Faith, Doubt, and Demonic Possession in The Rite

“I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves.” Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Somebody down below didn’t get the memo.

The only thing that masks demonic forces in The Rite, a new film by director Mikael Håfström, is the lack of spiritual discernment by the young seminarian, Michael Kovac. His self-imposed blindness to the reality of diabolical forces, and how he regains his spiritual eyesight is the focus of The Rite, a complex story that explores practical faith and wrestles with theological questions. One thing is for sure. If you are a jaded filmgoer, if you think that you have already seen everything an exorcism film has to offer, think again.

The Struggle of Faith

Human beings are, in their sinful nature, spiritually reluctant to cede control of self. So much is at risk in giving oneself completely to God. Religious history is filled with people such as Lot’s wife or the escaping Hebrews in the desert who, at their first opportunity, despite explicit manifestations of God’s presence and power, looked back longingly at a world that ignored their God. Are we all that different? Isn’t there a little bit of Michael Kovac in all of us?

Throughout Michael’s seminary studies he has a hard time believing that the words he is saying have any real meaning. Early in the film, Michael watches in horror as a young woman on a bicycle is struck by a truck. He runs over, kneels in the road beside her and, at her pleading, reluctantly gives her extreme unction. But when he later discusses his experience with the head of his seminary, he admits that he felt nothing. It was just words. Michael has serious doubts about the existence of God — doubts shared, at one time or another, by many believers.

When Father Superior Matthew sends Michael to Rome to take a class in exorcism, the hope is that direct confrontation with the supernatural will ignite his faith. Once Michael arrives, he is assigned to veteran exorcist Father Lucas Trevant, a complex spiritual warrior who has successfully performed thousands of exorcisms. Despite exposure to the spiritually afflicted, Michael insists that these are psychiatric cases, not incidences of possession. To those with a predisposition to disbelief, no amount objective evidence can constitute compelling proof. Before Michael can make his leap of faith, the demonic attacks have to become more personal. In order for him to live in faith, some of Michael’s ideas will have to die.

Theological Issues

The Rite is a film about the struggle between faith and doubt – a struggle that does not completely abate even after faith is embraced. But it is not without its own theological controversies over the reality of devil, the nature of spiritual warfare, and whether the barrier between the Spirit-indwelt believer and the powers of darkness is permeable.

Despite M. Scott Peck’s popular book asserting that there is, in this world, a real, personal manifestation of evil, many in the contemporary church have abandoned the concept of the devil as an arcane, vestigial remnant of our medieval past. George Barna, noted researcher on trends in religion, in a survey conducted in 2009 discovered that the majority of people who self-identify as Christians do not believe in a real, personal Satan. Barna notes, “Most Americans, even those who say they are Christian, have doubts about the intrusion of the supernatural into the natural world. Hollywood has made evil accessible and tame, making Satan and demons less worrisome than the Bible suggests they really are.”

The Rite is not one of those Hollywood films. By focusing primarily on the workaday tasks of a modern exorcist, which include waiting rooms and exorcism-interrupting cell phone calls, the film attempts to demystify exorcism. At the same time, the film does not stint on the power of the devil to inhabit human beings, and the necessity of the followers of Christ to answer the call to drive them out. Rather than maintain some false dichotomy between the supernatural and natural realms, the movie shows how they interpenetrate.

Spiritual warfare is taken seriously in The Rite. Father Gary Thomas, the Catholic priest on whose life The Rite is loosely based, emphasized that exorcists must ready themselves through a commitment to prayer and personal holiness. Christ defeated Satan when He died on Calvary and rose from the dead three days later. Still, individual skirmishes continue as Satan attempts to sideline believers, to destroy their witness, and to eliminate as many image-bearers of God as possible.

The only troubling aspect of the film, to me, was the implication that Christians could be possessed by demons. According to Father Gary, and corroborated by the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church teaching holds that Christians can be possessed, though it must be stressed that such possession extends only to the body, and not to the soul.

Protestant teaching on this topic varies. Some in the more Pentecostal denominations argue for demonic oppression, but the distinction between oppression and possession has always been lost on me. If a demon takes control of a person’s actions, that constitutes possession in my book. The standard Evangelical answer to the question of the demonic possession of Christians has always been, “No.” Christians cannot be bodily possessed because their bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, indwelt by God, and therefore there is no room for demonic spirits.

Christians may have some “in house” disagreements on the particulars, but on the subject of the supernatural, we are united. .Regardless which side you take in these issues, plot devices which concern God, the devil, angels, the supernatural, and the acknowledgement of a spiritual world can evoke edifying conversations as people gather after a film to discuss its meaning.

Importance of Supernatural Films

Father Gary made it clear in an interview that he does not want The Rite to be construed as a horror film. Instead, it really is about a young man, steeped in scientific rationalism, who is confronted by diabolical activity but tries to find any way he can to explain it away. He does not want to have to admit that what he is experiencing is an encounter with transcendent evil. In this regard, he mirrors the experience of many in contemporary western culture.

For decades, people in the West have been indoctrinated by an educational system committed to a scientific-materialist worldview that denies the supernatural. And yet, films that feature the otherworldly represent one of cinema’s most enduring genres. When filmmakers portray serious supernatural attacks on the screen, audiences do not respond with ridicule, as one might expect if they actually identified with a completely materialist worldview. Instead, they scream, cower, watch through interlaced fingers, and, in their hearts, they experience fear.

Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy, explains that in ancient non-Christian cultures, the first experience of the transcendent usually takes the form of demonic dread – the fear of demons or ghosts. Some will argue that modern culture is post-Christian, so it should not be surprising that people have reverted back to their pre-Christian experiences. Rejecting God, the only source of the transcendent comes in the form of the demonic.

People are hard-wired by God to respond to the spiritual. They need transcendent experiences. And when the church does not oblige by preaching about transcendence from the pulpit, Hollywood is only too eager to cash in on that impulse by offering it up at the cinema. People have a spiritual hunger that extends beyond learning how to have their best life now. Rather, they are concerned about the timeless questions: Are we truly a great cosmic accident, or does human life have real, lasting meaning? Is this world all there is, or are unseen forces at work, interacting with the human drama and battling for ascendancy? What happens to us when we die?

Christians have the answers, but too often we are shy about offering them up, leading people to seek them elsewhere. Films such as The Rite provide a venue to share what we know. The devil is real. There is good reason to fear. But we have an answer for the problem of transcendent evil. We can show you how to wage spiritual warfare. We even know someone who has conquered death who came to rescue us. Come and see.

©2011 Marc T.Newman, PH.D.

Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieBiblesStudy.com, an organization that provides Bible studies drawn from popular film to help the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman also teaches in the graduate program of School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to marc@movieministry.com.