Demonic Possession is Not the New Normal:
More from Nibs Stroupe

Medieval illumination of Jesus exorcizing the Gerasene demoniac
from the Ottheinrich Folio
By unknown (Markusmaler) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The story of Jesus liberating the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8:26-39 and parallels) has long bedeviled modern interpreters (stop groaning at the pun, please, gentle readers). A New Testament scholar as esteemed as E.P. Sanders once had to admit he wasn't quite sure what to make of this story (see his The Historical Figure of Jesus). Is this vignette simply a case of ancient superstition, or might it have something to say to us directly today?

Deeper Waters: Sermons for a New Vision, By Nibs Stroupe (edited by Collin Cornell) (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017).

Nibs Stroupe, a Presbyterian preacher from Georgia, has some perceptive insights here. (For some background on Stroupe, see my previous post.) Like many other Western readers today, he reflectively recoils from exorcism stories, yet he invites us to take a closer look at the multiple assaults of death-dealing powers that afflict human beings. He invites us to shift our focus away from metaphysical speculation on the demons in this story and toward the character of their operation. The first thing to note is that they displace and subsume the identity of their victim; we find, even today, echoes of this idea in our colloquial language ("she was beside herself"). When Jesus asks the demoniac to speak his name, the stunning reply is "Legion" (a transliteration of the Greek original, Λεγιών). Speculating about a possible allusion to the occupying Roman military -- legitimate as it might be -- is tangential to the basic point I'm stressing here. (I have set in bold certain phrases in these quotes for emphasis).

Stroupe writes:

The man doesn't say Joseph or James. He says Legion, the name of the demon, a sign that the man no longer has an identity of his own, but now has the identity of the demoniac power (p. 9).

So tight is the hold of this power (or perhaps we might say, these powers) on the man that, upon their expulsion, they are thrust into the bodies of a hapless herd of swine, who carry out the demons' death wish. The academic exegete might to be tempted to focus on the fact that pigs are ritually un-kosher, thereby reducing the import of the passage to a bit of social commentary fixed in the Gentile milieu of the story. I'm not sure how important this context is, though, as we ponder the meaning of this passage for us today, in a quite different milieu.

Next, Stroupe draws out a striking point: Look at how the townsfolk respond to Jesus. They are so accustomed to seeing the poor man self-harming up at the tombs, his astonishing healing hardly registers with them. They are more obsessed by dead pigs, and the obvious economic repercussions of this healing -- and, to be fair, such an event might well be catastrophic for the local farmers and the broader community. The issue, though, is the how the immersion in quotidian realities blinds the townsfolk to miracle, to the reality that in the life-work of Jesus, a new socio-economic order is dawning. In this vein, Stroupe writes:

The most dangerous demons are those that become so intertwined with our identities that they come to be seen as normal, as part of life. That's what happened to these townspeople. Demonic possession had come to be the norm, and they could not imagine anything else. When Jesus comes into their midst, bringing healing, bringing a new reality, they believe demonic possession is part of the natural order (p. 10)

What a striking subversion of the notion that demon possession is "supernatural"! God save us from a world where we come to see school shootings, to take a poignant contemporary example, as "normal," as part of the "natural order."

David Congdon helpfully has defined demythologization, in part, as "translation," as bringing the power of the Gospel into fresh expression within a contemporary idiom. And that is what Stroupe does in this sermon. As he sees it, the lurid depictions of possession one finds in second-rate horror films are a distraction from those realities that truly are insidious in our world. The demons we must confront are those principalities and powers whose malign influence we have so deeply internalized that we scarcely even notice them. When we are asked our name, we name them instead.

Pondering this point, I ruminate: Who am I? I am a heterosexual, cis-gendered, white male. I am a citizen of the United States. I work for a roofing contractor. I am a registered Democrat. I am mired in student loan debts. Such identities are normal (=normative) for my experience. Yet in biblical terms, such identifications, necessary though they may be, always risk entangling me in idolatries, as I seek to ground my identity and security in them, rather than in the vicarious humanity of the Second Adam, Jesus Christ. Indeed, playing out such roles may be my lot in life. But where is my humanity amid all this? I am, indeed, dead already, yet my life is "hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).

William Stringfellow had a name for the type of principality of (misaken) identities that Stroupe addresses here -- "image" -- a species of demonic force that afflicts individuals, in particular, though the powers for him always have a corporate aspect as well (See Free in Obedience, pp. 53-55.) His example is Marilyn Monroe, the public figure who comes to displace the identity of one Norma Jeane Mortenson -- quite literally unto death, as Bernie Taupin's lyric "Candle in the Wind" captures so poignantly. So normative, so iconic is the identity of Marilyn Monroe as image that it lives on five-and-a-half decades after the actual woman's death, immortalized in the discount poster bin of your local Spencer's novelty store.

Like Stringfellow, though, Stroupe identifies the corporate, structural, trans-personal character of these demons -- structures like materialism, racism, homophobia, and the myth of redemptive violence ("open carry" is one of the latest incarnations of this age-old ideology).

Stringfellow and Stroupe remind us that we need to beware: We are those townspeople. When Jesus comes, will we be willing to drop our buckets of pig slop and get with the program of redeeming real humanity? The liberating Gospel is that Jesus Christ, having once invaded that community where a profitable pork industry was considered more important than funding universal healthcare for the spiritually distressed, is coming to our town too. He's pulling up his boat to our lake shore and not even a million ICE agents deputized by Jeff Sessions himself will be able to stop him. And as the Son of God, he brings with him his own definition of a normative reality -- and "old things are passed away" (I Cor. 5:17).



blair said…
"Like many other Western readers today, he reflectively recoils from exorcism stories, yet he invites us to take a closer look at the multiple assaults of death-dealing powers that afflict human beings. He invites us to shift our focus away from metaphysical speculation on the demons in this story and toward the character of their operation."

I'm not so sure that we can be quick to distrust our recoil. There is something there, something is not metaphysical speculation but somehow real. I confess my knowledge of Stringfellow is meager, Bultmann as well. What I do know is that from my African perspective at the moment, there is more work to be done.
Indeed, much more work. That "something there" that is "somehow real" is one of the key things I'm trying to pursue and understand. Thanks for reading!

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