Well! Here we are at Lord Snow Presides #66. The number amuses me immensely. It’s like we’re at the number of the Cutoff Jean Shorts of the Beast–and right on time! In honor of Spooky Week, we’re looking at the Christians wetting their pants over Halloween. Today, Lord Snow Presides over Christian exorcists and the Christians who keep them in business.
Exorcism: Since Forever.
Nothing in Christianity exists as a monolithic belief. Belief in demons is no exception to that rule. A close-to-equal to slim majority of people believe in these demons’ literal, physical existence, and most of those people are Christians (though bear in mind that this survey, like other similar ones, aren’t exactly rigorous). So we’re not talking about all Christians at all, though we are talking about a great many of them.
Further, such Christians believe that these spirits used to be angels. Back then, Christians’ mythology tells them, these angels rebelled against their god’s authority and were cast out of Heaven for their pride. Since that horrific day, demons have gotten their kicks by abusing humans–and trying to induce them to commit sins to keep them out of Heaven too, or to lose their faith if they’re Christians. (A post scheduled for Thursday examines what, if anything, demons get out of all this work.)
The idea of supernatural boogeymen informs much of Christians’ source material. In the Bible, Jesus performs exorcisms, as so do his main followers and the people around them. Indeed, the idea functions as yet another rejiggered notion from the religions surrounding the earliest Christians. The Jews had some similar ideas, as did the Greeks.
Back then, people conceptualized demons (sometimes called unclean spirits in their various languages) as making people behave in weird and socially-unacceptable ways. These spirits also caused diseases that effectively cut people off from their families and societies–like epilepsy, mental illness, and leprosy–or injuries that impaired a person’s ability to function in society. Whoever dreamed up the character of Jesus himself bought fully into these functions of demons. He never offered any other explanations for illnesses and injuries.
Low and High.
When I think about major Christian groups, I categorize them in my head as being part of Low Christianity or High Christianity. Sometimes you see these categories defined respectively as Dionysian or Apollonian.
In Low Christianity, we find all the weird offshoots of folk Christianity: the spells, signs, statues, charms, incantations, and beyond-bizarre testimonies. Angels show up to help people, curses lay low one’s enemies, and yes, demons regularly torment TRUE CHRISTIANS™ because they’re sooooo powerful and important. John Ramirez comes straight from this strain of the religion. For that matter, so does the Satanic Panic itself.
Meanwhile, the High Christianity purists disapprove heartily from their ivory towers. We find people like Jesuits here, and often they work hard to dispel the worst folklore from the religion. Unfortunately, they also believe utter blithering nonsense, just not quite so much of it or such a lot of it. A religion founded upon wingnuttery can’t hope to restrain their worst wingnuts. Thus, their influence is minimal. It used to be much greater, but most countries very wisely limit such Christians’ control over others.
As we go, be thinking about that difference.
So if you happen to encounter someone exhibiting behaviors or symptoms of a confusing or alienating variety, what then?
Obviously you could consult a doctor or psychiatrist, but there’s no fun in that. Plus, the existence of real doctors and psychiatrists challenges the Christians holding the most childish views of the Bible. So the sorts of Christians who thrill to the idea of demons also hate those professionals and their fields. (One of them accused me of “scientism” just yesterday, right after breathlessly advising me to “educate myself” about the Nephilim. Oh, YouTube Christians. Never change.)
And they may simper about how Christians should never fear demons, but the truth is, Christians wet their pants at the idea of demons. How could they avoid it? I noticed that fact almost immediately when I converted from Catholicism to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). My extremely hyper-Catholic family had not fussed overmuch about demons, and did not appear to fear them overmuch either. But Southern Baptists–and then later the Pentecostals I joined afterward–panicked regularly over the idea of demons.
Even back then, I knew they had no reason to fear. But nobody ever listened to me. And anyway, I was dead wrong about why they had no reason to fear.
Possession and Oppression: A Primer.
Low Christians generally are the ones we find who most fear the twin risks of possession and oppression. They differ only in one very elemental and primal way. See, you can’t accuse a stolid, self-satisfied old church lady of being possessed. She will cut you for that show of disrespect. Oh, man. That facade of niceness will drop so fast your head will spin like you’re the one possessed.
Instead, you tell her that she is oppressed. She will completely agree and then join you in praying for her liberation from those demons besetting her. Otherwise, the two are exactly identical.
The rowdiest churches engage regularly in prayer sessions meant to dispel oppressive demons from members’ lives. Many prayer requests I remember from my days as a Christian involved some assertion of demonic involvement. I think it gave those folks a lift to their days to think that as low as they might be, they were definitely important enough to merit supernatural attention and focused energy to thwart.
We see much the same idea going on in Chick tracts, by the way. All these top-level demons in the tract “Bewitched” find their big plans ground to a standstill by a sweet old TRUE CHRISTIAN™ grandma who prays.
Even more than this already-frenetic action, some Christians make a very tidy living as exorcists.
How to Get Exorcised.
Some Christian groups have, over their many years of existence, codified exorcism to an extreme degree.
In Catholicism, candidates for exorcism must first undergo a battery of tests to rule out non-supernatural causes of their troubles. Only afterward may those candidates advance to the exorcists. They don’t allow members to self-diagnose their own need for an exorcist. (And Catholics appear to trust their priests in that regard, for some wacky reason.) It is downright hilarious to read how totally super-cereally they take the matter. They even have classes! In reality, if anybody progresses from those tests to the exorcists, then Catholics are just as guilty of sensationalism and magical thinking as the Protestant nutjobs they clearly look down upon.
Mainline Christian groups don’t seem to engage much with the idea of exorcism. The practice garners one offhand mention in the PC(USA) Book of Confessions. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America insists that properly-practicing members stand no risk of demonic interference.
In the rowdier end of Protestantism, self-styled exorcists allow their marks to self-diagnose and self-refer. A lot of money is at stake, after all! Bob Larson, who now appears to make most of his living from exorcism, offers Skype counseling/exorcism for USD$395/hr, and personal counseling/exorcism for $595/hr. His promises of effectiveness are equally lofty–albeit unverified. Other Christians have expressed alarm over his antics for years, but his popularity and financial success speaks to the demand for such theatrics.
How to Tell If You Need an Exorcist.
Unfortunately, Christians haven’t evolved much in their ability to properly diagnose mental or physical problems. Several super-cereal sources suggested that eye-rolling is an honest-to-dawg symptom of demonic possession.
By remarkable coincidence, eye-rolling also constitutes the only acceptable reaction to someone insisting that they can cast out demons for realsies.
Other signs include speaking in languages the person says they don’t know, weird alteration of the voice, out-of-character behavior or movements, extremely offensive statements toward Christianity, and strangely on-target guesses about people. However, every one of these symptoms can be easily faked or lied about, or else aren’t particularly supernatural-seeming.
If you don’t like the idea of engaging a “real” exorcist, of course, you can always look for haunted houses exploring the theme this Halloween! Or you can watch movies and TV shows related to the idea. We’ve got oodles of them to pick from, these days.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over this uniquely folk-religion side of Christianity, and the apparently growing demand for such displays.
NEXT UP: Sex demons. You won’t want to miss this one. See you soon!
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.
Does anybody else but me ever look at group photos of Catholic priests and wonder how many of them have raped children? Percentage-wise, even the Pope thought it was like two in a hundred. Other sources think it’s way higher than that.