When Demons Are Real

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ivailo Djilianov.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on March 17, 2015.

I’m sure by now nearly every one of you has heard about Arkansas state representative Justin Harris’s decision to “rehome” his two adopted daughters with a man who then sexually abused them. Most of you have probably heard, too, about the impetus for Justin’s decision—that he believed the girls were possessed by demons. Justin called in specialists to conduct an exorcism and kept the girls separated because he believed they could communicate telepathically.

I might very well think this story to bizarre to be true if I didn’t know first hand how strongly entrenched demons and spiritual warfare are within evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity.

I grew up hearing stories about demons. A friend of my parents’ told a story at Bible study about confronting a demon in the hall in her home at night. She explained that her teenage daughter had been listening to secular music, and that that must have let the demon in. I checked out books by Frank Peretti at the church library, and read hair-raising stories about demonic activity. I went to a dramatic reading of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters with my parents.

My parents were very clear about demons. They told us that the world around us was locked in conflict between demons and angels. This conflict was going on everywhere around us, unseen.

I struggled with fear of demons my entire childhood. I would lay awake in bed with my eyes clenched shut, afraid that if I opened them I would see a demon at the foot of my bed—demons, after all, could make themselves visible to the human eye if they so chose. I was afraid I would invite a demon to attack me by thinking the wrong thoughts, and fearfully tried to keep my mind away from anything that might seem like an invitation.

My parents always told me that the name of Jesus would protect me from demons. All I had to do was evoke that name, and the demons would flee. But I read in the Bible about a case where a demon beat up some men even though they evoked the name of Jesus, because the men weren’t “true” believers. This frightened me, as I also suffered from salvation anxiety—I was so concerned that I might not actually be saved that I prayed the sinner’s prayer continually throughout much of my childhood.

On a recent visit home, my mother told a story about praying demons out of my youngest sister when she had a migraine. She said my sister vomited violently as the demons left, and then the migraine was gone.

But let’s bring this back around to Justin Harris. My parents believed demonic possession was real, and not just a thing of the past. I was taught that much of what we call mental illness today is in fact demonic possession. It seems Justin Harris believed this too, and interpreted his adopted daughters’ very normal adjustment troubles as demonic possession.

My daughter Sally has a friend who was adopted out of foster care when she was three and her sister was four. Both girls have had adjustment issues, but their adoptive parents expected that and have showered them with the love, attention, and careful guidance they need. It breaks my heart to think that natural adjustment issues—often the result of past trauma—could be interpreted as demonic possession.

I am reminded of this exchange from the Doctor Who episode Curse of the Black Spot:

Captain Avery: The ship is cursed!

The Doctor: Yeah, right. Cursed. It’s big with humans. It means bad things are happening but you can’t be bothered to find an explanation.

I’m honestly not sure what the solution is. Belief in demons as real and active entities is integral to fundamentalism and evangelicalism. But then, my mother once told me that she did believe some forms of depression could be caused by actual chemical imbalances, so perhaps there is some wiggle room—perhaps it is possible to educate individuals like Justin Harris on the psychological explanations behind behavior like that of his adopted daughters. Perhaps, returning to Doctor Who, having an explanation will dispel the need to invoke demons.

Although actually, I’m not sure much could have been done for Justin Harris himself. Anyone willing to threaten a department’s funding to push an adoption through and then give his adoptive children away under the table without so much as a background check is probably too far gone.

How I Lost My Faith, Part Two: Isolation

Part Two: Isolation

HA note: The following story is written by lungfish, a formerly homeschooled ex-Baptist, ex-Calvinist, ex-Pentecostal, ex-Evangelical, ex-young earth creationist, current atheist, and admin of the Ask an Ex-Christian web page.

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Also in this series: Part One, Introduction | Part Two, Isolation | Part Three, Rejection | Part Four, Doubt | Part Five, Deconversion | Part Six, Conclusion

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Isolation: Pentecostalism  

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth.“ Revelation 3:15-16 

Some Christians come to the faith by using God to overcome a hardship in their life that they believe to be too difficult to overcome on their own. Others come in reaction to an extreme emotional response to the message of salvation. But when the hardship is overcome and the emotion fades, many of these Christians often return to their secular lifestyles and push God to the back of their minds.

This was never an option for me.

My indoctrination had caused my mind to be engulfed in a sort of monothematic delusion. A monothematic delusion is a delusional state that concerns only one particular topic. Victims often do not suffer from any obvious intellectual deficiency nor do they have any other symptoms. For my entire life, everyday, from morning to night, I was surrounded by Jesus. Morning devotionals were followed by seven hours of Christian themed home school curriculum. The walls in our home were covered in Christian themed posters and, every evening, I took part in a second devotional. All of which, plunged me deeper and deeper into this delusion that almost nothing could pull me out of.

Somatoparaphrenia, a type of monothematic delusion, is a delusion where one denies ownership of a limb or an entire side of one’s body.

As a Christian, I had extended this denial of ownership to my entire being.

I was clay in the hands of the Maker who could shape me as He pleased. I believed that life was a test of hardships and, as long as I stayed faithful, God would never put me through more than I could handle. It was this belief, along with the fear of hellfire and the pain it might cause others, that kept me from ending my life the many times I considered doing so as a Christian. In this sense, the same delusion that was destroying me also saved me. But it trapped me in a state of mind that kept me from healing or seeking help – even though I sometimes realized there was something wrong. And, ultimately, against all reason and observations of reality, it caused me to form for myself a sort of personal cult that no one else was a part of based on the doctrine of Christianity.

When the Calvinist mission church disbanded, we returned to the Baptist church we had previously attended; but I continued to attend private school in an Evangelical church. I was in for grade and loved school. I loved the friends I made. Nothing was more important to me. I was the class clown and came to be listed in the yearbook as the best friend of every boy in the class. But this period of my life was short lived.  Half way through my fifth grade year, my mother had an argument with the class room teacher. She pulled me out at the end of the month and I began homeschooling again. I was devastated. At such a young age, when your social life is dictated by your parents, it became difficult to keep in touch with the friends I had made.

I retained only one of those friends.

By this time, my older brother had moved out of the house. I was now the oldest boy in the house, so my mother began to confide in. The continuing arguments between my parents were now almost always followed by my mother furiously stomping up the stairs. She would come to my room and angrily complain for hours about how terrible she thought her life was. She would often curse God while she talked to me – saying that God was in heaven laughing at her and that she was like an ant and God a mean kid with a magnifying glass.

I hated when she said those things.

I would frequently have mental breakdowns while she complained and my muscles would tense to the point of sharp pain in my neck and shoulders – a coping mechanism known as somatization. I tried my hardest to hide my pain because I thought it was my responsibility to listen my mother.

I often cried myself to sleep afterwards, escaping into the headphones of the Walkman radio that I hid between my mattresses. I was not allowed to listen to music, whether it was secular or Christian. Satan was the angel of music before his fall from heaven and, therefore, music was his preferred method of influencing people. But music was my only comfort. My mother eventually found the Walkman and took it away – claiming that I wanted to listen to this music because I was possessed by demons.

The pastor of our current church arrived at our door the next day and they performed an exorcism on me and on my bedroom.

And these signs shall accompany them that believe: in my name shall they cast out demons; they shall speak with new tongues.“ Mark 16:17

During my sixth grade year we switched churches once again – this time, to a small Pentecostal church. The passion of the people at this church was sometimes over whelming to me. They had such an outward desperation for Jesus that I had never witnessed before. After all the time spent in the Baptist church, singing stiff, slow moving hymnals to a single organ, I had become a very reserved in worship. I often become sick to my stomach when trying display such outward emotion myself. My inability to raise my hands, dance, and cry while worshiping, like everyone around me, made me angry at myself. I thought I did not have enough faith or I was subconsciously ashamed of my relationship with Jesus Christ. But I often cried out in desperation and worship for Jesus alone at night – trying to overcome this barrier.

I also had never felt compelled to speak in tongues and I did not have visions like many members of the congregation did. At this church, we believed that interpretation of tongues and personal visions were God’s method of communication to the most faithful among us. One vision that I remember was had by the pastor’s daughter. She claimed that she saw a beast hovering above the city. This beast had thousands of tentacles with which he controlled people and daily events in the city.

The name of our city was an old Native American word that meant ”place of evil” – so we believed her.

When I was fifteen, my youth group at this church attended a small Pentecostal Christian youth summer camp. Worship at this camp was the most emotional experience of my life. As the music played, everyone raised their hands high in the air without exception. Everyone would stand on the highest tips of their toes, sobbing until red in the face, bouncing on their knees, springing their bodies inches from the ground. It was as if Jesus was hovering above them, just out of reach, and all it would take is one single touch of His garments by the very tips of their fingers and they would be whole – but they were too exhausted to jump high enough to reach Him. Everyone worshiped this way – except for me.

I was petrified of worshipping in this environment.

After some time, a camp leader noticed that I did not worship like the rest of the youth and began pressuring me to do as they did – as if my outer state was a reflection of my inner state. Afraid of being judged, I gave in easily. That is when a song with lyrics about jumping for Jesus began. We were all encouraged to jump and spin in circles. After a few minutes of this, I came down hard on my ankle. I could no longer stand so, I sat down. A camp leader noticed and approached me. He asked me what was wrong and I told him that I think I had sprained my ankle. He laid hands on me and prayed for healing. I felt a warm sensation enter my leg. It moved down past my ankle and seemed to leave through my toes. The pain was gone. I looked up and quietly announced that I was just healed. Everyone cheered and congratulated me for having such faith. But, I did not feel the joy that should be felt in a moment like this. Instead, I felt only confusion.

I did not feel in the least like I was touched by the divine hand of a god. 

I wondered if I had even hurt my ankle at all. I wondered if I fabricate the pain in my mind because I did not want to jump – and then I fabricate the healing. I knew that there should be more to a healing than this empty feeling that it seemed to leave me with. As the week-long camp came to an end, people congratulated me on my faith once again as I sat in the big blue youth group van window looking down towards them. They spoke of the encouragement they received from witnessing the strength of my faith and my healing. I did not know what to say- so I just thanked them for their words. I didn’t want to spread false claims of healing, so I filed the event to the back of my mind and never spoke of it again.

Upon returning home, I began to become fed up with my life of homeschooling and being witness to my parent’s broken marriage. After constantly begging my mother to allow me to return to school, she made me a deal. The local high school had a program that allowed homeschoolers to send their children to two hours of classes that might not otherwise be available through home school curriculum. I signed up for this program and my mother, sure that I would not enjoy the experience, agreed that, if I still wanted to attend full time public school at the end of that academic year, I would be allowed.

At the same time, I began a courtship with one of the girls at church and we became very close. We often heard from the adults that she and I would likely be married someday. We spent the majority of our free time with each other. I arrived at school early every morning that entire year to spend time with her and people I had met from around my neighborhood. My house had become the neighborhood hangout and my front yard was filled with kids skateboarding and just hanging out every day.

“Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?”  II Corinthians 6:14

The year was coming to an end and I told my mother I wanted to attend school full time the following year.

She became furious.

She determined that it was because of this girl and the unbelieving kids from the neighborhood. She told me that I could not see any of them anymore and we once again switched churches. I did not want to fight my mother, but I did not want to give up my friends. I wanted to be a good Christian and I wanted my mother to be proud of my spirituality – so I decided to give up my friends. But I became very distressed. I started failing exams for the first time in my life. My mother saw my failing grades and began to accuse me of being on drugs. That is when something snapped in my mind. I began to have difficulty holding onto basic thoughts, I began to forget basic vocabulary while speaking, and I my short term memory began to fail – especially under stressful conditions.

This is a condition known as dissociation amnesia.

However, I did not have plans to stop seeing this girl with whom I had become so close. We were both Christians and I did not believe I could be influence negatively by our relationship. When I was with her, I did not feel as lonely and isolated as I had come to feel everywhere else. But, for over a month, she did not answer her phone when I called or come to her door when I knocked. Eventually, I received a package from her. It contained every gift I had ever given to her. A letter was also inside. It read that she believed I had betrayed her. She thought it was my decision to cut off our friendship. She told me that she was glad our friendship was over and accused me of corrupting her Christian walk.

I did not know what she meant.

I tried to find her and explain what really happened – that my mother thought us unequally yoked and it was her, not I, that was trying to separate us. But rumors about our breakup were spreading faster than I could reach her. I heard a new lie about us almost every day. She accused me of breaking into her email and sending all her friends hate mail – which I did not do. At the beginning of the next school year, I was homeschooled full time again. Alone in the solitude that homeschooling had become for me, I retreated within myself.

I became a stranger to everyone I knew and no one would hear from me for over a year.

To be continued.