For his dissertation, Reed wanted to explore how possession and other spirit phenomena function constructively in biblical literature. Most studies of these texts aim to decode them using modern categories (e.g. mental health, symbolization of oppression). Thus, in order to examine spirit phenomena as a discreet and cultivated aspect of biblical literature, he needed not only historical-critical skills, but also an entirely new set of tools. Reed’s dissertation, “Demonizing the Self: Possession and Other Spirit Phenomena in Biblical Literature,” utilizes research from cultural anthropology and ethnography on possession, trance, and other similar practices from around the world. It applies these models to biblical literature and demonstrates how spirit phenomena function in ways not usually recognized (e.g. as a “technology of the self,” as social commentary, and as a means to reembody the past). He emphasizes the complexity of possession and other spirit phenomena as theologically creative. Reed’s project flips the question usually asked of this literature: Not “What could cause a belief in the self as unbuffered from outside forces?” but “How did western culture come to deny that permeability?”
Beyond enriching our understandings of early Judaism and Christianity, this project has implications both for public religious discourse and for communities of faith—especially those whose beliefs about spirit phenomena differ radically from those of the Global South. By positively comparing biblical texts with contemporary spirit possession, Reed’s project overcomes colonial stereotypes of many non-western religious practices as primitive or harmful. Addressing these attitudes has become imperative as they affect how the spiritual practices of immigrants are welcomed in churches and public spaces.