Editor’s Note: Throughout the month of June our writers will explore the way that God, grace, and the gospel show up in pop culture.
A few weeks ago, on an unusually cold and rainy Saturday morning, I curled up on my couch with a cup of coffee and watched The Exorcist. I hadn’t planned to watch it. But I had woken up exhausted from four weeks of working a new job while still working at an old job, running around, trying to keep everything together. I apologized to God that morning for not sitting down with my Bible and journal as had been my custom for approximately eight years. I was just so tired and needed to disappear into a good movie for a bit.
I’m not sure why I picked The Exorcist. It might have been a combination of it being set in DC and that it was so early in the day that anything horrific would mostly be forgotten by the time I had to go to sleep. In retrospect, it felt like an invitation, as though God was saying “you don’t need to write me a long journal entry to connect with me. I can show up in all kinds of places.” Because at the end of that movie, I found myself loving God and appreciating the cross of Christ more than I had before.
Before I go on I want to make something clear: this is not at all a recommendation that people watch The Exorcist. There are quite a lot of frightening and disturbing parts of the film. Period. Full stop. If you choose to watch The Exorcist after reading this piece, I cannot promise that you will find it edifying and I am not going to make that claim.
The Exorcist is the story of a youngish Jesuit priest who is beginning to experience doubt and a young girl oppressed by evil forces. Father Damian Karras is burned out from his job as a psychiatrist at Georgetown University and is grieving the death of his mother. At the same time, Regan MacNeil, the daughter of an actress who has been staying in Georgetown to film a movie, begins to exhibit strange behavior. The behavior becomes increasingly more dangerous and horrific and it finally becomes clear that she is demon-possessed. Father Karras is enlisted to exorcise the demon and in turn, he seeks the help of Father Lankester Merrin, who had battled this demon before. The men recite the Rite of Exorcism, pray fervently, sprinkle holy water, but eventually Lankester dies. Then Father Karras, after enduring the antagonism of the demon, asks it to enter him. Which it does and then he subsequently jumps to his death. The movie ends with Regan not remembering anything that happened to her.
Now for the Jesus-y stuff:
The first little tuggings at my spirit came during the first exorcism scene. I looked up the Catholic Rite of Exorcism and with some exceptions, probably because of time constraints, the movie hews pretty close to it. Being a liturgy (and theology) nerd, I was paying pretty close attention to the words that the priests were saying. And you know what? It was beautiful. Here are some takeaways:
The Real Horror is That Sin and Evil Mar the Image of God in Us
Let us pray. Holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who once and for all consigned that fallen tyrant to the flames of hell. Who sent your only begotten son into the world to crush that roaring lion. Hasten to our call for help and snatch from ruination and from the clutches of the noonday devil, this human being made in your image and likeness. Strike terror Lord, into the beast, now laying waste your vineyard, let your mighty hand cast him out of your servant, Regan Teresa MacNeil, so he may no longer hold captive this person, whom it pleased you to make in your image.
This prayer comes from the Rite of Exorcism. As I watched this scene, taking in Regan’s marred and scratched face, the loss of her own voice, the loss of her own personality, it was a clarifying moment. Sin and evil grieve God. We are God’s masterpieces, we bear the image of God. How it must break God’s heart to have his handiwork so horribly vandalized, when we were meant to bless the world with our existence.
In fact, as the rite continues, the priests make pleas for God’s pity and grace. The rite reiterates over and over again, in many ways, the fact that Jesus came to destroy the work of the devil, which includes stealing, killing, and destruction.
So much of what makes this movie scary is the makeup and effects: Regan looks ugly and terrifying and the demon inside her body makes her do disgusting, dehumanizing things. But the movie only exaggerates and brings to the surface the ugliness that often lies in our own hearts and minds. We are right to fear these things, but we are wrong to think that they can separate us from God’s love and compassion, that they’re too much for God. Sure, when we are deep in our sin we experience distance from God. But if Christ came and died “when we were yet sinners,” if the promise is that “nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus” (not even demons), then we truly are “more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
God Uses Imperfect Vessels to Do Powerful Things
The movie shows the priests confessing their sin, again using the Rite of Exorcism. The demon taunts the priests and Father Merrin replies with the Rite: “…Do not despise my command because you know me to be a sinner. It’s God himself who commands you! The majestic Christ who commands! God the Father commands you! God the son commands you! “
I am someone who too often forgets how powerless I am. As I watched this scene that Saturday morning in which I was so exhausted, I couldn’t do my–as Eugene Peterson would put it in The Message–”God projects” and make myself feel righteous through my efforts, it was convicting. Here is a depiction of two men, one wrestling with his doubt, the other weak and frail in body, attempting an exorcism. The only ground that they could stand on was God’s power and Christ’s cross (more on that in the next section). As they confronted this evil thing, they recognized their lack of power and in probably the most famous line from the film (and from the Rite) shout “the power of Christ compels you.” It made me think about the “demons” I face on a regular basis and attempt to defeat with my own willpower and strength, when really the only hope I have is the power of Christ. This power can cast out demons, but it can also sustain and keep me spiritually.
The Mysteries of the Cross and of God’s Church
The power of Christ compels you. … He brought you low by his bloodstained cross!…God the Father commands you! God the son commands you! God the holy spirit commands you! The mystery of the cross commands you!
These words of the Rite are said after the famous “the power of Christ compels you” sequence. There’s a lot of material here to unpack and at the risk of making a terrible pun, the invitation to contemplate the mystery of the cross was compelling.
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he writes this about the cross:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2: 13-15)
It is no wonder that the “mystery of the cross” would be used to compel a demon to obey. We were like Regan in a way–maybe not possessed by an ancient demon, but still spiritually dead, horrifically decaying in our sin. And yet while we were in that state, the King of Glory came to us to make us alive and whole. God, in Christ, does this not through a triumphant show of strength and glory, but in “a lowly cattle shed.” Then this same King conquers death and hell on a wooden cross, outcast and surrounded by criminals, so that no one could ever doubt the lengths God would go to for us and for our salvation. This cross is a symbol of humiliation–not Christ’s, but all those who would set themselves up against him. Jesus did not think it was beneath him to take our sins upon himself and bear them.
And this beautiful act is so clearly evident when Father Karras takes the demon from Regan. Provoked into a rage by the demon, the priest begins to strangle the girl. Catching himself, he remembers that he’s not fighting against “flesh,and blood, but against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:10-12). He sees her suffering and literally invites it into himself, even though it costs him his own life. If that’s not a clear and beautiful picture of the gospel, I don’t know what is.
It is well worth remembering that God will make Godself known, often in the unlikeliest of places. After all, God showed up in a tiny town in a tiny nation, not to the spiritual elites, but to poor shepherds. And the site of Christ’s glory was not a magnificent throne, but a bloody cross. Where will God show up and meet you today?