Whenever we read stories about "unclean spirits" or "demons" in the Scriptures - like the story in Mark 1:21-28- it seems that predominant voices offer us two alternative ways to encounter those texts. I will call these two options "Fundamentalism" and "Modernism," although they may not be entirely accurate.
Fundamentalism demands that we adopt a 1st century mentality and believe that there is something like an alternate universe at work around us, filled with angels and demons doing spiritual warfare, occasionally erupting from their spirit world into our own time/space continuum and requiring prayers warriors to gather around and do battle. People of this persuasion encourage us to join the fray using all of the right formulas (which sound almost like "incantations," but they're not because they are Christian formulas). Some folks go really haywire with this language and tend to see the world through this lens of spiritual warfare, taking up their "sword of the spirit" against anything from extreme, torturous human maladies to normal human inconveniences. Whereas some people read this story from Mark and say, "That stuff doesn't happen in real life," the Fundamentalist says, "It happens all the time, everywhere! You just don't have eyes to see it. Maybe you have an evil spirit!"
Modernism demands that we drop the 1st century mentality and adopt a 21st century mentality when we read texts of this sort. Of course the world is not "with devils filled," as that silly old Martin Luther once said. And the kinds of maladies that the New Testament treat as "demonically" driven can easily be explained with the ordinary tools of medicine and science - epilepsy, mental illness, mad cow disease, you name it. No, to the Modernist, Mark's story is of the same cloth as the six-day creation, references to the "four corners" of the earth, and a three-dimensional universe of heavens above/underworld below/battleground earth in between. For 21st century folk, it is time to "grow up," to "come of age" and to leave these vestiges of primitive thinking behind. A story like this is only helpful as a moral story of how Jesus had compassion on people and freed them from being ostracized or counted as 'different' from others. The "guts" of the story, however, we have to simply ignore or explain away, or else we will sound like charter members of the "Flat Earth Society."
I suppose that if I had to choose between these two options, I'd go with the Modernist. But, I don't.
Here's why. Oddly enough, the Fundamentalist and the Modernist interpretations of this text share an assumption, which I think is wrong. They assume that the biblical writers took their own language literally. The Fundamentalist assumes that Mark used this language literally, and so a faithful reading of the Scriptures requires for us to take it that way - and to believe it that way - literally. The Modernist assumes that Mark used this language literally, and so a faithful reading of the Scriptures requires us to take demythologize such stories before we can take them seriously. Either way, the assumption is that Mark and his original audience took this language literally and really thought there were demonic, animating spirits at work in the world, wreaking havoc in human life, and at war with Jesus.
Let me offer this alternative reading. Suppose Mark is not using this language literally, but poetically. I'm not saying that he was looking for Greek words that rhyme with pneumati akaqartw (spirit not-clean). I understand poetic language to be the use of words to point beyond themselves to something that is unnameable, but undoubtedly real. There are ... powers (?) ... in the world that really do affect human life very destructively, but seem alien to it. Any parent that has looked at a child with a mental illness, a disorder, or an addiction, knows the full force of this language. It is your child and it is not your child. It is maddening, because you believe in personal responsibility; but it is pitiful because you know that your child is struggling, as much a victim in the moment as a perpetrator. Or, think of someone who has grown up being abused, when at the most critical time possible for developing a sense of confidence, of being loved, of security and attachment has become, instead, a nightmare of fear and torment. That person is and is not the personality that they become. There is a brokenness at the heart of their identity that is not of their own making, but which mightily impacts who they are. They may even become an abuser one day, which incites us to want justice - even if we can acknowledge that s/he has been damaged along the way.
How do we name such conditions of human life literally? What language can we use to capture the fullness of the pain as well as the evil that resides among us? How do we draw lines between one's "true" personality and their "brokenness"?
The truth is, none of our language speaks of three-dimensional life literally. Our words are merely gathering places of accrued meaning - whether they are spoken in the 1st century or the 21st century.
By naming the man in this story as "a man with an unclean spirit," Mark requires us to take seriously that this man was troubled in some evident way, but that his troubled self was not the whole story. The language allows us to separate the man and the condition, but not to entirely separate them. Jesus looked at this man and spoke to the condition to "shut up and come out of him." By taking the condition seriously - as really one with the man but not the man - the story provides a very sophisticated formula for how to encounter persons with disordered conditions. People are, and are not, one with the evil or destructiveness or self-destructiveness that is in them. And while 21st century language has given some greater precision to naming the conditions that are and are not us, even 21st century language is not "literal." We are marveling - like the crowd marveled - at the Christ who is able to look "a man with an unclean spirit" in the eye and to redeem the man himself.