It is no secret that the entertainment industry often mocks Christianity. It has reached the point of cliché: clergy depicted as lusting hypocrites and believers as reactionaries, haters, and prudish moralists. The institutional Catholic Church, in particular, garners opprobrium; it is regularly portrayed as the perpetrator of dark conspiracies, desperate to maintain its power and prevent the falsity of its faith precepts from becoming known.
This can be frustrating. As Christians, we believe our faith is founded in God’s self-sacrificial love, a virtue we are commanded to emulate: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Answering that call, Christians offer succor to the suffering: Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity care for the dying; the Salvation Army provides for the destitute; World Vision brings relief to those affected by natural catastrophes. So where are the stories about believers virtuously acting out their faith? Where are the movies and TV shows with openly Christian characters sacrificing for the benefit of others? Why is the nurturing aspect of the faith so ubiquitously ignored?
The producers of one new show seem to have heard our lament. Christian love is the life-blood of the new Fox series The Exorcist, in which devout Catholic characters grapple with demonic forces, putting at risk their lives and even their souls.
The Exorcist stays remarkably true to the feel of the best-selling 1971 novel of the same name and the classic 1973 movie based on the book. While the show tells a different story, its primary protagonists are, as in the book and movie, two troubled priests who agree to fight a possessing demon at the request of the victim’s mother (played by Geena Davis). Fr. Marcus (Ben Daniels) is an experienced but broken exorcist whose last case resulted in the death of a boy under his care. His partner in demon fighting, Fr. Tomas (Alfonso Herrera), is a rising-star Hispanic priest from a poor parish in Chicago, tempted by his ambition to become “the first Mexican pope.” The demon’s victim is again female, only this time she is a young adult named Casey (Hannah Kasulka) rather than a child. And yes, internecine church politics threaten to impede the (from the audience’s perspective) genuinely needed exorcism.
There are important differences as well, and I think they add materially to the plot. A Vatican official delivers a papal letter of excommunication to Fr. Marcus, but he is secretly supportive, sending him to a cloistered convent to witness how holy nuns overcome demonic possession. There is more than one way to defeat the dark side. Fr. Marcus and Fr.Tomas wield their crucifixes as weapons and fling holy water while shouting, “It is Christ who commands you!” The abbess, Mother Bernadette (Deanna Dunagan), takes a gentler, more feminine approach. Bringing to mind the loving heart of the Mother of God, she successfully frees a possessed man through fervent hugs and ardent prayers, receiving on her person the physical scars of the demon’s violent lashing out. Fr. Marcus is deeply moved, and we later see him crooning quietly over an unconscious Casey, holding her gently in his arms.
We also witness the demon “Salesman” insidiously at work. Salesman is depicted as a dirty and increasingly seedy-looking man (Robert Emmett Lunney) whom only Casey can see. This demon is full of anguished hate: “Do you know what it is like to have Paradise within you and never be allowed to touch it?” it demands of Casey as she struggles against its violent domination. Moreover, it makes clear to Casey that possession is an intensely personal action for the demon.
The stakes are also much higher in the television show than in the novel and movie—although the saving of a human soul is always high-stakes. A great evil is afoot in Chicago, and it may be connected with the pope’s impending visit, which is advertised with signs reading, “He is coming.” That may be a two-sided message: Fr. Marcus warns that Satanists are preparing for something big, committing mass murders and removing the organs of their victims to be used in conjurations.
Like all good serials, each episode of The Exorcist leaves viewers wanting more. The acting by the entire ensemble is excellent. And while properly considered a morality play, it doesn’t preach or try to convert. Rather, it follows the flawed efforts of terrified people who, out of faith and love, willingly “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12).
Many programs depict evil as real, of course. But only rarely do we see an unabashed presentation of practiced religion as the antidote. If you don’t mind sleeping with the lights on, The Exorcist is must-see television.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and author of Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine.