Notes from Underground


A dangerous agnosticism:
"Emily Rose"
and the cultural commissars




If you find this column of value, please send a donation of $2 to TLD. More information appears below.


The progenitors of modernity held views that were explicitly anti-Christian. The French Revolution of 1789 and all of the unholy movements it helped to spawn — including but not limited to the even more vicious, diabolical, and destructive Russian Revolution of 1917 — shared an open hostility toward the Church in all of its historical forms and institutions. Believers who refused to renounce their faith could expect persecution at best, death by guillotine or gulag at worst. Neither Robespierre nor Lenin nor any of their black-hearted revolutionary comrades entertained illusions about tolerating any vestige of the reactionary belief in a transcendent, supernatural Being, One whose established Church proclaimed a set of tenets that claimed to trump the official decrees of the enlightened modern state. It was considered a thoughtcrime to hold that the unchanging word of God was superior to the ever-changing dictates of the purely temporal, yet temporally all-powerful, Party.

In recent years, however, the enforcers of secular humanism seem to have mellowed or, rather, to have taken a different strategic approach in their attitude toward Christians, one that appears to resemble tolerance. Today it's considered perfectly all right to believe in God ... within limits. Assuredly, one shouldn't get carried away. If a man goes to church every Sunday, that's fine, and it may even be commendable. However, if that same man claims to see God actively working in his life in certain tangible events, if he baldly states something like, "I believe that God gave me this job/blessing/hardship for a reason," then he is regarded with some suspicion; at best, he is seen as a little weird, and his proclivity for God-talk is viewed as slightly tacky.

But it is even worse if that same man refuses to swallow materialist ideologies or give assent to theories that implicitly or explicitly denigrate the Christian point of view. If he states a belief in what has come to be called "Intelligent Design," rather than accepting wholeheartedly the notion that complex life arose through a series of mutations that occurred entirely at random, then (say our cultural commissars) he must be a dunce or a fanatic, and he cannot be seen as credible or intellectually honest, no matter how sober his demeanor or scholarly his discourse. And if one's faith prompts him to agitate for a particular change in the law, such as an end to legalized abortion, then secularist opinion-shapers invariably deride him as a ravening "theocrat" in sheep's clothing, someone who wants to "impose his morality" on everyone else. To the secularists, only a thoroughgoing secular man, or a spineless, toothless Christian who bows down to the superiority of secularism on every subject except ones that are utterly theoretical and irrelevant, has any right to influence the political process; this extreme exclusion of all non-secularist opinion from the public square is what the secularist understands as "separation of church and state."

The contemporary guardians of acceptable discourse were stung last year when Hollywood superstar Mel Gibson bypassed their authority and wrote, directed, and produced "The Passion of the Christ" with his own money and on his own time, and then had the further audacity to appeal directly to devout churchgoers in successfully marketing his ardently Christian and Catholic movie to a mainstream audience. No amount of negative reviews from cranky critics attacking the film for its alleged "sadistic" brutality and negative portrayal of Jews could stop "The Passion" from becoming a nationwide and worldwide success. The impotence of the cultural commissars (many of whom, to call a spade a spade, are secular Jews with a deeply held animus against Catholicism) was on display in their failure to stop the box-office momentum of "The Passion," and that had them fuming.

Now those same opinion-shapers are wringing their hands again over a new movie called "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." They are not complaining as loudly this time around, since "Emily Rose" has not been released amidst the same hubbub and hype as "The Passion" was last year. Even so, public interest in the religious horror/courtroom drama has been significant, as shown by the film's surprisingly high first weekend grosses — $30 million, about twice what most analysts had projected. With impressive second and third week grosses now tabulated, "Emily Rose" is a bona fide hit. Again the critics are finding that they can't stop people from spending their money on films that portray Christianity in a positive light.

"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is not an explicitly Christian film, and it certainly isn't a didactic one. The story, loosely based on actual events, concerns a young woman who died during a botched exorcism. The girl's priest and unsuccessful would-be exorcist, who is on trial for criminal negligence for his part in the tragedy (he counseled her to stop taking the medication she had been prescribed for psychosis, since he thought her problems stemmed from a Satanic influence, not a chemical imbalance), refuses to plea bargain. He tells his lawyer, a brilliant, beautiful, yet lonely and borderline-alcoholic woman (her boss jokes that "she sometimes works while she drinks"), that he is not afraid of spending years and years in prison. What he wants is to take the stand, so he can tell Emily's story. He is convinced that Emily Rose was allowed by God to be targeted by demons in order to bear testament to the reality of supernatural realm before a skeptical modern world.

The lawyer, a self-proclaimed agnostic (played by Laura Linney), agrees to take the case, for reasons that are at first completely self-serving: she sees an opportunity to advance in her career. However, along the way, she finds herself compelled by the sincerity and quiet, unpretentious conviction of the priest. Though she had first tried to defend him on purely naturalistic grounds, eventually she begins to wonder, what if Emily Rose had truly been possessed by demons? Ironically, it is her agnosticism that opens her mind to the possibility of the existence of God, the Devil, angels, and demons. She doesn't know whether they exist, but then again, how can she know for sure that they don't exist? She begins to think that if the jury sees the testimony of the priest, they will know that he is a credible witness and will not be able to find him guilty on the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. After all, if his assessment of Emily's condition was correct and she really was possessed by demons, then he wasn't criminally negligent in doing what he did.

The prosecuting attorney in the case is a self-proclaimed "man of God," an avid churchgoer who nevertheless relentlessly attacks the priest's story as "ignorant superstition." This character is a perfect example of one who strives to be a Christian "within limits," the type I discussed above. He claims to hold the tenets of the Christian faith dear, yet seems to have forgotten that Jesus himself is many times depicted as casting out demons in the narratives of the four Gospels of the New Testament. Was Jesus himself, then, just a believer in "ignorant superstition"? If so, how could one still believe in his authority as Son of God? Is it possible, then, that the attorney is being just slightly disingenuous in his own self-designation as a "man of God"?

By the movie's end, neither side is ultimately and beyond a shadow of a doubt vanquished. Laura Linney's character is still an agnostic, although one gets the impression she is now at least as open to faith as she is to unbelief. Similarly, all of the strange events that occur during the possession/exorcism sequences (told in dramatic flashbacks) have possible naturalistic explanations. But the skeptical filmgoer, like Linney's character, is left with reasons to doubt his own lack of faith. He is reminded that if one is truly agnostic, one should at least be balanced in his agnosticism: there are valid reasons to wonder whether the Faith could be true just as there are valid reasons to suspect it could be false.

That seems reasonable enough, does it not? But our critical commissars won't have any of it. For evidence, one need only read the reviews the film received at liberal cultural mainstays such as the New York Times, or neoconservative bastions such as the New York Post, as well as at many other mainstream news outlets. For the writers of these journals and their kind, agnosticism is valid only when it calls Christianity into question, not when it calls the materialistic-minded enemies of Christianity to a similar account. Indeed, in their eyes the box-office success of "Emily Rose" no doubt attests that agnosticism can be a dangerous tool when used to strengthen the credibility of the "wrong" people. Better to instill a firm faith in unbelief, it would seem, than ever in any way to cause people to doubt the veracity of the doubters.

September 24, 2005

Emily Rose — Jennifer Carpenter
The priest — Tom Wilkinson
The prosecutor — Campbell Scott


© 2005 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

If you found this column to be interesting, please donate something to our cause. You should make your check or m.o. payable in U.S. dollars to WTM Enterprises and send it to:

WTM Enterprises
P.O. Box 224
Roanoke, IN 46783

Thanks for helping to assure a future for TLD!

Notice to visitors who came straight to this document from off site: You are deep in The Last Ditch. You should check out our home page and table of contents.