- American Possessions: Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States by Sean McCloud
Scholarly work on globalizing Christianity in the last few decades has extended the exploration of the myriad ways that faith, practice, and modernity are mutually constitutive. With regard to conservative American Christianity, new research approaches have included scholarly attention to education, political economy, and social activism. Sean McCloud’s American Possessions contributes to this research through a comprehensive study of charismatic praxis around demon possession, and the “haunted imaginary” it engages. The ostensible focal subject of American Possessions is the practice of deliverance ministry, or spiritual warfare, within the charismatic Christian Third Wave movement. Within neo-Pentecostalism and other forms of conservative American Christianity, spiritual warfare is enacted as a performed confrontation between self-appointed experts and demons in material objects, landscapes, and individual persons. The study situates deliverance ministries alongside particular American cultural obsessions and insecurities, revealing them to be isomorphic. Rather than attempting to approach his subject historically or denominationally, McCloud’s analysis engages with popular culture, and utilizes a combination of print and television media as source material. Specifically, McCloud relies on spiritual warfare handbooks, designed as testimonies and guides to assist readers in identifying and defeating possession.
Demons, and the personal and social ills they embody, can transform anything into a battleground in an invisible war, including the material and narrative fixtures of American life. This is the struggle upon whick American Possessions is centered. In an argument that is both concise and effective, McCloud identifies three thematic phenomena within the American secular-modern that have been grafted onto Third Wave ideology, vis-à-vis deliverance ministry: consumerism, the haunted, and the therapeutic. These themes speak to conservative American Christians’ deep-seated ambivalence toward history, capitalism, and individual agency. In this way McCloud does not offer context to the evangelical Third Wave movement per se, but more a snapshot of religious ideological grappling as it is made manifest in the belief in demonic agents besieging modern life. The Third Wave authors McCloud draws on warn that demons—actors often named for the havoc they reap— can invade homes through books and souvenirs perceived as Satanic or otherwise inviting to evil powers. While ghosts are disregarded as superstition, demons may haunt homes, land, or entire countries after being invited by [End Page 284] past wrongdoing. Some of McCloud’s most interesting insights come out of his comparison of deliverance ministries to increasingly popular paranormal and ghost-hunting reality television shows, which capture significantly similar narratives and collective fears. Likewise, an individual or family may be “haunted” by the sin of an ancestor, drawing demons of anger or addiction across generations. The existence of an invisible spiritual battlefield, process of casting out demon actors, and preventing their return, is all ensconced in the language of healing, self-help, and perpetual improvement: the therapeutic.
The most salient point McCloud hits upon is that these major motifs of American life—consumerism, haunting, and therapeutic—not only play out in deliverance ministry, but in doing so highlight the inextricable relationship between conservative American Christianity and neoliberalism. Specifically, he argues that the theology of spiritual warfare “both complements and contests discourses concerning agency, structure, history, and conceptions of the individual” as they are conceived within neoliberalism (3). Here is where American Possessions, a relatively short work, manages to capture an impressive picture in its analytical scope. In the Third Wave theological worldview, capitalism and conservatism, which emphasize individual responsibility, are moral systems; authors proclaim that God prefers capitalism, and certain political and economic systems are atheistic. On the other hand, destruction is wrought by demons, who have the autonomy to possess what and whom they please, and are often the natural result of structural sins such as war. Poverty, a failure to thrive in a neoliberal free market, may be the result of an as-yet unidentified demon inherited from a grandfather. A person may similarly harbor demons in material possessions, causing them emotional and financial difficulty, without knowing of the objects’ connections to anything unholy...