90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Possession And Exorcism

The Devil made me do it. We’re looking at the long story of possession and exorcism.

In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment, Max Von Sydow portrays Father Merrin in a scene from "The Exorcist." (AP/Warner Bros.)

In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment, Max Von Sydow portrays Father Merrin in a scene from “The Exorcist.” (AP/Warner Bros.)

Demonic possession and exorcism can sound awfully medieval.  But their heyday, says my guest today, was in the same age as Sir Isaac Newton and the dawn of the Age of Reason.  On the one hand, science.  On the other, frothing seizures and shouting out the devil.

The second heyday of possession and exorcism, says scholar Brian Levack?  Well, our time.  Maybe or maybe not on your block.  But it’s back.  It’s out there.  It’s ritual reenactment, says Levack.  But of what?  And why?

This hour, On Point:  chasing the devil.  Exorcism.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Brian Levack, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of “The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West.”

Brian Levack on the Current Heyday of Exorcism

We spoke today with historian Brian Levack of the University of Texas at Austin about possession and exorcism, from past centuries right up to the present day. He’s the author of the new book, “The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West.”

There have been two great peaks of belief in possession and exorcism in the Christian West, Levack said: the first at the dawn of the Age of Reason, and the second we’re in the midst of right now.

Here’s Levack on the current surge in belief in demonic possession:

“It’s in communities, especially in highly religious communities, especially evangelical and charismatic religious communities, who believe in a direct relationship between demonic spirits and human beings […] and whenever you have that belief, and that is a belief that has been cultivated greatly in the late twentieth century, you’re going to get cases of demonic possession. And then you have the demand for exorcists to relieve people of these symptoms of demonic possession. You also have a number of exorcists, especially in Italy and in Latin America, and in Poland, far fewer in America – and that might help to explain why we’re not familiar with this, I don’t meet demoniacs every day! – but you have these exorcists who actually go out and drum up business. They’re celebrity exorcists. There’s one in Italy who claims to have exorcised 70,000 people!”

So what’s behind all this (if not actual demons)? Levack sees possession as a behavior based on belief that can be dispelled through the ritual and performative aspects of an exorcism.

“All possessions were sacred dramas. They were performances. The demoniacs and the exorcists, who were trying to drive out the devils, were following scripts that were encoded in their religious cultures. And these scripts were widely known, you have some of them in the Bible, but you also have all these accounts of other possessions that people read at this time. And once it was suggested that someone might be demonically possessed, you know they had fits or something like that, they would follow that script. […] Certainly the anxiety was real, and they are responding to it.”

Excerpt: ‘The Devil Within’ by Brian P. Levack

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
ONPOINT
TODAY
Apr 1, 2015
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, center right, European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, center left, and other officials from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States wait for the start of a meeting on Iran's nuclear program at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland Tuesday, March 31, 2015.  (AP)

Iran and the nuclear negotiations. We’ll look at where they’ve gone and what comes now.

Apr 1, 2015
Characters and logo from BabyFirstTV , a television and digital entertainment group specifically targeting infants and babies younger than two years old. (BabyFirstTV / Facebook)

A new network aimed exclusively at infants and toddlers. We weigh the impact.

RECENT
SHOWS
Mar 31, 2015
Jazz icon Billie Holiday performs in New York City's Club Downbeat in February 1947.  (Library of Congress / Creative Commons)

A meditation on the life and music of Billie Holiday. The lady who sang the blues.

 
Mar 31, 2015
Some of the hundreds of people who gathered outside the Indiana Statehouse on Saturday, March 28, 2015, for a rally against legislation signed Thursday by Gov. Mike Pence stand on the Statehouse's south steps during the 2-hour-long rally. (AP)

Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Critics call it anti-gay. Business leaders say bad for the economy. The governor’s not backing down. We’ll dive in.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Our Week In The Web: March 27, 2015
Friday, Mar 27, 2015

More on the incessant email debate, plus some goats living their best lives and the sad allure of Manhattan’s shuttered Pommes Frites.

More »
2 Comments
 
Mobile Payments Offer Convenience If You Keep Your Email Safe
Thursday, Mar 26, 2015

Thinking about moving your wallet to your phone? You can! And maybe you should? But TechCrunch senior writer Josh Constine has a few things to tell you before you do.

More »
1 Comment
 
Using Technology To Get Your Kids Outside
Thursday, Mar 26, 2015

The latest and greatest — using apps to make natural exploration more fun for your kids.

More »
Comment