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.

Originally published May 1974.