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March 2015 Pulse

It is quite fashionable to label the period in which we inhabit by the use of the prefix ‘post’: post-liberal, post-colonial, post-modern and even post-human.

While the prefix annoyingly tells us very little, it does suggest that ours is an age riddled with ambiguities. The prefix points to a culture that is still somewhat dependent on the status quo it has revolted against.

Writers as diverse as Jurgen Habermas and Graham Ward have argued quite persuasively that we are beginning to see the emergence of a post-secular age. Post-secularism of course does not signal the end of secularism. It points to the novel miscegenation of the secular and the religious in a way that is both amorphous and treacherous.

The Roman Catholic aesthetic theologian, Richard Viladesu, has said that one way of discerning the evolution of culture is to study its artefacts. Since film continues to be one of the primary mediums in modern culture, in what follows I will briefly reflect on two films to track this shift in sensibility.

On December 26, 1973, Warner Bros. theatrically released The Exorcist in the United States. The film grossed over US$441 million worldwide and earned 10 Academy Award nominations. It starred Ellen Burstyn (as Chris MacNeil), Jason Miller (as Father Karrass, the exorcist) and Linda Blair (as Regan Teresa MacNeil, the demon-possessed adolescent girl).

In many different ways, The Exorcist portrays modern secularism with its stark (one might even say, overwrought) dualisms that pervades almost every aspect of the film. It accentuates a characteristic trademark of secularism, namely its neat compartmentalisation of reality, especially its dogmatic division between the sacred and secular.

Thus in The Exorcist there can be found not just the dualities of good and evil, but also the sacred and profane, church and society. But what is critical is that The Exorcist seems rather determined to ensure that these divisions are never blurred, and the boundaries strictly enforced.

The church, which is always in the background in the film, is called upon only when there is a crisis that science is unable to resolve. But after the successful exorcism, the religious symbols are returned to Father Karrass the exorcist as if to say that now that the crisis is over, church and religion are no longer needed.

The family returns to the usual dualities, and life reverts to the prepossession secular norm. The Church recedes once again into the background, and religion is once again relegated to the periphery of secular society.

In Rupert Wainwright’s 1999 film, Stigmata, the dualities and dichotomies that The Exorcist has carefully defined and guarded appear to have collapsed. Reality is presented as seamless where the distinct categories of sacred and secular no longer apply. In the post-secular age, we see a decisive shift away from the barren materialism of the scientific worldview to a world that is re-enchanted and re-sacralised.

Stigmata underscores the disappearance of dualities in very striking ways. In Roman Catholic piety, the stigmata are granted only to those who are wholly devoted to God, like Francis of Assisi. In the movie, the marks appear on the hairdresser Frankie (played by Patricia Arquette) who is not only an unbeliever but also a promiscuous hedonist. In the post-secular age, the dissolution of the secular and the sacred has led to the democratisation of spiritual experiences.

The removal of these boundaries is also powerfully portrayed by the rosary, which Frankie’s mother bought for her while vacationing in Brazil. Not knowing its significance, Frankie wore it as a necklace, thereby treating a religious object as a mere fashion accessory. Yet it is through the trivialised rosary that Frankie received the supernatural stigmata.

Although post-secularism wants to re-sacralise the world, it is important to note that it has no desire whatsoever to return to traditional religions like Christianity. Some writers have pointed out that God has made a comeback in the post-secular world. However, the God that has appeared on the scene is not the God of the Bible, but a nebulous spiritual force that permeates all of reality.

While The Exorcist presents an ever enlarging secular space where religion is pushed to the margins, summoned only when science is unable to solve a problem (the old ‘God-of-the-gaps’ idea), Stigmata insists that everything is spiritual. Yet, in emphasising spirituality, Stigmata roundly rejects religion as it is traditionally understood and practiced.

Stigmata is truly post-secular in the sense that it abandons both the rationalism and scientism of secularism and traditional religion. In one sense, post-secularism is intrinsically postmodern because it subverts both scientific and religious authorities and abandons their respective metanarratives.

Both films diminish the role of religion and the church in society, but in their own ways. The secularism of The Exorcist says that religion is mostly irrelevant, while the post-secularism of Stigmata says that traditional religion is no longer necessary since spiritual experiences are available everywhere to everyone.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.