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On Demons, Soul-Sucking Disillusionment, and Keeping Christianity Strange

Over breakfast with friends today, the conversation inevitably turned to the latest murderous school shooting in America (yes, the second half of that sentence is truly insane; as if there should or could ever be a “latest” in such a grotesque category). “What would possess someone to do such a thing,” someone asked? “Maybe the word ‘possession’ is an apt one,” I almost offhandedly opined. Maybe there was something demonic going on. How else to explain such evil? We reach for extreme explanations for things that seem unexplainable. There was an awkward pause before we moved on to safer explanatory terrain. Drugs. Mental health. Social isolation. Violent video games. Yeah, probably.

I’m not prone to hunting around for demons. I am well and truly a product of my time and place. I am rational, morally serious, a respecter of science and progress. I believe in the supernatural, yes, but you know, in the non-crazy way. I am the kind of guy who scratches his head at headlines like “Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Looking For Demons in a Disenchanted World.” Who on earth would look for demons in a world where we have solved so many of the riddles, where the boundaries of human knowledge have extended farther than previous generations would have thought imaginable?

Well, Kent Russell would, it turns out. He acknowledges that his pursuit likely seems a strange one to most people. But here’s what prompted his search:

But my interest, I clarified, while probably morbid, is not merely personal. It stems from a keenly felt, soul-sucking disillusionment. By accident of birth, I am a modern, which means I will never know a charmed world. A world of consecrated hosts and faerie-haunted forests, where the line between individual agency and impersonal force is blurred at best. Gone is the idea of a porous human self, vulnerable to immaterial forces beyond his control. Significance has retreated from the outer world into our respective skulls, where, over time, it has stiffened, bloated, and finally decomposed into nothing, into dust.

This decay of faith—in institutions, in other people—is practically audible to me. I exist within a purely immanent culture in which the value of human life has been reduced to the parameters of the marketplace, where little is sacred and even less is profane. And I cannot take this shit much longer.

You don’t have to be interested in demons to recognize the world Russell describes. Even those of us who still cling to religion do not inhabit a “charmed world,” where belief in a well-populated supernatural world is as obvious as the air we breathe. Even those of us who check off the “Christian” box in religion surveys are well acquainted with a world where “significance has retreated from the outer world into our respective skulls.” And who doesn’t squirm or groan or sigh at this description of our time and place? “The value of human life has been reduced to the parameters of the marketplace, where little is sacred and even less is profane.”

To live in the twenty-first century West is to inhabit a peculiar, disorienting, and incoherent cultural moment. It is to live simultaneously in a world where reason is imagined to have triumphed over religion (at least in its more traditional forms) and in the moral universe bequeathed by the religion that many have rejected. We simultaneously believe that Christianity is false or oppressive or fading away and are passionately committed to such ideals as human rights, the ennobling potential of suffering, the duty of the strong to care for the weak, ideals that are profoundly Christian in origin and character. We now zealously moralize at each other from the branches of a tree whose trunk we have largely hacked through.

I recently listened to a question-and-answer period after a lecture by the British historian Tom Holland. In his most recent book Dominion, Holland powerfully and eloquently diagnoses the incoherent moment that we inhabit in the West where we are deeply Christian in our ethics and assumptions (loathe as we are to acknowledge this) and yet decidedly post-Christian in our belief. The question he was asked was, essentially, “What now? Where does our culture go from here?”

Holland offered three possibilities. The first is that Christianity will continue to have “a ghostly afterlife.” It will live on in anemic and attenuated form in a liberal secular ethic. Perhaps there will be enough within liberalism to keep a few vaguely Christian ethics and assumptions going. For how long, no one knows. The second possibility is that we will eventually return to the world that existed before Christianity, a world where power and might make right. There are obviously a few ominous signs out there in our politics and our discourse as to what this might look like.

The third possibility that Holland suggested was that people might somehow make the connection between the assumptions/ethics and the beliefs that once animated them. Holland is, as far as I know, an agnostic. But he suggested that perhaps some people might just say, “Well, I already believe in some things that can’t be proved (human rights, for example) so I might as well believe in a God.” Not exactly the next Great Awakening. But still, it’s interesting to hear a secular historian speculate that some form of religious belief might soon be necessary to make sense of our moral selves.

The most interesting part of Holland’s response, though, was what he had to say about the role the church might play going forward:

Churches cannot afford to be a kind of pale simulacrum of secular liberal society. They have to actually emphasize everything that may make them feel embarrassed in a liberal secular society. They have to emphasize the strangeness, the weirdness, the bizarre quality of what they believe in. Because ultimately [Christianity] is weird, bizarre and strange. But it’s that strangeness that has animated it for two thousand years… My advice, for what it’s worth, would be that churches should be prepared to emphasize the strangeness because that is what I think people will be looking for.

It may be that people who are living in secular societies are going to start actively looking for the strange… Like demons, for example. Or the strangest thing of all—the God of the universe-in-human flesh, murdered by those who bore his image, risen triumphant from the dead, offering mercy and peace to betrayers and disbelievers, saying, “feed on me, I am the Bread of Life,” promising newness of life and hope eternal. Yes, we should definitely emphasize this glorious strangeness.

Or I suppose we could try to become “relevant.” We could try to pattern ourselves after a world where nothing is sacred and even less is profane. We could get busy marketing ourselves to precious human souls who have already in countless ways been reduced to the parameters of the marketplace. We could turn our church services into TED talks with a bit of catchy radio music. We could try to prove that Christianity is really quite rational and that we’re pretty much on board with all of the smart-sounding socially approved causes and politics. We could studiously labour toward becoming a pale simulacrum of secular liberal society.

Yes, we could try this, too. It seems to be working out well so far.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I guess I can take a certain measure of encouragement in the fact that being strange comes much more easily to me than being relevant! Thanks for the reflection Ryan!

    May 25, 2022
    • Ha! I probably have the opposite tendency, Kevin. Which is why I write posts like this one 🙂

      May 25, 2022
  2. Thanks, Ryan! Interesting that some attenders of the NRA convention in Houston were also promulgating the view of the Uvalede massacre as the work of demons–but as as a way of dismissing gun control as having any merit. That’s not the kind of “strange” witness you were calling us to, though. The teenager who perpetrated this tragedy must have been dealing with some kind of figurative inner demon (okay, literal, if you like) , but the defense of personal possession of assault weapons is itself also demonic.

    May 28, 2022
    • No, not at all the kind of “strange” witness I am thinking of here.

      May 30, 2022
  3. We like to believe things about ourselves, even when a cursory examination of these, “things” reveal them not to be true.

    If I have learned anything from the pandemic it is that the vast majority of us are not “following the science” not even close.

    Truth be told even when we can make sense of some of the science, these awarenesses hardly satisfy. In many ways this knowledge tortures us.

    The little we do know only serves to remind us how vast our ignorance is with regard to what we dont know. And fuels a suspicion towards others, whom we suspect know even less than we do.

    I hear the promises of Christ tell me that a detailed certainty about the material and existential truths of life, are beyond our ability to know.

    What we do have, through Christ and Christ alone, is the ability to participate in the transcendent love that sustains and animates creation itself.

    We cannot know what God knows but if we have the courage to remain faithful to our calling, we can love like God loves…

    Of course there is something demonic going on. Until He comes again there always will be.

    And of course our, “consecrated hosts” and participation in the supernatural love of Christ are the only means by which we will survive demonic attack.

    If we do not have the courage to affirm this, “strangeness” unequivically and resolutely in our expressions of faith, it would be better if we remained silent.

    Holland is right to challenge us to be everything we say we are.

    It is not the love of Christ that is insufficient. It is the shallowness of our faith and our human frailties and insecurities that betray His cause.

    June 14, 2022

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