Monday, February 02, 2009

Lutheran Defense Against the Dark Arts

Paging Professor Snape!

As most Egg readers will recall, yesterday's Gospel lesson included the bracing story of Jesus casting out an unclean spirit.  It comes complete with horror-movie dialogue -- "Have you come to destroy us?  We know who you are ...!"  

In his sermon, Father A. addressed the fact that most Lutherans don't take the supernatural all that seriously.  (He didn't explicitly mention the grim specter of Rationalism, but we all know it was there).  One fascinating bit of trivia that didn't make its way into the sermon illustrates this point.

You know The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty's classic chiller?  It is, famously, based upon an actual event.  And at least according to this guy, who claims to have read the diocesan reports, the mother of the possessed child child was a Lutheran.  So when her kid (a boy, pace Linda Blair) started acting strangely, she took him to her Lutheran pastor, who

was dubious about the whole matter. ...  Because of his Protestant theology, the minister sought a natural explanation. Unable to come up with one, he categorized the whole incident under unknown forces.

Oh, man, what a missed opportunity.  That could have been one of us played by Max von Sydow (who actually used to be a Lutheran).  Of course, the character of Damien Karras would have to have been renamed "Hans Schnackenberg," no doubt leading to a string of 70s knockoff thrillers with titles like Hans:  the Omen, and Hans III.  And probably a Marvel Comics series called Schnackenberg:  the Son of Satan.

But the question is whether Lutheranism and its "Protestant theology" (a term that is at best difficult to define) is intrinsically hostile to supernatural -- or, more precisely, preternatural -- explanations for observed phenomena.  After all, we have no difficulty affirming the preternatural presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  Likewise, we do affirm the Scriptures as the source and norm of our faith -- and those Scriptures include a smattering of exorcisms.  And Luther himself, famously, spoke often and vigorously of his nocturnal struggles against the Devil.

One of Fr. A'.s most esteemed colleagues, nameless here only for fear of embarrassing him, has done some research into the subject.  Years ago, he presented a drop-dead fascinating paper on the community that gathered around Johannes Kelpius and his crew of mystical monastics outside colonial Philadelphia. The paper included a review of the varied bits of folk-wisdom and superstition that were part of the Renaissance pastor's armamentatium, from herbs to amulets.  Such things seem to have struggled under Lutheran Orthodoxy, recovered among the Pietists, and been killed off utterly by the advent of Rationalism.

But as our friend observed, the reductionist worldview that created Rationalist theology has largely disappeared.  We live in a world where Newton seems overly simple, and even Einstein's equations don't (quite) account for the invisible "dark energy" that scientists know is out there somewhere.  The Freudian narrative of individual development according to eternal templates is slowly being supplanted by a combination of two far more complex explanations for human behavior, one based on family systems and the other based on the stochastic interaction of genetics and environment.  All in all, the emerging worldview -- either despite or because of the vast amount of quantitative data now available -- is far less deterministic than the world of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.   

So what would our theology, and our parish practice, look like if they were stripped of the knee-jerk materialist determinism that we picked up during those centuries?  And, as an aside, would a church life that took seriously the reality of a rich and complex spiritual world also be more faithful to the witness of the Reformers?

Here are some further anecdotes to suggest so. 

1.  When, during the Reformation, a minority of Lutheran liturgists attempted to remove the exorcism ritual from baptism, they met with considerable resistance.  According to historian Steven Ozement, in Flesh and Spirit (Penguin, 1999), a Dresden butcher threatened to split his pastor's head with a meat cleaver if the rite was omitted at the baptism of the butcher's daughter. 

2.  Well, okay.  But that was the Middle Ages, you say.  After  while, people gave up worrying about such superstitions.  Right?

Wrong.  According to a Norwegian-American legend, published by Thor Helgeson in 1917 and reprinted in James O'Leary's Wisconsin Folklore (U. of Wisc. Press, 1998), there was once 

... a school of magic at Wittenberg, Germany. ... If a student wished to become a pastor of any influence in olden times, he had to matriculate at this school in Wittenberg and take his examination [in "black magic"] there.  There were always 12 students at the school.  When they had taken their examination, 11 were allowed to leave, but the twelfth one Professor Erik [who,in context, may be the Devil] kept as an assistant.  The students drew straws to see who was to become Erik's boy.

The legend includes a story of a a Norwegian pastor, Rasmus Lygn of Faaberg, who began his career by outsmarting Professor Erik, and later distinguished himself as an exorcist.  

While not literally true -- the existence of such a school is not documented elsewhere -- the story suggests that well into modern times, some Lutherans expected  their best pastors to be well-versed in what at Harry Potter's Hogwarts was called "Defense Against the Dark Arts."  

And why not?  Too many of us are eager to dispense the wrong kinds of advice -- psychological, personal, financial, even medical.  And the faithful, rendered susceptible by years of confusion over what pastors really ought to do, pressure us for more of the same, and reward us when we offer it.  But few of us are trained for such things, for the good reason that -- historically -- it wasn't our job.  Our job is the cure of souls: calling sinners to repentance, reconciling penitents, praying for our people and leading them in their own prayers.  In that context, it only makes sense for us to do things that many shy away from:  to bless people, homes and objects, for starters.  We actually have rites for such things, even if they are sometimes used reluctantly.  And yes, this includes cleansing people who have been possessed by unclean spirits, a task for which we no published rite, and for which nearly none of us is prepared.

But, when you think about it, this ought to be one of the most basic tools in a pastor's kit.  Once upon a time it was, literally, as common as baptism.  And the faithful have a right to ask:  if a pastor can't defend them from evil spirits, then -- really -- what good is he?


mark said...

Grandfather A (that's the real A), who usually appeared to be one of those "rationalists", was not averse to discussing these matters and certainly was not dismissive of them - mid-century pastor though he may have been. When asked by Auntie A why he had a book about black magic on his shelf, he replied that it was necessary to know the enemy.
Good blogging - keep it up.
-Godfather A

Father said...

Of course, he used that same line about "knowing the enemy" when i asked him why he read the New York Times.

Brian Visaggio said...

I'm stealing the Schnackenberg thing.

Anonymous said...

Excellent work! Thanks. By the way does "most esteemed colleague" have initials MH? web

Father said...

He most certainly does.

Christian said...

So, let's say a case of possible demonic possession shows up in your congregation - Who do you call? (Aside from the Ghostbusters)

Are there steps to take to help the person? Call the Bishop or your friends in Rome?