I feel more than a little like I jumped in to the deep end yesterday. Diving in to the story of the Gerasene Demoniac raised as many questions as it could have answered. It just seems far too easy to accept the reality of personal evil of the kind I discussed yesterday. To say I’m hesitant on this matter is an understatement. The truth is I just don’t want to become one of those who sees demons in every bump in the night, every person who commits an evil act, every event that is explainable by perfectly mundane yet certainly horrific circumstances.
Earlier this morning, as I considered how to continue this internal journey through the darkness, I wondered if I hadn’t begun in the wrong place. For all we Christians seem to think the Bible is the best place to begin any kind of spiritual study, the phenomenon of demonic possession has so many layers both of religious and popular thought, art, careful consideration as well as too casual nonsense makes it difficult to make sense of the matter. Coming to a subject like this in which careless, thoughtless acceptance mixed with just a bit too much gratuitous fascination, both religiously and secularly, makes it impossible for me to take it seriously, even as I recognize both the reality of the Scriptural testimony as well as the reality of evil as something distinct from other human phenomena, individually and communally.
Which is why I wanted to take a step back today. Any kind of interpretive and appropriative act involves being clear before hand about what one believes, if anything, about the subject in question. It might seem odd that someone who has never really accepted the whole Devil/Hell/Demons business would have his own set of images about what such might look like. I do, though. For me, hell would appear very much like the above illustration. The whole air of darkness; creatures whose appearance defies any reasonable understanding; the deep fear seeing something like this approaching me would hold. It’s madness, really, but not clinical mental illness. Rather, the surreal and impossible made real. The worst part of it all wouldn’t be the individual parts, or even their sum total. It wouldn’t be the fear it would hold over me. No, what would end up making me scream in terror would be the realization that this would be my lot forever. That, more than any individual experience would leave me bereft of any hope, any sanity, any desire even to resist.
This has little to do with conventional religious or secular ideas or images of spiritual evil, hell, or the demonic as real things and experiences. It is, rather, perhaps my most deeply rooted fear. The fear I think we all have of losing one’s mind, of never being able to see any light, any life, anything that makes any sense. This is why I hated Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. That wouldn’t be an interesting place to explore; on the contrary, I would spend most of my time trying to find a way out and never return.
Our culture, on the other hand, is filled to overflowing with images, ideas, thoughts, even distinct theological and otherwise religious approaches to matters of spiritual evil. Whether it’s kids puking pea soup or floating above their beds; whether it’s the rite of exorcism or the or a blessing of a house or person seemingly oppressed by dark forces; from the horrific appearance of those allegedly possessed to the demon calling out our deepest held secrets, fears, and sins, dragging them to the light of day to frighten us from sending it away. All of these and each of these are stock features both of sectarian and secular thoughts about the demonic.
And all of it, to me, is nonsense. I refuse to buy it. It doesn’t accord with any experience I have ever had, or any experience of anyone I’ve known. Whether it’s the appearance of a horrific smell, violent actions on the part of a particular person, or the appearance of scratches or other marks on people – I just don’t buy it. Indeed, I have yet to see a popular film about exorcism in which the phenomena shown on screen can’t be explained by far more mundane causes, not the least of them incipient mental illness, folie a deux, and feeding delusions of vulnerable minds (particularly children and religious fanatics) to create even more elaborate fantasy lives. Even Munchausen’s Syndrome By Proxy would work well for some of the popular portrayals of demonic possession, including The Exorcist.
Which leaves me in a quandary. What, exactly, am I to do with all this? It all seems so big, both comprehensible yet incomprehensible. Acknowledging the reality of evil . . . does that necessitate acknowledging the reality of the demonic as a spiritual reality? What about the thousands of years of accrued baggage, of legend and myth and theology and popular tripe? Which is the point at which I began.
This is a serious journey I want to undertake, yet it seems I can’t get past the starting line.