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
Feb 12, 2016
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., reacts to the cheering crowd at his primary night rally Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

Trump and Sanders take New Hampshire. Ferguson under fire from the Justice Department. A rocky week on Wall Street. Our weekly news roundtable goes behind the headlines.

Feb 12, 2016
Overcast sky surrounds a man as he rests beneath the art sculpture 'Cupid’s Span' Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 at Rincon Park in San Francisco. The Bay area has endured unsettled, rainy weather for a week. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Love in the digital age. Romance, sex and expectations in a time of Tinder, Bumble and O.K. Cupid.

RECENT
SHOWS
Feb 11, 2016
A sampling of same of the great books author David Denby thinks could help encourage young readers to love books. (National Post)

David Denby on the 24 great books that can bring even today’s kids to reading. And maybe you, too.

 
Feb 11, 2016
In this Oct. 21, 2013, file photo, Vern Lund, president of Liberty Mine in central Mississippi near DeKalb, Miss., holds some of the lignite coal planned for use in the nearby Mississippi Power Co. carbon capture power plant. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

The Supreme Court hits the brakes on the heart of President Obama’s push to fight global warming. We’ll dig in.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Notes From New Hampshire, #9: Remedy Or Replica?
Wednesday, Feb 10, 2016

Jack Beatty offers one last note from New Hampshire, and looks beyond to the primary races yet to come in both parties.

More »
Comment
 
Tom Ashbrook’s Note From New Hampshire
Tuesday, Feb 9, 2016

Fresh off the New Hampshire Presidential Primary results, host Tom Ashbrook reflects on his trip to New Hampshire, and on what comes next in the race to the White House.

More »
Comment
 
Notes From New Hampshire, #6: Bernie v. Hillary — The Electability Debate
Monday, Feb 8, 2016

Bill and Betty are not real New Hampshire voters. But their arguments about the Democratic race for President most certainly are.

More »
Comment