Wednesday, September 14, 2005

On "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"

I may have noted here before that a friend and I go to a movie almost every Tuesday night. I know that it's a self-indulgent extravagance, since I end up out more evenings with him than with my wife most months. But this way I'm conversant with popular culture -- and I can weed out any bad movie that she and I might have been interested in seeing. (Well, so I try to justify it, anyway.)

Last night we saw The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and I'm glad we did. (And this one I don't have to feel guilty about, because Kathy has no interest in seeing it.) The movie centers on the trial of a Roman Catholic priest who is brought up on criminal charges of negligent homicide in connection with the death of college-age girl whom he from whom he tried to exorcise demons after a period of her behaving increasingly strangely and self-destructively. The trial conflict focusses on whether the girl died primarily of medical causes, which the priest should then have prevented by forcing the girl into medical care, or "supernatural" causes, which the priest ultimately was unable to defeat and for which he would not be ultimately responsible.

We see sort of cartoon characterizations of the lawyers involved -- indeed, the concern of the movie is the trial more than the claimed demon possession. The prosecutor is a good, church-going, choir-member, Bible-reading (so he tells a witness and the jury) Methodist who will go from "tearing a witness apart on cross-examination" to Bible study at the church (where "he practically lives," according to a colleague) without setting a mustache hair out of place. He is trim, tightly dressed, and absolutely disdainful of any notion of "supernatural" powers or causes. In his summation to the jury, for example, he distinguishes between "facts" (which are properly the subject of judicial inquiry) and "belief" (which, of course, has nothing to do with "in here" -- i.e., in the courtroom). He was especailly cartoonish, I thought: I don't see that he could be much of a Methodist if he so neatly separates off his life of faith from his work as a prosecuting attorney -- but he is a wonderful send-up of the modern Liberal Protestant for whom faith is religion and life is life and the two really don't have much to do with each other.

The defense attorney, on the other (and ironic) hand is a hard-drinking, ambitious, tough lawyer who is fighting against the glass ceiling in her law firm by taking on and winning difficult criminal cases. (Laura Linney can act, but I was constantly distracted by how much she looks like Jennifer Anniston -- so I never did quite suspend disbelief about her.) She begins somewhat sceptical of the possession theory of the case, until she realizes that she is losing badly on the medical testimony. And once she begins to listen to her client (well, that's an issue: who really is her client -- but more later), she gets on board and begins perhaps to experience herself the assaults of darkness (as the priest calls it). She even tracks down and brings in a very sophisticated Northwestern University anthropologist (trained at Yale and Oxford -- can you get more respectable?) to describe (in the most gorgeous, Eva-Gabor-like accent) the worldwide phenomenon of demonic possession and who is able to opine that it was demons, not medical causes, that were the ultimate cause of the girl's death.

What we are meant to appreciate, and I guess I can, is the irony of the positions adopted by the two lawyers. In one corner is the church-going prosecutor. This person of faith utterly denies any notion of the influence of the supernatural in daily events. His is a world in which courts deal with "facts" -- which are not interpretations, but things you can get your hands on, undeniable, scientifically verifiable. Anything incapable of a physical explanation is out of bounds. He is merciless on insisting that if a doctor diagnoses it, it is a fact; there can be no more to it. (The movie is clearly on the attack against the mythification of medicine -- the scientific trump of any explanation of anything dealing with the human body.)

In the other corner, the defense attorney begins from a position of scepticism and may be moved to an appreciation that "there are more things "twixt heaven and earth than are dream'd in your philosophy." She has a heart, if hidden among intra-firm wrangling and soothed with a couple of dry martinis (but Tanqueray? -- really). She argues finally, in the real value of the movie, that what are posited as facts are not "facts." "This trial is not about facts," she says. "It is is about possibilities."

Facts, by her description, allow no room for possibilities. Can she say that Emily was possessed? No, but is it possible? Can she deny that Emily was epileptic (as claimed by the prosecution's expert witnesses)? No, but is it possible that she was not?

Aside from the nice rhetoric, by which she hammered home the jury's responsibility to decide "beyond a reasonable doubt," it is a lovely challenge to the philosophical categories most of us are encouraged to live by. Are "facts" facts? What is an undeniable fact to me that influences how I act and react, may be idle or foolish speculation to you. For example, it is a fact for me that one man rose from very real, factual death. That influences how I view the world, how I make decisions, how I treat people. But for many "fact" that has absolutely no basis "in fact" and cannot enter into any consideration of how I live in the world. But on the other hand, can we live in a world in which all people's delusions and madnesses must be respected just because they are "factual" to that person? Must we resort to scientific, supposedly objective calculation to resolve the conflict. (See Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions if you think so.)

There was meat and drink in this movie, despite its flaws. And the flaws are Legion. The efforts to portray demonic possession were rather silly. This moviemaker is not good at horror movie stuff, and it diminishes what could have been a thoughtful movie on the subject to restrict the display of demonic possession to distorted limbs and shrieking voices. The auteur may have been restricted by the "factual basis" of the movie -- there was, apparently a real-life Emily Rose, and this movie is based on a book about her and her death written by the real-life attorney for the priest.

And the legal business is almost laughable. For one thing, there was inadequate basis for the jury's verdict (which I won't give away, I hope). Then there's the hotshot, brilliantly skilled defense attorney who only begins working with her client -- indeed, who doesn't even meet her client -- until after the trial has already begun and the jury impaneled! What we saw of the testimony was poorly presented -- and the cross-examination on both sides was pathetic. (Am I right that the DSM has been replaced by DSM-II? The prosecution relies on DSM -- and to cross-examine on the basis of facts not elicited into evidence.) I think I counted about 10 breaches of the canons of legal ethics. And I was really put off by the blatant conflict of interest that the defense's law firm seemed unaware of: They were hired by the Archdiocese to defend the priest. But they were really hired to minimize damage to the Archdiocese's reputation. The law firm never, so far as I could determine, decided who their client really was -- and that fact becomes clear later in the movie when the lawyer and her boss disagree over strategy and who gets to call the shots in the trial. The Archdiocese wanted the lawyer to arrange a plea bargain or, absent that, to control the court strategy -- even though that strategy was directly opposed to the best interests and wishes of the client whose freedom was at stake. In short, it's lamentable that the producers couldn't spend a few thousand dollars to consult a trial lawyer on the trial aspects.

They could have dropped a few dollars on a theological consultant, too -- or, if the "consultant" was a theological consultant, then one who knew about the Roman Catholic practice of exorcism. For instance, my understanding is that the Church (perhaps each diocese) designates an exorcism specialists and does not allow any old parish priest to give it a try. Here, however, the priest was allowed to go forward even though he knew nothing about the exorcism rite before he tried it. And there were other nits to pick.

Nevertheless, Brad and I found stuff to talk about from the movie, and that usually means that there's enough in a movie for me to recommend it. So I do -- if only to further conversation about the interrelation of so-called "facts" and "belief" or of the possibility of the "supernatural's" being involved in daily life.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A Little Reading Sampler

I haven't been thinking very much lately (blame it on a host of issues -- not least: new job begins next week, and I haven't cleared my old office out yet!), but I have been reading. (Please read that sentence with the irony I intend.) Here are a couple of samples of what has struck my fancy this week from the various things I have been noodling in.

First, from Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), p. 128. Lamott's is a kind of spiritual journey, recounting her passage from nonfaith to faith, with descriptions of the on-going struggles that most of us experience. In this paragraph, she reflects Sunday's Gospel reading about forgiving (is it really only 77 times -- as we heard at our place -- or 70 times 7 that Jesus says we are to forgive?).

I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of those Christians who is heavily into forgiveness -- that I am one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay this way. They say we are not punished for the sin but by the sin, and I began to feel punished by my unwillingness to forgive. By the time I decided to become one of the ones who is heavily into forgiveness, it was like trying to become a marathon runner in middle age; everything inside me either recoiled, as from a hot flame, or laughed a little too hysterically. I tried to will myself into forgiving various people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years -- four former Republican preidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree -- it was "The Twelve Days of Christmas" meets Taxi Driver. But in the end I could only pretend that I had. I decided I was starting off with my sights aimed too high. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, "If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo."

And then this, from the novel by Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), pp. 23-24. This musing near the beginning of an old Calvinist preacher's death-bed memoir. In this "scene," he has just recounted a childhood experience in which he and some friends baptized most of a litter of barn kittens. (Raising some doubt of the sanctification in the lives of those who did not escape the waters of baptism, and in speaking of those that were not transformed into domestic pets, the narrator says, "The others lived out their feral lives, indistinguishable from their kind, whether pagan or Christian no one could ever tell." p. 22). He goes on to think about the depth of joy he felt during his career when he baptized people. And then he switches to this:

Ludwig Feuerbach says a wonderful thing about baptism. I have it marked. He says, "Water is the purest, clearest of liquids; in virtue of this its natural character it is the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit. In short, water has a significance in itself, as water; it is on account of its natural quality that it is consecrated and selected as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. So far there lies at the foundation of Baptism a beautiful, profound natural significance." Feuerbach is a famous atheist, but he is about as good on the joyful aspects of religon as anybody, and he loves the world. Of course he thinks religion could just stand out of the way and let joy exist pure and undisguised. That is is his one error, and it is significant. But he is marvelouson the subject of joy, and also on its religious expressions.

I read Lamott because she is funny (especially when I hear her talk) and insightful -- if a little too pleased about her "dirty little" past. She describes her "conversion" in this book in such a way that I had to give thanks for the little congregation that midwifed her into Christ.

On the other hand, I have had the Robinson since it came out a year ago, and I have not wanted to read it (although knew I should read it because of all the acclaim that it was receiving). But I felt guilty about buying the book and not reading it, and so I've begun it. It surprises me in that it does not strike me as a book out of the Iowa Writier's Workshop (which was also a concern of mine), even though Robinson has taught at the Workshop for years. Her prose is really quite compelling.

In both cases, I think I'll refrain from commenting (even though the liturgy student in me REALLY wants to talk about the baptism passage). I trust the passages to speak for themselves.


Tuesday, September 06, 2005

On a Personal Note

I began this blog with an acknowledgement that it is an exercise is self-aggrandizement. Today, I take that to a new height (well, at least I think it is).

I have resigned my current job in order to take a new one. The new job is in most respects just like the one I'm leaving, but there is the promise of more responsibility and management possibilities. And it is free of the personal-political circus where I currently work. So I'm making the jump. And ordinarily, that's not a big thing.

But I'm sort of surprised by what a big deal it is turning out to be.

Oh, some of it isn't surprising: I have worked with some of the people here for about 15 years, and since the company is very small, we're more like a squabbling family than a law firm-title insurance company. And I've had good times with all of the people -- although, in all honesty, the past few months have been very tense, for a variety of reasons that I don't intend to publicize except to one or two very intimate friends and only after an evening of very good wine or Scotch!

And on another level, it really means changing my (implicity) self-identity: I went to law school to prepare to be a particular kind of "helper." (Don't all? No!) And I work with the few lawyers here in a culture that is very pro-help: advocacy for the poor and especially for the proper care of children, lots of pro bono work, compassion for divorces. My office (which is huge and beautiful) is loaded with volume after volume of both theoretical stuff and of how-to-do-it-in-law stuff relating to children, families, small entrepreneurs -- the kind of clients that I had when I really practiced law. And now, even though I have not really practiced law for 5 or 6 years, I feel that I am giving that up. (I work in title insurance, and that occasionally calls for a legal opinion, but it's small potatoes law work.) Oh, I'll probably be helping the new company set up some enterprises that call on my legal training (and membership in the Bar Association). But as I try to pack my office for moving, I'm ditching shelves of stuff that, by surrounding me, contributed to my sense that I am a real, thinking lawyer. I am pretty much saying that I'm not a lawyer anymore. (So now maybe I can watch law shows on television without going psycho over some of the shenanigans.)

But with all of that, all of which I anticipated, I wasn't prepared to lose sleep, to feel in a funk -- that whole sort-of-depressed schtick.

And that leads to this one insight: The Church simply needs to develop a sense and a means of how to counsel people in discerning their vocations. We do a lousy job of defining "vocation" unless it has something to do with someone's becoming a pastor -- supposedly the only person in the room "called" to their job. We should be teaching children to value professions and jobs in terms of Christian vocation -- the vocation of the laity is a vitally relevant topic.

I am aware that the average person now changes "careers" about -- what? -- three or four times in a lifetime. (I on my own have kicked that average up. ) What are the implications of that for a theology of lay vocation -- and vice versa.

Is there much attention paid to lay work as "vocation"? I know that it ties in with at least Benedictine monastic thought, but I don't know much more than that. I'm aware of a couple of people who have theologized about the laity, but I don't think I've ever read anything.

And, then, of course, this implicates the Lutheran doctrine of "two kingdoms" or "two realms." And that's sort of a sticky wicket with me. But if we speak about the Christian life, we necessarily implicate discipleship, it seems to me. And from consideration of discipleship, it's a short step to not only the day-to-day ethical stuff, but also the broader issue of what I do with my life.

It'd be kind of fun to get into that, I think. (A friend asks seriously whether a Christian can possibly be called to be a stockbroker or a prostitute or a soldier/sailor: The last two were banned to Christians in the very early centuries, apparently, but the first one is an innovation on his part!)