Until the late 1970s, belief in demon possession was on its way out. ”The Exorcist” changed all that, which is unfortunate, because it’s one of my favorite horror movies ever, and I hate to think that it contributed to the insanity I see around me today. But sadly, the far right of Christianity has latched onto “spiritual warfare” as part of its campaign towards Christian totalitarianism. Some of the more extreme denominations believe in very literal spiritual warfare. I was unfortunate enough to be a part of that for several of my more impressionable teenage years.
When I was around thirteen years old, I was given several books to read, including titles by Bob Larson and Freddie Gage. Bob Larson had a very popular radio show at the time, Talk Back. I was a regular listener. Larson, Gage, and many other right wing preachers at the time were very concerned with the occult, Satanism, rock music, and spiritual warfare.
The youth minister at my church agreed that there were real spiritual agents at work in the world. I was taught that the rebellious angels mentioned in the Genesis story were demons, and that they had real power to influence things on earth, including the power to possess people. Ghosts, I was taught, were evil spirits attempting to deceive true believers.
I remember one youth retreat in particular where we were taught how to engage in spiritual warfare. It was explained to us (with much hand waving) that it was our job as Spirit-Filled Christians to discern the activities of evil spirits and to actively combat them. We were taught to “put on the full armor of God.” Literally. Can you picture a room full of teenage boys and girls going through the motions of putting on invisible armor, and being taught that this kind of thing was necessary so that when we did run into demons, we’d be able to avoid being possessed? It’s real, and that really is what we were taught.
We were told that many sins are the result of direct influence from demons. There were very specific demons — the spirit of lust, the spirit of jealousy, the spirit of anger, etc. When someone acted uncharacteristically, we were taught that they were either under the influence of a demon or possessed.
On the face of it, possession wasn’t that big a worry. You see, only a person who invites a demon in can get possessed. The True Believer™ has the protection of the blood of Jesus and the armor of faith, and as long as he is living a virtuous and Godly life, he need not fear possession. He can, however, fall under demonic influence. Demons are particularly fond of exploiting our weaknesses and putting us in harm’s way. If we give in to the temptation of lust, we will be presented with the opportunity to lust. The more we give in, the more the demon has control of us. Eventually, we were warned, God will become angry with our willing sinfulness, and will remove his protection. We cannot know when this will happen, but when it does, we are prime targets for demonic possession. And once we’re possessed, it becomes extraordinarily unlikely that we will ever be receptive to the spirit of God again. We will likely spend eternity in hell.
I went to a revival meeting where a genuine exorcist was preaching. He reinforced everything I’d learned about demon possession, and further informed me that I had the power (as a True Believer™) to call on angels to help me battle demonic spirits. I was taught how to invoke my right as a follower in Jesus to cast out demons, to summon angels, and to discern spirits. (You see, if there is any malice or deceit in the heart of a True Believer™ when he calls on an angel, it’s possible that he’ll actually summon a demon, and things will only get worse.)
At the end of the service, there was a full on exorcism performed right there on stage. It went remarkably well, with some babbling in tongues, convulsions, and a couple of fainting spells. It was all very scary at the time, and I left feeling both empowered and powerless. I knew I was supposed to be able to commune with the Holy Spirit to discern good from evil spirits, but in truth, I felt as if the Lord was distant from me. I’d gone through all the motions with earnest, but I had received no visions, no signs, and felt genuinely confused by conflicting reports of what constituted my own sin and what was really the work of spirits.
On the way back to our church, the youth minister took the liberty of explaining that for teenage boys, lust is one of the fastest paths to demon possession. Dirty magazines, erotic stories, and (heaven forbid) actual fornication were fast tracks to destruction. But worse than that, even stray lustful thoughts were harmful. We are taught in the Bible that to look lustfully at a woman is the same as fornicating with her, and the same goes for the random imaginings so often indulged in by teenage boys.
That night, my room was filled with demons. I felt them all around me. When I closed my eyes, I felt shadows creeping from my closet, from under the bed, through the window. My throat felt tight, and my heart was racing. I was certain that Satan himself had targeted me. You see, a couple of months before, I’d discovered my father’s stash of Playboys, and had been indulging in very graphic fantasies involving the women on the pages as well as girls at my church and school. My hormones had just started kicking in hard, and there really wasn’t much I could do to avoid thinking about girls and sex. Of course, I’d never had sex. I’d never even kissed a girl. But that made the fantasies even more intense and the longing that much stronger.
I was inviting a demon to control me. If I wasn’t careful, I would become possessed, and would turn into a depraved sex criminal. Maybe a rapist. No Godly Christian girl would ever want to marry me. I would be miserable, and God would take his protection from me.
I prayed fervently for hours. I couldn’t go to sleep. When I started to drift off to sleep, I would think about a girl and start to get an erection. Then I would have to pray for another thirty minutes before it would subside. Then the whole process would start all over again. I couldn’t masturbate because if I did, I would think impure thoughts. (How does one masturbate without thinking impure thoughts? I was taught that masturbation wasn’t strictly wrong, but that it must be done out of a pure mind. I never did understand how that was supposed to work.)
I called on angels to help me. I asked them to put a spiritual barrier between me and the demons. For a few minutes, I thought that had worked, but then I started wondering. Were the demons still in my room? Or were they barred from the house? I couldn’t ask the angels directly. (You see, we’re allowed to command angels, but not to converse with them. That would be praying to someone other than God, and would constitute idolatry.)
For several weeks, I endured this kind of torture at the hands of the spirit of lust. I probably suffered from sleep deprivation for most of a month, which only contributed to the sightings of demons out of the corner of my eye. I couldn’t tell anybody about this. Certainly not my mother. How does a thirteen year old broach that conversation? ”So, Mom… I’ve had a nearly constant erection for a week, and can’t seem to masturbate without thinking about having sex with a girl. What should I do to avoid being possessed by a demon?” No. Not gonna happen.
So I suffered in private. Eventually, I convinced myself that I had suppressed my urges enough to stop worrying about possession, but in years to come, I still suffered. When I was in the ninth grade, there was a girl who liked me. (That in itself was something of an accomplishment. I really was a self-righteous prick in those days.) I don’t recall her last name, but her first name was Mary. For several days, we met in the courtyard, chatted, and she flirted with me. A couple of times, we held hands while we walked to class. I was petrified. I could feel blood flow… down there… and I started imagining what it would feel like to touch her. I wondered if she looked like the girls I had seen in the magazines. I thought about her breasts.
After a week of that, I broke it off with her and never talked to her again.
Having related this rather personal story to you, I need to tell you a couple of other things about me. I was sheltered, gullible, and impressionable to be sure. But I wasn’t dumb. I didn’t make a B in a class until my junior year in High School, and I graduated mere percentage points behind the valedictorian (who didn’t make any Bs). I had read all six books in Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series by the time I was fourteen. I was programming my TRS-80 Color Computer when I was 9, inventing elaborate programs to complement my own imaginary Sci-fi universes. I could tell you the crystalline structure of perhaps a hundred or so crystals, along with the chemical symbols. I was a very smart kid.
I’m not telling you these things to brag. Quite the contrary. I still feel ashamed at how gullible I was, and to this day, I cringe when I imagine what my classmates must have thought of me. I didn’t go around preaching, but I’d tell anybody who asked that I could cast out demons and summon angels. They must have thought me insane! For four years of High School, I lived a completely celibate, completely girl-free life, partly out of shyness and social awkwardness, but largely because I literally believed that if I gave in — even a little — to temptation, that something really bad would happen to me.
I honestly don’t have too much commentary on this story. I think it speaks for itself. I was a very smart kid who received exactly the wrong kind of mental training. When I left Christianity, it took years for me to deprogram and reprogram myself to think of the world in logical, empirical terms. I was very lucky in one sense. Much of my indoctrination was facilitated by my isolation. My only friends were people in church for most of my childhood. Though I did branch out a little bit in high school (my best friend wasn’t particularly religious) I really never tried to make friends with the “secular kids.” Once I began integrating myself into the world — a process which started in college — I began to see mountains of evidence that what I believed was false. My first girlfriend was an ex-Jehovah’s Witness who argued with me at length about the irrationality of my beliefs. Eventually, my own striving for truth got the better of my god-belief, and I escaped.
But many people do not. Many people stay cloistered behind religious walls, both literal and figurative, until their lives are so intertwined with the church that they really have nowhere else to go, and no other sources of information. There are people who only watch FOX News and Christian broadcasting networks. They only listen to Christian music, Christian radio, and only read Christian books. Many of these people received the same training I did. I feel certain that many, if not most of them, suffer their own private hell when the teachings of the church demand that they conform to standards that no human could possibly achieve. That is one of the evils of this kind of teaching. Believers think they’re abnormal for being normal, and ashamed to tell anyone for fear of being judged unworthy. So everyone suffers in private while pretending at the same piety as everyone else.
To say it’s unhealthy is a bit of an understatement.