Never the demons

The first few chapters of Mark’s gospel mention Jesus’s casting out demons and “unclean spirits” more than five times. The first public work that Jesus performs in Mark is casting a demon out of a man who was calm enough on the outside to attend synagogue on Sabbath. On the other end of the spectrum is the man who lived “among the tombs” and cut himself in demonic madness. The latter example is a bigger spectacle, but it is striking how many times in Mark the Bible just passingly notes that Jesus was casting out unclean spirits in all kind of spaces. They were everywhere, even in public worship. Casting them out wasn’t an occasional part of his ministry; it went hand-in-hand with his teaching and healing.

So the question nagging me is: if the literal people of God were so beset with demonic oppression that the Son of God spent a great deal of time casting out demons (and sent his disciples out to do the same in his name), how beset with demonic oppression are we moderns—we who are “spiritual but not religious,” open to the influence of the numinous but with no knowledge or even desire to know what kind of spiritual forces take us up on our invitation? I’m all for interrogating the harmful effects of some church cultures, but I’m not sure why we don’t even linger over the news of a young man’s murdering eight people to “eliminate temptation” long enough to see the demonic forces that Jesus clearly saw everywhere he went. And when that story is quickly followed by another mass murder in Colorado? The news cycle just resets, and the blood is on the hands of the GOP, or all Muslims, or purity culture, or cancel culture…name your ideological enemy, and you can find someone prominent laying horror at their feet.

Never the demons.

Why not? Perhaps one reason is that ignoring the work of demons allows us to ignore the work the Lord gave us in opposing them. “These kind can only be cast out by prayer,” he once said. Prayer against demonic works, and the earthly powers clearly beholden to those demonic works, is not as satisfyingly assuring as playing a culture war blame game. We look to scapegoat others so that we are not ourselves implicated. And a lot of what gets called “analysis” is merely this: looking at the world for any and every sign that we ourselves are the righteous people we believe us to be, and the Other Side are the wicked tribe we believe them to be. This is not polarization or hatred nearly as much as it is a profoundly deep kind of therapy. Self-righteousness as self-care.

In his book The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs references a stunning quote by the Catholic literary giant W.H. Auden:

Psychoanalysis, like all pagan scientia, says: “Come, my good man, no wonder you feel guilty. You have a distorting mirror, and that is indeed a very wicked thing to have. But cheer up. For a trifling consideration I shall be delighted to straighten it out for you. There. Look. A perfect image. The evil of distortion is exorcised. Now you have nothing to repent of any longer. Now you are one of the illumined and elect. That will be ten thousand dollars, please.”

And immediately come seven devils, and the last state of that man is worse than the first.

One of the themes in Mark is how the demons know Jesus. They know who he is. The demons are far more theologically astute than the people, even Jesus’s disciples. The man among the tombs cries out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” After Jesus sends this man’s demons into the pigs, the herdsmen and townspeople beg Jesus to leave their region. If they listened to the demons, they wouldn’t have done this. Against their own will, the unclean spirits declare truth, the deep nature of things. But what if we can’t hear them? What if the “distorting mirrors” suck, like a black hole, all attention onto its image?

We see horror. We blame the fundamentalists, the progressives, the Calvinists, the woke. “If only these people—the people who raised me, the people I met in college, the people in my old church or the people at this other church—if only these people would change or go away,” we say, “the world would not be such a horrible place.” No one responds to this way of thinking with prayer. No one is moved to fast by the feeling that those Bad People Over There must be stopped. We are moved to Tweet, to blog, to rage, to shut out. To look more deeply into that distorting mirror.

Never the demons.