Yes, this is a hard news story to cover: More talk about The Atlantic and modern exorcists

The Bible doesn’t come up, all that often, here at GetReligion, unless we are talking about news stories that mangle a crucial piece of scripture. Remember this M.Z. Hemingway classic about the Ascension of Jesus? Or how about this M.Z. post, about The New York Times and Easter?

Anyway, to understand this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), I need you to pause and read the Gospel According to St. Luke, chapter 8: 26-36.

The key: Try to look at this through the eyes of a journalist who was going to mention this New Testament passage in a news report. We are doing part of a discussion of that interesting feature that ran the other day in The Atlantic, focusing on the sharp rise in requests for the ministry of exorcists in today’s Catholic church. So, here is our Bible story for today:

Then they arrived at the country of the Ger′asenes, [a] which is opposite Galilee. And as he stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons; for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he lived not in a house but among the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech you, do not torment me.” For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him; he was kept under guard, and bound with chains and fetters, but he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the desert.)

Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them leave. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country. Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons was healed.

Now, my goal here is not to ask readers — as skeptical journalists — whether they believe this story or not. I am not asking whether readers think this is a mere folk story, as opposed to being inspired scripture handed down by the early church. I am not asking for a scientific evaluation of this text.

I am simple noting that it is hard to read this passage and not grasp that the reality of evil and the demonic is part of the Christian tradition. What we also see her is an archetypal image of the work of the exorcist, especially that of a priest acting in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

Now, do the logical math. If supernatural evil is real, what might that say about the reality of supernatural forces for good? Once one concedes the existence of one or the other, or expresses a willingness to look at evidence debating these points, a door opens into a whole new world.

This is, to say the least, tricky territory for journalists. That’s why the aforementioned piece in The Atlantic is so fascinating.

In the podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss the work of the late William Peter Blatty (see video at the top of this post), who won an Academy Award for the screen play of his famous novel, “The Exorcist.”

As a traditional Catholic, Blatty knew what he was doing when he wrote that thriller. It all started with serious discussions of exorcisms, during a class he took as a student at Georgetown University. This is from a column I wrote, after having lunch with Blatty in 2013.

Grief also helped shape the novel, in which a Jesuit psychiatrist tries to help a 12-year-old girl who is exhibiting the symptoms of demon possession, complete with fountains of green vomit and obscenities.

The fictional Father Damien Karras experiences paralyzing doubts after his mother's death. Blatty was typing the second page of his earliest take on the story when he received the call that his mother had died.

"I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a statement that the grave is not the end, that there is more to life than death," said Blatty. …

After studying the explicit details in the journals of exorcists, he decided that a story about "what happens in these cases could really be a boost to the faith. It could show people that the spiritual world is real."

The bottom line: "The Exorcist" scared the hell out of millions of people.

“The Exorcist” remains — box-office receipts are adjusted for inflation — the most successful R-rated movie ever and a landmark film in the history of horror.

Let’s continue with that 2013 discussion. This passage is long, but crucial:

… For Blatty, it's just as important that his work had an impact on people in a radically different setting. As a Jesuit in Los Angeles once told him, there was a "thundering herd of people headed into the confessionals" at churches in the weeks after the movie opened.

Amen, said Blatty. The goal was to defend the faith through writing that he considered a ministry, his own "apostolate of the pen."

The key to "The Exorcist," he explained, is that his protagonist's crisis of faith is much deeper than his doubts about the reality of demons. Caught up in grief and guilt, this Jesuit is tempted to believe that God cannot condescend to love fallen human beings — like him.

"Karras has started to doubt his own humanity," said Blatty. "In the end, he is the ultimate target of this demonic attack. The Devil is tempting him to despair."

In one crucial passage in the novel, an older, experienced exorcist explains: "I think the point is to make us ... see ourselves as ultimately bestial, vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps. ... For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love: of accepting the possibility that God could ever love us."

If readers and moviegoers pay attention, said Blatty, the chills caused by the demonic acts on the screen are merely the first step in a spiritual process that should drive them to look in the mirror.

"My logic was simple: If demons are real, why not angels? If angels are real, why not souls? And if souls are real, what about your own soul?"

So what does it mean if, as The Atlantic story describes, requests for the work of exorcists are soaring in North America?

What does it mean that Catholic leaders are having to take these issues more seriously, these days? What about the fact that the experts are convinced that, in a stunning number of cases, hard-to-explain possessions have something to do with the deep wounds caused by sexual abuse and open doors into souls linked to experiments with the occult?

Enjoy the podcast.

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