William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist

Last year I saw a notice that a fortieth anniversary edition of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, The Exorcist, would be released.  I struggled a bit with whether or not read it, mainly because my dad had read it shortly after it came out and he tells the story of waking one night with a strong sense that he needed to get the novel out of the house immediately.  He did so immediately.  Of course – and this is no credit to my generation – the novel, while certainly terrifying, is in some ways less jarring to those of us who have grown up under its shadow (the movie was released in 1974, the year I was born) and who have been vaguely familiar with the basic gist of it than it was to the generation on which it was dropped.  Quite honestly many of the elements that scandalized the public in the 1970’s are pretty much available to all on prime time TV any night of the week now and have been for years.  This numbing, I repeat, is nota compliment to today’s culture!

If this story is less jarring to my generation, it is only just so (and I would love to know if others around my age even agree).  It truth, it remains a deeply unsettling and profoundly disturbing read.  It is not without merit that The Exorcist has been called the most terrifying novel ever written.

At the outset, let me address any who think it is unwise for a Christian to read something like The Exorcist.  To put it simply, it could be that no work of fiction has so shaped the spiritual psychology of a generation as this novel.  My friend Calvin Miller has told me of the paranoia that gripped the culture when the movie came out and of the floods of people scared of possesion who flocked to the offices of ministers and psychiatrists at that time.  Furthermore, this novel remains a widely read novel that has taken its place in the canon of truly culture-shaping works over the last half a century.

Is there a danger in reading too much on a subject like this?  To be sure, if one dwells too much on it.  I have read a number of books on demon possession over the years, but I have always managed to spread them out and never do so back-to-back.  That’s just my personal approach, though I do not deny there are believers who study the issue consistently with profit.

Furthermore (and, frankly, I do not offer this as an apologia for my reading habits, but just as an observation), Blatty’s work, whatever it may be, is certainly not cheap horror.  It is actually a very insightful and thought-provoking consideration of a very real issue.  Are there problems presented in the spirituality of the book?  Yes, at points, but may I point at that the book takes the reality of the devil, the danger of occult dabbling, and the power of God over evil very seriously?

As for the novel itself, it is a very well written story and very well developed.  The success of the novel is not merely because of the shocking nature of the tale.  It is also in no small part due to how successfully Blatty draws you into the characters and their individual plights.  Father Karras and Father Merrin in particular are developed with real sympathy and with a compelling kind of appeal that deepens their encounter with the possessed girl in profound ways.  Oddly, their characters are more intriguinging than even poor Regan’s.  Of course, Merrin surmises to Karras at one point that perhaps demons possess their victims less because they are interested in the victim than because they want, through the victim, to destroy everybody in their sphere of influence.  Blatty’s development of the characters surrounding Regan certainly bears that out.

Are there objectionable elements?  Absolutely.  Ragan’s speech and actions while possesed are truly disturbing and blasphemous, but Blatty is not presenting these for exhibition nor is he reveling in them.  In fact, you will find a genuine shock at blasphemy in this book that our culture has long forgotten.  Her actions (or, more accurately, the demon’s) are presented as tragic, as evil, as demonic and as the result of malevolent possesion.  They are not celebrated or exalted.  When the demon is vanquished, so are these profane fruits of his presence.

Would I recommend The Exorcist?  Hmmm, that’s tough.  I would not recommend it indiscriminately, nor do I think I would really recommend it per se at all.  What I would say is that here is a well-told story concerning some very dangerous themes but presented within the broad contours of a Christian paradigm.  It should be read, if at all, carefully and with discretion…if one feels that they can do so without causing themselves undue spiritual or psychological damage (i.e., there are likely dispostions that would not be well acclamated to reading or watching The Exorcist).

Benedict XVI’s Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today

Benedict XVI is a pope worth reading.  To be sure, any Baptist who is a Baptist by conviction will have fundamental disagreements with Benedict on more than a few points, but there is wisdom here that any believer in Jesus Christ can not only appreciate but also grow from.  In truth, I found Benedict’s Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today to be one of the more thought-provoking works on ecclesiology I’ve ever read, even as I disagreed with many of its basic points.

A good bit of this material was delivered by Benedict when he was known as Cardinal Ratzinger in July of 1990 to a theological seminar in Rio de Janeiro.  As such the work is essentially a primer on Catholic ecclesiology.  For the Protestant reader, this book will offer some of the more seasoned reflections on Catholic ecclesiology that you are likely to find on the market today.  So this book will certainly help Baptists and others understand Roman Catholics better.  And yet it would be a shame to read this work only to understand what “they” think, for surely even Baptist believers share (in ways poignant and undeniable) in what Benedict calls here “the crisis of ecclesial consciousness through which we are now living” (p.11).

Benedict bemoans the liberal ideology within the Church “which regards Jesus according to the liberal world picture as the great individualist who liberates religion from cultic institutions and reduces it to ethics, which for its part is founded entirely upon the individual responsibility of conscience.  Such a Jesus, who repudiates cultic worship, transforms religion into morality and then defines it as the business of the individual, obviously cannot found a church.  He is the foe of all institutions and, therefore, cannot turn around and establish one himself” (p.15).

Here is one of the many places where we can benefit from Benedict’s wisdom.  His definition and diagnosis of liberalism is helpful and wise.  As Protestants have been bound in the same struggle against this same liberal impulse, we may rightly say that Benedict is speaking no less to us than he is to the Roman Catholic Church.

Benedicts understanding of the Church is profoundly Christological.  The Kingdom proclaimed by Christ is found in Christ Himself and the Church is likewise defined by and embodied in Christ who is present in the Church’s central act of worship:  the eucharist.  “It follows, then,” Benedict tells us, “that it is entirely impossible to conceive of the New Testament’s notion of the people of God apart from Christology, which in turn is no abstract theory but a concrete event taking place in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist” (p.33).

As a Baptist, I do not want to distance myself from the idea of Christ’s presence in the sacraments (even as, obviously, how I would understand Christ’s “presence” would differ markedly from Benedict’s), but I badly want to add this:  “and in the proclaimed, heard, and lived Word.”

Benedict next moves to a discussion and explanation of apostolic succession.  To be perfectly honest, I remain unconvinced.  I do appreciate Benedict’s attempt to ground the idea in exegesis of the text, but as I wrote “non-sequitur” in the margin a couple of times as I read, I was impressed once again by the seriousness and severity of the divide between the Protestant and Catholic ideas of “the Church.”

I do not deny what Benedict explains very persuasively:  the presence of apostolic authority in the New Testament Church and even some evidence of Petrine primacy in the New Testament.  I do not see, however, the implicit evidence for (especially) Petrine succession that Ratzinger finds in the text (he readily admits that “there is no explicit statement regarding the Petrine succession in the New Testament”).  Furthermore, I regret that Benedict did not give serious consideration (in this work) to the fact that the Apostles are present in the Church as it proclaims and heeds “the apostles’ teaching.”

Obviously Benedict has misgivings about the idea of ecclesial autonomy:  “The Church must constantly become what she is through unitive love and resist the temptation to fall from her vocation into the infidelity of self-willed autonomy” (39-40).  Speaking of local churches and the Church catholic, Benedict writes:  “In this respect it can be said that we find here a preliminary sketch of a Church that lives in manifold and multiform particular Churches but that precisely in this way is the one Church.  At the same time, Luke expresses with this image the fact that at the moment of her birth, the Church was already catholic, already a world Church.  Luke thus rules out a conception in which a local Church first arose in Jerusalem and then became the base for the gradual establishment of other local Churches that eventually grew into a federation.  Luke tells us that the reverse is true:  what first exists is the one Church, the Church that speaks in all tongues – the ecclesia universalis; she then generates Church in the most diverse locales, which nonetheless are all always embodiments of the one and only Church.  The temporal and ontological priority lies with the universal Church; a Church that was not catholic would not even have ecclesial reality…” (44).

Earlier Baptists, and many modern ones, will want to stress the priority of the local church and the future coming of the church catholic.  That being said, there is a growing trend of Baptist catholicity that feels that the radical “autonomy” which is often championed in some quarters is derived more from American individualism than from New Testament exegesis, even while it affirms the basic principle of “local church autonomy.”  There is, to be sure, fascinating and occasionally tendentious cross-currents in Baptist life today over the issue of the church local and the church catholic and how these realities are to be understood.  Regardless, all Baptists would reject that which the Pope is clearly moving towards in this selection:  the unity of the catholic Church under the supposed modern successor of Peter (“Nevertheless, there is also a positive tendency today.  Many non-Catholics affirm the necessity of a common center of Christianity.”).

Benedict has some interesting discussion of apostolic primacy in the N.T.  He does not deny the evidence for the primacy of James, but argues that James had primacy over Jewish believers and it disappeared with the collapse of Jewish Christianity.  He then argues for Petrine primacy and succession, even while acknowledging that “we must first of all note that there is no explicit statement regarding the Petrine succession in the New Testament” (65).

But Benedict’s argument for Petrine primacy and succession seems unconvincing to me.  His argument that “it was with this Church that every community had to agree; Rome was the standard of the authentic apostolic tradition as a whole” (69) seems to me a serious oversimplification that does not account for evidence that Rome ascended to its primacy over time and that its primacy was not always assumed by other communions.  Furthermore, his contention that “the Roman primacy, or, rather, the acknowledgement of Rome as the criterion of the right apostolic faith, is older than the canon of the New Testament, than ‘Scripture’” (70) strikes me as pandering to the choir.  The statement is quite different from an acknowledgement that Rome had ascended to ecclesial power before the formal recognition of the canon by the church.  Finally, Benedict argues that “the essential point, in my opinion, has already become plain: the martyrdom of Peter in Rome fixes the place where his function continues” (72).  This strikes me as an amazing non-sequitur that is utterly unconvincing.

All of this being said, I am quite happy with Benedict’s definition of the Church itself, even as  I would undoubtedly understand certain phrases of this definition in a different light than he intends:  “The Church is accordingly the gathering of men from the four corners of the earth and their purification for God.  Together, the two answers describe the essence of the Church and thus introduce us into her practical dimension; both answers can be summed up in the one statement that the Church is the dynamic process of horizontal and vertical unification” (76).

On we could go, but suffice to say that this is a thought-provoking work that will, at the very least, give the Protestant reader an interesting insight into Catholic ecclesiology and theology as it is articulated by one of the Catholic church’s brightest minds.