The Exorcist

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

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.

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The Atlantic dares to ask if exorcisms (and thus the supernatural) may be real after all

The Atlantic dares to ask if exorcisms (and thus the supernatural) may be real after all

Five years ago, I had a chance to eat lunch with the late William Peter Blatty, an articulate Catholic apologist who won an Academy Award for turning his novel, "The Exorcist," into a stunning Hollywood screenplay.

Yes, I called Blatty a Catholic apologist.

Why? In part because he viewed his masterwork as a vehicle for criticizing this materialistic age. Here is a chunk of that column, in which Blatty explains his motives. In “The Exorcist”:

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, in a Bethesda, Md., diner near his home, not far from the Georgetown neighborhood described in "The Exorcist."

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. 

This brings me to the feature story in The Atlantic that stirred up lots of online conversation over the weekend, the one with this haunting double-decker headline:

American Exorcism

Priests are fielding more requests than ever for help with demonic possession, and a centuries-old practice is finding new footing in the modern world.

A serious piece of journalism on this topic faces a big question: How much space should be dedicated to the views of people who, well, think demon possession is real? As Blatty noted, it is impossible to talk about this topic — exorcisms — without debating evidence that the material world is not all that there is. (Click here for a Rod Dreher discussion of this angle.)

Toward the end of this long feature, reporter Mike Mariani offers this summary of what he was seeing, hearing and feeling:

Pore over these spiritual and psychiatric frameworks long enough, and the lines begin to blur. If someone lapses into an alternate identity that announces itself as a demon bent on wresting away that person’s soul, how can anyone prove otherwise? Psychiatry has only given us models through which to understand these symptoms, new cultural contexts to replace the old ones. No lab test can pinpoint the medical source of these types of mental fractures.

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Friday Five: Rachel Zoll, Heidi Cruz, 'The Exorcist,' Tennessee politicos, Christ at the Checkpoint

Friday Five: Rachel Zoll, Heidi Cruz, 'The Exorcist,' Tennessee politicos, Christ at the Checkpoint

Last month, we congratulated Rachel Zoll, national religion writer for The Associated Press, when she received a special recognition award from the Religion News Association.

A tweet embedded with that post hinted at another big honor for Zoll, and now, there is official news of that prize.

AP announced this week that Zoll is one of the winners of the 2018 Oliver S. Gramling Awards, the global news service’s highest internal honor.

From the AP press release:

The pre-eminent voice on religion for more than a decade, Zoll has led AP’s reporting on the subject, cultivating relationships with sources across all faiths, writing remarkable stories and mentoring fellow journalists to better understand the importance of covering religion. Her reporting spans from a series on Christian missionaries in Africa to a 2016 election-year piece on how conservative Christians felt under siege to a story about two churches in Georgia -- one black, one white -- trying to bridge the divide. Zoll’s sourcing led to AP being first to confirm on-the-record the death of Rev. Billy Graham.

Zoll, who has terminal brain cancer, is on medical leave. Big congrats to her on the Gramling Award!

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The Atlantic’s profile of Heidi Cruz, wife of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, is interesting and revealing, with various religion-related details. It’s worth a read.

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Was there a big Catholic ghost in 'The Exorcist'? Don't ask the Los Angeles Times about that

Was there a big Catholic ghost in 'The Exorcist'? Don't ask the Los Angeles Times about that

It feels really stupid to say that there was a major religion “ghost” in William Peter Blatty’s classic screenplay for “The Exorcist,” the horror classic that was based on his own novel.

It would be hard to write a story that — R-rating and all — contained more in-your-face religious issues and references than this one. Blatty, who died last year, was super candid about his goal to create a tale that (all together now) scared the “hell” out of people. But hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

No, what I want to note in this post is that the entertainment desk at The Los Angeles Times managed to do a major story about the 40th anniversary of this classic while avoiding any of its haunting spiritual symbols and themes.

How do you do that? Well, you start with the business angles linked to this monster hit and stay there. Damn the supernatural and full speed ahead. Here’s the overture:

During the production of the masterpiece of horror “The Exorcist,” director William Friedkin and screenwriter William Peter Blatty enjoyed having fun with the suits at Warner Brothers. At one point, the two were going to shoot a mock scene from the movie with Groucho Marx and send the footage to the executives.

“We always put them on,” said Friedkin. “They were always concerned that we were both crazy and would eventually implode the movie. We even staged blowups in front of them.”

Of course, study executives had other worries about this film and its contents. But, again, hold that thought, because the Times has a Hollywood event to plug.

“The Exorcist,” the first horror film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar, is being feted Monday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a 45th anniversary, sold-out screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. …

Based on the runaway 1971 best-seller by Blatty, “The Exorcist” scared — and still does scare — daylights out of audiences. [Ellen] Burstyn stars as actress Chris MacNeil who, much to her horror, discovers her sweet young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), is possessed by the devil. The only way to get rid of the demon is to call in two priests, the tormented young Jesuit Father Karras (Jason Miller) and the elderly exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to cast out the devil.

Toward the very end of this long feature there is a hint — if you know what to look for — about the role that Blatty’s conservative Catholic faith played in this movie and the battles to get it on the screen.

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Two final battles for author of 'The Exorcist;' Washington Post buries a key local angle

Two final battles for author of 'The Exorcist;' Washington Post buries a key local angle

Anyone who interviewed William Peter Blatty in the final years of his life knew that there were two major issues that were constantly on his mind.

Both subjects were linked to his Catholic faith and, from his point of view, the reality of evil in the world. Both were linked to his education at Georgetown University.

The first challenge was making sure people really knew what was going on at the end of "The Exorcist," the Hollywood blockbuster that loomed over everything he did in his career as a novelist and screenwriter. This meant tweaking both the movie and the novel, to add a bit of clarity to what was happening between God, a demon and a courageous priest.

The second subject involved Blatty's appeal to the Vatican seeking actions to pull Georgetown into line with the 1990 "apostolic constitution" on the core values of Catholic education issued by St. Pope John Paul II, entitled "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)." If that failed, Blatty wanted his alma mater stripped of its "Catholic" status.

Blatty could understand why the media was still obsessed with "The Exorcist." He couldn't understand why journalists -- especially in Washington, D.C. -- were not digging into the issues behind his intellectual and spiritual wrestling match with Georgetown.

Now Blatty is gone and, as you would expect, "The Exorcist" dominated the mainstream media features about his life and work. But what did The Washington Post do with the other major Blatty story, right there in its own Beltway backyard? This question takes us -- literally -- the the final lines of the Blatty obituary:

In recent years, Mr. Blatty had a public dispute with Georgetown University, charging that it had abandoned its Catholic heritage. He organized a petition that he sent to the Vatican.
But Mr. Blatty remained inescapably linked with the book and movie that brought him the fame he sought for so long.
“I can’t regret ‘The Exorcist,’ ” he said in 2013. “I always believe that there is a divine hand everywhere.”

That's all there was to it, apparently. Don't you love the word "but" at the start of transition from the brief mention of the Georgetown dispute, back into Exorcist material?

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Are demons going to start sending us links to that Washington Post exorcism essay?

Are demons going to start sending us links to that Washington Post exorcism essay?

It's perfectly understandable why many journalists are fascinated with the subject of exorcisms, especially when the Roman Catholic Church gets involved. For starters, we are talking about battles on the front lines between the material and the supernatural, encounters that raise eternal questions about free will, the love of God and the existence of ultimate good and ultimate evil. And then, of course, there is Hollywood.

So you will not be surprised that your GetReligionistas have taken a look at quite a few mainstream news stories about this topic. Click here and do some surfing, if you wish.

But this post is not about a news piece. Yet, over the past week people have sent me the URL to this Washington Post essay more than any other. At this point, I have begun to wonder if the demons are sending it to me. Why, well you know what C.S. Lewis said about demons (speaking through the voice of Screwtape, his great demonic professor).

We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The “Life Force”, the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work -- the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits” -- then the end of the war will be in sight.

The headline on the Post piece, written by New York Medical College professor Richard Gallagher, was this: "As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession."

I should note that this is a sequel, of sorts, to his 2008 essay -- "Among the Many Counterfeits -- A Case of Demonic Possession" -- that ran in the journal The New Oxford Review, a very small-o orthodox Catholic publication (and one with a high digital wall around its content).

Here is the opening of the new Post piece:

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WPost examines the demons (and a ghost) in 'The Exorcist'

It’s that time of year again, the time when reporters keep trying to reach author William Peter Blatty to talk about pea soup, noises in the night, long flights of stairs and the degree to which human necks can swivel.

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Still falling for 'The Exorcist,' 40 years later

Long ago, pre-Internet, some researchers tried to find out which movie had the greatest spiritual effect on viewers, in terms of provoking people to think about sin, salvation and life after death.

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