Book Review: My First Exorcism: What the Devil Taught a Lutheran Pastor about Counter-cultural Spirituality by Harold Ristau, Foreword by John W. Kleinig (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock, 2016)
Review by Rev. John A. Frahm III
Rev. Dr. Harold Ristau is an ordained pastor in Lutheran Church-Canada and a graduate of Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. He has served as a parish pastor and a chaplain in the Canadian armed forces. He holds a Ph.D. from McGill University and his dissertation was on “Understanding Martin Luther’s Demonological Rhetoric in His Treatise Against the Heavenly Prophets.”
He has recently accepted a divine call to join the faculty at his and my alma mater at CLTS, St. Catharines, Ontario. Notably, also, he recently spoke on a related topic at the symposium on the Lutheran Confessions at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne and is scheduled to speak in the near future for Doxology.
In My First Exorcism (available via Amazon) Harold Ristau writes not only of his various experiences in dealing with rather dark and disturbing instances where he ministered to the demonically oppressed and possessed, but he also puts his experiences and theological reflections into the large context of Christian faith and carrying out Word and Sacrament ministry in our post-modern western context. He sets forth a perspective that is rooted in justification by grace alone through faith alone that is also within the great tradition of liturgical/sacramental Christianity.
While the subject matter might lend itself to tabloid-style curiosity, Ristau doesn’t describe the dark encounters lightly or for an X-files or Hollywood style fetish. While such raw demonic encounters may be rare for most pastors or Christians in general, Ristau reminds us that Christian life is a daily encounter with such. As Ristau reminded us at the symposia in Fort Wayne, even Luther would deal with Satan in, with, and under the garb of heretics and his detractors.
Even then Luther would recall that such were oppressed and used by Satan even when not possessed as such in the classical sense. Falsehood is not of God. (So the Lord said to Peter, “Get thee, behind Me, Satan!”) Satan is the accuser attempting to push us away from the crucified and risen One. Ristau reminds us that this is the case whether dealing with an overt possession or in combating false doctrine, dealing with those who undermine legitimate Word and Sacrament ministers, or in preserving the fellowship of the Body of Christ.
Demons are fallen angels in rebellion against God and, as Ristau points out, they want our sympathy. Ristau notes an episode in which a devil tried to elicit sympathy for it, as if the demon was the victim of circumstances. But such are attempts to open ourselves up to listening to the lie. Lies are poisonous to the soul. What our ears and eyes take in is a matter of personal, spiritual well-being. We’d like to imagine we have a filter or a firewall within ourselves but we live from what we receive.
Deception is the name of the game for Satan and his fallen angelic minions. Whether they come seeking sympathy, pretending to be the soul of a departed human being known to us, disguising themselves as angels of light, or claiming to be an alien being from another world or an ancient progenitor of humanity (see Gary Bates’ book, Alien Intrusion for a remedy for this deception), the ongoing theme with demons is that they were not satisfied being angels of God in the beginning and they do not want you to be what God has you to be or to trust His Word. No matter the outward appearance they want you to question the biblical worldview and who you are in relation to God, to live by self-appointed rights rather than divine salvific gifts and promises.
Demons do not revere but rather fear the holy name of Jesus. This is why Baptism is such a violent attack upon the kingdom of the devil. They despise the preaching of Christ and Him crucified and want to find anything to distract from that. Ristau rightly points out how a properly observed, catechetically-informed Divine Service in a steadfast congregation is a threat to the devil and his desperate plans.
The devil knows his time is short and he will attack where he finds that threat. Satan will parody, mock, and counterfeit the truth, since the devil cannot create ex nihilo. For ultimately this is why evil is not a thing, but in the misuse of a thing, outside of God’s design. To call evil a thing is Gnostic.
For the devil works not simply on the level of outward acts but in putting hooks into concupiscence. He wants us to look at ourselves the way he looks at himself, someone whose self-expression was suppressed. He wants us to fear not getting what we want to soothe ourselves rather than fearing the Lord. And for the demonically oppressed or possessed, while deliverance is sometimes what is desired, often there is also the conflicted desire to remain in the familiar circumstances that seem to “work.” It might be a kind of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome where the oppressed become dependent upon their oppressors and abusers.
The fruit of Ristau’s pastoral and academic work is evident in this book. My First Exorcism will help re-calibrate a Christian worldview in the 21st century and remind you at that we are indeed pilgrims delivering Christ’s rescue and cleansing in this wasteland in the end times. Are such things as are described here by Ristau becoming more frequent? Is “Satan’s little season” upon us or on the verge of arriving? While we are called not to enter into speculative theology we are called to be observant and vigilant.
Along with recent publications by Robert Bennett, Harold Ristau’s book is a welcome addition to this theological discussion. It is important that we consider these things from a distinctly Gnesio-Lutheran perspective, leaving no room for enthusiasm, but boldly taking up the implications of justification by grace alone and our view of the monergism of the divinely instituted means of grace.
While Ristau recognizes some historical lessons that can be learned from those outside the Lutheran confession on these matters, he is also sharp to recognize weaknesses in Rome, the Eastern Orthodox, and others when there is not a clear understanding of law and gospel, the means of grace, and sin.
As Robert Bennett reminds us it is important to guard against enthusiasm in these matters. Ristau would remind us that often the demons recognize the difference between sacred and common when we so easily forget, as familiarity breeds contempt. Beyond merely the topic of possession Ristau reminds us that we are dealing with the holy mysteries of God when we are gathered as church in the Divine Service and that we should not barter this away for relevance or to try to prove something to this fallen world. The world has Moses and the prophets. Neither works nor spiritual shows will impress the world.
Perhaps the theological reflections of men like Ristau and Bennett and others will lead to further development of published pastoral resources (rites and preparation) that take our orthodox Lutheran eschatology, hamartiology, and demonology into account. As it was in the days of Noah before the flood, so it will be when the Son of Man comes again. As man seeks continually to build his Tower of Babel 2.0 for a Brave New World, the devil hatefully seeks to destroy souls for eternity. Our help is in the name of the Lord. As Dr. John Stephenson puts it in his dogmatics text, Eschatology:
Just as world history is in large measure a history of warfare, even so church history is chiefly a record of the rise and refutation of false doctrine within holy Christendom. Since Satan is not yet cast into the lake of fire, the church militant can know not a single hour undisturbed by doctrinal dissension. The Word must be contended over as well as confessed (1 Cor. 11:19). Doctor Luther bluntly reminds us that “dissension and contention over the Scriptures…is a divine quarrel wherein God contends with the devil…Eph.6:12.” [John R. Stephenson. Eschatology – Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics (Volume XIII). (Dearborn, MI: The Luther Academy, 1993); p.74]