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Brian Levack discusses possession and exorcism with NPR's On Point

Posted: April 11, 2013
Prof. Brian Levack

Prof. Brian Levack

Originally posted on April 11 by NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook

Possession And Exorcism

The Devil made me do it. We’re looking at the long story of possession and exorcism.

We spoke today with historian Brian Levack of the University of Texas at Austin about possession and exorcism, from past centuries right up to the present day. He’s the author of the new book, “The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West.”

There have been two great peaks of belief in possession and exorcism in the Christian West, Levack said: the first at the dawn of the Age of Reason, and the second we’re in the midst of right now.

Here’s Levack on the current surge in belief in demonic possession:

“It’s in communities, especially in highly religious communities, especially evangelical and charismatic religious communities, who believe in a direct relationship between demonic spirits and human beings […] and whenever you have that belief, and that is a belief that has been cultivated greatly in the late twentieth century, you’re going to get cases of demonic possession. And then you have the demand for exorcists to relieve people of these symptoms of demonic possession. You also have a number of exorcists, especially in Italy and in Latin America, and in Poland, far fewer in America – and that might help to explain why we’re not familiar with this, I don’t meet demoniacs every day! – but you have these exorcists who actually go out and drum up business. They’re celebrity exorcists. There’s one in Italy who claims to have exorcised 70,000 people!”

So what’s behind all this (if not actual demons)? Levack sees possession as a behavior based on belief that can be dispelled through the ritual and performative aspects of an exorcism.

“All possessions were sacred dramas. They were performances. The demoniacs and the exorcists, who were trying to drive out the devils, were following scripts that were encoded in their religious cultures. And these scripts were widely known, you have some of them in the Bible, but you also have all these accounts of other possessions that people read at this time. And once it was suggested that someone might be demonically possessed, you know they had fits or something like that, they would follow that script. […] Certainly the anxiety was real, and they are responding to it.”

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To listen to the entire interview and read an excerpt of Dr. Levack's book, visit this link:

http://onpoint.wbur.org/2013/04/11/possession-exorcism

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