Evangelical Christians, as is normally the case, have rightly diagnosed the problem of obsessive demonology, but unfortunately the strategy evangelicals appear to be pursuing, of running a million miles in the opposite direction, suffers from the mistake exchanging simplicity for a complex all encompassing worldview.
I normally do not like scary movies. I like movies that are a ‘parable’ which says something in a way that changes my outlook of life. I think most scary movies don’t fit into this parable model. But ‘The Conjuring’ is, I think, an exception. ‘The Conjuring’ is a movie that helps engage the Church and the culture with the scriptural Truths, as disturbing as it may be to some, about the reality of the supernatural.
Theological Enough for Hollywood
I liked Conjuring for multiple reasons
1. It is based on a true life incident.
2. It is based on the work of paranormal researchers (Ed and Lorraine Warner) who looked for rational explanations for the paranormal but also believed sometimes it is reasonable to believe in the reality of the supernatural.
3. If they sensed the supernatural was involved, then they resorted to the Catholic tradition of exorcism, (which I believe is more or less theologically sound). Of course, there were parts where the movie veered away from Christian principles of exorcism.
I want to expand a bit on point # 3 a bit. Here is one scene in the movie which I felt the movie accurately portrayed the Christian worldview.
At the beginning of the movie, Ed and Lorrine Warner interview a family that has experiences some weird stuff with their doll. They contend to Ed and Lorrine that the doll is demon possessed. Ed hears their story and then says something like, “the possession of the doll is only an illusion. What is really going on is the devil, if it is possessing something, it is you. Devils like to possess other living beings.” I believe this way of thinking ties well with the Biblical principles of demon possessions (there are some devils that have dominion over places Dan 10:13 etc… but that is a different topic). We see in the Bible that the Devil’s job is not just to tempt people to sin. We do see the Devil possessing people. We see Jesus exorcising them. We see Paul doing likewise too. I would suggest that some of us may be called to imitate Jesus and Paul on that (Matt 10:1,8, Mark 6:13, Luke 9:1, Luke 10:17).
The movie ends with a quote from Ed Warren which went something like this, “The world is filled with unseen forces… forces of good and evil… forces of light and darkness… the destiny of man depends on which force you elect to align with”. When I read that, I was in the movie theater praising God! You couldn’t get more theological than that… for a Hollywood movie, if you know what I mean.
A Vehicle Carrying Disturbing Truth that can Save
Here is what surprised me… when the quote was put up on the screen, I could distinctly hear people hissing, sighing aloud… Their hissing gave credence to the view that such Truths disturb people. I read umpteen movie reviews about how this movie is scary – don’t see it alone, will scare the underpants off, an uncommonly frightening experience. The fact of the matter is the movie in and of itself isn’t really scary at all. What scares people is the Truth depicted in and through the movie.
I know at least one person who told me he became a Christian after he saw the original movie classic ‘The Exorcist’. I have heard of others having similar experiences in coming to Christ. The basic thrust of such movies is not so much scare people into the arms of Christ as much as helps them realize the bigger Truths and bigger Realities (of the principalities and power of evil Ephesians 6:12) that they have been oblivious to. Such exposure to the Truth helps some people reorient themselves to the bigger realities of life that revolves around God and His goodness in overcoming evil. Movies can be vehicles of such disturbing Truth that can save people.
Truth is a powerful weapon. I am not alone on this view. Dave Mustine the Christian Heavy Metal legend, the founding-member of the heavy metal band ‘Metallica’ and later the founder of the heavier metal band ‘Megadeath’, who was originally into witchcraft and such, before he became Christian, talks about how he would cast spells on people when he was into into witchcraft. Towards the end of the video interview, Dave replies (presumably to a question from the interviewer if he was a dangerous guy when he was into witchcraft), “I am actually more dangerous now (after becoming a Christian)… because, I am armed with the Truth now”. Boom!!! You can see the video.
The Evangelical Christian Response: Fear, Suspicion and/or Indifference
What I was surprised by even more than the hissing of the (presumed) pagans in the movies, is the response to the movie on the evangelical Christian side. A Christian posted on Facebook that it was the most ‘uneasy disturbing’ 2 hours of his recent life. Other Christians commented empathizing with him. I almost commented saying, “Don’t we all worship Someone whose miracle workings involved exorcisms?”, but then I didn’t. I decided to write this post instead. As Christians, we shouldn’t fear these evil spirits or their manifestations. After all we worship the God who has bequeathed to us ‘His dominion and authority in the world’.
Then I was speaking with another friend over lunch and told him about my thoughts on the movie and that Jesus did not shy away from exorcisms, he encouraged his Disciples to exercise dominion over demons (Matt 10:1,8, Mark 6:13, Luke 9:1, Luke 10:17). Paul didn’t shy away from exorcisms either (Acts 16:16-18, Acts 19:13-16). My good friend said he belonged in the John MacArthur school of theological thinking where things such as exorcisms are view upon with suspicion. MacArthur’s position, as my friend stated, is that we are called to preach and teach the Gospel, not to exorcise. I believe this position is ‘very narrow’ reading of he Scriptures. Jesus commissioned us to sent people free which may or may not involve exorcisms. My friend replied, “I don’t disagree. But we need to be careful that exorcism shouldn’t become an obsession either”.
My friend had a valid point. Yes, it is true that we shouldn’t develop an obsession for exorcism. It is true that may be 0.00001% Christians are obsessed with exorcisms. But this does not mean that rest of the 99.99999% of Christians have to run a million miles in the opposite direction and not even talk or discuss or teach about demonology and exorcism. Unfortunately much of evangelical christendom chooses to forget that Christ taught his disciples about exorcism (Matt 17:18-20, Mark 9:28-29) out of fear that talking about it would cause people to misuse it or talking about it wouldn’t help the cause of evangelism, on the contrary, may even hurt it. Christ wasn’t reticent about exorcisms. Neither should we be. He did not sweep it under the rug. Neither should we. Christendom treating the topic of demonology with sheer indifference pays heavily for it. As C.S.Lewis says in ‘Screwtape Letters’, the key strategy of the devil is to make us believe he and his ‘minions’ do not exist. Anyways, isn’t is a pity when 99.99999% Christians become the foil for his strategy by being indifferent to it. (Of course, I love the ‘Despicable Me’ ‘minions’ as the next guy, just saying).
People of the Truth Who Embrace Complexity
Again, I want to stress the point that Evangelical Christians have good reasons to be suspicious of potential for obsession of Christians about demonology. The culprit here is a character flaw that humans have, which is that humans crave simplicity. We see this craving for simplicity even in philosophy, from Greek Anaximenses who wanted to explain everything in terms of air to post modern Sartre who wanted to explain everything in terms of the absurd. Evangelical Christians rightly fear that if someone gets into exorcism, then they will explain everything in terms of demonology and miss the point of the Gospel. Evangelical Christians, as is normally the case, have rightly diagnosed the problem of obsessive demonology, but unfortunately the strategy evangelicals appear to be pursuing, of running a million miles in the opposite direction, suffers from the mistake exchanging simplicity for a complex all encompassing worldview. Instead of embracing a complex world which involves a nuanced theology of demonology, creation’s fallen-ness and God’s sovereignty held in balance they want a simpler version where demonology is removed from the equation.
As my friend and Bible teacher Kemper Crabb teach in his class ‘The Revolutions’, as Christians we need to embrace the complexity of theology and hold a nuanced view of life that reflects Biblical worldview. Or as my other friend and Bible teacher Chuck Dotson would say, we should resist the tendency to put theology in small neat boxes with every looking perfect and tidy… nothing overflowing. NO! life is too terrible, complex and beautiful to fit into cute little cubes.
Called to be People of the Truth
We as Christians are called to be ‘people of the Truth’. Truth is never simple. Truth is complex and mysterious as Christ is. As we live this life and get more and more sanctified, by the work of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God and the community of the Saints, we get to a deeper and more complex understanding of the Scriptures, and consequently of life too. As we bring every thought ‘captive to Christ’, the world/culture around us will follow too. We are called to live the Truth in the culture around us, even if 0.00001% people misuse the Truth. There will always be people misusing the Truth. We need not let them dictate the manifestation of Christian Truth in the culture, whether it be the topic of exorcism or exercise of Gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Church for that matter.
Back to the Parable
A parable is a simple story told in a way that can disturb us from a sense of complacency and awakes us to that ubiquitous truth we have consciously or subconsciously been oblivious to. Movies can be such ‘parables’ which engage the culture/church with the Truth of the Word of God. If Christ were to have incarnated into the 21st century world, it wouldn’t have been very far off for him to make movies to communicate his ‘parable-Truths’. People who find movies like ‘The Conjuring’ disturbing, may be in a good place after all, for they are being woken up to the Truth which some part of their subconscious mind acknowledges to be true, no matter how much their conscious mind may try to resist it.