JESUS WOULD NOT LIKE The Exor­cist” for two rea­sons: The evil was not bad enough, and the vic­to­ry was not great enough! 

Rudolf Bult­mann made a valiant attempt to demythol­o­gize the New Tes­ta­ment. This is the result of a ratio­nal­is­tic bias. If you are helped by it, fine; per­son­al­ly I do not think Bult­mann improved upon the text. 

Today peo­ple seem far more inclined to take seri­ous­ly the notion of Satan and demons. Rosemary’s Baby” and The Exor­cist” are but two evi­dences of this inter­est. Indeed our cul­ture (or at least a strong sub­cul­ture with­in the dom­i­nant cul­ture) is react­ing so strong­ly against ratio­nal­ism that there is a grow­ing obses­sion with mag­ic. C.S. Lewis has not­ed that there are two equal and oppo­site errors into which our race can fall about the dev­ils. One is to dis­be­lieve in their exis­tence. 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.” There is lit­tle dif­fer­ence between the mate­ri­al­ist and the magi­cian; they sim­ply dance around dif­fer­ent fires. 

It is impos­si­ble to read the Gospel nar­ra­tives with­out being impressed by the hor­ri­ble nature of demon pos­ses­sion and the pow­er Jesus and the dis­ci­ples had over them. The con­trast between that record and the novel/​movie, The Exor­cist,” is striking. 

The Evil Not Bad Enough: The por­tray­al of demon pos­ses­sion in The Exor­cist” con­veys both a valu­able cor­rec­tive and a seri­ous weakness. 

In Faust Goethe depicts Mephistophe­les as quite humor­ous and civ­i­lized. The Dev­il and Daniel Web­ster is an Amer­i­can­ized cut of the same cloth. Togeth­er these books have infect­ed two great con­ti­nents with the illu­sion that evil is liberating. 

In The Exor­cist” Regan’s demon pos­ses­sion is any­thing but lib­er­at­ing. Author-pro­duc­er W.P. Blat­ty goes to great lengths to depict the extent to which this young girl is enslaved. In this regard The Exor­cist” is a wel­come cor­rec­tive. Nev­er again will it be easy to speak of sin as healthy and lib­er­at­ing. Evil is slavery! 

There is, how­ev­er, a seri­ous weak­ness in Blatty’s pic­ture of demon pos­ses­sion; the evil is not bad enough. While read­ing the book there is a feel­ing that one is watch­ing the freak shows of a cir­cus rather than the evil which is the mark of Hell. Oh, the demon Cap­tain Howdy” is grotesque enough but in an allur­ing way. There is some­thing of the dan­ger­ous excite­ment which char­ac­ter­izes the mod­ern occult move­ment. Evil is not bad; it is fascinating!

The Vic­to­ry Not Great Enough: The most piti­ful of the char­ac­ters in The Exor­cist” is Father Kar­ras, a young skep­ti­cal priest. When he is con­vinced of the demon pos­ses­sion of Regan, he and Father Mer­rin attempt the rite of exor­cism. Pit­ted against satan­ic pow­er, the two are able to exor­cise the demon only at the cost of their own lives — Mer­rin through a heart attack and Kar­ras through suicide. 

The con­trast between this melan­choly vic­to­ry and the pow­er of Jesus is arrest­ing. Every­where Jesus went he encoun­tered demon pos­ses­sion. Regard­less of how you view the cas­es of demon pos­ses­sion, one thing is clear; Jesus had absolute pow­er over them. Repeat­ed­ly the peo­ple around Jesus were sim­ply amazed ask­ing, What is this? A new teach­ing! With author­i­ty he com­mands even the unclean spir­its, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27) It was not a new teach­ing; it was a new power! 

And Now… The author­i­ty which Jesus Christ had over demon­ic pow­ers we can also have. Luke tells us that Jesus gave the twelve pow­er and author­i­ty over all demons and to cure dis­eases.” (Luke 9:1) The sev­en­ty returned ecsta­t­ic because, even the demons are sub­ject to us in your name.” (Luke 10:17) At the heart of the spir­i­tu­al walk is a pow­er which has author­i­ty over the spir­i­tu­al hosts of wickedness.” 

Such a life and spir­it can­not be obtained sec­ond­hand. In the book of Acts we hear of some itin­er­ant Jew­ish exor­cists who, hav­ing heard of the pow­er of Jesus, decide to try it out. They speak to one demon pos­sessed per­son thus: I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preach­es.” The evil spir­it replied, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” (Acts 19:15) First­hand acquain­tance alone will suf­fice. In the res­ur­rec­tion pow­er of Jesus Christ we can go beyond The Exorcist!” 

Pub­lished in Quak­er Life, May 1974.

Text First Published April 1974

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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