“That b**** is gonna haunt us.”
The sister coaxed a laugh out from behind her tissue, snorting through tears. The three women in the room gazed down at the youngest of the them and smiled at the inside joke passing just beyond the reach of the chaplain’s ears. The dead woman was covered in homemade quilts piled two and three layers deep. An hour earlier the machines in the room had been unplugged.
She had died in a way that countered her explicit wishes. Kept on feeding and breathing tubes against her prewritten instructions for a few weeks, there had been a glimmer of hope from ambiguous testing that kept the doctors from finally ending the months long struggle with a nameless cancer that had come on too quickly.
The sisters hugged one another and shooed the chaplain out of the room after a prayer. She was in her late thirties.
I don’t know whether to believe in intangible spirits or demons, but in my work I’ve witnessed forces that fall outside the comfort of my disenchantment: the guilt that racks families after a loss, the missed opportunities, the suspicions, the failures that keep coming back to haunt us. For the three sisters sitting in that hospital room, they would live their lives with the memory of a dying child before them who had begged not to stay on breathing tubes as her last conscious wish.
They had acted in good faith, resting their hopes on a doctor’s suggestion that further testing could yield unexpected results. The waiting forced them to act opposite her explicit wishes: the disconnect between these unsettled them. These are the roots of haunted places.
Preaching texts that encounter unsettled spirits is a dangerous task. There is, to begin with, an awkwardness of reading inhabited texts in our present historical moment. The hackles of empirically-minded 21st century audiences tend to go up at the mention of ghosts or demonic forces. To paraphrase Max Weber, ours is a disenchanted age.
There is, however, a deep dishonesty in avoiding texts that encounter these realities. This dishonestly burns at two levels. First, the texts themselves speak to an enchanted world of demons, ghosts, and unquiet spirits: skipping over these awkward details serves to undermine pastoral authority, (i.e., why should I read the bible at all if I don’t have to take the uncomfortable parts seriously, pastor?). Demanding the disenchanted reading in nods to hyper-contextuality, the effort to soften up scripture for empirically critical readers, signals more about the dis-ease of the preacher to avoid what is challenging than anything about the text itself.
In the second place, the preacher risks dishonesty at the level of exactly the type of discomfort which the presence of the demonic and ghosts elicits. Although the preaching event may occur within an allegedly disenchanted context, listeners (and even preachers) know the unmistakable echoes of the ghostly inhabited places of this world. Glossing over their reality only makes them howl that much louder.
Maybe the last unmet wishes of a loved one haunts an assembly member. Maybe the assembly listener has been sensing the disquietingly racist currents in recent political discourse demonically lurking around the edges of an otherwise cheerful bedroom community. Perhaps the nightmarish image of a Syrian child washed up on the shores of Turkey continues to impart chills. To ignore these as having the quality of hauntedness out of an unspoken nod to empiricism is to not only to ignore their reality but to invalidate the experiences of the listener. Glossing over the ghastly and the demonic is an injustice, both to the listener and to the text.
Although we live in an age whose intellectual Truth is disenchantment, our bodies know the calls of the disembodied. While our hyper-empiricism pleads us away from belief in ghosts and demons, our experiences do not. The sister’s comment in that hospital room might have been a throwaway line, bringing a welcome laugh amid hard tears, but it spoke to a deeper, much more troubling aspect of what had transpired.
The Gospel of Mark is haunted. There are an important set of other-worldly characters within the text whose presence shape and tell us something about the protagonist, Jesus. To ignore these characters as real forces is to ignore a major element of the story and therefore the message of this protagonist.
Biblical scholar Joel Marcus’ excellent two volume commentary on the Gospel largely revolves around his reading of Mark as an apocalyptic struggle between agents of eschatological dimensions. It is a tale of the epically hellish agents of death conquered by the supreme agent of life. Beginning with a cosmic struggle in the desert in which Jesus defeats Satan, the first half of Jesus’ ministry is in direct confrontation to demonic forces that wreak havoc on human existence. Marcus writes, “For Mark as for other Jewish apocalypticists, this salvation is above all a liberation of humanity from the cosmic powers that oppress it; Jesus’ main mission is to clear the earth of demons (Käsemann, Jesus, 55), and even his teaching is a weapon in this struggle,” (Joel Marcus, 72).
Counting either explicit demonic exorcisms (i.e., 1:21-28), general references to either Jesus’ casting out unclean spirits, (1:34) or the mission of the twelve as encompassing exorcism (6:6b-13), there are at least eight explicit references to the exorcising of spirits or demons in the first eight chapters of Mark’s gospel alone (more still if we include a cast of demonic characters imbedded less explicitly in the text, such as the storm upon the Sea of Galilee). Unclean spirits, demonic forces, ghosts, and even Satan himself make appearances in Mark’s gospel. They inhabit the human world as destabilizing forces.
Amid all these other-worldly forces, even Jesus is mistaken as a ghost! As he walks out from the land across the sea, the disciples cry out in response to his presence as a ghostly one (6:45-50). Herod, upon hearing about Jesus’ ministry, likewise believes that Jesus is a specter of John the Baptist (6:14-16). Herod’s guilt in relation to John’s disappearance throws him into panic over the mere prospect of John’s haunting return.
What’s more, both Jesus’ family and the scribes mistake his power over these other-worldly players as either an indication of his madness (3:20: “he has gone out of his mind!”) or his being in cahoots with Satan (3:22-30). Even his disciples, the ones who ought to have known better, mistake his identity as belonging to the ghostly realm when he walks on the water towards Bethsaida.
Thus, Jesus’ true identity is intimately connected his relationship to these demonic forces. Although the reader knows Jesus’ identity all along (1:11), it takes the human characters of the story until Peter’s confession to figure it out (8:29b): “You are the messiah!” All the while, there is a set of characters within the narrative who do not confuse Jesus’ power and identity: the demons, Satan, and unclean spirits, whom he is constantly ordering not to reveal this identity. Mark’s famous “secrecy motif” is most consistently challenged by these other-worldly foes, who are continually silenced in turn.
That these demons show a frightened awareness of Jesus’ power before anyone else imbues the preacher’s task with a power and force of its own. The demons are conscious and frightened of the reality of God’s dominion over the earth, brought forward in Jesus (1:14). Where earthly political or religious figures scoff at his work and plot his demise, Jesus’ power is unquestionably strong over those unearthly forces of division, darkness, and haunting.
That those figures recognize and respond to Jesus’ power well before humanity can see or understand his work among us is also significant. They respond to the Word when human understanding fails it. When Jesus forcefully tells a demon to “shut up!” and come out of a man, (poignant language to be repeated later when Jesus tells the stormy winds to“shut up” upon the sea), the disciples and crowds watching are completely aghast: “And they were all awestruck, so that they asked one another saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He even gives orders to the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” (1:27, translation J. Marcus).
All the same, preaching the demonic is uncomfortable at best.
Yet this is exactly the space the preacher ought to inhabit. Our present age of disenchantment is also, perhaps not coincidentally, an age of rampant opioid addiction. Numbness, quieting the unquiet voices, and ignoring the haunts seems to be an alarmingly necessary component of our age of disenchantment.
Demons and ghosts destabilize that insistence on disenchantment. Like Jesus, those of us who deal with these forces honestly are met with words from loved ones and friends just as skeptically. The disquieting, intellectually invalidating force is precisely their destabilizing capacity. A question of who sees ghosts and who is affected by them is always a lively subject of ghost stories. To those who see no ghosts, the presence of a ghost seen by another is often a sign of madness. Ghosts invalidate the intellect.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a perfect example of the destabilizing quality of the ghostly presence. Upon the entrance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Horatio cries out at its presence: “…it horrors me with fear and wonder”. The haunted world of the text is continually moved by the ghost, whose figure stands as a witness to malice and evil that has preceded it. Yet, more than any other force on stage, the presence of the ghost will forcefully shape all that follows on stage. Hamlet’s power lies in his sword; the ghost’s power lies in his capacity to unleash unrest upon the characters. There is no internal logic of plot of Hamlet if the reader cuts the ghost scenes out of a disenchanted sensibility.
Now, for the preacher who views the homiletic work as a teaching exercise the challenge of other-worldly inhabitants becomes a task of explaining their presence. A homiletic that teaches, then, is a homiletic constantly threatened by these forces, since it has no Word for them but only a word about them. This aversion is its powerlessness. (Interestingly, one of the places where we find Jesus teaching about the dominion of God rather than proclaiming its liberating presence in Mark’s Gospel is when he stands opposite the Temple and notices a bunch of religious authorities failing to carry out their work!)
But when Jesus speaks to demons inhabiting physical human bodies, human bodies are physically altered. The mission of the coming of God’s dominion affects these people on a life-altering level – it is a constant force of liberation, not explanation.
Our world is as haunted as Mark’s. Admitting it as such is the first step towards liberating bodies under the force of that demonic hauntedness. Unfortunately, merely believing that these forces will go away out of a misplaced idea that they belong to another context is dangerously wishful thinking. The aversion to naming demons and ghosts only gives them greater force.
There is power in the Good News that speaks plainly to these places of hauntedness. Mark’s gospel not only depicts a world inhabited by disquieting forces who unsettle human history, but gives the methodology of counteracting these: proclamation of the gospel. We preachers have the distinct capacity then in respect to these forces. We name them, we do not allow them to speak, and we follow the example of Mark’s Jesus who tells them to flat out “shut up” and leave.