in the shadow of the Enlightenment, exorcism is something best left in the past now that more naturalistic explanations for humanity’s problems are known.
During a lecture on St. Anthony in one of my church history classes, a discussion arose as to how many of the demons encountered by the fourth century holy man were actually evil spirits, and how many were mental illnesses.
My situation is like that of the American pastor in Africa. The Fall itself
certainly caused enough of a disruption to account for most of the problems individuals might suffer from without having to resort to demonic possession as an explanation. And when exorcisms performed in America make it into the news it is usually when something horrible has happened, such as a child dying as the result of the exorcism. It is enough to make me wary of the entire practice.
Yet I know I cannot completely reject exorcism, as uncomfortable to my post-Enlightenment sensibilities it might be. Casting out demons is a part of the Bible and exorcism plays a role in the faith of many Christians. To oppose it as a relic of a superstitious past would be to insult and hold in contempt my fellow believers and so damage the fellowship of the community of the faithful.
So what is the value of an exorcism, especially to those who might see one performed only on the movie screen? Mainly it serves as a reminder that evil is guided by a malevolent will and the devil is capable of more than simply whispering naughty things into people’s ears. He can take over and ruin lives unless actively resisted.
Some might say that I am stepping away from the benefits of rational thought and back toward superstitious Medievalism.
But to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, just because the Middle Ages erred too far in one direction does not mean it is impossible to err too far in the opposite direction.
Jamie Wilson, a recent graduate of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, Birmingham, is one of several local ministers writing religion columns for The Daily. For more information, call Melanie Smith at 340-2468.