Satan: A Tapeworm

There’s plenty of buzz about the upcoming Anthony Hopkins film The Rite, which tells me that, somewhere, some publicist is going to keep his job. In my long years as an obscure Catholic journalist (is there any other kind?), I’ve gotten regular invites from PR companies that specialize in the “Christian market” to preview movies that have some religious “angle.” All too often, it’s plain from the press release that these are merely “family” movies: moderately interesting, moderately uplifting dramas of ordinary life to which you can bring the kids (though they’ll fall asleep), because they are free of nudity and profanity — in other words, they’re airplane versions of regular movies. I’ve nothing against that. Indeed, we need more such films, and I mourn the demise of the companies that used to “scrub” R-rated Hollywood pictures for the benefit of viewers with less jaded sensibilities. (The auteurs who make movies like No Strings Attached and Jackass 3D sued such well-meaning censors out of existence).

But I’m not going to make a special trip to preview, much less write about, films that are clearly rentals at best. The few times I’ve made it to such screenings, the audience was packed with Protestant pastors and Young Life leaders, and sprinkled with Roman collars and habits. The event always began with a chipper talk by a handsome lady publicist, pointing out the “refreshingly wholesome,” “life-affirming” message that pervaded the film, urging the pastors to recommend the movie from the pulpit, with the implicit or explicit argument: “You people are always complaining about all the filth that comes out of Hollywood. Well here it is, something we’ve made with you in mind. If you don’t support it, and it doesn’t turn a profit, we’ll just have to go ahead and greenlight Meet the Parents 4. And they do have a point. But it bothers me that so many of the movies promoted this way are not really “spiritual,” much less Christian; they’re simply bland and inoffensive.

The Catholic faith is neither. In fact, like really authentic Mexican food (think habeneros and fried crickets), it is at once both pungent and offensive. It offends me all the time, with the outrageous demands it makes of my fallen nature and the sheer weirdness of its claims. It asserts that, behind the veil of day-to-day schlepping, of work and laundry and television and microwaved burritos, we live on the front lines of a savage spiritual war waged by invisible entities (deathless malevolent demons and benevolent dead saints) whose winners will enjoy eternal happiness with a resurrected rabbi, and whose losers will writhe forever in unquenchable fire. Sometimes I step back and find myself saying in Jerry Seinfeld’s voice: What’s with all the craziness? Why can’t I just enjoy my soup?

The Church’s heroes, seen from a worldly point of view, are a pack of self-destructive zealots who embark on crackpot projects like lifelong celibacy, voluntary poverty, and (worst of all) obedience; who leave perfectly serviceable chateaus in France to go preach the Beatitudes to scalp-collecting Indians in freezing Canada; who volunteer to sneak into Stalin’s Russia precisely because he has imprisoned so many priests, then spend decades saying secret Masses in labor camps; who open up pro-life pregnancy centers in crappy neighborhoods so they can talk welfare queens into having still more babies we’ll have to pay for . . .

And so on. A religion like this doesn’t need after-school specials; it needs science fiction and fantasy, horror films and surrealism to convey the fundamental strangeness that it believes lies just beneath the surface of day-to-day “reality.” To keep our sense of perspective, every once in a while at one of our dull, desacralized liturgies, the priest needs to die of a heart attack in the pulpit (as happened at my old New York parish, St. Agnes, some years ago), if only to remind us of the stakes we’re playing for. We need — though let me stress, we don’t enjoy, and I do not want — the occasional “Flannery O’Connor moment.”

 

So that’s why I went to see the preview, a few years back, of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. That’s why I’m inclined to go see The Rite, though I have deep fears both of heterodoxy and cheesiness. Such movies, when they are done well, peel back the Norman Rockwell veil we’d all rather stayed in place and show us what lies behind it: Hieronymous Bosch. The proper purpose of art (when it goes beyond entertainment) is to show us a glimpse of the deep truths, the kind we can only endure in small and occasional doses. We couldn’t really stand it if every Sunday the Host were visibly transformed into a bloody chunk of flesh, as happened at Lanciano; we might not want to bring the kids. And, truth to tell, it would wear us all down. But little glimpses of this kind of thing, peeks into the great abyss of Mystery, dark or bright, are helpful from time to time.

Too often, films like The Rite don’t really serve this purpose, but instead feed into a nasty voyeurism of the sort that attracts us to evil. We see that the Enemy really does give tangible, spiritual power to some of his servants. As the author of nature’s order, God is loath to disrupt it, so He grants miracles rarely and dispenses them typically after we’re racked ourselves with prayer. Satan, who’s merely a vandal, will gladly perform hat-tricks and grant instant gratification. Exorcists, in their memoirs, inform us that you really can learn things from Ouija boards, summon spirits who might do your bidding, or cast spells upon your enemies. If you’re willing to play with plutonium, you can make little bombs to throw at people to vent your petty spite. But remember that you’re an idiot mucking around inside the core of a nuclear reactor, with no idea how the thing works and not the slightest protection against its effects.

The best depiction I’ve seen of how occultism kills the soul, Robert Hugh Benson’s novel The Necromancers, details what happens next: a slow, sick burn seeps into your brain. The colors of nature (which you’ve raped) all fade to a sickly, jaundiced yellow. Having glimpsed the dark underbelly of things, you become utterly cynical. Ordinary knowledge, earned through hard labor, loses all attraction compared to secrets, conspiracies, and gossip. You begin to see other people with that hideous spiritual hunger that demons feel all the time, as if they were healthy animals and you were a parasite, looking for somewhere to batten on them and drain their strength. Soon the glamour of evil fades, and once it’s too late (by any human power) for you to escape, you feel deep in your bones the crassness, the foulness, the cheapness of what you have become.

I wish more films that treat the occult would emphasize this point. Evil is a privation, and it lives only by borrowing strength — like a tapeworm, or a tick. We should certainly fear the devil, but he deserves no awe and should exert no fascination. We should not even pity him. What we need to feel is contempt.

John Zmirak

By

John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

  • Eric Pavlat

    What an amazing, amazing article, connecting the dots of our reality and connecting it to art. Peeling away the Rockwell, and seeing the true Bosch … wow.

    Thanks, John, for creating one of my favorite essays ever about the role of film.

  • digdigby

    Nominally about cinema. It is really about being Traditionally, Dogmatically Catholic in the modern world and does what great writing does – it says what we feel and didn’t know we felt.

  • MP Ryan

    Recently, I discovered the following quote from Simone Weill. I think it is apropos of this fine essay. It certianly crystalizes, for me at least, what we experience frequently but never think to put into words.

    “Literature and morality. Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. Therefore,

  • Mrs. F

    “A religion like this doesn’t need after-school specials; it needs science fiction and fantasy, horror films and surrealism to convey the fundamental strangeness that it believes lies just beneath the surface of day-to-day “reality.””

    Thank you for that line. It was particularly heartening to me today.

  • Catholic pro Magisterium Hispanic

    “The Catholic faith is neither. In fact, like really authentic Mexican food (think habeneros and fried crickets), it is at once both pungent and offensive. It offends me all the time, with the outrageous demands it makes of my fallen nature and the sheer weirdness of its claims. It asserts that, behind the veil of day-to-day schlepping, of work and laundry and television and microwaved burritos, we live on the front lines of a savage spiritual war waged by invisible entities (deathless malevolent demons and benevolent dead saints) whose winners will enjoy eternal happiness with a resurrected rabbi, and whose losers will writhe forever in unquenchable fire…”

    Congratulations! Great line.

    But when you smoke one, just don’t forget that those “habaneros” are rolled by the slaves of a tyrant who the US wants to do more business with.

  • JPZmirak

    “Habenero,” as far as I know, is the pepper that burns your lips off. Is it also a brand of Cuban cigar? If so, I’ll honor the boycott, though I love what my role model, Kinky Friedman, said to Bill Clinton who caught him with an illegal Havana:
    “I’m not supporting their economy. I’m burnin’ their fields!”

  • Michael

    You deserve one, much more than Potus at his Sotus. You’ve been able to put into words what I could only point to and grunt at, especially during a recent discussion about things like the occult. You have a great way with words! Thanks a million!

  • Nick

    Thanks be to God the war against evil has been won by God on the Cross, and we now await the full manifestation of His triumph! Let us glory in the Cross!

  • Catholic pro Magisterium Hispanic

    Although you wrote Hab-e-nero … I read Hab-a-nero.

    I really swung and missed on that one. You are not only a great essayist but a terrific pitcher too.

  • Linus

    I wish someone would make a good movie of ” Lord of the World !!!”

  • Billy Solestis

    As an atheist who once lived through the horrors of trying to take the Bible seriously, I say, “bravo”. I couldn’t have written this better myself.

  • maria sawick

    You are a brilliant writer. Your style reminds me of Mary Karr. Did you see “The Devil’s Advocate?” Sleazy at points but theologically spot on.

  • victor

    This is a really good article. Well done!

  • agnes

    Just read your profile.. You write WEEKLY for InsideCatholic?
    I see I will have to add you to my bookmark toolbar. There are only two others I read religiously. thanks for this.. which I will reread and reread.

  • bob

    Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” I thought had many “Hieronymous Bosch-esque” moments. Gibson really tried to show the spiritual warfare side, even with showing satan tempting and following Christ and Mary all the way to calvary. I liked the scene at the Crucifiction when Christ dies and it shows satan for the first time on his/her/its knees in submittal to the will and power of God. with his erratic behaviour over the last several years, I wonder if poor Mel is under demonic attack.

    Great article, John.

  • Dan Deeny

    Mr. Zmirak,
    You have written a strange article. You write “A religion like this doesn’t need after-school specials; it needs science fiction and fantasy, horror films and surrealism to convey the fundamental strangeness that it believes lies just beneath the surface of the day-to-day ‘reality.'” Perhaps. Why do you put reality in quotation marks? What’s wrong with after-school specials? Why do you choose those genres? And does the Church believe what you say it believes?
    You do mention Hieronymous Bosch. Very good. As it happens I’m reading Michael Connelley’s series of books in which the main character is Harry (Hieronymous) Bosch. Are you familiar with them? If not, I recommend you start with City of Bones, and then go back to the beginning.
    Keep writing interesting and strange articles.

  • Johnnyjoe

    When you wrote this:

    The colors of nature (which you’ve raped) all fade to a sickly, jaundiced yellow. Having glimpsed the dark underbelly of things, you become utterly cynical. Ordinary knowledge, earned through hard labor, loses all attraction compared to secrets, conspiracies, and gossip. You begin to see other people with that hideous spiritual hunger that demons feel all the time, as if they were healthy animals and you were a parasite, looking for somewhere to batten on them and drain their strength. Soon the glamour of evil fades, and once it’s too late (by any human power) for you to escape, you feel deep in your bones the crassness, the foulness, the cheapness of what you have become.

    I immediately thought of Gollum – with the evil of the ring taking the natural color and strength from his soul, leaving him only aching hunger for a pale substitute of Love and Acceptance. He was left with the consumation of yearning – an addiction for darkness.

    A very good read, John. I’ll be linking it up to friends……

  • FJ

    Pretty good aticle – the priest that the movie is based off said the movie really good and a story about faith. Hes a priest in good standing w the Church and they called him when making some of the scenes that can get exaggerated. There was an interview w him over at http://www.catholicnewsagency.com

  • David

    I am rarely at a loss for words, but your article left me speechless. I read the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton, Belloc, and any theoloigan I can find on a daily basis. Your article, with all of its analogies and metaphors reminds me of Chesterton. What an absolutely magnificent read! There are priests I know who need to read this article. Then maybe they can give homilies with some substance!

  • Mlickona

    Very well put – you even got a hand clap from an atheist, who applauded you for telling the truth. A very good sign in this case, I think.

  • Gerry Zipf

    Superb piece of writing! Looking forward to your thoughts on The Rite! Thank you.

  • John Carty

    Well said. If only the “realists” in Hollywood would treat the Church realisticly, the battles of the unseen world would receive more light. Until the powers that be understand the the real powers only show themselves indirectly to the senses, we will contiue to receive patronizing inanities.

    Johnyjoe: Although I find Gollum appropriate, Saruman reflects the statement better.

  • Greg Karski

    Great article. Sometimes it’s so frustrating trying to explain the pitfalls of our world to others who see no wrong doing in anything going on around them.

  • Elise

    Very insightful article. This reminds me of Simone Weil’s thought that fiction shows evil to be glamorous and good to be monotonous when reality is quite the opposite. The challenge of the artist is to indulge fictional evil and then reveal the nature of good as a combative force.

  • sister mary martha

    Bravo! A man after my own heart in every way. Except one. Please don’t help people think so poorly of poor women with little hope in this world as ‘welfare queens’. Pretty please.

  • Aaron B.

    I read The Rite, and was surprised to hear it was being made into a film. It doesn’t seem suited for it, since there’s no real plot or climax or anything. **Spoilers** An American priest goes to Rome to train as an exorcist, because his diocese doesn’t have one (as many don’t). He takes a course on exorcism, and sits in with a well-known exorcist for a while, then he goes back home and starts doing exorcisms there.

    A lot of the book is dry explanation of the process — for instance, the difference between oppression and possession, and the fact that people are supposed to be checked out by a doctor to rule out medical causes before a full exorcism is done. One thing I learned is that most exorcisms are completely uneventful (at least visibly). The author, who interviewed the priest throughout his training for the book, comes at it as more or less an agnostic, using a lot of phrases like “according to exorcists . . .” and including interviews with psychologists who think it’s all bunk. It’s an interesting book, but I imagine they’ll have to change a lot to make it a movie.

  • AT

    Great commentary. I guess evil is happy when we ignore its existence, as we do in this modern world. Also it is happy when we forget that it wins when we fall into temptation by our own bad choices. The danger of such films is that it shows evil operating outside of our will. That is not the case, as we have payer and His Salvation to do Good and avoid evil.

  • AT
  • AT

    ..Abortion will not stop as long as we do not open our hearts…sorrysmilies/shocked.gif

  • JPZmirak

    You have a kind heart, but I think you misunderstood. I was trying to explain how ODD Christian attitudes (like caring about faraway “savages,” risking labor camps, or saving the lives of the dependent poor) look from a secular, worldly point of view. If I weren’t a Christian, would I really care if the “underclass” aborted itself? Why on earth would I? The only reason to do so is because of Christ. Without Him, we’d be back in the Colosseum, watching gladiators hack each other to pieces. At least, I would…

  • Julie D.

    Not sure what authentic Mexican restaurantes you frequent, but I’d look for others. Even Rick Bayless doesn’t push it that far. Of course, he doesn’t really dabble in Aztec-ish delights. smilies/cheesy.gif

  • Jess B.

    Just wondering, is this the same sister mary martha who writes the blog of the same name? If so, then you aren’t a sister at all; it may be fine for a humor blog, but you should not be passing yourself off as a religious if you are not.

    Unless of course you are someone completely different and you are a different sister mary martha; my apologies. Although I agree completely with JPZ and I am not a fan of politically correct language. There *are* welfare queens. They exist. It makes the disparity all the more poignant when we know that that’s what they’re called, yet we are called to pay attention and respond to their plight, no matter how self-inflicted it may be. He has a right to use the phrase without readers getting the vapors.

  • MCC

    Sentimentalizing suffering is privileged spiritual posturing and gauche: “…the priest needs to die of a heart attack in the pulpit (as happened at my old New York parish, St. Agnes, some years ago), if only to remind us of the stakes we’re playing for.”

    Seriously?

  • questioning

    That’s what I thought… “Seriously”!?smilies/shocked.gif

  • BadgerCatholic

    Dr. Zmirak, if I was trapped on a desert island or in some eternal Hallmark channel marathon and was permitted one author’s works to sustain santiy, it would be yours.

  • adventeaster

    Sometimes I wonder why I am confronted by so much disunity in our Lord Jesus’ Church. As a Christian and a small ‘c’ catholic, I find solace that Jesus and Peter and Paul speak so much about Peace. That in fact, the body of believers striving to understand and follow Christ’s words to love one another, can truly say that to serve each other in love, allows us to surrender the ‘odd’ and lay aside the dogmatic and instead pick up the practical. If catholic and ‘non’ catholics could see the beauty of each others faith, we might actually show a dead and dying world see that it really is all about the cross and resurrection. That God chose the ‘church’ as his means of continued grace, means that we are His choice, as belivers, and all the rest of it can be left at His Cross..

  • Lorenz

    Good article but there are some good movies being made. You just have to look. Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” delved into Catholic themes as a retired man comes to terms with the changing world and finds reconciation with the church. The movie “Good” with starring Viggo Mortensen and Jodie Whittaker, is about a nice, civilised academic who is slowly seduced into the Nazi Party and then the SS by ambition, flattery and his own anti-Christian moral liberalism. He betrays his wife for an Aryan floozy and supports euthanasia, to the joy of Hitler and Himmler alike. Fashionable Leftists wouldn

  • William

    Thank you for this article, it says what I’ve been thinking for so long: why is it that a “Christian film” so often means bland, brainless and empty of any power or real drama ? Why can’t film reflect the power and drama that is the reality of our faith ? Perhaps because film is such a huge industry, movies are expensive to make and the accountants in charge are so anxious to appeal to the lowest common denominator ?

  • Fr. Philip Neri, OP

    Mr. Zmirak,

    Great piece on this movie. I quoted you in my homily this morning.

    http://hancaquam.blogspot.com/2011/01/gospel-pungent-offensive.html

    Keep up the good work!

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  • Stephen

    Dr. Zmirak,

    Thanks to the link for your review of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. I have not seen it, but I hope to see both that film and The Rite at some point. Recently, I saw The Exorcist on TV, and I found it chilling and moving at the same time. It made me curious about the writer, William Peter Blatty, and I learned that he is a devout Catholic with two novels that have been published over the past couple of years, Dimiter and Crazy. What is your reaction to The Exorcist film or, if you have read any of them, the original novel or Blatty’s other novels?

    Comments from other readers are welcome, too.

  • Mother of Two Sons

    My only question is why are you not making the movie that seems to be in your visual scope? Satan: a Tapeworm sounds like a great title!!!

    Great piece!

  • EN

    This is spot on – writing witty, incisive argument, vivid prose.

  • Magnificat

    Priceless!
    God bless you, dr.Zmirak!

  • Thomas

    Methinks of the lovely quote from Bertholt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer that shapes it.” Well done, bro, and keep swinging for the fences. Every now and again you’ll hit one out of the park, as you did here….

  • V

    Dear Dr Zmiriak:

    Having recently converted from 19 years as a NeoPagan, I have to say, you have hit the nail on the head. I will also say that about %80 of modern neopagans are fallen-away Catholics.

    My husband and I were just saying that we need more Chestertons, or rather, unique individuals who take up the freedom to evangelize more broadly, and define evangelization more broadly. Some folks just need a soft landing into the faith. Most folks just don’t have grace needed to fall head first into the faith as I did. BTW, that’s not me, that was God. No other explanation for it.

    Frankly, too many evangelists identify the line between evangelism and secular in exactly the same place as the jaded secular lost sheep. For this reason, they don’t surprise anyone; they simply shout, while faith filled and strident, to an empty room. No one wants to be given the same lecture for 40 years straight! They think they know our faith better than we do!

    There’s a reason why the words secular and profane are different, and we should attempt to celebrate that difference with uplifting unexpected stories that inspire to the right way. I have seen that this can be accomplished without sounding like a mikquetoast elite who’ve been protected from the world all our lives. Look up what folks had to put up with in the early days of Vatican II and you get what I’m talking about.
    We haven’t.

    Jesus tells us to meet people where they are, not where we want them to be.

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