REVIEW: Sean McCloud, “American Possessions”

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McCloud, Sean. American Possessions: Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

A tome with the ritualistic repetition of a grimoire, Dr. McCloud’s American Possessions is haunted by a singular truth, the barest mystery of which possesses the reader until the final moment, when the specter of “neoliberalism” reveals its pervasive presence as a “reverberation” within Third Wave evangelicalism’s multiple iterations. The “Third Wave” movement, a “loose-knit collection of neo-Pentecostal, charismatic, independent, and denominational evangelicals” (3) so named by Fuller Theological Seminary professor C. Peter Wagner in the 1980s (6), generally focuses on the “practices and theologies of spiritual warfare” (7) citing “encounters of demons on earth” as theological proof (9) and embracing an “apocalyptic reading of history” (10). McCloud explored dozens of spiritual warfare handbooks written by Third Wave spokespersons, as well as “mass-media productions such as documentaries, websites, and television shows” (4) to determine what sort of “work” it does for Third Wave adherents and what it can tell us about modern American religious culture in a broader sense (6). He argues that religion in modern America is “best characterized as one of possessions–of both consumer goods and spirit entities–that is thoroughly saturated with the language of the therapeutic” (3).

In the first chapter, “Delivering the World”, McCloud considers the Third Wave “ambivalence towards globalization”, which offers efficient modes of transmission for mission work, yet invites the encroachment of “demonic” cultural material right to one’s doorstep (21). The language of the spiritual warfare handbooks utilizes a binary dichotomy of “us” and “them” to combat “cultural pluralism” and the different religions which “originated” from Satan, including liberal Protestantism, “unnamed ‘Christian cults'”, and, primarily, Catholicism (24). This antagonism results in an attraction, so that the handbooks resemble “‘demonic’ occult grimoires” (40) and demonstrate influence from popular ghost hunting television reality shows (38). Third Wave evangelists also condemn popular culture as “New Age” globalism, a “satanic conspiracy to rule the world” (34), yet embrace “pop culture variants such as Christian rock, Christian self-help literature, or Christian children’s literature” (28).

Chapters two (“Possessed Possessions, Defiled Land, and the Horrors of History”) and three (“The Gothic Therapeutic”) survey the various forms of spiritual warfare practiced by Third Wave evangelicals and how these practices intersect with broader American culture. For instance, Third Wave authors describe cultural products such as toys, movies, books, jewelry and heirlooms as possessed because of “desires, family histories, and even the nature of a material object itself”, while a house or land can become defiled by past sins, such as “idolatry, bloodshed, immorality and covenant breaking…[a] former Native American burial ground” or “corporate [defilement like] colonization, enslavement, war, or genocide…[or] a Transcendental Meditation training center” (56), locations that McCloud characterizes as “spatial limbos” (64). Third Wave spiritual warfare handbooks offer respite from demon hauntings, operating similarly to self-help therapy manuals, often including self-assessment appendices, quizzes, positive thinking tropes and mind over matter tropes (69), as well as describing personal trauma as “an event that ‘opens the door’ to the possibility that the individual, in her sadness and oppression, will be receptive to the temptations of Satan and the indwelling of demons” (71). To rid the individual of demons that perpetuate personal trauma, the deliverance ritual requires her to “directly confront and repent the sinful past that initially conjured them” (92), contributing to the ambiguity of agency and responsibility in sin, which McCloud explores further in the next chapter.

Chapter four, “Haunting Desires/Agency in an Era of Possessions”, explains the Third Wave belief that God is dependent on the prayer of “intercessors” (100), the “agents God uses to ‘enforce his will on earth'” (99) to influence human behavior in opposition to the “structures, including ideologies, culture, and idiosyncrasies” Satan utilizes to “enslave men” (102). This slavery is not described as “possession”, however, as human agency and free will are retained, influenced by the broader cultural influence of neoliberalism, the late-modern “laissez-faire capitalist economic philosophy” which uses “deregulation” and “choice” as key concepts, “plays down the notion of the ‘social’ and imagines atomistic, autonomous, and rational individuals who have complete free will” (106), completely “unaffected by material circumstance” (107). Consequently, he argues, the embodied aspects of this dominant discourse “desocializes, decontextualizes, dehistoricizes, and–ultimately–dematerializes the world” (108), resulting in a spiritualized Third Wave perspective that blames individuals for trauma and poverty and literally demonizes Keynesian economics as “atheistic”, a denial of a limitless God’s control over available resources and unlimited economic growth (111). As such, McCloud says, Third Wave evangelicalism “looks like much of the rest of contemporary American religion”, a reflection of the broader modern culture influenced by neoliberalism.

Many scholars persist in treating religious behavior as if it can be divorced from the broader cultural context in which the subjects live, but important studies like Dr. McCloud’s American Possessions clearly demonstrate that religion is best understood in relation to the social structures that “reverberate” through our daily lives, influencing every type of human behavior.

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