Keeping an Ear to the Ceiling

I’m an ordained Protestant minister and, for 11 years, I served full-time in the pastorate. Along the way, I encountered many strange and wonderful things—things that no amount of training or education could prepare me for … Like the time a young couple reported a ghost on their ceiling.

After I was convinced the folks weren’t pranksters or Satanists, I visited the house. By all appearances, it was normal: no levitating beds, rabid cats or open graves. The room in question was partly below ground, like a cellar. It had one window that, according to them, was once entirely covered by horseflies. In this room, on several occasions, they’d seen an apparition—a woman hovering on the ceiling over the bed.

Curiously enough, it was the fall TV lineup that jogged my memory of this event, particularly the new WB drama, Supernatural. The first episode had a scene of a woman pinned to the ceiling, engulfed by hellfire. It appears most Americans keep an ear to the ceiling.

Polls continually reveal that the U.S. is one of the most religious countries in the world, with the majority of citizens having some belief in God, heaven, hell and the devil. Fox News, reporting on a national poll conducted by Opinion Dynamics Corporation, put an interesting spin on this. For instance, more men believe in UFOs than women (39 percent to 30 percent), and Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe in reincarnation, astrology and ghosts. In another poll, American Atheists, Inc. found that one in five Americans claims to have been visited by an angel. The same poll gives us this helpful statistical tidbit: “Income was another factor affecting responses. Eighty-three percent of those earning below $25,000 per year believed in angelic beings, while those earning over $80,000 were less likely (64 percent) to do so.”

Hmm. Guess the further you get from the poverty line, the less you need to be touched by an angel. Suffice to say that, we are fascinated by—if not downright favorable toward—the supernatural. UFOs, psychic phenomenon, ghosts and angels are all American staples.

Hollywood knows this. The fact that The Exorcism of Emily Rose grossed over 30 million dollars in its September weekend debut was not shocking. Americans dig this stuff. It’s no wonder the fall schedule is packed with sci-fi/supernatural thrillers. ABC has given us Invasion, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Surface on NBC and Threshold on CBS also explore extra-terrestrial visitation, from different angles. ABC’s Lost, in its second season, is an amalgam of the unusual. The WB’s Supernatural draws heavily upon urban legends and has even launched a web site that allows viewers to research such American myths as the “vanishing hitchhiker,” the “hook man” and bloody Mary. Each episode will feature a different ghost from classic lore. And there’s many to choose from.

This trend is not limited to Tinseltown. There’s the Kings and Koontzes that occupy the bestseller lists, year in and year out. And hitting bookstores this month is Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic Is Transforming America. Author Christine Wicker, former religion reporter for The Dallas Morning News, explores the hidden world of magic. She visits hoodoo conjurers, voodoo priestesses, self-proclaimed wizards, practicing witches and even a few vampires and elves, revealing a vibrant sub-culture of the superstitious.

It’s obvious the intelligentsia keeps its finger on our pulse and its ear to ceiling. Why else would there be such an endless parade of aliens, angels, ghosts and the paranormal in pop culture?

What often gets lost in the statistics and commercialism is the implication of it all. I mean, what does it say about us that we are so interested in the invisible dwellers of exotic worlds? Are we escapists, dreamers or just plain primitives?

C.S. Lewis argued that the hunger for heaven is evidence for the existence of heaven. All cravings have a correspondent fix. The hunger for Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk exists, because the ice cream in question does. Likewise, our unshakeable, intuitive sense that powers greater than ours lurk on the fringes of the everyday, may be the best evidence of their existence. Of course, believing in extra-terrestrials does not make them so. Nevertheless, it is the consistent hunger for a “superior mind” and a perfect world that we can’t seem to shake.

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Frederick Buechner tells the story of the young man who shot and killed his father in a fit of rage. Later that evening in his prison cell, the boy was heard crying, “I need my Dad. I need my Dad.” It’s very likely that what is going bump in the night is our eternal longings flailing against the void; we’ve evicted God, and boy do we miss Him. America’s hunger for the supernatural is evidence of this spiritual vacuum.

Some theologians have called this the echo of Eden: the spiritual ripples of a world that once was. Because of it, we can’t stand at a graveside without asking where the departed went. We can’t look to the skies without asking if there’s anybody out there. The unseen realm resonates in us, because we are part of it; it is our home away from home.

In his work, True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer said, “The Christian life means living in the two halves of reality: the supernatural and the natural parts.” Demons and angels are real—not just for those who make less than 80K a year. As Christians, we should seek to affirm and reclaim this invisible realm, live in both halves, keep a hand on the Book and a foot in both worlds.

By the way, I never did see the ghost-woman hovering in the room of that young couple. I did my best Father Merrin impersonation and, apparently, it stopped. I thanked God, sheathed my holy water and have been keeping an ear to the ceiling ever since.

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