I recently read The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty’s novel upon which the famous movie was based. Since Blatty also wrote the screenplay, you are not missing much if you only saw the movie. If you have not seen the movie recently, do yourself a favor and watch the digitally remastered version: The Exorcist is the only devil/exorcism movie worth watching, and in some ways it is better than the book. The book’s long discussions on psychology are tedious, and the possessed girl’s mother often comes off as wooden and disengaged.
On the other hand, the book does deal with problems of faith and human nature which the film does not tackle. I found this discussion between Fr. Damien and the old exorcist, Fr Lankester Merrin fascinating:
“Who can really hope to know?” answered Merrin. He thought for a moment, then probingly continued: “Yet I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us, the observers… every person in this house. I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a problem of reason at all; I think it is finally a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could love us.”
So according to Fr Merrin, the real reason why we find it so hard to believe in God is because we don’t believe God could love us. This theme merits an article in itself, one that would be a little outside the scope of this blog. I’ll have to content myself with examining some of the ideas that lie underneath this statement.
The Fr Merrin character seems to be based on the real-life Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, whose writings tried to give a theological interpretation to modern physics. He understood scientific processes like the Big Bang or Evolution as matter trying to unite itself with God, its creator. This idea runs throughout The Exorcist: humans are shoddy, sinful beings, far from God, and yet we secretly yearn for him.
There is nothing objectionable abut this idea, except that the author takes it a step further and seems to feel that matter itself is evil, to some degree even identifying it with Satan himself. Humans are humiliated by their material nature. This is not traditional Christian teaching, which says Satan is a pure spirit and human sin is committed in the spirit, in human choices, not in the human body. This anti-matter attitude, that matter is the eternal source of evil while the spirit is the eternal source of good, is called “dualism” or sometimes “Gnosticism”.
In the history of Christianity, dualism is a constant temptation, and yet the idea is foreign to Christianity: its origins are neither in Judaism nor (certain phrases of St Paul aside) in the early Church, but in but the ancient pagan religions of the Middle East. For example: in the Jewish creation story God creates the material universe of his own free will “and saw that it was good.” In the Babylonian creation story, matter is an unfortunate accident, spontaneously springing up like maggots and flies from the dismembered corpse of a slain god. The first story is an optimistic view of the material world, the second is pessimistic.
Tomorrow, I’ll comment on how this pessimism plays out in The Exorcist, and exorcism movies in general.