The Devil and his minions are back in the news, and they’re ready to rumble:
• A 25th anniversary version of the film The Exorcist prompted some reporters to discover that Roman Catholic archdioceses in large cities (Boston, Chicago, New York) employ authorized exorcists.
• Pope John Paul II spent 30 minutes in conversation and prayer with a teenage girl who was “screaming insults in a cavernous voice” during a general audience at the Vatican. The pope’s intervention seemed to have only a temporary effect on the teenager, but Catholic theologians stressed that exorcism is almost never easy or rapid.
• In an amazing interview with the Catholic weekly newspaper Our Sunday Visitor, novelist William Peter Blatty explained that he wrote The Exorcist as a demonstration of God’s power to vanquish evil. “It was not my intention to frighten anyone, which you can take as a confession of titanic failure, I guess,” Blatty told journalist Rod Dreher. “I set out to write a supernatural detective story. … That footage, a full reel of film, disappeared, and with it the moral center of the film, and all the spirituality that was intended.” (This year’s Exorcist restores that footage.)
In a culture that often trivializes the occult into a pop-culture phenomenon (Ouija boards, The Blair Witch Project, Sabrina the Teenage Witch), The Exorcist presents the blasphemous and lurid face of evil. Many readers or moviegoers will feel just as scandalized, or terrified, as they were 25 years ago.
Exorcist-related news stories have furrowed the brows of those religionists embarrassed by the supernatural. Ex-priest Robert McClory, for example, told a fellow journalist at The Chicago Reader: “At one time the church was fraught with this kind of stuff—the burning of heretics, the belief in possession and evil spirits and witches flying through the air.”
Our brows are not so furrowed. “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence,” C. S. Lewis wrote in his preface to The Screwtape Letters. “The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
Whether Christians use the formal rites of Roman Catholicism or the vigorous prayers of charismatic and Pentecostal believers, exorcism is God’s good gift to the church. Through exorcism, God graciously delivers people from demonic powers, which seek a person’s total physical and spiritual destruction. We can mistakenly interpret demonic possession strictly through materialist or therapeutic categories, or we can call on the power of God and bring healing to a suffering person.
We do not pretend to know the frequency of demonic activity. We have no interest in seeking out spiritual warfare. And we salute the wisdom of considering exorcism a last resort rather than a default response.
So long as we live in this fallen world, we may be sure that demons not only exist, but will make bullying and presumptuous challenges of God’s authority. Still, Christians need fear no evil, so long as we lean on the strong arm of the Lord and not our own emotional or spiritual strength. By his death on the Cross and by his glorious resurrection, Jesus crushed Satan’s real but fleeting power.