Theology and “The Last Exorcism”

Posted: March 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

The Last Exorcism was a 2010 hit “found film” mockumentary that recently dropped as a DVD.  The film focuses on semi-successful pentecostal preacher and exorcist Cotton Marcus who was raised by his father, (also a pastor/healer/exorcist), to approach ministry in a way produces the maximum amount of tithes for “the church doesn’t run on love!” 

The young Rev. Marcus has lost his faith and invited a documentary film crew to follow him on his last “exorcism” in order to expose the whole process, which he believes in totum is fraudulent.  Of course, you can see what is coming next for a country mile…the last exorcism may very well present Rev. Marcus with a true case of demon possession. 

The Last Exorcism, like the 1971 classic The Exorcist, presents a fallen minister who no longer believes in the supernatural but is confronted with a case that he struggles to fit within naturalistic categories and ultimately must re-embrace the faith. 

There are number of issues here that could be fruitfully explored but what fascinates me most is the persistence in stories that while religion may be fraud what it purports to believe may still be authentic.  Where does that belief come from? Is it just a modern example of a campfire tale or does it point to something deeper?  If it is something deeper than what do believers do with such knowledge?

This weekend at one of Revolution’s Free Seminary classes we discussed the existence of God and read the following from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology:

 All persons everywhere have a deep, inner sense that God exists, that they are his creatures, and that he is their Creator. Paul says that even Gentile unbelievers “knew God” but did not honor him as God or give thanks to him (Rom. 1:21). He says that wicked unbelievers have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25), implying that they actively or willfully rejected some truth about God’s existence and character that they knew. Paul says that “what can be known about God is plain to them,” and adds that this is “because God has shown it to them” (Rom. 1:19).

Yet Scripture also recognizes that some people deny this inner sense of God and even deny that God exists. It is “the fool” who says in his heart, “There is no God” (Ps. 14:1; 53:1). It is the wicked person who first “curses and renounces the Lord” and then in pride repeatedly thinks “there is no God” (Ps. 10:3–4). These passages indicate both that sin leads people to think irrationally and to deny God’s existence, and that it is someone who is thinking irrationally or who has been deceived who will say, “There is no God.”
Paul also recognizes that sin will cause people to deny their knowledge of God: he speaks of those who “by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18) and says that those who do this are “without excuse” for this denial of God (Rom. 1:20). A series of active verbs indicates that this is a willful suppression of the truth (Rom. 1:23, 25, 28, 32).
In the life of a Christian this inner awareness of God becomes stronger and more distinct. We begin to know God as our loving Father in heaven (Rom. 8:15), the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16), and we come to know Jesus Christ living within our hearts (Eph. 3:17; Phil. 3:8, 10; Col. 1:27; John 14:23). The intensity of this awareness for a Christian is such that though we have not seen our Lord Jesus Christ, we indeed love him (1 Peter 1:8).

Wayne Grudem Systematic theology : An introduction to biblical doctrine (Zondervan, 1996), 141.

In both The Exorcist and The Last Exorcism, the ministers who are the focus of the films have lost their faith due to experience.  The question of whether sin is the true reason for their fall from grace is not even considered.  The priest in The Exorcist has lost his mother who, despite his education and standing within the Catholic Church, died in abject poverty.  The priest’s training in modern psychology that dismisses claims of the supernatural provide cover for the priest to turn his back on the God. 

The pentecostal preacher in the The Last Exorcist has been raised to believe that religion is a scam and, after reading about the death of a boy the same age as his handicapped son at the hands of another so-called exorcist, the preacher decides to drop any semblance of belief.  Yet, a counter experience finally forces both men to believe once again. 

How much do these films, one loosely based on a true story and one filmed as if it were a documentary, point to our desire to experience something to confirm the seed of faith that God has planted within us?  It is my own experience that those who struggle with belief grow tired and long for their mind and heart to finally follow one path or the other. 

Should we pray that those who face existential crisis experience dramatic supernatural episodes? I find that many fellow pastors desire that God does indeed move in such a way that it cannot be explained by natural means.  Yet, doesn’t Scripture actually paint a bleak portrait of those who are attracted to “signs and wonders”?  How many truly understand and follow Jesus to the cross because of the miracles he performed?

If faith is truly written on our hearts then should we be hoping and praying for public displays of the supernatural or praying for the quiet work of God’s Spirit to do its work while we establish relationships with those struggling to suppress this inner sense?  After all, it isn’t the startling screams of demons that create disciples but quiet prayers and meaningful conversations with those we love too much to live without knowledge of the Gospel.

Yet, Scripture is filled with the mighty acts of God and to dismiss them as unnecessary would imply that God was wasting his time.  The miracles witnessed to by the Bible appear to teach believers about God and the ways of His Kingdom rather than make followers out of those actively attempting to deny belief in YHWH.  For example, I don’t believe that when Jesus healed someone he was simply attempting to gain a hearing but display the type of Kingdom that He would establish–one where there would be neither sickness nor death.

In the end, as a horror movie freak, I loved both The Last Exorcism and The Exorcist.  Both are fine films and the latter was actually penned by a believer but I think the underlying premise that experience of the supernatural may instill (or re-instill) faith is a false one.  It isn’t experience that makes disciples but the Spirit, who blows where it will, and the hard, quiet, and often mundane work of the church.


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