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).

Gabriele Amorth’s An Exorcist Tells His Story

Books on demonology must be approached with a great deal of care. Those who write with an excessive interest in the subject are too often shown to have commerce, not sound theology, on their minds. Some of the most popular Protestant writers on the subject have been discredited and shown to be nothing more than swindlers – hucksters trafficking in sensational tales of the demonic that, upon investigation, prove to be merely the inventions of creative minds. However, the untrustworthiness of many in this field does not excuse us from being serious about the subject or from trying to find works that can be beneficial to our understanding of demonology.

Enter Gabriele Amorth. Amorth is the student of the late Catholic Exorcist, Candido Amantini, who, Amorth explains, “was the only person in the world who could claim an experience of thirty-six years as a full-time exorcist.” (p13) Currently, Amorth is billed as “the Chief Exorcist of Rome.”

He is writing here as a Roman Catholic whose primary concern is the Church of Rome’s failure to take the reality of demon possession seriously. He argues throughout that Bishops must return to a Scriptural understanding of the subject and, furthermore, must begin training and appointing Exorcists once more.

As a Protestant, there are many things in this book that I reject. The use of holy water during the exorcism, the advice to call upon Mary for her protection and help (Amorth has written four books about Mary), and the use of the Roman ritual of exorcism.

That being said, I will still recommend this book to any who would like a serious, pastoral discussion on demon possession. While Amorth is certainly a Roman Catholic writer, he is not an anti-Protestant writer. In fact, Amorth praises Protestants for having taken the issue much more seriously than Catholics and for being very effective in this area. I am not sure I agree with his assessment, but I do appreciate his honesty.

We make take many of Amorth’s concerns and apply them to the Body of Christ at large. Demonology has for too long been shrugged off by the arrogant naturalism of skeptics in the church. On the other hand, it has also been too long squandered and abused by sensationalists who play fast with the truth.

Amorth’s voice stands in the midst of this abuse and calls for understanding. His handling of the inevitable issue of demon possession versus mental instability is masterful. Yes, many (and, Amorth says, most) of those who claim to be demon possessed are not, but some are, and while we must approach each case with wisdom and reason, we must not jettison a Biblical belief in the reality of demon possession in the process. Some people are victims of our adversary who can only be freed by the authority of the name of Christ in the act of Exorcism.

Having been disillusioned myself some years ago by authors on this subject (ever hear of Mike Warnke? Good.), it is refreshing to find a writer who approaches the issue with sensitivity, faith, reason and pastoral care. I have never ceased to believe in the reality of demon possession. And, while I have only encountered one case that I suspect was possession, I cannot help but believe that the spiritual war about which Scripture speaks continues to be waged all around us. Let us be thankful, then, for men such as Gabriele Amorth who take the battle seriously. It is not until we begin to do so as well that we will see victory.