Sunday, 29 September 2013

Teen Exorcists

"Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, 'In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.' Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. 15 One day the evil spirit answered them, "Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?'" (Acts 19: 13-15)
Brynne Larson, 18, and sisters Tess and Savannah Scherkenback, aged 18 and 21, are determined to rescue London's youngsters from evil spirits, which they say they are inviting to possess them by reciting the spells in the Harry Potter books. The threesome, from Arizona, believe the spells in J.K. Rowling's best-selling fantasy series are real, and dangerous.  In fact, they see Britain as a hotbed of occult activity whose origins go back to pagan times. Savannah explains: 'It has been centuries in the making, but I believe it came to a pinnacle with the Harry Potter books.' 'The spells you are reading about are not made up,' adds Tess. 'They are real and come from witchcraft.'(Daily Mail,1)
I watched the documentary on BBC3, "Teen Exorcists" by Dan Murdoch, and I was amazed at statements like these. If they think that "expelliarmus" or "riddikulus" are "real spells", then why bother to listen to anything else they say? I've studied the history of witch trials, and folk beliefs about witchcraft, and I can say with some confidence that those have never been part of the spell craft at any time. Of course, it transpires that the girls have never read the books, and never would, because they think they are "satanic", so that is not exactly surprising.
Charlet Duboc, who also made a documentary on the girls, said that "The way they come across on camera is just the way they were when we turned off the camera, they never stopped the vacant smiling"
With their karate skills, and good looks, they came across rather like clones from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but they come from a very different background - pushy American fundamentalism. Brynne's father the Reverend Bob Larson is a failed Television Evangelist, and there is an air of marketing about how they promote themselves. As the Anorak website notes:
"They are committed to the beliefs and worldview expounded by Brynne's father Bob Larson, a man who has been a familiar figure in US media for years with extravagant tales of Satanic cults and of exorcising thousands of people who he says have been spiritually oppressed by demonic powers."
"Bob Larson, as ever, came across as a showman who pays close attention to branding; his church's slogan is "DWJD" - "Do What Jesus Did", referring to the role of Jesus as exorcist in the Bible - and he wields a distinctive ornamental cross. This cross, along with his clerical garb and dog collar, appear to be a pastiche of Roman Catholicism, but it all plays into the popular image of what an exorcist should look like. Larson's background is actually in neo-Pentecostalism" (2)
That description of Bob Larson struck a chord, and I remembered G.K. Chesterton's "The Vampire of the Village" where there is an actor masquerading as an Anglican parson, until he is unmasked by Father Brown:
"No Anglican parson could be so wrong about every Anglican problem. He was supposed to be an old Tory High Churchman; and then he boasted of being a Puritan. A man like that might personally be rather Puritanical; but he would never call it being a Puritan. He professed a horror of the stage; he didn't know that High Churchmen generally don't have that special horror, though Low Churchmen do. He talked like a Puritan about the Sabbath; and then he had a crucifix in his room. He evidently had no notion of what a very pious parson ought to be, except that he ought to be very solemn and venerable and frown upon the pleasures of the world."
Bob Larson is very different in his style, but there is also a feeling that this style is a fabrication. There's the Holy Water, the Cross, which is sometimes thrust out as if he was playing the part of Van Helsing in Dracula, and the Bible is used as a physical object, a talisman of power to help remove the demons. There's a lot of performance there.
And there is certainly money in this, as the Examiner points out:
"On his personal and church blog, Larson is up to the usual tactics including asking or requesting money from the masses, preaching against paganism, telling the public about the spread of Satanism, looking for support for his war on the demonic, promoting his exorcism ministry, and now there is even a demon test you can take online. Of course the online demon test does require PayPal payment, so if you do not have an account, it seems you cannot be saved. Not to mock, but it is a terrible example of website exploitation at its worst."
Meanwhile Thomas Peters on Catholic Vote, is even more scathing about their self-promotion - "Brynne Larson, 16, is one of many newly-qualified teenage demon slayers". He acidly comments:
"How you can combine the words "qualified", "teenage", and "demon slayers" in the same sentence escapes me."(3)
Free Thought is very scathing:
"Fake 'exorcist' and con man Bob Larson's current meal tickets, his teenage daughter and her two friends that he markets as the Charlie's Angels of exorcism, are hitting England on their world tour of nonsense."(4)
But what is left out of most of the media presentation is the degree to which these exorcisms are psychologically abusive. They manipulate vulnerable people, they plant pernicious ideas that people are demon possessed in distressed people and then proceed to "cure" them.
The techniques are similar to those exposed by Derren Brown in his documentary on Fake Healers, and the worse thing is that they have no idea of how damaging they can be to people.  As Duboc said:
"It was depressing because I just didn't see that exorcisms were going to help any of these people in the long term. It was a shame, these are lives being lived with the wool over their eyes." (6)
It is important to note, perhaps, in closing, that the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church both have a ministry of exorcism, but it should be only sought after proper medical and psychiatric professionals also have assessed the situation.
For example, Anglican priests may not perform an exorcism without permission from the Diocesan bishop. An exorcism is not usually performed unless the bishop and his team of specialists (including a psychiatrist and physician) have approved it.
But what it may come to is the complexity of the human mind, the way in which it can split into disassociated personalities. A good example is the book "Operators and Things", a personal experience of schizophrenia.
That does not mean that exorcism may not be a good way to treat it/ As Psychologist Dr Mitch Byrne from the University of Wollongong says, while he does not believe in demons, the method of exorcism has its merits.
"Oddly enough, I'd say yes there is a place for these people. If you are a person who is possessed of a delusional belief or a psychiatric disability, and you have a strong religious belief, and that belief can be marshalled to help you overcome your distress then why not? I wouldn't say it is the best call or should be the first call in terms of a way of dealing with psychological disturbance, but people should never underestimate the power of belief. Suicide bombers and Kamikaze pilots are evidence that the power of belief is beyond any sort of rational argument, so perhaps working within someone's belief system is the best way to help them recover from their disability or distress."(7)

1 comment:

James said...

Your mention of Buffy raises the nice irony that the creator of the eponymous vampire-slayer, Joss Whedon, is a committed atheist.