17 October 2007

the devil wears birkenstocks

Here is my transcription of story by David Dickerson. He read it on the radio as part of the This American Life episode called "The Devil in Me."

When I was 23 years old and wrestling for my faith, the last big battle for my soul came when I had to face down an actual demon who was a guest in one of my university classes. Or that's how I thought at the time.

But the battle had started long before when I was a kid. I had been raised a fundamentalist Christian. Adam and Eve, the flood, David and Goliath-- All of that really happened. Jesus walked on water and was born of a virgin and said everything that the four gospels told us.

But after years of religious studies classes at the University of Arizona, I found myself swerving toward a moderate Catholicism, and wasn't quite sure about many of the things I had been raised to believe. The history of the Bible wasn't as pure as I was taught. I was questioning inconsistencies, like how simple textual analysis pretty much proves Paul didn't write the book of hebrews. Basic facts about the nature of jesus, of god, of our duties on this earth, seemed to be less like eternal truths and more like things I happened to believe.

But I was still sure about two things: There was a spiritual world behind what we could see, and it contained both good and evil spirits. Angels, that is, and Demons.

I believed this for a couple reasons. First of all, the Bible said so. Time and again in the gospel, a demon possessed person will cross Jesus' path, and then the demon inside the person snarls and curses. Jesus rebukes the demon, casts them out, and the person is healed. But beyond just the bible, my sister and father had both seen demons. They'd always kind of been closet charismatics and for a while our family was going to both kinds of services.

Charismatic Christians are the ones who speak in tongues and lay hands on sick people. At that church, we got regular reports from visiting missionaries who would tell hair-raising stories about how they'd faced down local witch doctors who would suddenly yell at the missionaries in a strange voice and in perfect english, or cause spears to levitate over them menacingly.

I'd never actually seen a demon myself, but all of us Christian kids traded demon tales the way other kids swap ghost stories. And for the same reason-- because it's scary, but exciting. But scary. But exciting.

So even though years went by, and I still never saw a demon, a little sliver of that fear stayed with me and kept me on my guard just in case. If I ever did meet one, I wouldn't make the mistake of treating it like a metaphor.

So anyway, at the time of this story I was a college senior. And to fill out my last semester of electives, I decided to take a class called Paranormal Anthropology. This was about strange phenomena-- dousing, UFOs, ESP, Past life aggression-- all that stuff you find on the X-Files. And the professor was really interesting, because although our textbook was a skeptical look at all these things, he would bring in guest lecturers who were actual believers, so we could get both sides of the story.

We were lectured one week by three UFO abductees, and then the next week we had a douser try and trace the water mains on the university green. The douser failed, and the abductees were weird, and on the whole, it looked like science was winning.

But then one day, the professor announced that our guest next time would be a medium. A woman who channeled spirits. And she was going to let herself get possessed, right there, in the classroom. Two days from now.

As soon as he said it, I was terrified. For all my book-learning, in some raw anxious way I was still 10 years old and overwhelmed. There was going to be a demon in this classroom-- an actual agent of spiritual evil, who was counting on people not believing in him. People would ask this demon questions, and this demon would answer, speaking with the voice of Satan. And everyone would nod and no one would know the real agenda of this creature.

I was the only conservative christian I knew of in that class, which meant that I was the only one who could save us from-- well, from being corrupted by evil in some direct, horrible way. I wasn't at all sure what the demon would do or say. All I knew was that what had been a simple academic pursuit had suddenly turned into the most serious spiritual test of my life.

Only I was *really* not up to the task. My faith had wandered-- I had gone to Catholic mass! I had several gay friends! I had said skeptical things about the authorship of Hebrews! Now it was as if the god of my old christianity, the real god, the straightforward god... the god who the bible plainly states is there, but whom I had become too high-falutin to simply accept, was calling me back to the battlefield-- and I had two days to get into spiritual shape.

I started fasting immediately, and holed up in my room for hours. I prayed, "Lord Jesus, please protect me in this coming battle. Build a wall of protection around the classroom, and protect all my fellow students. Give me the wisdom to know what to say, the courage to face this evil in your name, and please please please please protect me."

I repeated this over and over for the next two days. I didn't watch TV, I didn't use my computer... I couldn't let anything distract me, because I knew that if I failed... well, you probably saw the exorcist-- same idea. This was a magic monster. One who could probably smell the holy spirit dwelling inside me, and who would find some way to attack.

All this was scary, but I have to admit, it was exciting too... which is basically what the conservative Christian's whole life is like. There's temptation on every side, you have to constantly immerse yourself in prayer, in the bible, in the community of faith. But with that fear comes the thrill of getting to be an instrument of goodness in an evil world. And for me now, with this impending demon, here it suddenly was, years after I had given up expecting it.

I had been groomed for this battle since I was a little kid. This was my chance to be a hero for the faith, just like my namesake, King David. I'd read the bible stories about him hundreds of times.

I walked into class that Thursday wearing a cross necklace I had lately been setting aside, and I slapped down my new International version study bible right there in front of me on the table. I just stared at it, and prayed, and didn't talk to anyone.

I was trembling-- partly from fear and tension, and partly of course from hunger.

And then the medium came in. An overweight woman of about 55. Faded jeans, faded t-shirt, tacky bead necklaces and long greying hair. She had a friend with her who acted as her assistant, and this friend, also frumpy, said that the medium often had several different spirits come through her in a session, so we might notice her voice changing.

They dimmed the lights slightly, the medium went into her trance, and then her assistant said: "She has just reached her spirit guide who is an Indian chief from the Hopi tribe who died in the 1800s. Does anyone have any questions?"

An old sort of hippie-ish woman. An Indian spirit guide. This started seeming less sinister and more like something out of community theatre.

But of course I told myself, that's exactly what satan would want me to think. Because if the devil doesn't want us to believe in him, this was a really perfect disguise. But then again, how would I know the difference?

And just then, the medium moaned and rolled her head, and her friend announced, "She is now channeling the spirit of King David."

King David? Hell, I was a Bible scholar! This was my turf. I flipped to the Psalms, the book that David is supposed to have written, and found a question I had always been curious about. When the teacher asked, "Does anyone have a question for King David?" my hand shot up. The professor called on me, and I rose to my feet.

Still staring intently into my open bible, with a voice that was actually quivering, I said:

"Yes, Um, King David? I notice here that some of your psalms are called maskills and some are called miktams. And according to my footnotes, these are musical terms, but scholars don't actually know what they mean. Could you please explain the difference?"

There was a brief pause. I was too scared to look at her face.

Finally the medium said, "Yes..{cough} yes I could explain. But the answer would be very technical, and I don't think it would interest anybody." And her friend said, "Next question."

It all happened so quickly that I wasn't sure how to understand it. I decided that the demon, who would clearly have known the answer, just didn't blurt it out because he wanted to avoid a fight with a real christian. The second the bell rang, the women left the classroom without a word. I thanked God for the victory and went to grab some pizza.

While I was sitting at a booth waiting for my slice to arrive, I mentally replayed exactly what had happened, and I realized that God hadn't technically won.

A win for god would have been the demon calling me out in a creepy voice, and me brandishing the cross and saying "In the name of jesus I command you!" and maybe papers flying everywhere. Instead, what had happened was that a liar had come into our classroom, and I had beaten her with scholarship. What's more, it hadn't even been close. Book learning had been easier, swifter, and more powerful than prayer and fasting combined.

Right then, for the first time, I saw myself from the outside. And what I saw was that my belief in demons was actually kind of silly. My next immediate thought was, well if demons don't exist, except in stories I hear from other people-- What about angels? For that matter what about the virgin birth?

Oh My GoD!

And before I knew it, I felt like I was falling, helplessly... Because it turns out you can't actually make yourself believe something if the doubts seem more likely.

When I think about it now, that one rational question put to the demon-- that shipwrecked my faith. I had kicked open one door too many, and I could no longer stay inside where I felt safe.

For a few years I kept going to church, I kept trying to believe... but after awhile I let go all together. If you ask my family, they'd claim that when I fought that non-existent demon, satan actually won. That he couldn't have chosen a better answer to make the whole idea of demons seem ridiculous-- and kill my faith forever.