mental illness

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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Waffle House hero vs. Waffle House gunman: Lots of religion here, but no answered questions

Waffle House hero vs. Waffle House gunman: Lots of religion here, but no answered questions

As you would imagine, folks here in Tennessee are still talking about the Waffle House shootings, even though the national media -- this is the age in which we live -- have moved on to other gun-related stories.

Nevertheless, The Tennessean in Nashville produced a massive story the other day about the lives of the two almost-30 men at the heart of the story -- the hero, James Shaw, Jr., and the troubled gunman, Travis Reinking.

There is all kinds of religious material in this story, and that material was used in a way that raised all kinds of questions -- that the story didn't answer.

Believe it or not, in this case that's a compliment. Once again, we are headed into news territory defined by the theological word "theodicy."

Why does evil exist? Why do some people choose to do good, while others choose to do evil? Why does mental illness exist? Why do some people raised in Christian homes cling to that faith, when push comes to shove, while others fling the faith and lash out at others?

You'll ask all of those questions, and more, when you read this story: "One came to Waffle House to eat. One came to kill, police say. How two worlds collided."

Don't expect answers, especially not about Reinking and his family's years of struggles to understand and manage his mental illness -- which followed him like a cloud, even as his behavior in other parts of life seemed perfectly normal.

Let's start with Shaw, and church:

Nashville is Shaw's home.

He has attended Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church since he was an infant, the same iconic North Nashville church his mother attended as a girl.

The youngest of three Shaw children, and the only boy, he was fun-loving, quiet and respectful to adults. He became humbler as he got older.

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A question for comics, counselors and clerics: Where does guilt come from?

A question for comics, counselors and clerics: Where does guilt come from?


Where does guilt come from?


This topic was referred to The Guy after it emerged during discussions at a monthly lunch group consisting of a liberal Catholic, a liberal Protestant, a Unitarian and an evangelical.

Guilt interwoven with religion is a continual theme for humor. The late entertainer Robin Williams, for instance, used to say he was an Episcopalian because it’s “Catholic light. All the pageantry, half the guilt.” Jews themselves continually joke about Jewish guilt.

In 21st Century America, guilt ain’t what it used to be -- on the surface. It is often portrayed as a needless, even damaging, burden. Or consider a memorable moment at a 2015 “pro-family” rally in Iowa. Presidential candidate Donald Trump said, quite candidly, “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness.” No guilt-ridden soul there.

Both high and low culture promote moral relativism by which age-old rules that were officially upheld  if sometimes violated are now eradicated. And yet socio-cultural liberals who cherish such freedom will readily turn absolutist against, say, guns or global warming or #MeToo misconduct. Polls continue to show high opprobrium against adultery. Think of the careers recently wrecked by sexual sin in these supposedly unbuttoned times.

Is guilt disappearing as religion is moved from the center of cultural influence in the West? Quite the opposite, contends University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred M. McClay. His 2017 Hedgehog Review essay “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” said intellectuals expected guilt to fade with secularization but instead it “has grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element” of life. We cannot “banish guilt merely by denying its reality,” he wrote. Secularization makes matters worse because so many can no longer rely on Jewish and Christian forms of absolution that make guilt bearable.

Psychological experts indicate guilt is essential to the very definition of what it means to be human.

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Concerning the Planned Parenthood shooting suspect: Did the Devil make him do it?

Concerning the Planned Parenthood shooting suspect: Did the Devil make him do it?

Did the Devil make him do it?

In a massive front-page story today, The New York Times delves deeper into the background of Robert L. Dear Jr., the suspect in last week's shooting rampage at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Earlier this week, GetReligion highlighted the two prevailing media streams concerning Dear and the "Why?" factor in an attack that left three dead and nine wounded.

In today's report, that dichotomy of certifiable lunatic vs. religious anti-abortion warrior prevails again. The Times paints an in-depth portrait of "an angry and occasionally violent man who seemed deeply disturbed and deeply contradictory."

The Times opens with a focus on Dear's religion:

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The man she had married professed to be deeply religious. But after more than seven years with Robert L. Dear Jr., Barbara Micheau had come to see life with him as a kind of hell on earth.
By January 1993, she had had enough. In a sworn affidavit as part of her divorce case, Ms. Micheau described Mr. Dear as a serial philanderer and a problem gambler, a man who kicked her, beat her head against the floor and fathered two children with other women while they were together. He found excuses for his transgressions, she said, in his idiosyncratic views on Christian eschatology and the nature of salvation.
“He claims to be a Christian and is extremely evangelistic, but does not follow the Bible in his actions,” Ms. Micheau said in the court document. “He says that as long as he believes he will be saved, he can do whatever he pleases. He is obsessed with the world coming to an end.”

But then the story moves to Dear's views on abortion:

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Jean Vanier wins the Templeton but many mainstream journalists dismiss the Catholic angle

Jean Vanier wins the Templeton but many mainstream journalists dismiss the Catholic angle

Jean Vanier, 86, is an extraordinary French-Canadian humanitarian, Catholic philosopher and founder of L’Arche, a federation of communities worldwide for people with disabilities. I had friends who would spend up to a year at his communities in Trosly-Breuil, France and near Toronto.

There are few things in my mind less glamorous than helping the mentally ill, so I was glad to hear that his years of efforts had resulted in winning the Templeton Prize earlier this month. I’m sure he’ll put that $2.1 million to good use.

So what is the journalism problem here?

To be blunt about it: I was surprised at how many of the mainstream news stories about this humble man skirted his Christian commitment.

Is it hard to find this information?

Look, here’s a man who almost became a Catholic priest, but instead found he had a more unusual worldwide parish. He’s never married and any interview with him -- such as this 2006 piece by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly -- will produce a ton of quotes having to do with God.

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Christians and suicide: New York Times reports on evangelicals embracing talk of mental illness

Christians and suicide: New York Times reports on evangelicals embracing talk of mental illness

Three years ago, I traveled to rural Oregon to profile a minister who worked to bring healing — and answers — to his reeling town after a string of suicides.

Reporting that story opened my eyes to the hush-hush approach of many Christians toward suicide.

On the front page of today's New York Times, reporter Jan Hoffman reports on what appears to be a positive trend: more evangelical pastors embracing talk of mental illness:

EAGLE SPRINGS, N.C. — The pastor’s phone rang in the midnight darkness. A man’s voice rasped: “My wife left me and I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t pull the trigger.”
The Rev. Matt Brogli, a Southern Baptist pastor scarcely six months into his first job, was unnerved. Gamely, he prayed with the anonymous caller, trying out “every platitude I could possibly think of.”
Eventually the stranger assured Mr. Brogli that he would be all right. But the young pastor was shaken.
“I was in over my head,” he recalled. “I thought being a pastor meant giving sermons, loving my congregation, doing marriages and funerals, and some marital counseling.”
Since that midnight call two years ago, Mr. Brogli, 33, has become the unofficial mental health counselor not just for his church, but throughout Eagle Springs, population 8,500, a fading rural community of mostly poultry and tobacco workers, with five trailer parks and six churches.
It is no easy task, in large part because from pulpit to pew there is a silence and stigma among conservative Christians around psychiatric disorders, a relic of a time when mental illness was seen as demonic possession or a sign that the person had fallen in God’s eyes.
But Mr. Brogli and other evangelical ministers are trying to change all that.

Generally, I find it easier to point out what's wrong with a story than explain what's right. This is one of those cases where I'm tempted to simply say: This is good. Read it. Of course, that may be the Thanksgiving turkey overload (and need for a nap) talking.

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Did the devil make an Oklahoma man smash into Ten Commandments monument? Or did mental illness?

Did the devil make an Oklahoma man smash into Ten Commandments monument? Or did mental illness?

When a man smashed his car into a controversial Ten Commandments monument outside the Oklahoma Capitol recently, it made national news.

Authorities reported that 29-year-old Michael Tate Reed II said "Satan told him to do it," and even though the suspect was taken to a mental health facility, predictable headlines followed.

But did the devil really make him do it? 

Or did mental illness?

My late grandfather Earl Nanney, a Southern Baptist, was a sweet man who rose before dawn on Sundays and played gospel music at an ungodly volume. But he battled mental illness all his adult life. My late grandmother Edith Nanney dealt with Grandpa’s frequent stints in jail and mental hospitals.

My family's experience makes me sensitive to others whose loved ones struggle with mental illness.

I was pleased to see The Oklahoman — in Sunday's edition — dig deeper into Reed's case and produce an in-depth piece of real journalism on the challenges that he and his family have faced.

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