My childhood fascination and terror when reading stories or watching films about haunted houses came I think from an unadmitted knowledge that any house, including my own, could be home to evil spirits. Like most children I had an untutored understanding of the many bible stories about spirit possession. Indeed my adult education in the subtleties of post-Freudian psychology has extended, deepened but not destroyed my trust in the house as metaphor for the individual soul.
One of the reasons for that is my view, learned from both Christian and Buddhist sources, that the individual soul is only an abstraction from our experience of living in relationship and community. Our selves do not end at our skin; our existence is always co-existence, our being always inter-being. I am always part of the souls of others, they are always part of mine. For this reason I have come to the conclusion that no individual soul- house can be void; there are always tenants for better or for worse. I often quote Bob Dylan in support of this view, “well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve someone,”although I think he imagined such service would always be willing, whereas my experience is that much of it is forced. My understanding of the healing miracles of Jesus suggests that often he was dealing with disease imposed or aggravated by communal powers, which he had to evict in order to liberate the sufferer. Indeed, Jesus’ own story of the evil spirit evicted from its host who hears its old house is clean and vacant and then returns along with even more evil pals, has guided all my thinking on this topic.
As I continue to work towards a ‘House Theology’ I need to remind myself that houses/homes can be places of domination, abuse and murder, as well as equality, caring and life. The terrible statistics of domestic child abuse in Scotland, together with those of domestic rape, are sufficient to challenge any sentimental view of house and home. Many victims testify that their first experience of freedom was when they left the family home.
The bible shares this lack of sentimentality about the home. The first murder happens in the first family. If Abraham and Sarah show something good about the home, then Lot and his family show something bad, namely a casualness in the face of evil which brings trouble upon them. Noah’s drunkenness tears his family home apart, while David’s homicidal lust sets in train a sequence of bad relationships within his house years into future. In the language of the prophets, the ‘house of Israel’ is often depicted as inhabited by the evil spirits of injustice and death.
The New Testament continues this unsparing view of the house. Matthew’s parable of the evil tenants who want to take over the house, Mark’s story of the man who calls himself Legion, who is so traumatised by the Roman invasion that he cannot live in a house any more, Luke’s story of the Pharisee’s house where Jesus and a sinful woman are treated with cold rectitude- these and many others reveal a ‘House Theology’ which is common across different gospel traditions. The story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 is a particularly clear example. The upwardly mobile Zacchaeus is found up a tree because although he has made himself a big man by collaboration with the enemy, he remains small in his own eyes. He is in thrall to the spirit of greed which inhabits his ‘house.’ Jesus therefore invites himself to Z’s house, which he knows contains an accumulation of the wealth of others. In a sense Jesus breaks in, although Zacchaeus welcomes him because he honours him by his presence. Once Jesus is in the house, the evil stuff and the spirit of greed that gained it, have to go out. This is demonsttated by Z repaying fourfold those whom he has cheated. Jesus announces that the Z and his household have been rescued, in his words, ‘Saving justice has come to this house today!’
The fitst healing by Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is briefly told, but is another good example. In this case there is no house precisely because the community’s fear of the leper’s disease has sen him banished from home and community. This banishment is the source of the leper’s tentative approach to Jesus, ‘If you want to, you can make me whole.’ This explains Jesus’ ‘anger’ which is the reading of the best manuscripts of the gospel: he is angry at the lack of compassion that forces a man to plead for healing. Then he invades this house of evil spirits by the simple and revolutionary gesture of touching him. His hand goes into enemy territory, the place of exclusion, to rescue the human being. He reveals the combination of fear and callousnness which has kept this man out of the communal house.
Jesus himself categorised his healing ministry by comparing himself to a thief breaking into a strong man’s house to take his possessions. He wouldn’t be able to do this, he says, without first tying up the strong man. He’s talking about Beelzebul, the Lord of the flies, the Satan, the enemy of God. Jesus has to neutralise the power of evil before he can set free those who are possessed by it. He does so by his concern for the victim and his often explicit denunciation of the oppressor, enabled by his own trust in God’s goodness.
The whole of Mark’s gospel is taken up with the battle between God’s House,(kingdom) and Satan’s House, which is given a surprise ending: Jesus, the rescuer of human beings, is expelled from the house(hold) of Israel, handed over to foreigners and killed, apparently abandoned by God. He seems to be defeated and placed in the house of Death, but his tomb is found to be empty and his followers told to meet him in the ‘gospel ground’ of Galilee. The result of the battle is left as an existential question for the reader.
For any House Theology, the house of the enemy is almost as important a theme as the house of God.