• Michael Martin

The New Demons


In early modern England, a playgoer and diarist recorded an extraordinary special effect during a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus:

Certaine Players at Exeter, acting upon the stage the tragical storie of Dr. Faustus the Conjurer; as a certaine number of Devels kept everie one his circle there, and as Faustus was busie in his magicall invocations, on a sudden they were all dasht, every one harkning other in the eare, for they were all perswaded, there was one devell too many amongst them; and so after a little pause desired the people to pardon them, they could go no further with this matter; the people also understanding the thing as it was, every man hastened to be first out of dores.” [1]

Reportedly, this was not the solitary instance of the appearance of unaccounted-for players at performances of the play. But was it an actual supernatural occurrence, or only some over-the-top PR devised by some Elizabethan theatrical impresario? Nobody knows for sure, but I wouldn’t rule anything out. Always remember: there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. If you call them, they will come.

The early modern period, though it was also the time of the first stirrings of Bacon, Descartes, and the Scientific Revolution, was still a period of widespread belief in the supernatural, a belief which even found its way into what we might now call scholarly research. In my book Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation, I explore this phenomenon in relation to John Dee and his alleged conversation with angels in a chapter entitled “John Dee: Religious Experience and the Technology of Idolatry.” My argument there is that the various occult technologies employed by Dee and his assistant Edward Kelly actually worked toward deluding him (or assisting the spirits with which he was conversing toward deluding him) and resulted in a kind of Maronian lapse into idolatry. It is a tragic and cautionary tale that should make anyone think twice (or more) about using any kind of paraphernalia for attempting converse with supernatural beings. It never ends well. Not a good idea. Don’t do it. But these types of experiences hardly ended with the arrival of the Enlightenment.

On the first day of Easter 1898, for example, the Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov encountered a demon while on ship. It appeared “in the form of a shaggy beast,” and he asked it, “But you know that Christ is risen?” “He may very well have risen,” the beast is said to have replied, “but I will make an end of you all the same” and attacked him. According to Sergey Solovyov, the philosopher’s nephew and biographer, Solovyov was later “found stretched on the floor senseless.” [2] But he lived.

I’ve seen or experienced such things at first hand a number of times over the years, the last time about a year ago. Here’s an entry from my notebook: “My daughter is being bothered by a spirit. It won’t let her sleep. Every time it visits, always late at night, she awakens me in tears and asks me to bless her room. I pray Psalm 68 and sprinkle the room with holy water, and then the entire house, the younger children sleeping in their beds, and I anoint her with chrism. One night the spirit returns and is very reluctant to leave. After removing it from my daughter’s room, it disturbs my sleeping wife who awakens and tells me “Michael, you need to get rid of it,” in a very forthright manner as if telling me to wash the dishes. I anoint her, cleanse the room with holy water., and she goes back to sleep. When I go back to bed I pray the rosary. I finish praying, and start to fall asleep when it attacks me, pushing me down on the mattress by the shoulders. I struggle to breathe, to awaken and rise; but finally yell, “Go!” and I can get up. I anoint myself. It leaves for a time.”

I’ve told other people about what happened, and I have been (and haven’t been, at the same time) surprised to find that such is not as uncommon as one might believe. Perhaps we are not as modern as we have let ourselves believe.

Of course, none of us should really be surprised: the Gospels are full of stories about Christ casting out demons. Unfortunately, many contemporary Christians try to interpret the demons Christ encounters as manifestations of psychiatric disorders, or quirks. Or something. Maybe anxiety.

Maybe.

I say all this, not to wax sensational but only to say that our own cultural moment for the last few years seems to me increasingly to give evidence of a kind of widespread demonolatry, but for the most part masked by a sort of postmodern secular ennui. Or, as Shakespeare says in The Tempest: “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!” I mean, just look around.

As we see in scripture, notably in the temptations of Eve in Genesis and Jesus in the gospel accounts, the demonic is the origin of false advertising. The subject is promised all kinds of goods—power, wealth, longevity, prosperity—but the delivered product never lives up to the hype. Just the opposite. These promises continue in our own day, though the chosen medium is not via supernatural “magic” in the manner in which it may have been understood from ancient to early modern times, but through medical and technological interventions aided and abetted by governmental policy and popular acclaim. The recently much-touted transhumanism is but one example of this with its accompanying slogan of “You’ll own nothing and be happy” and other Utopian currencies of false coinage. Demons may offer freedom or liberation, but what they deliver is slavery. Every. Single. Time.

Importantly, these interventions—not all at once, but over time and, ultimately, totalizing—distance the subject from nature. We end up imprisoned in a technological-pharmaceutical-bureaucratic Otherworld This was the long-game of urbanization—and the kinds of transhumanist phenomena I’m speaking about are nothing other than afflictions attendant to urbanization. You don’t see it happening with people in the countryside. As Jacques Ellul writes, “The city person is separated from the natural environment and, as a consequence, the sacred significations [of connection to the natural world and its rhythms] no longer have any point of contact with experience.” [3]

I don’t have a precise taxonomy for these various spiritual beings afflicting individuals and the world, but they both seem different in kind and identical in aims. I think this works initially at the individual level, exploiting the traumas and anxieties of good people who have given in to despair and hopelessness, who think something must be wrong with them and that the magic of pharmacology or technology or politics can deliver them. This is a very subtle and sneaky form of idolatry—it happens without one knowing it. But, as happened in many of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century and as we are witnessing today, this free-floating anxiety can metastasize into the body politic (the demonic parody of the Mystical Body) and infect entire societies with various forms of possession.

This is why Ellul described our post-Christian era in terms of “the new demons.” Even though our societies in the West are post-Christian, they still retain the assumptions of Christianity, though their allegiances have been unconsciously transferred to other gods. “Post-Christian society,” he writes, “has been deeply affected by Christianity, and bears the latter’s mark: the mark of original sin, of the desire for salvation, hope, and a kingdom of God, of the conviction that a Savior is needed, of the society those who are aware of radical guilt yet know they cannot pardon themselves.” [4] I can’t even read these words without images of the past decade’s ongoing secular fundamentalism—the canceling, the shaming, the iconoclasm, the calls for repentance (but never for those calling for it)—rising before me. But, as Ellul would say, these are demonic parodies of Christianity.




Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine. There are also a few spots open in the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening as Christian Path course being offered at the end of April. See more here.

1. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, vol. 3 (Oxford, 1923), 3:423-24.

2. Sergey M. Solovyov, Vladimir Solovyov: His Life and Creative Evolution, trans. Aleksey Gibson (Eastern Christian Publications, 2000), 464.

3. Jacques Ellul, The New Demons, trans. C. Edward Hopkin (Seabury Press, 1975), 62.

4. Ibid., 24.

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