Religious Ambiguity in The Exorcist 6 December 2016
After years of optimistic denial, I finally admit it. A number of people—including people with premium pedigrees and advanced degrees—do not understand the differences between Christian denominations. Some of them do not know about the disparity. Some of them do not care to know. But oftentimes it’s not their fault. They are bombarded with mixed messages from popular culture. Hollywood’s depiction of religion is among these mixed messages. And it does not always deliver the most precise portrayal.
The Exorcist television series premiered on Fox, the popular American network, this fall. When I first heard that a “The Exorcist” sequel series was appearing on a network television station, I became excited—but then deeply skeptical. After all, the theological richness of William Peter Blatty’s original 1971 The Exorcist novel remains understated. People are often unaware that Blatty, a Catholic and Georgetown University alumni, not only wrote The Exorcist as a “350-page thank you note to the Jesuits,” but he was also quite active on the set of Willam Friedkin’s 1973 film version of The Exorcist. Moreover, it still remains relatively unknown that the Catholic Church actually endorsed the film version.
The directors of the 2016 The Exorcist television series, Rupert Wyatt and Jeremy Slater, do not follow Blatty’s theological mission and heritage. Consequently, in their attempt to represent Catholic tradition, they confuse some Catholic attitudes with Protestant attitudes. Is this conflation a big deal to Christians watching the show? Probably not. The plot is interesting. The acting is well executed. The show is entertaining. On the other hand, does the conflation misinform the wider populace? I think it does. By confusing denominational details, The Exorcist expresses that all Christian beliefs are the same: a false generalization.
Several examples appear throughout the premiere episode:
1.)The Mass. In one of the very first scenes, Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera) is delivering a homily at Mass. Discouraged by the pulpit, he descends into the congregation and begins peaching in the middle of the pews. Doing so, the television show’s directors effectively characterize Father Tomas as a rebellious “man of the people.” However, Father Tomas does not obey what Catholics understand as sacred and structured liturgy of the Mass. Catholic priests are not allowed to walk up and down the aisle preaching. Rome has established the liturgical order of Mass: every word, every object, every gesture. And this liturgy demands that priests should stand at the pulpit.
In this scene, Father Tomas disobeys his priestly orders, but the show does not make his disobedience clear to the audience. As a result, non-Catholics may think that Father Tomas’s behavior is commonplace. Preachers are certainly allowed to stroll amongst the congregation in some Protestant denominations. However, The Exorcist series upends Catholic tradition by integrating these Protestant freedoms into a Catholic Mass. Overall, it misrepresents Catholicism, but also undercuts Protestant traditions.
2.)Father Marcus Keane. Father Marcus (Ben Daniels) is another priest characterized by his acts of rebellion rather than his obedience to the Church. When a Vatican priest, Father Bennett, is sent to retrieve Father Marcus from Mexico City for spending too much time on an exorcism case, Father Marcus immediately pulls a gun on his fellow priest. At the end of the episode, audiences discover that Father Marcus still lives as a priest at a Chicago retreat with other clergy. This was a curious development. If a priest pulls a gun on a Vatican priest (or anyone for that matter), I’m not sure he would be allowed to continue representing the Church. This conflict not only depicts the Church as a disheveled, unethical organization, but more importantly, Father Marcus’s resistance indicates that he views the Holy See as superfluous. His attitude resembles the very attitude of the Protestant Reformation that birthed a number of thriving Christian denominations.
3.)Existence of demons. When Angela Rance (Geena Davis) visits Father Tomas to explain that a demon resides in her house, Father Tomas tells her, “Demons aren’t real. They are an invention of the Church to explain things like addiction, mental illness. They were not monsters or creatures. Demons are metaphors.” Here, Father Tomas’s figurative interpretation of demons aligns more with mainline Protestant denominations. Conversely, the Roman Catholic Church believes in the literal existence of the Devil and Demons. It is the reason why the Catholic Church still keeps official exorcists “on the payroll” whereas Protestants generally do not have such official roles or rites. In fact, Pope Francis recently increased the number of trained exorcists, which speaks to the active role of exorcism in the Catholic Church today.
You might wonder why it matters at all that the show be accurate about religion, when it is, after all, fiction. Well, the devil is in the detail (forgive the pun). Being able to create a convincing and evocative story requires a commitment to particularities that others might miss. Just as the best science fiction isn’t simply pseudo-science, but rooted in our understanding of the way the world works, the best fantasy takes the realities of religion and faith institutions seriously.
In sum, The Exorcist television series glosses over the Catholic-ness of Catholicism. Slater and Wyatt seem to deliberately apply this approach. After all, their goal is to attract an inclusive viewership—to persuade Protestants, Catholics, and even skeptics to keep watching their show. While I recognize that this is a necessary part of the entertainment business, The Exorcist’s blurring of denominational distinctions misinforms the viewership about how religious difference works, and belittles the splendid array of diverse ideologies within Christianity.
I’m excited that religion is being discussed in a contemporary television show such as The Exorcist. It can help spark public conversation about religious culture. However, as American philosopher Richard McKeon tells us: “Communication is education.” From the initial episode, The Exorcist television series does not seem to take its educative responsibility serious enough. Nevertheless, I look forward to watching the full series to see how The Exorcist experiment unfolds. I hope it can help educate others to celebrate religious difference, rather than trying to eliminate it.