The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Highly Recommended. This is a story based on an allegedly true story that occurred in Germany in the 1970s. It’s been updated to today and place in America. It’s the story of a trial of a priest charged with negligent homicide in the death of a young girl, Emily Rose, in the midst of her exorcism. In our modernist world of naturalism that presupposes the negation of the categories of the supernatural, this movie is a welcome counterbalance to Enlightenment pseudoscientific bigotry. I enjoyed the unpredictable mixing of genres, horror and courtroom drama. A legal and logical examination of the issues punctuated with the terrors of supernatural experience. Which makes this movie very postmodern. A story that counters reason with experience, and experience is forced upon the rationalism of modernity as something that CANNOT be ignored any longer. Our precious naturalistic assumptions about reality and proud rationalism are just not adequate to address all of reality. This is of course, the good side of postmodernism in challenging modernity. The dark side of the pomo worldview, well, I’ll talk about that in a moment. I know the director and he has said he is a postmodern Christian. So this is a conscious attempt to break through the ignorance and prejudice of modernity. The heroine, played by Laura Linney, is the attorney who defends the priest and she is an agnostic who decides to use demon possession as a defense in a court of law, not because she believes it to be real, but because her client does, and that this is, in an HONEST court of law, a legitimate consideration, the sincerity of the believers. To assume that the girl’s death (by self-inflicted and other bodily injury) MUST be negligence because “as we all know” demons are simply religious fairy tales, is itself an ignorance of prejudice. And this is exactly what the prosecutor embodies when he claims that a witness’s testimony of demonic possession should be struck down on the basis of “silliness.” And of course, most audience members at that point would agree with the prosecutor. How can we allow this kind of “faith” testimony in to our system that is supposed to be based on fact? And that very assumption is perhaps the most revelatory ignorance of the modernity we are current victims of: The assumption that EVERYTHING has a natural cause in physical chemicals. As the defense lawyer proves, even science itself is based on faith. The very claims of Emily’s demonic symptoms being reducible to psychotic fits of epilepsy are shown to be NOT FACTS, but beliefs or guesses of so-called medical scientists. Because the fact is, science and medicine are not only based on faith commitments, but they are merely observational interactions with symptoms. Much of the time, they have no clue how or why a drug is working, they are merely creating explanations that they BELIEVE is the reason. Thomas Szaz has written extensively on the fraudulance of the medical drug culture as well as psychotherapy in The Myth of Mental Illness and Pharmocracy. So the doctors notice a certain drug results in suppression of symptoms, so they theorize that the problem is therefore reducible to physical origins or causes. But the defense gives an entirely legitimate counterfactual that the drugs suppressed Emily’s mental and physical capacity to withstand the demons, thus contributing to her death. What Derrickson does extremely well here is to fairly portray both sides in the courtroom. In fact, he does this so well, that when each side presents its case, you find yourself changing sides in what you think the answer is. This makes for truly good drama. What I liked about the demon possession was how “realistic” it was. That is, it was not driven by gory special effects but more accurately the kind of effects that have historically been connected with real possessions. And that could be explained through medical physiological explanations as well. Even though there are the usual multiple voices, strange contortions, etc. Scott does the opposite of typical demon possession movies. Rather than the white eyes with a tiny pupil, he has an enlarged pupil which was totally scary in a new way. Surprisingly, there are no foul cuss words that I remember coming from the demons, as is the usual fare with horror movies of demons. Thus proving you can be scary without the foul language. Scott’s scare tactics were all based on simple old techniques of suspense, the shadow we barely see, the noise in the hall, whispering voices. But he does it so well that once again it proves we don’t need more gore and pushing the envelope of impropriety to be scary. The whole moral of this story is simply spoken through the agnostic lawyer’s summary that this is a story about “possibilities.” A story that makes us consider the reality of the supernatural to widen our understanding of reality. It is not the “believers” who are blind to reality, it is the proud anti-supernaturalist, who assumes so much by faith that he doesn’t even realize it. That he doesn’t see the demon right in front of his face. Of course, this isn’t presented with a propaganda approach because in fact, most every demonic encounter is presented in flashback, testimonial form, complete with some variation, thus reminding us that even this is not absolutely certain. Although I would argue that experience gets a stronger edge here. Which is of course the weakness of postmodernism. The strength of the modernist prioritization of rationality does prove the fact that experience can be interpreted differently depending on one’s worldview, AND ALL PRESUPPOSITIONS ARE NOT EQUAL. Some are provably wrong. And that people can be deceived because of their presuppositions. Let’s face it, the history of medicine does show that certain religious beliefs DID blind some people to the truth of infectious diseases etc. So the good that anti-supernaturalism brought was the unveiling of much superstitious ignorance and even charlatanry. But of course, two wrong extremes don’t make a right. The sword cuts both ways in blindness, and Christianity is the only true balance that started modern science and medicine by acknowledging the lawlikeness of God’s ordered universe without ignoring the spiritual side. But I digress. I like the idea of via negativa, “way of the negative,” that is, proving God’s existence by proving the existence of evil supernatural. If there is an antichrist evil spirit, then there is the ultimate Good Spirit of God. One Roman Catholic nun reviewing the movie said that this fear orientation is a medieval means of getting people saved. But of course, this is more autobiographical of that nun and her postmodernity than it is the Bible. So Jesus was medieval when he used fear to scare people into the kingdom? (Matt 10:28; 5:22; 5:29; Luke 12:5) In fact Jesus used fear so much as a motivation in his parables about wailing and gnashing of teeth and eternal darkness etc. that I would wonder if this nun, and those like her, even read their Bibles (assuming she even has one.) And was God himself an irrelevant medieval peasant when he commands us to FEAR him over 200 times in both Old and New Testaments – more than he commands us to love him? Well, I would certainly NOT say that fear is the only draw to salvation, but it is certainly a part of the BIBLICAL GOSPEL, though it is not a part of the modern or postmodern gospel. We SHOULD fear hell and love God. Both fear and love are equally ultimate truths in the Bible (sometimes described in the same paragraph or sentence – Matthew 10:26-31). But at the end of the day, one simple movie CANNOT CONTAIN the entire Bible in it’s theology. There are plenty of movies available that do express love as a motivation to salvation (Bruce Almighty). We need some that deal with fear too. So there. What I didn’t like about the movie: Well, there are some serious theological issues I have with it. I do not argue that these are reasons NOT to see it or reasons to reject the movie, but simply reasons for discernment and disagreement. You don’t have to agree with everything in a movie to see the value of it. And it doesn’t have to be theologically perfect to accept the good that it does bring in context with the culture. First, a very minor thing (not theological) was that I thought the appearance of a cloaked figure in the distance was not at all consistent with the heart of this story. It was out of place and a bit too melodramatic and literal. Secondly, the heroine starts as an agnostic and ends as an agnostic very clearly, which makes this an unsatisfying story in terms of character. It is an elementary necessity of good storytelling to take the hero from one pole to another, the character arc. If a hero starts out an unbeliever, they need to in some way at least, end with a seed of belief. If they start a believer in something, they must end up skeptical of it. If they start selfish, they should end selfless, and on and on. This is the stuff of great storytelling. By the hero’s journey, the truth of the story is incarnated. So the audience can journey with the hero. So to have a hero that does not change is not only anathema in storytelling, it is unsatisfying. But not only that, I would argue it is counterproductive to Derrickson’s own worldview of Christianity. It is fine to have some characters not change, but NOT the hero. They must change or the audience is left hanging. This is perhaps where Scott’s postmodernism gets the best of him. His story INCARNATES the suggestion through the heroine’s lack of change, that religious beliefs are not important, what IS important is her professional ethics. Because this is where she does change, in her ethics. But Agnosticism is not a viable or even good worldview. So if the heroine would have at least made an indication that she saw the world differently now, that would have been enough. I’m not saying she should “accept Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior,” but merely that her life is truly changed because of her journey. But alas, the only thing she changes in is in her professional ethics, and this is no doubt good. Yes, she quits a bad legal firm and shows character, but the real issue of the movie was NOT the politics of the legal system (that was a subplot), but the reality of the supernatural. In simple terms, she starts ignorant and ends ignorant. Not a satisfying story. One theological difference I have is that the very heart of the Roman Rites of exorcism do not have biblical foundations. Now, I’ve talked to Scott about demon possession and he claimed that there is so little in the Bible that we cannot make dogmatic claims either way. While I acknowledge there is certainly freedom in this area to service the story (I do so in my upcoming supernatural thriller), I nonetheless am persuaded that what the Bible DOES say about it, little as it may be, is still truthful and relevant. And in the only place where exorcism occurs in the Bible is Acts 19, where the sons of Sceva were exorcists and they had no power over demons who ended up beating them up. It seems that everywhere in the New Testament, demons are simply cast out in the name of Jesus Christ by faithful believers (sometimes requiring prayer, but not ritual). I suppose you could make the argument that this movie supports that because they never did exorcise her. She died after all! On the other hand, I certainly admit that ritual is more cinematic and dramatic. In fact, one executive reacted to my movie, that has demons cast out of people, by saying that they cast the demons out too easily. Well, that was because we have been so conditioned by the Roman Ritual view that we don’t realize it is more real (Biblical) for believers to simply cast them out! Anyway, I do acknowledge that the priest does eventually call on the name of Jesus Christ in his attempts and am surprised that the studios let Scott do this. Another major concern is with the entire purpose of the demon possession. It is portrayed as God’s intent to show the world the reality of the supernatural through having one of his believers (supposedly) possessed by a demon. But it is one thing to have demons taunting believers, that’s true. It is quite another to completely disregard the reality of the Holy Spirit that is supposed to be within the believer themselves! Believers in Jesus Christ possessed by a demon is simply and seriously unbiblical (1 Cor 6:19). A contradiction in terms and reality (1 John 4:4). As are visions of the Virgin Mary which is supposedly how she received this purpose. Talking to the dead is strictly forbidden by God (Deut 18:11; Isaiah 8:19), so it strikes me as odd that this is portrayed positively in the movie, as if God does communicate through this means. It could be argued that there was no indication that Emily was a true Christian, but this doesn’t square with the context of the movie. It is certainly strongly implied that she is. And another important element is the arbitrariness of the possession. There is no indication of how the demons were able to get into Emily. The history of demon possession indicates that demons do not willy nilly enter people. There has to be some occultic or pagan involvement or opening up to the dark side. The Exorcist did this extremely well by having the child play with a Ouiji Board. But in Emily, they just take her without provocation or invitation. Too arbitrary storywise to be satisfying. You know, it’s interesting, I wouldn’t be as picky if this was fictional, because fiction is intended to be metaphors or parables of something else. The reason I would be so picky is because this is claimed to be based on a true story.

One comment on “The Exorcism of Emily Rose

  • Brian Matthew says:

    I appreciated the article, and greatly enjoyed the film; one point that you made in your examination, however, seemed a bit questionable. You argued that fear is in fact a motivational tactic that is employed throughout Scripture, and this fact justifies the film’s use of the via negativa. I agree wholeheartedly that fear is an important aspect of our relationship with God, for we are told that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10), and that we must “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). The fear of the LORD is one of the foundations of our faith, one that leads us to a greater respect, reverence, and gratitude for His great mercy in abating His wrath through the sacrifice of Christ. However, equating the fear of demons to this Holy fear of God simply doesn’t seem consistent. Never once in Scripture is the fear of evil spirits encouraged; conversely, in Matthew 17, Christ tells His disciples that if they have faith as small as a mustard seed, they could move mountains (which, according to context, referred to the demonic forces that had been possessing a boy). Christ’s very name invokes terror in demons, and through Christ, we also may overcome the darkness. The fear of these evil forces is not a tactic employed once throughout the entirety of Scripture, and the fear of the LORD must be recognized as distinctly different from other fears. The via negativa may have some merit, but only when the object of our fear is the LORD.

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