Religion Watch recently interviewed Fordham University sociologist Michael W. Cuneo about his new book, “American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land Of Plenty” (Doubleday, $24.95). In researching the book, Cuneo observed exorcisms in Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as interviewing exorcists and those undergoing the ritual.
RW: In your book you write that the news and entertainment media have fanned the flames of fascination and shaped people’s views on exorcism. Why all the fascination, particularly among the media?
Cuneo: On one hand, the media treat exorcism as something ludicrous, an absurdity. Yet the media– and academics– also hope I’ll corroborate rumors they’ve heard about exorcism, that I’ll be able to tell them that I saw spinning heads. When I tell them I didn’t come across anything like that, they’re disappointed. Exorcism has become for them this last frontier of the supernatural and the mysterious that transcends scientific control.
RW: You trace most of the public fascination about exorcism back to the book and film, “The Exorcist.”
Cuneo: The hero-priest in the [William Peter] Blatty book and movie became part of our cultural legacy. While priests were largely viewed as laughing stocks in the popular culture during this time [early 1970s], this was the one area where the priest was the hero. It enhanced the role of the priest [when] it was being devalued.
RW: The Catholic ritual of exorcism receives most of the attention. But Protestant charismatics were involved in exorcism since the late 1960s, yet it has been pretty much ignored in the entertainment and media worlds.
Cuneo: That’s because Roman Catholicism is seen by many as a repository of intrigue and mystery. It’s not that one [form of exorcism] is more effective than the other. It’s that the priest is connected with this 2000 year tradition of liturgical richness.
RW: Yet “The Exorcist” and Catholic writer Malachi Martin’s book “Hostage to the Devil” created “customers” for charismatic and evangelical exorcism?
Cuneo: Right, but for evangelical exorcism, the Satanist scares of the 1980s, [when there were reports of Satanic ritual abuse], were very influential.
RW: In recent years there has been a huge increase in Catholic exorcisms around the world. But you find that the current crop of exorcists in the church have low status in the church and fall short of the expertise found in the movies. You also describe in your book “renegade priests” who perform unofficial exorcisms. Are they stealing the thunder from the official exorcists?
Cuneo: There is an effort by Rome to professionalize the exorcists…The official exorcists are in great demand, and not just from Catholics. It’s the difference between surgeons and chiropractors and other alternative forms of medicine. A lot of people see the renegade priests as quacks.
RW: You write in your book that understanding the phenomenon of exorcism is helpful in understanding American religion. Why is that?
Cuneo: Scholars of religion haven’t even begun to plum the enormous significance of the popular entertainment industry. Hollywood has had a tremendous impact on everyday religious behavior and belief. The only shocking thing is that more academics haven’t discovered this. How could it not have an impact when people are bombarded by these media-generated images? Exorcism as currently practiced is a synthesis of tradition, ritual, media-generated images and narratives and therapeutic elements from the broader culture…I’ve been in exorcisms where the model of the priest-exorcist is Damien Karras [the priest in the Exorcist] This is religious life imitating an art form.
RW: Turning to the deliverance groups among charismatics and Pentecostals, where do you see these kinds of ministries going? It seems that Catholic and Episcopal charismatics have become leaders in these ministries.
Cuneo: Catholics and Episcopal churches can have these ministries even if their congregations don’t approve of them. I’ve talked to pastors [from other traditions] who were thrown out of their congregations [for their exorcism or deliverance practices]. It’s more difficult to get Catholic priests thrown out because they are appointed by the bishop rather than by the congregation. It’s also that Episcopal and Catholics have a stronger tradition and vocabulary of symbol and ritual to address these issues.. Among the Pentecostals, exorcism has been strongly revived in the Faith movement, which is associated with the health-and-wealth teachings and [televangelist] Benny Hinn.
RW: It was surprising to read of the burgeoning interest in exorcism and deliverance among evangelicals who are not charismatic.
Cuneo: I don’t think it’s really reaching the mainstream evangelical. There’s a concern that it is theologically irresponsible and morally corrupt. They would say it’s buying into the ethos of victimization. The evangelical vocabulary of sin and repentance conflicts with [new teachings on exorcism]. By the way, I was very impressed with the way evangelicals approached exorcism. It was approached with real pastoral sensitivity and insight. Most [attemptss of evangelical exorcism] had some psychological benefits.
RW: In your book, exorcism starts off as a very rare and dramatic ritual, and as it became more common, it seemed almost bland and routine, taking on a 12-stelp, self-help appearance. Where it used to be a last resort, now it’s almost a first choice for some psychological problems. Do you see the domesticated nature of exorcism growing in the future, with maybe even a secularized version emerging?
Cuneo: There will always be very flamboyant exorcisms. There will always be a yearning for the dramatics and fireworks. People want dramatic confirmation that they are engaged in a battle with actual diabolic forces. What’s happened is that certain deliverance ministries have followed the 12-step therapeutic model, but many people are unhappy about it becoming so domesticated. The therapeutic value [of exorcism] comes from it being rare and secret. When it becomes too common it becomes like cheap currency.