demonising and contemporary psychology

A psychologist friend of mine has pointed me in the direction something called narrative therapy. I’m fascinated by the vistas it opens up, and not just for psychological practice.


It’s spurred me to address one of the gaps in my theology (which John has laid his finger on over at Skunk Egg Brick Walnut) — spiritual warfare, demons, demon-possession, that sort of thing.

Crucial to this is the emphasis on ‘extenalising the problem’ in narrative therapy, which is (once again) about how you tell the story…

Imagine that a young boy has been misbehaving.

His parents have started to talk about him as ‘a problem child’ or ‘a bad boy’.

And he’s begun to internalise it, applying it to himself as a self-description: ‘Why am I acting like this? Because I’m a bad boy.’

But what a narrative therapist would suggests is that the problem needs to be ‘externalised’. The patient needs to be detached from the problem. The story needs to be told differently.

Once the story is told differently, you can start dealing with the underlying issues as issues. It means you can treat the symptoms rather than the person.

(Natalie and I are trying to teach ourselves this. When one of us does something dopey, rather than saying ‘I’m an idiot’ we’re working at simply acknowledging: ‘That was a dopey thing to do’. No small task!)

And, as I said, this has got me thinking about demons and spiritual warfare — particularly as this is depicted in the Gospels. People get quite antsy about talking about demon possession and psychology in the same breath.

And I can see why. Either…

  • You risk ‘demythologising’ the phenomena reported in the Gospels. You can flatten out the spiritual significance Jesus’ ministry to the demon afflicted. But Jesus is on about more than just self-help! The problem of our victimisation by sin, sickness, death and the devil runs much deeper than psychology can touch (cf. Mark 3.23-27).


  • You risk ‘supernaturalising’ them. You can defend the discreteness and integrity of demon possession at the cost of unmooring it from anything familiar from our own experience of the world — I’ve had experience with people with mental illnesses but not (that I know of) with those who’re demon afflicted.

But I wonder if thinking of someone as demon afflicted might help keep the person and the problem separate.

Of course, in doing so it exposes us to the obvious danger of removing the problem from the sphere of human competence altogether. It can leave us feeling totally powerless (which may be appropriate — after all, what power do we really have in the face of something so complex and personally devastating?).

Worse, as a matter of historical fact, this kind of talk may have served a similar function to the unfolding discourse of madness Foucault traces in Madness and Civilization. It may have contributed to social exclusion, fear and paralysis.

But it doesn’t have to function this way, does it?

What if talking about demon possession can actually help externalise the problem?


  1. Chris, I see massive positives in externalizing the problem but I’m not sure if we actually can seperate the symptom and the person as Narr. therapy suggests. When I do a dopey thing I don’t become an idiot-person, but I become a person who lives with the consequences of doing the dopey thing. Thus, by externalizing the problem, I start to see my true person who is capable of doing the dopey thing. And as you deal with the symptoms you start to question, whether the symptoms are acceptable. If it is acceptable, then you bear the consequence as a responsible person. If not, you are forced to change the way you live, think or feel as a person. As a result, you can truly internalize the problem objectively, only as you externalize it in the first place, and affect your ‘person’.

    With demon-possession do we ever not externalize it?

    1. You asked: “With demon-possession do we ever not externalize it?”

      I guess I would answer, Yes. And that’s what I was trying (clumsily) to flag towards the end of my post.

      It happens when we ‘demonise’ someone — an opponent or an ‘other’ who we find almost impossible to comprehend (e.g., Africa itself in Joseph Conrad’s powerful short story Heart of Darkness or the September 11 terrorists whose actions, we were told on constantly in the news at the time, were ‘incomprehensible’ — evil, demonic).

      By labelling someone ‘demon possessed’ we can easily blur the boundaries between the person and the problem, such that we can start thinking of them as demonic, evil. This is a classic case of failing to let the problem be the problem.

      And this may well be something that we can’t avoid doing once we start tossing around labels like ‘demon afflicted’ or ‘demon possessed’. Particularly because it’s not a problem that — even if we manage to name it correctly, properly externalising it and all that — we can (humanly) get much traction in dealing with. Defeating the strong man is beyond us. And thus telling the story this way might actually be a disempowering rather than an empowering way of externalising the problem.

  2. Thanks.. I realized that I didn’t have a right understanding of being ‘possessed’. B/c of the passive tense it sounds like it is something that is ‘done’ to you.

    Can we see, in the case of demon-possession by externalizing the problem, the true-self being responsible for giving in to the demon in the first place?

    Thus, in the case of 09/11 the terrorists are responsible for the act, but also we see the ‘demon’ operating in our world.

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