I don’t know if any of you caught the recent BBC documentary on ‘The Teenage Exorcists’ – three all-American girls who, under the mentoring of Pastor Bob Larson (father of one of the three), have a dramatic deliverance ministry. If you didn’t, you can watch it in full on YouTube (until the BBC finds out and takes it down).
Given my personal history with spiritual warfare, I found it extremely uncomfortable viewing. I was left feeling, I have to confess, disturbed and somewhat frightened. It even gave me nightmares.
Easy to mock
It would be very easy to mock these girls’ beliefs and practices, and I’ll admit that was my strong inclination. The Rev. Larson’s heroes include ultra-cons George W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher. The girls he trains have clearly been indoctrinated in right-wing Christian beliefs including 6-day creationism, and they appear to have an unsophisticated, even simplistic, theology based on a very literal or fundamentalist reading of the Bible.
They also have an unshakeable belief in the reality and power of Satan, and in his pervasive presence in people’s lives through his army of literal demons, who all have names like Jezebel and Abaddon.
We see the girls praying before they go horse-riding, binding spirits of things like ‘bolting’ or ‘stumbling’, and asking for protecting against a comprehensive list of every possible thing that could go wrong in what felt like an obsessive-compulsive form of prayer.
The girls are also convinced that Harry Potter is satanic and that the spells in the Harry Potter books are not fictional but derive from genuine witchcraft. Whatever the basis and validity of their other beliefs, I know this one to be nonsense. The spells in the Harry Potter books are dog-Latin made up by J.K. Rowling, and are effectively nothing more sinister than a wittier and more sophisticated version of ‘abracadabra’.
There also seems to be a slight inconsistency in the girls’ views and practices. They see Satan in everything and steer a hundred miles from anything with the least possibility of occult connections. Yet the three girls are all black belts in karate, a martial art which as far as I know has roots in Zen Buddhism and is therefore viewed with suspicion by many on the fundamentalist wing of the church.
Exorcism or stage show?
And then we come to their actual practice of exorcism, which to me looks for all the world like a magic show or a hypnotist entertainment. The girls are all glamorously dolled up as though for a stage show, and all hold elaborately decorative crosses which look like something out of a schlock-horror vampire flick. The Revd Larson hypes up the crowd with all the tricks of the trade, raising the audience’s emotions to a high state of excitement and expectation.
Then comes the actual exorcism. Someone in the audience ‘manifests’ (starts screaming or shaking violently). The girls move in, and forcefully confront the supposed spirit, calling it ‘filthy demon’ and ordering it to reveal its name and its ‘legal right’ to be in the person (which more often than not turns out to be something like witchcraft in the family umpteen generations ago). They then attack the demon (or the person) with Bibles, crosses and words, ‘forcing’ the spirit to return to hell whence it came.
And then in the follow-up to the whole performance there’s a flurry of book sales and financial transactions.
So, pretty easy for me to mock and dismiss it all, which is what I secretly wanted to do. Except that for at least some of the people delivered, it does genuinely seem to change their lives and set them free. And one or two of the supposed demonic manifestations do at least appear to be something more than mere play-acting, emotional response or psychological phenomena.
In particular there was one woman, Beth, who had been a Church of England chaplain, and had suddenly developed what sounded like ME-like symptoms. These were dominating and ruining her life, and she was convinced that they were the result of spiritual attack. When the three Teenage Exorcists came to England, she went to their meeting in Mile End hoping to be delivered of something demonic. She wasn’t disappointed.
During the meeting she started to shake violently and shout, and when the girls confronted the ‘demon’, Beth’s voice and face both changed dramatically to the classic demonic growl and grimace. It really was like a scene from The Exorcist. The ‘demon’ revealed via Beth that it had been allowed in through (I think) child sacrifice 17 generations ago. And after they forced it out, Beth did seem dramatically changed. She certainly genuinely believed she had been set free from a very real evil spirit.
Not wanting to believe
I find it hard to know what to make of this. I really, really don’t want to believe in demons, or in evil spirits inhabiting people. Everything in both my theological and my scientific worldview protests against it. It seems like a throwback to a medieval, superstitious, pre-scientific way of thinking. (Of course, atheists would argue that the whole of Christianity is equally a throwback, but of course I would disagree, and that’s another discussion.)
Above all, belief in a literal devil and literal demons is (for me at least) a potential source of fear and paranoia I could well do without. The world is dark, difficult and dangerous enough as it is. There’s no need to introduce an invisible army of malevolent beings intent on our destruction and able to influence or even inhabit us apparently without our consent or awareness. And the whole idea of people being possessed because of something that happened in their family several hundred years ago seems both bizarre and deeply unfair.
And yet, watching Beth’s ‘deliverance’, I do find it surprisingly hard to ascribe what I saw to anything other than an actual evil or unclean spirit, whatever exactly that might be. Perhaps it was just an extreme and bizarre psychopathological manifestation. Perhaps; I’d certainly like to think so. But I’m not sure I’d set as much store by that explanation if the alternative weren’t so unthinkable.
Jesus and unclean spirits
Of course, there are demons and evil spirits aplenty in the Bible, particularly the New Testament. Frustratingly, the Bible doesn’t ever really try to explain them; it merely assumes their reality. I’ve tended towards the view that most of the demonic manifestations in the Bible are the result of mental and emotional health issues, or else of medical conditions such as epilepsy.
But what are we to make of the spirits that apparently recognised Jesus as ‘The Holy One of God’, or in particular the ‘legion’ of spirits that Jesus cast out into a herd of pigs? If we accept these stories at face value, it’s not easy to ascribe them to psychological phenomena.
Accepting then for the moment the possibility that there may be some reality in some of these biblical spirits, I think there are a few important points to note about them. The first is that the Bible generally calls these spirits ‘unclean’ rather than ‘evil’. Biblical Judaism sees many things as ‘unclean’, including pork, shellfish, dead bodies, skin-disease sufferers and menstruating women. These are clearly not all evil, satanic or demonic, so ‘unclean’ spirits don’t necessarily need to be either.
Secondly, nowhere in the gospels does Jesus explicitly link these ‘unclean’ spirits with a satanic army of fallen angels from the pit of hell. There are a few references that might indirectly imply something of the sort, but for the most part the implication seems to be that these spirits are something more like unquiet ghosts than hellish demons or dark angels.
Finally, the deliverances Jesus carries out are not dramatic, showy or shouty performances. Rather he calmly addresses the spirit: ‘Be quiet. Come out of him’. There’s nothing aggressive or insulting, and nothing about ‘get back to the pit of hell’. It’s all quite understated really. Almost British.
So do demons really exist and possess people in the 21st century? Are the deliverances performed by The Teenage Exorcists genuine? I don’t know. Maybe a few are. For now I’m still clinging on to as much of my agnosticism and scepticism as I can, but perhaps just a tiny bit less confidently after witnessing Beth’s experience.