Thursday, May 16, 2013

In Possession of All our Faculties - a history of exorcism

By Gary Berg-Cross

We live in so called “modern, post-enlightenment” times.  Therefore I am often surprised by old, unenlightened things that thrash about and make jangling noises in the culture.  Take the devil and demonic possession.  I would have guessed that, aside from a Hollywood blockbuster or 2,  we have gotten far from the fear of witches and such.  I normally operate with a sense that it’s an idea that has been dying out since the good old Judeo-Christian story days. For example, Luke has a little story in Acts 16 that gives us some common talk about spirits in Judaic life:

"Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, "These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation." And this she did for many days.

But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And he came out that very hour. But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities."
Acts 16:16-19 (KJV)

To be sure there are contemporary images or Obama as a devil and an anti-Christ, but that’s fringe now, right?  I guess there is Pat Robertson who claims that Islam Is 'Demonic'. He also claimed the devastating Haiti earthquake in early 2010 was caused by a pact between the island nation and the devil. I'm not surprised to find nonsense from this source,

 Well it turns out that demonic possession is a trending item – at least in some sectors of the world.  An example is an article with the jarring title “Famous Nollywood actress delivered from demonic possession.”  OK, it says Nollywood, not Hollywood, but Africa’s Nollywood is the 3rd largest film industry in the world. So it was good to know that actress Camilla Mberekpe was recently delivered of:
 “an alleged demon that had been tormenting her life …... The deliverance which was telecast on Emmanuel TV took place during last Sunday service at the Synagogue, Church of All Nations (SCOAN) in Nigeria headed by Prophet T.B. Joshua….. Asked what her mission was in the life of the actress, the unknown spirit disclosed that she wanted to ‘destroy her because she has refused to worship me. She is always praying. She is a very serious prayer worrier but I always make sure she does not get there.’”

Now there is a new book, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West  by Brian Levack, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin,  that brings an historical focus and some analysis.  Levack investigates some of the history and brings the story up to date and closer to home.  Demonic possession has surprising cache in parts of Catholicism perhaps as a legacy of the olden days - after all the devil is after the ones with the true belief. 

It wasn’t just the old world or even early, modern Europe that was bathed in demon-haunted beliefs. Reports of people in various types of passion are still reported especially by Catholic cultures and, of course, evangelical and charismatic communities.  By some reckoning about half a million people in Italy today see an exorcist annually.  This is about as easy a choice as visiting a chiropractor. 
Passed down through time the faithful have an idea if how possession is manifested. You can see it in a supposed documentary called "The Devil Inside" Some converse in unknown languages, tearing at their own flesh and screaming. Well if not that then the easier to generate hot mix of blasphemies and profanities. They probably still abound.

Levack described the current surge in belief in demonic possession this way:

“It’s in communities, especially in highly religious communities, especially evangelical and charismatic religious communities, who believe in a direct relationship between demonic spirits and human beings […] and whenever you have that belief, and that is a belief that has been cultivated greatly in the late twentieth century, you’re going to get cases of demonic possession. And then you have the demand for exorcists to relieve people of these symptoms of demonic possession. You also have a number of exorcists, especially in Italy and in Latin America, and in Poland, far fewer in America – and that might help to explain why we’re not familiar with this, I don’t meet demoniacs every day! – but you have these exorcists who actually go out and drum up business. They’re celebrity exorcists. There’s one in Italy who claims to have exorcised 70,000 people!”

And in 2011 there was help for those interested in drumming up business via  an international conference on exorcism. The Catholic News Service called it an  Exorcist boot camp and reported that “church leaders call for more training against evil.” One attendee, an  80-year-old retired priest said that about once a month he sees a serious case of possession and "tons" of cases of demonic influence in which people are being "bothered or attacked by evil spirits." Those kinds of cases, he said, are "a daily thing." We might instead diagnosis it as an unconscious out of control and behaving according to some guidelines of how evil is manifested.

Although the book is largely historical, Levack puts such things in a modern perspective with rational-medical-cultural explanations from mental (e.g. brain infections) or physical illness, to deliberate fraud. Trances we can explain, but how else to explain and exorcist being hit in the head by a ball of fire (reported by Rev Thomas Thomson, who  died in 1718).  Levack covers classic cases with detailed reports of vomiting including vast quantities of nails, pins, blood, feathers, stones, coins, coal, dung, meat, cloth and hair – (Being on the wrong side of allotriophagy - An unnatural desire for abnormal foods; also known as cissa, cittosis, and pica.?). Thinkers such as Hobbes, Spinoza and latterly Charcot and Freud were of the opinion that possessions could be attributed to illness but also. And Levack documents many confessions of fraud.

Illnesses might explain bestial sounds are popular along with distorted limbs and faces and of course convulsive writhing (Tourette’s Syndrome?). There is the occasional floated in the air, which has to be fraud or illusion. 
Now that fraud I’m not surprised about, but it is probably the small cases of discomfort that many people have, that is being served by that old profession of exorcist.  Out with it. In post modern life we can do better.
Book cover:

Exorcism and The Devil Inside:

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