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Sunday, 19 August 2012

When the Devil Talks in Tongues

I will answer for myself, and say at once that in 28 years as a minister, I have performed one Major Exorcism of a person and three of places, although I have been asked time beyond count to "do an exorcism" as though it were a matter of conjuring or catching mice.
     That was a statement by a British exorcist whom the ex-scientist, Terry White refers to only as the Reverend Mr A., and he probably speaks for most clergy in the mainstream churches who are involved in exorcism. However, he did admit that, in the first year of his ministry, he had an experience which shattered his cynicism about the supernatural, and something he probably would not have believed had it been reported by somebody else.
     A. served as an Intelligence Officer in World War II, and was involved in the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp. In 1964, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England. Not long afterwards, he was summoned by the Bishop of Southwell to deal with a crisis in a small Nottinghamshire mining village. An old woman, a self-proclaimed witch, was apparently possessed of a secondary personality claiming to be a demon. All of a sudden, the village had been set into turmoil as she exhibited amazing ESP in publicly revealing the sexual indiscretions of her neighbours, while tables, chairs, and other objects flew around in wild poltergeist abandon.
     Summoning his courage, A. called for help on an elderly Anglican monk, who had gained knowledge of the paranormal aspects of religion as a missionary in Swaziland and other sites. Neither of them had been to the village before, nor had the the old witch travelled farther than Nottingham. First they called on her daughter, who described her mother as a "bloody-minded old cow", who had been the high priestess for many years of a coven operating in Sherwood Forest. Together, the three of them set out for the confrontation. I shall now let Rev. A. take up the story.
     On my entry, she at once called out my Christian and surnames, my army nickname and a great number of scandalous details about the lighter side of my army life: girls' names, places and what we had been doing. The monk silenced her. Ma [the old woman] sat on a chair, her daughter restraining her. No violence was offered. When peace had been restored - and my composure - the daughter told us that her mother had instituted a reign of terror amongst her family, friends and neighbours, by similar conduct over the past six weeks. Others later said was six months. Poltergeist activity on a grand scale was also reported, but I did not actually see this.
     The monk then asked her a number of simple questions, which she answered. He then switched to an African tribal dialect and she answered in the same dialect! [emphasis in the original] There is no way that I can think of to explain this! The exorcism was short and simply consisted of a command in the Name of Christ for the demon to leave and go to its place harming no-one on the way. It was a success, the patient's powers [of clairvoyance] and the poltergeist activity ceased.
     As simple as that! Just like in Galilee more than 1900 years before. I shouldn't be surprised, but I am.
     During his enquiries into alleged demonic possession, Terry White met psychiatrists who declared it not worth talking about. Others, both psychiatrists and clergy, explained it all as a manifestation of a dissociative illness and treated exorcism as a form of psychotherapy which fitted into the patient's belief systems. Under normal circumstances, I would not attempt to rebut it. But this case is a bit more complex. No amount of slicing with Occam's razor will be able to remove the paranormal from the equation. So let us lower our sights, and examine a more modest default hypothesis: that the paranormal effects arose from an internal rather than an external cause - from the dark side of the unconscious mind, rather than a demon.
     Poltergeist Activity. It has long been noted that such activity usually (but not exclusively) focuses on a specific individual, usually a young person. Such people are typically - but often on the basis of minimal evidence - claimed to have been undergoing emotional turmoil. The result is that most psychic researchers these days attribute the phenomena, not to "spirits", but to spontaneous psychokinetic forces somehow released from the victim's subconscious mind. So chalk one up for the default hypothesis.
     Clairvoyance (ESP). Bogus claims for this facility are legion. However, the anecdotes with the best claim to authenticity tend to fall into two categories: (a) sudden, spontaneous flashes received by ordinary people, mostly in times of crisis (see my post of November 2011); and (b) psychometry: the ability of a few gifted persons to gain impressions from an object or an individual (try my post of December 2011). Even then, however, it is seldom possible to provide such detailed information as "Ma" did. Also, the gift is life-long. I have never otherwise heard of it turning up suddenly during an altered state of consciousness, nor of disappearing so quickly.
     Xenoglossy. This will put the biggest strain on the default hypothesis. It is important to note the difference between glossolalia, "speaking in tongues" and xenoglossy, speaking in an unknown foreign language. The former, which features prominently in Pentecostal church services, consists of ecstatic utterances of nonsense syllables which, although they may be strung together in the superficial semblance of a language, have no objective meaning except the spiritual significance attributed to them. Xenoglossy is quite a different matter. Here again, we must make a distinction. It is well established that, under altered states of consciousness, it is possible to dredge up memories buried deep underground. I have personally witnessed a subject sing, under hypnosis, a song which his conscious self could not remember ever hearing. There is also the frequently quoted case of a man who, during an altered state of consciousness, prattled off foreign phrases which, it turned out, he used to hear a tutor reciting to himself ages before.
     However, there is a world of difference between parroting off foreign passages once heard, but of unknown meaning, and the actual command of a language never previously studied, sufficient to converse in it. Basically, it cannot be done. There are some women who regularly talk in Finnish in the pew in front of me on Sundays, and perhaps under hypnosis, I might be able to repeat what I have heard them say. But how could it possibly allow me to answer another Finn in that language, unless I was somehow provided with the basic vocabulary and grammar of the Finnish?
     There is one other point which A. failed to make - no doubt because he wasn't aware of it. South African languages have very complex grammars, which defy the logic of English. They are also tonal - like Chinese or Thai. The simplest of them also contain consonants not present in English - or any other European language. If the language was Swazi - and it probably was - then it also contained twelve different "click" consonants, which are very difficult to make without practise. How well did "Ma" enunciate them? Well enough, apparently, to make herself understood.
     Also, the phenomena disappeared when the name of Jesus was invoked.
     This will not be the most extraordinary exorcism you will read about in this blog, so stay tuned.

Reference: Terry White (1994), The Sceptical Occultist, Arrow Books (Random House), pp 251-3.
(based on correspondence and interview with Rev. A. The author, Terry White was a biologist involved in immunology and parasitology, but is no longer working in science.)

Addendum: You will note that both the exorcist and the monk were Anglicans. It is one of the best kept secrets of Anglicanism that we do have celibate orders: both monks and nuns and, in Australia, the Bush Brethren. A contingent of Anglican nuns went with Florence Nightingale on her nursing expedition to the Crimea, and the nuns who brought midwifery to the slums of east London, as recounted by Jennifer Worth in Call the Midwife, were also Anglicans. Also, one of our Aboriginal celebrities, Rosie Kunoth was an Anglican nun for some years after starring in the film, Jedda.
     Also, despite the impression you may have received from B-grade movies and novels, you do not require a commission from Rome in order to cast out demons. However, I was never able to find the rite of exorcism in the Prayer Book, so I used to go about asking the clergy where to find it. Most of them fobbed me off. However, one of them finally explained that it is not in the Book of Common Prayer, but in a book of private prayer for the clergy alone, and it can be used by any of them who feels confident enough. But I still haven't seen it.


  1. Malcolm presumably you've read or're aware of 'Patient R' and've read this

    Roots of Human Self-Awareness: New Study Points to a Complex, Diffuse Patchwork of Brain Pathways

    ie Patient R's missing certain key brain elements hitherto considered indispensible for higher cognitive functions yet continues to exhibit clear indications of human self awareness.

    The official explanation being pushed of course is "Now We Know" human consciousness isn't simply composed of certain discrete elements attached to certain specific parts of the brain but is something more akin to a cloud computing structure.

    As Red Pill Junkie observed on his Daily Grail news scan today though this case can also be interpreted as 'Exhibit A for the case of Consciousness outside the brain'.

    If it really is the case then the brain's more like a radio receiver then this might be the mechanism by which Ma was not only able to tune in on everyone's indiscretions but also access the universal-telepathic-obscure-African-languages database or maybe even just jury rig an access point to the monk's own knowledge [though there're schools of thought which take the position we really communicate in spite of language rather than through it].

    As you point out though these sorts of psychic shenanigans're normally associated with young highly disturbed females on the cusp of womanhood.

    Among ancient peoples though and contemporary tradition based cultures it's always been accepted there're at least two other such main life stages when humans're viewed as something akin to the psychic equivalent of a leaking cannister of plutonium.

    1) babyhood crossing over into early childhood

    And British media continues to report seemingly endless highly distressing accounts of young African children being abused because they were believed to be possessed and

    2) old age where individuals particularly females're considered to be in some sort of growing relationship with the realm of death.

  2. Hi Malcolm
    i enjoyed your post very much.

    I served in the CMA church in the US as an Elder. The policy of our denomination was that we did not encourage the use of tongues or forbid it. If it was used in our presence, we insisted on testing these tongues to discern which "spirit" was behind it. When we first instituted this policy we ran across mostly demonic tongues. As it became known that this was our policy to test tongues it became very rare for a demonic tongue to manifest in our presence.

    The term Xenoglossy, i must admit was a new one for me. It could be due to another policy we have in that we ask people to not exercise their tongues in a public service without interpetation.

    Looking forward to following your blog