Have you ever had a really embarrassing deed haunt you for years? This is one of mine. Set the Wayback Machine for the late 1980s:
I was 17 years old and had been dating Biff a few months. I’d been Pentecostal a year or so previously, but had drifted out again–to my family’s great relief. A few months after drifting out, I began dating Biff, who was not Christian in any way. He leaned eclectic Wiccan, but not the friendly fluffy sort; rather than shopping at Lucia’s Garden, the one-stop shopping source for friendly fluffy Wiccans in Houston, he bought his crystals and whatnot at the (Magick? Witch’s? Green? Can’t remember) Cauldron, which sold mostly the same stuff but had a more serious, darker vibe and thus was way cooler.
During casual conversation with him one hot, lazy Sunday afternoon, I mentioned that I’d been Pentecostal for a while before we met. He leaped on the idea with a ferocity that shocked me. He was suddenly convinced that he wanted to go to the Sunday night service that very evening and mock the Christians.
I should not have been surprised, in retrospect; it was the 80s, and “freaking the mundanes” was something people did. We’d go to the airport in full Renaissance Festival garb and gear–yes, even swords and knives. It was a much more innocent time; if someone did that now that person would be arrested, I’ve no doubt. These attention-getting stunts weren’t nearly as awesome in reality as they felt to do at the time, I’m sure. But this desire to go to church to challenge Christians wasn’t coming out of the clear blue sky, is what I’m getting at here.
I genuinely think that Biff was convinced that he’d go to church, right into the lion’s den as it were, mock the church people and get a rise out of them, and convince them that Christianity was totally wrong because he, at 19, knew all about it. I had a lot of misgivings about this idea, but I couldn’t talk him out of it. He was desperate to impress me by showing me how silly and foolish my old crowd had been, as if I needed to know that, and I think it bothered him that I still identified as Christian even though I wasn’t doing a whole lot with that identification at the moment.
Despite his many entreaties, I refused to accompany him because even I realized how lame this idea was. So he went off by himself, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
A few hours later, he returned to my house freshly-baptized and claiming he’d been exorcised of a demon of lust at that service. He even had a church-recorded tape of him growling and snapping at people during the proceedings and whatnot; I didn’t listen to it for years, but he offered it up as “proof” to anybody who doubted his conversion story. I was furious at first, but over time, convinced I was in love and that this religion was the best way to follow Jesus, I followed him back into my old church–though this time there was a way different manifestation of faith than I’d experienced that first time.
This time, the emphasis was upon spiritual warfare–specifically, warfare against demons.
I’m sure my church had had that push beforehand, but it reached a crescendo in the new crop of converts they got that year. There was a Rapture scare coming (though really, there are always Rapture scares at any given time in a Pentecostal church) and there’d been some Christian fiction books printed about demons infesting towns and people and whatnot. These books were criticized for being “Christian porn” by some of the folks in my church, but that didn’t stop people from simply devouring them. The Rapture scares were downplayed as much as possible by church leadership, who’d been through many such scares over their lifetimes, but always with a nod and a wink like they were discussing a chain letter, with the attitude of “Well, it might not work, but who knows? Better to be safe than sorry! Just hit ‘Forward,’ everybody!”
This new brand of Pentecostalism wasn’t much like the sweet, Amy Grant-infused one I’d been involved in earlier. It was more militaristic, more vital, and more dedicated. It postured a lot more, too.
A big part of the posturing people did involved demons. Demons were to blame for everything. If anybody was having any kind of difficulty or trouble in life, it was demons. Can’t stop watching pornography? Demons. Can’t stop lying? Demons. Depressed? Demons. Business is down? Demons are somehow stopping people from needing whatever it is that business does or feeding them a competitor’s name. Demons were very powerful, and in the absence of discernible action on the part of either angels or the Christian god, they were strong “evidence” to us Christians that the supernatural realm was really real. There could not be demons without there also being angels and everything else, after all. Fighting demons was pretty easy, since all it required was decent suggestibility and an imagination, and such battles kept us from having to confront the deep societal and psychological issues that brought about the situations we were blaming entirely on demons.
We even had classifications for possession, which blows my mind now considering we’d never even verified for sure that demons existed. A person could be demon-possessed, which was the true-blue kind of possession where demons made that person do weird or anti-social things (and even physically impossible things, like in the movies). A person could also be demon-oppressed, which meant that you weren’t like totally possessed, but the demons still influenced you to do weird or anti-social things. I suspect now that we used “oppressed” in situations where the behavior wasn’t too outrageous or if the person in question would have been hopelessly offended at the idea of being possessed, and for that matter exorcism worked on both situations, so here I’ll just be calling both situations “possession” if that’s okay.
The idea behind exorcism was that once a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ had exorcised these evil spirits, normalcy and Christianity would return. I wasn’t ever sure just how far this demon stuff really went. Biff blamed a great number of his previous misdeeds on the demon he thought had possessed him, but it’s worth noting that every one of those misdeeds were things he kept doing after his exorcism, with the only difference being that now he expressed shame and guilt after committing them–and in this he was not alone at all; I never met anybody in the church who had been freed of demonic influence who saw any really big changes in his or her life. At the time we explained away this problem by saying that the demons had simply returned to their old haunt, which made me wonder even then why my god wasn’t powerful enough to get rid of the demons for good.
Exorcisms’ total lack of effectiveness didn’t stop me and my fellow Christians from seeing demons absolutely everywhere. Every ill in society was caused by demons. Demons waged war for every single soul and every single advance for secularism. Just as they were responsible for every problem in an individual’s life, they were also responsible for every problem in society. Bill Clinton’s election? Demons. Women wearing pants and wanting equal rights with men? Demons. Secular education? Demons. Israel’s problems? Demons. Every crime was sparked by demons. Every slapping-down of Christian privilege was caused by demons influencing society’s leaders.
And all that stood between these horrific demons and the world was a ragtag group of scruffy but totally dedicated TRUE CHRISTIANS™. It was like in the movies, but better because it was really truly happening, sort of.
This mindset continues even nowadays, with at least one Republican candidate for office suggesting in all sincerity that anybody who doesn’t like being inside a church should be forced to undergo an exorcism, since obviously the only reason anybody would ever dislike being in a church is because demons are possessing that person and there certainly could never be any other reason someone might not enjoy church services:
“If the atheist complainer is so uncomfortable when they walk into a church that there’s something inside of them squirming and making them feel these feelings of hatred toward the cross of Jesus Christ,” Klingenschmitt said, “don’t you think it’s something inside of the atheist complainer that’s wrong?”
Notice the wording there–“something inside of them.” That’s very deliberate wording. He really believes there really is “something” inside non-Christians (a group he conflates with atheists–a common mistake for fundagelical Christians to make), and once that “something” is cast out by a TRUE CHRISTIAN™–and trust me, I’m sure he knows exactly who fits that bill–then that person is then (in his words) “free to enjoy the worship of Jesus Christ.” Despite such Christians generally believing that humankind is very sinful, naturally we gravitate to churches and love being around them–unless demons are possessing us. I’m sure this mindset embarrasses a lot of Christians, but it’s still a popular view among a big swathe of ’em.
And of course not only people but also countries, businesses, organizations, and buildings could be infested with demons.
Buildings like my house.
I lived at the time in a small Spanish-style ranch in a huge subdivision in Houston. It was a nice enough house; my family wasn’t living on base, and this was the home they’d chosen to rent. It was a little strange to be living out among non-military people and far from the base. My mom had to drive an hour to Galveston to her job, and my dad had a similarly long drive to wherever his base was (I never visited it and don’t actually know where it was or what it was even called). As far as the house went, it was a bit on the dark and dank side, like a lot of tract houses built in the 70s; its windows were way too small and few in number and it had dark carpeting. But to Biff, those aspects took on some very sinister connotations.
My boyfriend was convinced, you see, that my dad liked porn because the house was infested with demons. We’ll ignore that Biff himself dug porn even after his own exorcism and that my dad had liked porn ever since I could remember. Biff still saw my dad’s porn collection as a symptom of possession. (Quick note for young’uns: Back then, before the internet, if someone wanted to see porn, he or she had to acquire magazines or cheap videotapes.) Dad had a few videos, but mostly he liked magazines–specifically magazines with X-rated comic strips and cartoons in them (think Oglaf in print form but nowhere near as well-drawn, and if you’ve never seen Oglaf before then please be aware that this link is really, really NSFW). My dad had a bunch of these magazines, but I don’t think he was particularly obsessed with porn. To Biff, though, these normal behaviors seemed more sinister than they really were–an alarmist attitude we see in Christians nowadays, come to think of that. Porn especially is one of the great bugbears of Christian thinking, with its adherents indoctrinated to believe that all pornography is demonic and evil. So because my dad liked porn and had some porn magazines, that obviously meant my whole house was a-fluttering and choked with demons.
Our church had a procedure in place for how to deal with this situation, and Biff decided to follow it to rid his “lady’s” home of demons so she could live there in peace and maybe get the fam converted. With his bottle of Pompeiian olive oil in hand (I’m not sure why this brand was the preferred brand but it was all my church ever used for anointings; maybe its name sounded more 1st-century or something, maybe it was just the fancy brand at the time, maybe we’d scored a bulk discount, but whatever the reason was, I never unearthed it), he descended upon my home one evening while my folks were out.
To our surprise, my younger sister was home. Usually she was out–she was even more busy during the week than I was with her various extra-curricular groups and friends. I can’t remember why she was home that night. Biff was momentarily surprised, but he recovered quickly and decided that this was the perfect time to get her saved too.
I should mention that nobody in my family had followed me into this new faith. No matter how hard I tried–and I tried very hard and was a real pain in the butt, I’m sure–they just didn’t see the truths I saw. A few people at church had blamed my family’s recalcitrance on demons, and Biff had clearly taken that idea to heart. He didn’t even explain what was about to happen to my wide-eyed sister or me, but rather just began the exorcism ritual.
This ritual apparently involved rubbing olive oil liberally across every window and doorway in the house and praying very loudly and speaking in tongues to command all the demons in the house to depart. I tagged along a few feet behind him; I wasn’t in on the ritual so I didn’t know what he was doing and couldn’t participate, so I don’t remember doing much besides praying out loud.
My sister tagged along a few feet behind me, her eyes just huge. She had no idea what to make of all this spiritual warfare and her reaction made me second-guess the validity of what was happening. Clearly whatever demons were in this house, they weren’t infecting her. She was a fairly oblivious, innocent teenager.
Regardless, Biff finished in my parents’ bedroom, slathering their window with the olive oil and by this time all but screaming his prayers and commandments that the demons flee the house. I didn’t enter the room, but watched with my sister from the doorway. Biff stood in the bedroom with his hands raised ceiling-ward and prayed a few minutes more, and then he let them fall and smiled across at me like he’d just finished some great endeavor and had done it well. Not for the first time I got that powerful feeling that we were just playing pretend games like small children, that nothing we’d done was real, that he’d been yelling at the ceiling and addressing imaginary foes. But he at least seemed to think that he’d won some huge battle. He so wanted me to tell him I was proud of him and that I thought he’d done a good job.
I don’t remember if I did or not. I was pretty shocked by this whole display. I had been raised a nice Catholic girl and we just didn’t do this kind of thing in my family. We were pretty quiet people overall, spirituality-wise, and regarded excessive displays of religious fervor with a great deal of skepticism and distaste. I tried to be polite and encouraging but that’s all I could muster.
He left a little while before we expected our parents back home, after a chaste hug and kiss from me. My sister avoided me studiously, though I know we were both watching my parents to see if they acted any differently. Biff had assured me that my dad would be remarkably different and both my parents would want to go back to church and my whole family would probably be getting saved any day now because he’d removed the demons that were stopping this happy event from happening.
Obviously, none of those things occurred.
I watched my dad like a hawk and waited because I was totally convinced, despite how silly the exorcism had been, that Jesus would be “convicting him” (that’s Christianese for “making him feel really guilty”). I didn’t think Biff had really exorcised anything, but I still believed in the power of prayer–and we had prayed quite a bit for my dad to change. So that at least I was sure would happen.
I don’t know if my parents ever found out what’d happened. I sure never told them, but my sister might have. They certainly never discussed the matter with me, and my sister never wanted to even talk about it. I was pretty embarrassed by it all so I didn’t bring it up. And of course my dad didn’t act differently, and of course he and my mom never went to church with me even once after that night. And of course none of my family converted.
Nobody really thought anything else would come of that night, right? It bothered me quite a bit that the prayers hadn’t worked, but all I got from my church was vague hand-waving around why they hadn’t–all centering on us doing something wrong or “God’s time” being different than ours.
All I could hope was that my sister had forgotten about everything.
Naturally, she hadn’t.
Many, many years later, after my mom died, my sister blew into town for the funeral. While we sat in a restaurant waiting for our food to arrive, she tentatively brought up the exorcism Biff had done and told me that it’d really freaked her out and made her realize that I was involved with a bunch of whackjob nutbars. If anything, what we had done had driven her even further from what I had thought at the time was salvation. She’d known from the get-go that there weren’t any demons in that house, and she’d known that my boyfriend was just talking to and yelling at the ceiling. She’d been perfectly aware that he was just posturing and acting, but that he’d been doing it in the name of religion had really weirded her out. But she had a bit of an eccentric spiritual side herself, and what Biff–and by extension her big sister–was doing was all kind of scary for her. She wasn’t furious or anything about it, but that night had become a wedge between us; it was that night that she realized that we’d grown apart, probably for good.
I have not often gotten the opportunity to apologize for the weird stuff I did as a Christian. To be honest, I was grateful that she’d mentioned it. I took her hands across the table and told her I was really sorry for having frightened her. I was sorry I hadn’t stopped Biff when I realized what effect he was having on her. It was my home and he was a visitor, and I could have stopped him at any point when I realized my sister was getting scared by him and that she obviously wasn’t into this display of religiosity at all. She had not consented to being part of this ritual and we had steamrolled her without caring what impact it might have on her.
People live and learn. I eventually learned that it was all bullshit. Also, I’d never do anything like that now to someone who wasn’t consenting to the festivities. It bothered me a lot that 20 years later she was still remembering that night with such obvious distaste, so I think we were both happy to clear the air a little.
That fear and horror of demons I had propelled me to do and excuse a lot of overreach as a Christian, and that same fear and horror is propelling many other Christians to do the same thing today. You’d think that as Christianity fades in influence that its adherents would chill out about exorcism, but if anything the practice is growing even more popular. Pope Francis has made exorcisms official Catholic practice and thrown his support to a large group of priests who do tons of exorcisms; Catholicism has a love-hate relationship with demons and exorcism, so this support came as quite the surprise to many Catholics. It’s a little weird for me to hear that Francis, who is the teddy-bear darling warming the hearts of even many fundagelicals and atheists, talks “incessantly” of demons and is apparently fanatically interested in exorcism.
Over in Protestantism, Bob Larson, who has lost quite a bit of credibility over the years due to various debunks of his various ventures, is using exorcism to propel himself back into relevance; though popular with low Christianity‘s fans, he is having less luck with mainstream folks. He had been signed to star in a reality series (on Syfy, natch) about his exorcisms, but it got pulled right before it was supposed to air. I should just feel fortunate that Biff’s desire to grandstand religiously didn’t result in any deaths, as happens way more often than anybody’d like to think–especially to vulnerable, helpless children. Of course, Bob Larson’s hardly the only offender in that area, with exorcisms still being a totally acceptable method to some Christians of, among other things, turning gay people straight.
Of course, consent isn’t a really big deal to demon-happy Christians anyway. The whole idea of demonic possession is that demons overtake a person and make that person do and say stuff that person would never do unless thus possessed.
So much for free will, huh?
Between the Christian god strong-arming folks into doing stuff (in the guise of “wooing” them to convert to Christianity) and “something” mucking with people’s heads that must be driven out, it’s amazing people ever manage to get anything done.
Maybe the truth is nowhere near either of those two extremes. Maybe people are just, well, people, and maybe sometimes we do stuff that doesn’t always make a lot of sense even to ourselves, but there’s nothing supernatural making us do any of it.
If or when someone comes along who finds support for the very existence for the supernatural, I’ll certainly rethink things. Until then, I’m going to hang on to the “people being people” idea because it’s the only explanation I’ve heard that doesn’t entirely rely upon entire worlds of unseen, unproven beings wanting to mess with us, having the ability to do so, and reaching into our heads to twist us around as they please. It might be a lot scarier for Christians to imagine that there aren’t actually demons everywhere, but if that’s reality, then we’ve just got to get used to it as best we can so we can start addressing the very real problems people face in a way that’s actually effective.
We’re going to talk next time about this “wooing” idea, since I’m seeing it in play a lot lately. I hope you’ll join me–see you soon!
* An account of a fellow who was fundagelical around the same time I was.