Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mark 5: On Exorcism

This past weekend, American bishops met in Baltimore to prepare themselves for a rite that many thought had gone the way of other now-defunct Roman Catholic practices ... like public berating of long-winded priests, or pantsing of the smallest monk, or nun-flying.

The ritual that just won't die? Exorcism.

The New York Times quotes Notre Dame's R. Scott Appleby in explaining the bishops' rationale: "It’s a strategy for saying: 'We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons'." And I have to admit that every time I watch The Exorcist, I'm totally on board. Please, Catholics, please: train crack demon-hunters, and keep them at the ready! Regan scares the argyle socks off of me.

Conference organizer Thomas Paprocki hedges his bets, however, by pointing out that exorcism is necessary only in very special cases: “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person."

Still, the notion that the Devil might "actually be in possession" of anyone raises eyebrows. Epilepsy might have looked very much like possession to a medieval scientist--and depressives may feel as if a devil sits on their chest--but today's physicians and psychologists have the diagnostic tools to banish demons from our collective lives. We are not possessed; we have seizures. We are not possessed; we are paranoid schizophrenics.

But make no mistake, if the Catholics are on shaky medical ground, they remain on sound scriptural ground. The Biblical record is clear: this world is infested with malevolent spirits who can and will possess.

I often suggest to students that the Gospel of Mark is so full of demons that it is best read as a horror story. (I'd love to see William Friedkin's film version.) But Mark is not alone in characterizing Jesus as a Highlander-type hero pitched in battle with diabolical forces. For Matthew and Luke, too, Christ is the first ghostbuster, and the gospels speak of his exorcisms no fewer than a dozen times.

For today, I think I'll just give you my favorite--and the most elaborate exorcism story in the Bible. It is Mark's story of the Gerasene demoniac, told in chapter 5, and it goes like this:

"They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake" (Mark 5:1-13).

A few quick notes on this chilling tale ...

First, the famously laconic Mark flexes his descriptive muscles in explaining the demoniac's state: he lives among tombs; chains cannot hold him; his howls disturb the night landscape; he bruises himself with rocks. Mark might have added, "It was a dark and stormy night." Seldom in gospels--heck, seldom in the entire Bible!--do we get such narrative detail. The author knows the attractive power of a good ghost story.

Second, note that the possessed man seeks Jesus out--not the other way around. But note also that the sequence of events is jumbled. The man comes, he bows, and he screams his welcome. However, in the next verse, we find that the demoniac's first statement is actually in response to a comment that we don't hear at first: Jesus's command that the demon "come out of the man." We receive the dialogue in the wrong order; the sequence is messed up. Perhaps these destabilizing techniques are meant to mimick the tortured mindscape of the possessed man.

But note also that the demon knows exactly who Jesus is--"son of the most high God." That demons infallibly recognize the divinity of Jesus--and that his disciples almost uniformly do not--is one of the most uncomfortable truths of Mark.

Then the chilling core of the tale, when the demon introduces himself: "My name is Legion; for we are many." The pronoun slippage--from the singular "my" of the first clause to the plural "we" of the second--is a creepy grammatical effect. Many scholars also point out that the demon's name--Legion--clues us in that this story is an also a colonial allegory. Palestine, at the time, was also "possessed" by groups of Roman soldiers--legions.

And then the "denoument," if we dare call it that. For in this tale, evil cannot be wiped out: it can only be transferred. Jesus compels the demons to enter a flock of pigs, who immediately rush to their drowning death.

This is an unsettling conclusion for some. Jose Saramago, in his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, wonders what happens to these pigs; he then proposes--in a fictional extrapolation--that they are scavenged and eaten by Gentiles--for whom pigs would not be unclean--who are then themselves possessed; they go on to wreak havoc on the Palestinian landscape in what I can only assume is an ancient Palestinian preview of Night of the Living Dead.

And indeed I wonder ... what happens to exorcised demons when they are cast out? I'll have to attend the next Catholic possession clinic and ask.

1 comment:

  1. There have been a few films about exorcism lately, The Last Exorcism, which was sort of Blair-Witch-meets-Exorcist, complete with confusing ending. Then there's one coming up starring Anthony Hopkins called The Rite, which seems to deal with the present-day Catholic Church's treatment of exorcism, supposedly "based" on a true story. Preview looks pretty interesting:

    http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/wb/therite/

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