my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.
We saw The Excorsism of Emily Rose on Friday night, after reading about it on a few blogs over the week. The whisper was that the film was not a stock horror story, using religious iconography as a prop, but a more sober and thoughtful look at uncomfortable aspects of Christian theism. Godspy provides a rundown on the director of the film and why his treatment of the subject is more thoughtful than a standard genre film.
Scott Derrickson [is a] a graduate of the artsy Christian liberal arts university, Biola, calls himself an “orthodox Christian” and confesses that he’s addicted to the novels of Walker Percy, and to reading and re-reading G.K. Chesterton‘s Orthodoxy. In fact, as Derrickson told me in an interview, Catholic screenwriting maven Barbara Nicolosi warns him, “You’re just one Chesterton book away from crossing the Tiber,” and becoming a Catholic. Whatever his background, Derrickson has crafted a compelling drama which sends you out of the theater feeling queasily fascinated, wondering if you need to seek some kind of protection, despite your faith or lack thereof.
While the story is based on a real events that took place in Germany, the film moves them to contemporary small town USA (the Wikki page is having serious trouble at the moment but you can try this link if the back story interests you). The locale change lead one wit that I read to say the film should have been called “Little House full of demons on the Prairie.” It was filmed in Vancouver and I’m pretty sure that at least some of the university scenes were filmed at my old school, Simon Fraser University. Rebecca also said she spotted a local radio DJ in a very minor role as newscaster.
The major question the film raises is that of the problem of evil:
Emily Rose was not a Satanist or an aspiring witch; she’d never even touched a Ouija board. Indeed, she was the pious, virginal daughter of a devoutly Catholic family—the last person who’d open herself to demonic possession. But demons seem to have kicked down the door, and tormented her for years, until Fr. Moore undertook a course of exorcisms—which failed. If a faithful and holy priest like Fr. Moore cannot expel the forces of evil from the soul of an innocent by invoking the name of Jesus… one begins to wonder: What’s the point? Which side is really stronger, after all? What kind of a God permits such innocent suffering; is He sadistic, incompetent, or merely distracted? Is the Creator an overworked cosmic chef who’s put one too many universes on the stove, and hasn’t noticed that ours is bubbling over?
The answer advanced by Emily and her priest is an uncomfortable one. They suggest that “Emily endured her suffering as a self-sacrificial martyrdom [in order to] suggest that belief in God is somehow confirmed, or at least facilitated, by proving that the devil exists.”
This is a dense idea that needs to be unpacked before it can be addressed.
Why would a good, merciful and all powerful God allow suffering and torment? Why would He allow it to happen to someone devoted to him? How are we to distinguish between the rival hypotheses the film’s courtroom setting provides us with? The theory advanced by the prosecutorial team is that Emily was both epileptic and psychotic, which the defense attempts to counter by claiming that medical treatment was tried, and only when it was judged to be a failure were more extraordinary measures brought in. The conflicting theories raise a deeper issue, and that is: what is the criterion by which we are to choose? Both are based on deep philosophical assumptions that cannot be reduced to a lab test.
The laws of nature and the miraculous can be seen as irreconcilable. Either there are laws that govern the universe and we discover them, or the universe is a serious hodge podge in which nothing that happens today can be counted on to repeat itself tomorrow. Those are the poles in the discussion, but there may be a salvageable middle, which is this. There are indeed laws that govern the operation of the universe with a great deal of regularity – because that is God’s wish. Without that regularity, we could not rationally discover aspects of the universe and pass on our findings to future generations. Because God is the source of these laws, he can bend them from time to time, if – and this is very important – He, in His judgement, decides that it suits his purposes to do so. Such instances must be either very few, or very well hidden in mystery if mankind is not to abandon its struggle to understand the universe and fall into a stunted sort of Fideism.
If that is indeed the real nature of the universe we find ourselves in, how are we to know what sort of phenomenon we are dealing with? Is it miraculous intervention or not? What sort of criterion might God use to decide He will override his own laws here, but not there? If God is indeed all good and all powerful, and is himself the very criterion of all judgment, then both intervention AND non-intervention must be judged to be the most appropriate response. We can’t say, at any point, that either action was wrong. Now that is a hard thing to take. It means that a child dying of leukemia (the laws of nature), and the torments of Emily Rose (the miraculous) are both good actions, no matter how jarring and distasteful they appear to us.
One of the key stumbling blocks on this question (the quote from Isaiah at the beginning of this post is meant to show this) is that we do not have access to the Divine perspective. We cannot see all of time, or all of creation. Just as things that are far away seem small and unimportant, God’s view sees things as they really are, with no distortion whatsoever. We can’t condemn God’s choices without condemning ourselves; we are his creation. What other criteria of objective truth could there be? Clearly, it seems that our lives and our comforts are not of great concern to God, as the case of the childhood leukemia, possession (if there is such a thing) and a host of other things attest.
If our lives and our comforts are not important, what is?
Christian faith tells us that our first duty – the first commandment – is to know and love God. This might provide us with a key to understanding suffering. Children who die young remind us that our our lives are short and can be taken from us at any time. There is no period in which we can say we are safe and this is a truth we’d rather not face. Their short lives are a constant reminder of what really is. What about Emily Rose, however? How does the first commandment help us understand her suffering, if it is indeed either directly caused by God or done by others but allowed by Him? The explanation that Emily gives is that her suffering is instructive, but instructive of what? As the quote from Godspy points out, it is very easy to be drawn to the assumption that Emily’s case shows faith to be useless. That was not the view of Emily or her priest, however, so what were they getting at?
Godpsy provides a quote from the Bible that might be helpful, although it isn’t obvious on a first reading. The passage is from Colossians:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body
There are two assertions here. The first is easier; Paul tells his readers that that he struggles for their good, as we should in a healthy community. The second part is more obscure. It is not in character for Paul to say that Christ’s death was lacking in any way. What I think he’s getting at is that his actions for the good of the community are mending on Christ’s “spiritual body”, which is a common term for the Church and all of its members, past, present and future. Such actions counter the wounds caused by sin. Emily’s sufferings are instructive, just as those of sick children, but the lesson here is not that we will die. The lesson (as I understand it) is that sin and spiritual combat are real. Emily herself tells her priest this, adding that in a vision she had, she consented to prolonging the ordeal in order that others can be learn and be saved.
Director Scott Derrickson says in Godspy, that:
“I often find myself troubled when I think deeply about this and the nature of God. It is perplexing. But isn’t that the story of the saints, the apostles themselves? People who suffered tremendously so that God’s nature could be revealed to the world. That does give me questions and apprehensions about God, but I always come back to a place of comfort when I think that God Himself endured that*** —if you believe in the incarnation. I hope agnostics will be troubled by the spiritual possibilities the film presents, but that Christians will also be troubled into thinking about issues like this.”
This train of thought might be an answer of sorts to the suggestion that Christianity is the easy way out, and held only because it makes people feel good. This train of thought is neither easy nor especially warm and fuzzy.
Finally, a case like Emily’s can guide us towards understanding what is miraculous and what is not. A “miracle” with no point to it is dubious because it undermines the kind of orderly, systematic universe we must have if we are to grow and learn in a way that the first commandment tells us we should. We are not merely to love God, but to know him as well. A funhouse sort of world makes that task very difficult.
*** I have another text bookmarked that treats on the subject of miraculous instruction and Christ’s death, which I hope to post about very soon.
Rebecca also deserves credit for some of these ideas, which she shared with me over cheesecake after the film.