Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A World Full of Demons

Some news is just harder to hear.

It's been a few days since the story broke nationally, of a couple of young women in a townhouse in nearby suburban Maryland.  Neighbors had noticed that things were getting twitchy, that there were loud noises at night and that the women seemed "off."   Police were called, but nothing was found.

Eventually, a child was left outside in a car, and the women responded strangely and aggressively to those who tried to figure out what was going on.  A bloody knife was left on the ground, near children's clothing.  When the police intervened, they discovered that the women...with indeterminate histories of mental illness...had become convinced that their children were demon possessed, and had stabbed two of them to death.  The kids were one and two years old.  Tragic.

Hearing this bit of terribleness, one detail consistent in the reportage was that the two women had met at a small nondenominational church.  It was hard not to presume a connection.  Women obsessed with demons met at a spiritual community?  I became immediately curious about the character of this community.

I went to the web presence of Exousia Ministries, this story was nationally had been shut down after it exceeded bandwidth allowances on its ISP.  The Facebook page has nothing much on it beyond an invite to attend the birthday celebration for the pastor's mother, and the Twitter account has only retweets from folks like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer.

Not to be deterred, I checked for cached data on Google.

What was remarkable about what I found was just how unremarkable the church was.  It's your standard storefront health-and-wealth ministry,  affiliated loosely with Creflo A. Dollar's prosperity church.   It was started by a pastor, who runs the church like a little family business with his mother.

I sorted through the cache for relevant sermons, but of course, this being a nondenominational church, there was no text.  Preaching is only done from outline, so what you get is just the skeleton of a message.

One did catch my eye.  It was from late last year, and entitled: "Fixing the Messed Up Mind."

That seemed relevant, so I skimmed the very brief outline.  It lays out a pretty standard lumpencharismatic approach to personal dysfunction.  Meaning:  Your internal struggles are because you are fighting Satan and demonic powers.

Ah.  There you go.  I've known evangelicals who understood the world--and mental illness--in exactly those terms.  Issues are not psychological, or psychopharmacological.  They are demons and the demonic.

But this tragedy highlights the big challenge with demon-talk.  As a metaphor, it has some utility.  Lord knows there are powers and principalities out there messing with the world, and I'll use that language myself sometimes.  And there are constructive therapeutic uses for "externalizing" or "naming" a dysfunction.  In narrative therapy, it can help depersonalize conflict, and help an individual see their agency outside of a consuming addiction or pattern of life.

But as a worldview, it can also play darkly with the souls of those prone to mental illness, creating the issue it purports to combat.  If you believe that vast and monstrous forces are controlling your life, it becomes easy to give up, and use that understanding to justify your drift into very desperate and broken places.