A popular type of film in the last 40 years has been the growth of demonic/devil possession in popular culture. Perhaps its inception, The Exorcist, captured millions of audiences worldwide with its vivid depictions of exorcism and what demonic possession looked like.
Fast forward along the decades and more and more films have spread through the culture with themes of hell’s army, demonic possession, or demon related topics such as The Omen (1976), Hellraiser (1988), Spawn (1997). However, in the last 10 years or so there has been an immense interest in Hollywood about everything Catholicism and demonic possession related. Movies I can think of such as Exorcism of Emily Rose, Constantine, The Devil Inside of Me or The Rite have really made us think about the reality of this strange phenomenon.
There are some things that are always intertwined in these particular demonic possession films.
For starters, let’s take the unbelieving priest in The Exorcist and The Rite. These films both had a priest that was a skeptic towards the claims of the supernatural. For example, in the latter film, when the younger soon to be priest has doubts and lack of faith, he is sent to be an observer/ apprentice of a priest that is a veteran exorcist. After a few experiences of seeing really strange things such as coughing up nails and speaking multiple languages, he constantly reverts back to psychological and clinical explanations for why things happen. “Maybe the person is just delusional or schizophrenic,” says the younger priest.
Atheism, materialism, naturalism, however you want to label it, has this issue to confront. Their lack of belief in anything beyond the physical world or anything that slightly requires religious thought blocks them from embracing things of the supernatural. Similarly, you’ll find many modernist Christians that’ll ascribe natural explanations to supernatural phenomena. These will most likely be the ones to not believe in a literal hell as Jesus taught and other miracles recorded in the Bible.
I think the thing to remember is that supernatural events are exactly what the definition conveys. Merriam-Webster defines Supernatural as, “of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially: of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil.” When using this as a workable definition, my belief is that science wouldn’t be able to detect or observe anything miraculous by natural instruments such as the scientific method.
From the skeptical priest standpoint, I’m sure they would be the ones to utter “I only believe in science…if it can’t be proven by the scientific method then I can’t believe it.” True the scientific method does help us understand reality and it has been immensely helpful to our human race, but is it the sole source of all truth? The scientific method only accounts for a phenomenon that can be tested, repeated and observed under certain conditions. However, this method of arriving at truth is limited because there are tons of immaterial things that can’t be reduced to controlled experiments such as faith, love, or grace. Unfortunately, miracles or events from the past can’t be duplicated or replicated to demonstrate their existence. Sean and Josh Mcdowell in their book More Than A Carpenter suggests that evidence from oral tradition, written accounts, or objects they left behind can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that past events occurred.
For example, the scientific method can’t demonstrate whether Jesus Christ existed. However using the three criteria above, we can certainly know that 1) Jewish and Roman writers reference the historical Jesus Christ 2) New Testament writers wrote extensively about Jesus Christ 3) he founded a religion composed of very faithful men who were mostly martyred and remains were scattered throughout the world.
So in other words, the scientific method which is rooted in observation, experiments, hypothesizing, and data is limited to only repeatable events and things such as miracles or past events go beyond its ability.
Which brings me to my next point: the inevitable triumph of faith. Sometimes the culture reinforces this shallow, very lukewarm approach to faith. A real subjective feeling or butterflies. However, when I view the movies such as The Rite, I’m reminded that faith in God is so much more than personal feelings.
Faith is the free human acceptance of all of God’s revelation. Obedience is a key part of faith. In faith, we obey the truth from God. Just as Abraham freely received the revelation from God about his descendants, he was justified by his faith and “counted it to him as righteousness. ( Gen 15:6).” Moreover, Having an intellectual assent of God won’t cut it because faith is personal. Just as all persons of Trinity share in love, God created man to be the receiver of his love through faith.
Just as Jesus rebuked his disciples for their lack of faith in casting out demons, he also reassured them that the smallest morsel of faith could make the impossible happen (Mat 17:20). This is very similar to Luke 1:37 “for nothing will be impossible with God.”
In this movie [The Rite], the younger priest eventually has to perform an exorcism on the priest he has been assigned to as an apprentice. The tables are turned! The rookie unbelieving priest now has to have faith in order to free his teacher. At first, he has doubts and struggles to encounter the demon but progressively moving beyond lip service to a heart-transforming faith.
There is one scene from the film when the veteran priest says “you can only defeat it when you believe in it” which totally revolves around the necessity of faith.
For the younger priest to wrestle with the claims of the supernatural, he was essentially losing the fight of spiritual warfare. He committed a terrible action, failing to name your enemy in warfare. In addition, he underestimated the forces of evil. Without the proper spiritual ammo, he was prepared to go into battle to rescue his teacher. The doubts and skepticism he had wouldn’t hold true in the arena of the supernatural, so ultimately he abandoned it to embrace faith and triumphed.
The good thing about Christianity is Jesus Christ conquered death and its sting by overcoming the grave. There is a mighty power in the name and authority of Jesus Christ. Essentially in Catholicism, a priest partakes in his authority, through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, when casting out demons in persona Christi. Really the priest had all the artillery but failed to harness its true power. Just as Paul mentioned, our current spiritual battle isn’t against rulers or governing authorities, but primarily against the evil forces of darkness. Hence why the church on earth is referred to as “militant.” God didn’t leave us to our own might but instead has given us Jesus Christ, who has defeated the same powers that war against us, to be present with us until the end of the age.
Christianity is a religion epitomized by faith. God never ceases to gather those whom he has called without faith. In fact, its a requirement for a relationship with God. As the writer of Hebrews said, “And without faith, it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Heb. 11:6). ” These exorcist/ demonic films demonstrate the necessity of why faith is important. Not only do we access fellowship with God, but we tap into his reservoir of supernatural strength.