I recently decided to give the podcast Supernatural with Ashley Flowers a chance and this week I listened to the episode HAUNTED: The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund. I think I have said it here before I have a somewhat uneasy relationship with the reality of demons and how they interact with our world. Intellectually I acknowledge the existence of demons and Satan, but in my daily life I live like they do not exist– well at least most of the time. I am in many ways a product of the enlightenment which had no time for the supernatural and even though my faith tells me there are beings I have not directly encountered, even though I grew up watching Unsolved Mysteries, and even though I have read and heard accounts which I cannot explain away I do not often think of the reality of demons. I certainly lean towards the first of C.S. Lewis’ errors.
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight. The sort of script which is used in this book can be very easily obtained by anyone who has once learned the knack; but ill-disposed or excitable people who might make a bad use of it shall not learn it from me.C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Our culture is certainly more open to believing in demons than was Lewis’, but I do not think we have any more of a healthy vision of them than previous generations. We are seeing a rise in people looking for supernatural explanations of events, but there seems to be little reflection on the consequences of such activity. The general rise in spiritualism in the wider culture is filtering into the church and the acceptance of, not to mention demand for, exorcisms is up. With this rise in the acceptance of the supernatural we must recognize the deficits of this philosophy. A very real and potentially dangerous mistake is to admit spirits are real in your head and not live that out (remember this is the mistake I often make). When I say this is a mistake let’s not jump off the deep end of the other side and fall into the other error Lewis identified. Rather we must begin to make Satan a regular feature in our theology in such a way as to not give demons too much power. [For anyone like myself who has difficulty believing in demons as active in the world I recommend starting with Richard Beck Reviving Old Scratch, this is a great book for understanding the importance of Satan to theology and he was a person who had less belief in Satan than I did.]
Obviously, this is on my mind because Halloween is this Sunday and when I pass out candy to kids this weekend I am likely to see any number of demonic representations. I know there will be alarmists out there who see this as an invitation to demon possession– and there might certainly be potential for that– but I think the real threat is far more subtle. One of my friends puts it this way, “if you set a bunch of trash in one place what happens? You invite rats. Demons are the same way, leave piles of spiritual trash around and you are inviting them in.” Does this mean events like Halloween are going to lead to more demon possessions– I really do not think it will. But, to continue the analogy, what do rats leave behind, feces and disease. I believe that demons are the same way. If we continue C.S. Lewis’ helpful analogy from The Screwtape Letters of demons engorging on human souls, we can suggest that in certain situations demons do not possess people but snack on them. And when this is done the human is left weaker and more spiritually sick than before. [Please try to remember I am using analogies for things I do not completely understand but have seen evidence for, this is not a literal picture of what is happening.] When we casually and carelessly leave the trash of evil lying around demons take advantage and invite themselves in, and this causes us illnesses which we might not be aware of in the present moment.
Halloween was a holiday which began because people fell into the trap of being too scared of demons– an an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. People felt an intense fear of the demonic which was said to roam the earth on the eve of All Saint’s Day (November 1) and their and was to attempt to scare evil with evil. But this will not work, we might hide the rats by pouring out more trash but we will not be rid of them. The answer is to eliminate the trash, or in this case, eliminate the evil. Eliminating the evil is not simply about eliminating the celebration of Halloween, this can be a fun time for children, but to remove the evil & grotesque from the celebration. Part of having a healthy respect for the power of evil is to admit it has an effect on us. When we are surrounded by evil it impacts us; we become desensitized to evil and less connected to what is Good. Developing a healthy respect for demons in our theology is about recognizing when we are feeding them and when we are starving them. Feeding the demons can mean seeing a demon behind every negative event in life and it can be laughing at them, it can be fear and hiding or a caviler attitude. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters helps us to understand this; he shows us that an intelligent and well practiced demon would be subtle, using life in unanticipated ways. Our goal with all things is to never forget Satan is the beheaded snake, a dead entity that is still dangerous; the real threat to humanity that has limited reach. Where is the threat of demons, it is not living in the tension of understanding Satan is very real and can be very threatening, but is defeated with only a limited range.