MY FIRST EXORCISM: What the Devil Taught a Lutheran Pastor about Counter-cultural Spirituality.
MY FIRST EXORCISM: What the Devil Taught a Lutheran Pastor about Counter-cultural Spirituality. By Harold Ristau. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2016. 180 pages. $22.84.
This is not a book about exorcism. Author Harold Ristau says as much in the prologue to the book. “Notwithstanding the title, this book is not about exorcism” (10). So what kind of book is this? Harold Ristau says it is, “A disquisition indubitably resembling a diatribe at times, the accounts of demonic oppression and possession recorded here offer a springboard intended to stimulate critical thinking, challenge metaphysical presuppositions and inspire belated conversation on a series of topics that have traditionally been avoided due to the impetuosity that they incite inside each one of us. Advancing no succinct plot, these streams of thought delineate inquiries into the subtleties of demonic activity of individual and communal life as their common thread” (10–11). Ristau hits the nail on the head with this description.
My First Exorcism is definitely lacking a plot and the “streams of thought” are not organized well, oftentimes making it unclear as to what the author is trying to accomplish. But the reader is warned in the prologue that this is what they should expect. This does not mean that the book is worthless or the theology is poor. Quite the opposite, the book is worthwhile and the theology is rich with content, but it takes a lot of work on the part of the reader to stay focused. It took me two attempts (seven months apart) before I succeeded in finishing this book.
I purchased this book because of two separate but tightly knit reasons: (1) it had the word “exorcism” in the title, which is for me a theological and educational blind spot, and (2) Rev. Dr. John Kleinig wrote the forward. Kleinig’s forward is helpful. Citing C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the reader is warned about two errors into which people can easily fall as it pertains to devils: (1) disbelieve their existence, and (2) an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. To these, Kleinig adds another pair, “It is just as foolish for pastors to presume expertise in diabolic activity as to ignore it” (ix).
I have had no encounters with demonic possession (as opposed to ‘oppression’) that I’m aware of. I have almost no experience or expertise in this area and I hoped this book would help bolster what I lack; after all, resources on exorcism are thin, and faithful Lutheran resources on exorcism are thinner yet—almost nonexistent. Though this book is not a systematic treatment about exorcism, it provided me with more information about exorcism than any other book (excluding Holy Writ) I’ve ever read.
Harold Ristau makes many claims about exorcisms, such as, “because demons are liars, exorcists are even trained to limit the questions that they posit to them, lest they be manipulated by their lies” (21) and “[vomiting] functioned as a sign that the exorcism had reached a successful result. I even began to watch for it. For the demons returned, more than once, and all too often.” (48). However, not every claim is supported by a footnote. When footnotes are present, they typically come from the same two or three sources. This is not to suggest that Ristau was lax on his research, but only confirms my suspicion that resources regarding exorcism are limited.
Ristau does recall the events of his first exorcism in Chapter Two. He speaks of “Debby” (not her real name), “an unkempt and very obese woman” (29) of 400+ pounds who was prone to using illicit drugs and dabbling in the occult. Debby’s living quarters are described as being littered with fast-food wrappers and “fumigated by the pungent odour of cheap cigarettes” (29). By every worldly standard of measurement, Debby was a loser. And herein lies the greatest value of this book. This is the “counter-cultural spirituality” that is advertised in the subtitle. Rev. Harold Ristau engaged in a harrowing exorcism requiring intense spiritual, emotional, and physical exertion for a woman who was not going to contribute any significant money to the offering plate, nor volunteer any significant time to the altar guild, Ladies’ Aid, or Sunday School classroom. Ristau’s pastoral care to this woman was an embodiment of Luke 14:13, “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” It is counter-cultural to invest your time and efforts on someone who may never make it onto the membership rolls and may have a spotty attendance in worship at best. Yet, this is what Pastor Ristau, and many pastors, are actually called to do.
After Chapter Three, the specifics regarding exorcism are very few and far between. The rest of the book is the “diatribe” and “streams of thought” promised in the prologue. Pointed and forceful words are written about the questionable motives or advantages of men’s retreats, contemporary music, not preaching from a pulpit, cohabitation, lay-readers, lax communion practices, and failure to genuflect when entering a church. It’s likely the tone on these matters will cause readers to set the book down, but I suspect most people will set the book down for the same reason I did the first time…it’s not actually a book about exorcism.
If you’re looking for a manual on how to conduct an exorcism, this book is not it. There is useful information about exorcisms in here. If all that information was compiled succinctly, it would amount to less than fifteen pages, and would serve as a great article in a theological journal. However, it’s not organized in that way, so you need to glean it from the 180 pages of this book. My advice is this: be aware of what this book is and what this book is not before you purchase it.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia/Immanuel in Cresbard/Wecota.