Monthly Archives: April 2015

Why “The Exorcist’s” Exorcism Failed

William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist certainly is structured around and bolstered by a Catholic point of view. Blatty knows his Catholic stuff. But Blatty himself is something of a speculative theologian, at least in his fiction. In “real life”, on the other hand, Blatty seems to much more conservative, protesting Georgetown University’s invitations to speakers whose values are doctrinally opposed to Catholicism; and waxing devoutly eloquent over Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. However, it is with Blatty the novelist, not Blatty the citizen and churchgoer, that this post will consider.

For example, in shaping Merrin’s character, Blatty went far beyond anything that his partial-inspiration Jesuit Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin ever said. For Teilhard, the cosmos will eventually evolve into a superconscious “Omega Point” that is really nothing less than the Cosmic Christ of Saints Paul and John. But Blatty adds-on to the Teilhardian view the Jungian consideration that perhaps matter and Spirit are two sides of a single coin, an “Otherness” that can be experienced but not fully intellectually known or defined. None of this is classical, standard Catholic dogma or philosophy.

But Blatty goes even further in his novel Legion, which delves into Gnostic territory with the ideas of a Primal God from which a secondary Being splits off in order to experience physical and ultimately human life, incarnating in and as man – a Being Which turns out to be Satan; who turns out to be “the Angel” – not as a typical demon/fallen angel, but “fallen” by virtue of its primordial mutually-agreed-to separation from God and sinning-living-struggling its way back into the divine sphere of its original unification with God.

And in Legion Blatty writes about the possibility that everyone might possess two souls (perhaps this may be a reification of the novel’s prior suggestion that God has a God-part and an incarnating-struggling secondary part?). And he broaches the amoral notion that JamesVennamun/”Patient X”-“Tommy Sunlight”/the Gemini Killer pretty much gets off Scot-free for his murder-spree sins… while poor deluded, brain-tumor-suffering Dr. Vincent Amfortas is “righteously” tormented by his Doppelganger/”higher self” who hints that he will have a long stay in Purgatory. Dyads, human and divine: again, not standard Catholic theological fare. Thus it bears emphasising:

Definitely these ideas are not standard Catholicism, and some of them even flirt with heterodoxy if not heresy. Therefore it is clear – at least as a writer of creative, fantastic fiction – that Blatty is not an orthodox Roman Catholic. And this trait features in The Exorcist. His own exorcist, Merrin, is a quasi-Gnostic mystic with notions that are, to say the least, “dystonic” to normative Catholic doctrine. Thus we might logically suspect that Merrin’s Catholicism would be more or less spiced with Blatty’s own speculative theology. And it seems that this is the case not only with Merrin, but also with Blatty’s demon, who may or may not be Pazuzu, the ancient Middle Eastern god. In any case, whatever the demon’s name – if it does, after all even have a knowable name – it functions outside of the Catholic “pantheon” of demons-as-fallen angels and servants-of-Satan.

I certainly dismiss as implausible the notion that the exorcism was obviously having at least some negative effect on the demon and I think that the usual examples invoked in support of this idea, e.g.,

the demon’s fury (but the demon is always furious);

the demon’s “fear and loathing” of real holy water (but this is very easily seen as just another “gotcha” trick by the demon);

the demon’s viciously angry use of a crucifix in assaulting Regan (the demon not only has no fear of this most holy Catholic sacramental, but freely uses it to further torment its chief victim);

the demon’s slow abandonment of  its “miracle” of levitating Regan  – coincident with, but not necessarily consequent to – the priests’ command, “the Power of Christ compels you”;

… are at best weak and stretched much too tautly to be taken seriously.

The one clear fact in the stories’ (novel and film) entire exorcistic process is that the demon was not yielding to the rituals, and in fact,  was becoming even stronger and more confident as the agonizing moments and incidents continued:

… manifesting a Pazuzu-statue vision;

causing the full head spin hallucination;

creating the “Mary Karras on Regan’s bed” hallucination;
causing a mini-earthquake and …
the door-ceiling-and Sustagen bottle shattering;

wreaking physical havoc with chairs, bureaus, drawer, and other furniture and objects;

breaking Regan’s medical straps;

levitating Regan herself;

… So, finally, as noted:

the demon’s ever-increasing confidence that it will kill Regan – predicting and promising that she will not survive the rigors of her various demon-induced conditions together with the rigors of the exorcism. Thus,

All through the exorcism’s course, it is a matter of the demon growing stronger as the priests and Regan at best only hold their own.

This is proof positive that the exorcism was not weakening the demon, and more importantly, that the demon was only growing stronger spiritually and paranormally. The exorcism’s only observable effects are to infuriate the demon and make it even more arrogant and confident of its ultimate victory.

If the exorcism was at all effective, then it might be true, as some ritual-supporters maintain, that “Well … some things from the ritual did at least seem to affect the demon”… but this is only true in a negative sense – i.e., the ritual only infuriated the demon, giving it time and space to become stronger, not weaker, and encouraged the demon in its vaulting power and pride.

Even when Regan’s breathing becomes irregular and she is weak and sweating with fever, this is Regan’s weakness, not the demon’s – when, at this point, Regan is physically at her lowest ebb, the demon’s level of power and maliciousness remains the same – producing a vision of Mary Karras and duplicating her voice so explicitly that Mary’s son, exorcist Damien Karras, nearly cracks. So it’s a definite case of: Regan?  – weak, close to death’s door. The demon? – stronger and more determined than ever.

Therefore, to conclude:

The exorcism was not working; and this is perhaps not so surprising, because this demon is a representation not of  standard “Catholic demons” who could be weakened and driven out by traditional Catholic rites. Nor is this demon an ancient Sumerian god – and it is not so treated by expert archaeologist-and-Pazuzu-artifact-unearther Fr. Lankester Merrin.

On the contrary, this demon is a unique Blattian creation, imbued with all the startling, unexpected and alien attributes that Blatty’s theological speculations led to and supported. The demon is an anonymous, alien, malevolent force bent only on seduction, torment, and death, not a standard “Christian” fallen angel.

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A Fine Book about Shinran’s Conversion

I have just completed reading an excellent book about the conversion of Shinran Shonin, the initiator of what would become the Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhist school:

Shinran’s Conversion in the Light of Paul’s Conversion, by Sadami Takayama, a member of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and teacher in the anthropology at Tokyo’s Sophia University. This book, written by a Roman Catholic cleric, is a fine example of ecumenism at its best, bringing together Shinran and Paul in a highly accurate and impartial manner.

Takayama shows that both Shinran and Paul moved into a “new horizon” through their contact with, and immersion in, a divine Transcendent, through which they died to an old self and “rose” into-and-as a new creature:

Shinran delcared himself to be a true disciple of Buddha. The same Shinran acknowledged himself sinful and unqualified…[but these two contradictory-seeming aspects] are inseparable and inter-related aspects in a person of shinjin [perfect faith]. In fact, self-awareness of one’s sinfulness and incapacity is revealed for the first time when one is wholly embraced and illuminated by the Buddha’s compassion. It can be said that both aspects, namely, awareness of the immensity of the Buddha’s compassion and awareness of one’s own sinfulness and foolishness, are manifested as an enlightenment. They are the very signs of one’s encounter with the Transcendent, who is truth itself. They arise from a single religous awakening, a true conversion. (p. 222)

Takayama goes on to compare Shinran’s double-aspected spirituality with Paul’s own sense of unworthiness coupled with a sense of chosenness/prophetic calling, grace, and providential exaltation. These aspects are essential elements in both Shinran’s and Paul’s religiosity and conversion.

The author elaborates:

the structural similarities between the two conversions…tell us what a human being ia all about and how one can be changed by the encounter with the Transcendent. The similarities show us one’s way of life and attitude towards truth, whether in the East or in the West. There is a radical shift from human act to divine act. When one is truly touched and moved by Compassion, one is profoundly converted. It is beyond one’s imagining and calculation. One’s Lebenshorizont is entirely transformed. One cannot but give oneself up to this mystery… There is no more fear, doubt and double-mindedness in one. There is only the single way… (p. 227)

Takayama gives an interpretation of Matthew 11:25-26, where Jesus says, “I thank thee, Father…that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.”:

Here Jesus tells us that divine wisdom is not grasped by the human intellect but is revealed fully in the foolishness of man. This is precisely what is called the mystery of faith. The truth of the Gospel is always paradoxical, because it is dependent not upon self-power  but upon Other Power. There is the divine Word who calls us today. There is the voice which calls for our conversion. (p. 228)

The Shin practicer will immediately recognize “human foolishness” as the key to Shinran’s, and indeed, everyone’s conversion to the way of Amida whose Other Power channels even our “bombu-ish”, samsaric self-power into His great salvific working. And the Christian will appreciate the place of the unearned gift of Grace from God as mediated through Jesus Christ.

Takayama’s book is engaging, clear, enthusiastic and affectionate towards its subjects and its two heroes, Shinran and Paul. Shinran, however, receives most of the attention, which is one reason why I am so happily recommending this treatment. The book contains explicit discussions of crucial Shin ideas like the eko of Amida and Amida’s relation to Buddhist philosophy’s Three Buddha Bodies/Trikaya doctrine. It also includes an excellent section on Shinran’s biography, his struggles, marriage, and of course his conversion.

I recently received my copy from Amazon, at which time it was the last copy, but the site said that more would be forthcoming. But as of today (15 April 2015), there are still no new copies for purchase. Interested persons are invited to keep checking Amazon or other sites in order to obtain this wonderful volume.

Shinran’s Conversion in the Light of Paul’s Conversion. Tesi Gregoriana, Serie Teologia 65. Editrice Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, Roma 2000. Gregorian University Press, Rome, Italy. ISBN: 88-7652-862-8

 

Gassho to those of all faiths, and of no faith.