As with many things in popular culture having to do with the Church, there’s no easy answer to the question of watching Fox’s supernatural drama “The Exorcist,” airing Fridays at 9 p.m. ET.
You’re free to ignore it altogether, of course, but that doesn’t mean young people you care about aren’t seeing it.
Inspired by William Peter Blatty’s novel and the 1973 film based on it — and, as of episode five, directly linked to the original film — “The Exorcist” stars Alfonso Herrera as Father Tomas, a young Chicago priest who is drawn into the apparent demonic possession of the teenage daughter of a parishioner (Geena Davis).
Visions send him to the disgraced Father Marcus (Ben Daniels), who has fought demons before, the last time unsuccessfully.
The possession of the girl is but the first salvo in an apparent all-out demonic war in Chicago, which is awaiting the arrival of Pope Sebastian (only seen from the back in posters that say, “He is coming.”).
It should be obvious to anyone who’s seen even clips or a trailer from the show that it’s absolutely not for grade-school-age children and probably not for most preteens. Even for older teens and young adults, it raises questions about the Faith and the Church that need to be addressed.
First, before you even consider letting the young people in your life watch it, you need to watch it.
As Catholic author Charles Coulombe said to me recently:
So much depends up on the person. One individual reads “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings,” and it makes them a Catholic. Another person goes all whooey. It’s never a one-size-fits-all thing. Given the example of the “Harry Potter” thing, people would call me and say, “Should I let my kid read it?” I said, “I give you a rule my father had — read one of the books yourself, and if you approve of it, think it’s fine, then great. Let the kid read it. But if you have a problem with it, then don’t.
They say, “Oh, I don’t have time to read a book like that.” “Well, then, stop pretending it’s important, because you know it isn’t. You just want to talk. It’s not important to you.”
“The Exorcist” is interesting on two levels, especially for a show about the Faith coming from secular writer/producers. A lot of what young people see and hear about Catholicism comes from secular sources, and now is as good a time as any to teach them to discern the difference between entertainment and Truth, between something like “The Exorcist” and Bishop Barron’s “Catholicism.”
First, in a positive sense, the show absolutely avers the existence of supernatural evil and the power of Christ over it. Both Father Tomas and Father Marcus use prayer to battle the demon, and the possessed girl’s family is seen praying and struggling.
It’s not every day you see a rosary and hear the “Our Father,” the “Hail Mary,” and “The Blood of Christ compels you!” in a primetime network TV show.
So, “The Exorcist” says that evil is real, and that Christ is real, that prayer has power, and that exorcist priests are warriors in the fight for human souls.
All this is good.
On the other hand, this is a TV show, it’s a story, and it’s hoping to garner ratings (so far, they’re not abysmal, but they’re not high). So, the writers are going to throw in juicy twists to keep us watching — and it’s here that the Church gets a black eye.
Father Tomas had a platonic but emotional relationship with a married woman. Last week, it tipped over into a sexual relationship. He’s deeply remorseful but doesn’t seem prepared to leave it all behind. (Frankly, in situations like this, I’d like as many hard questions to be asked about the woman’s motives as the priest’s.)
Also, Father Marcus is a bit off the rails himself, but the power of faith is still in him. His relationship with the institutional Church, as is Father Tomas’, is strained. People seem to forget there wouldn’t be exorcists if the Church didn’t deem them necessary, but safeguards have to be put in place.
You saw some of this push-and-pull in the original “Exorcist” movie, but that was the 1970s. Exorcism is much more in the open than it was a few decades ago, but secular TV producers may not be aware of that. The Church prefers it be a private matter, but the Vatican is hardly pretending possession isn’t real. It may not be the source of most people’s problems, but it’s not dismissed out of hand as superstition.
Blatty even says the Vatican invited him to document a real exorcism in Rome.
Talking to an audience at the Cannes Film Festival in France on Thursday, the 80-year-old filmmaker said that the Vatican invited him to film an exorcism earlier in May. The version he constructed for the 1973 supernatural horror film, Friedkin added, was not that far from the actual rite he recently documented.
“I don’t think I will ever be the same having seen this astonishing thing,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse. “I am not talking about some cult, I am talking about an exorcism by the Catholic Church in Rome.”
The Vatican says it’s not the specific entity that invited Blatty, but thinks it may just have been a different Catholic group.
In tonight’s “Exorcist” episode, though, an over-the-top scene just kicks the Church — or at least some public members of it — into the demonic dumpster. We understand that they’re not good or faithful people, but even so … really?
Poorly formed Catholics, anti-Catholics, non-Catholics who know little about the Church, and those who think that Dan Brown novels are real, are ripe to be drawn in by this kind of hyperbolic silliness.
But if you can teach your young people to discern that, while the story says some positive things about the power of prayer and faith, it’s also a yarn meant to entertain and titillate, you’re giving them skills that will serve them well as they navigate our confused culture.
Images: Courtesy Fox