Tag Archives: Heaven’s Gate

Animal Ways

nightofanimalsNoah’s Ark has a way of showing up in many literary forms. Familiar to many from Genesis, it actually predates the Good Book by hundreds of years. On the backside, it keeps recurring in literature as diverse as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It also shows up in Bill Broun’s debut novel Night of the Animals. Set in a future that’s becoming present faster than Broun likely anticipated, the story revolves around an addict who hears animal voices. The story stubbornly refuses to let you get any grip on a slippery reality, so the reader’s left guessing even at the end. In the 2050s Britain is under a fascist regime that seeks to keep the wealthy happy and everyone else servile. (Keep reminding yourself this was written before 11/9.)

Cuthbert, the protagonist, believes the animals—most of which are extinct in the wild—are calling him to release them from the London zoo. As an addict his perception of reality is constantly in question. His sense of mission, however, is not. One of the stranger elements in the tale (and that’s saying something!) is the revival of Heaven’s Gate. This cult, instead of wiping itself out, has gone international. The approach of a comet sets the Neuters (as they’re called) on a mission to wipe out earth’s remaining animals. Many of them are in the London zoo, which brings Heaven’s Gate into direct conflict with Cuthbert, who is busy trying to release as many talking animals as possible. London literally becomes a zoo and Heaven’s Gate openly attempts a coup.

All of this sounds wild and fantasy-prone, but like 1984, fiction sometimes peers deeper into reality than science. Is it science fiction? It’s set in the future, but it’s difficult to say. What has all this to do with Noah’s Ark? The novel itself draws the parallel—the zoo that preserves the last of their kind is, by default, an ark. The Ark. Floating on a world-ocean of irrational turmoil where might (read wealth) makes right after all. Religious imagery interlards the story. Cuthbert becomes St. Cuthbert. His possible granddaughter (the reader is never sure) manifests as the Christ of the Otters. There’s even a kind of Second Coming. This is a novel that feels like altered reality. That illusion is given the lie when you close the book and turn on the news.

Goats and Sheep

Having missed the movie, when I found a cheap copy of Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, my curiosity was piqued. With such a title I had assumed it to be fiction, but, proverbially it turned into the truth stranger than. The book explores the weird world of the X-Files chestnut, the super-soldier. There is no doubt that despite science’s discomfort with the paranormal, government agencies have utilized psychics for some years now, hoping to gain some advantage over the other guy. Not everyone agrees on how effective such tactics are, but they exist nevertheless. The Men Who Stare at Goats (TMWSAG) provides a rare glimpse into that world where no one knows who is telling the truth (otherwise called “government”); we live in an era when truth has become negotiable.

One of the accidental recurring themes in my recent reading has been the horrendous abuse of power at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Far from placid eyes, the land of the free advocates torture to get prisoners to talk. After years of government bungling, it is no surprise that misguided efforts at torture on the part of a democracy would invariably be discovered. It would be easier to doubt that governments kept lethal secrets if they didn’t keep getting caught in flagrante delicto. Who can you trust when governments, ruled by gods of their own making—in their own image—preach the gospel of torture? TMWSAG weaves this sordid story in with 9-11, Uri Geller, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate and Deuteronomy 18—what’s not to like?

I’ve been alive long enough to know that some supremely odd stuff goes down. TMWSAG provides a service in demonstrating that the government takes some of this mysterious reality seriously. It also shows the twin surfaces of resistance: religion and science. Science has a difficult time admitting what can’t be seen; with few exceptions psychic phenomena are considered not even worth the bother of a lab test. Religion, at least in its biblical, American incarnation, lumps all spooky stuff together with the devil, something Jon Ronson declares that even high-ranking generals in the military believe. So when I put this little book down I was left scratching my head. It may just be me, but where have all the sheep gone?

Mystic Messiahs

It is difficult to know where to begin when discussing Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. As a student of religion I early found myself drawn to the question of where religions begin. In the case of many religions we have an identifiable founder. Frequently that founder ends up being a god him (or more rarely) herself. In order for any putatively revealed religion to attain any credibility, the ultimate source must come from on high; God himself. So it is that we look askance at any religion that has appeared in the last couple of centuries, when, as we knew at the time, the earth was no longer the center of the universe and science had taught us to know better than to accept the old-timey stories of a god in the clouds. We can accept the ancient, time-honored stories, venerated as they are by centuries. If someone today tells us that God has spoken to him or her, we refer them to psychiatrists first, and then to the mind-altering drugs.

Jenkins, writing in the shadow of the tragedy of the Branch Davidians at Waco and the ritual suicide among the members of Heaven’s Gate (one of the members’ sons was one time a student of mine in seminary), tries to demonstrate that such groups are part of the fabric of religion. What is new in such movements is not the fact that they suddenly come into existence, or that society reacts violently to them, but that we now have a concept of “cult” to label them. Jenkins convincingly illustrates that fear of new religions stretches back for centuries. Even in the seventeenth century people experimented with new religions. When they survive, they become “churches.” Consider the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Pentecostals. They all began as “cults” and are today considered just another variety of Christianity. Most adherents to religions do not inquire too closely as to the origins of their brand. Historically we know that the three denominations mentioned above are well under two hundred years old.

In a fascinating twist, Jenkins describes how the Zeitgeist of the early twentieth century was ripe for such developments. One of the sources, ironically, was the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. His weird stories often invoked cult-like groups devoted to unusual practices that sometimes turned deadly. Also during that same time period, Christian Fundamentalism began as an effort to sort out what was “fundamental” to Christianity that set it apart from the cults (including Pentecostalism, now one of the most dominant Fundamentalist sects). As Jenkins points out, when these new sects become mainstream, they vehemently seek to destroy all new comers. Christianity began as a cult in the eyes of both Jews and Romans.

Religions are inherently conservative. As we will see in the approaching election, the religious background of a candidate plays a major role in public acceptability. We enjoy freedom of religion in the United States, but only to a point. Jenkins should be required reading for every religious believer. Tolerance would be the only proper and reasonable response.

Edoc Elbib Eht

A number of 40-year commemorations of the Manson Family murders have brought these gruesome events of my childhood years back to memory. I was really too young to understand what all the fuss was about then, and now that I am old enough, I’m not sure I want to. Nevertheless, I have committed myself to exploring sects and violence in a religious setting, and the Manson murders have prongs of both phenomena. While recently refreshing my memory on these horrific events on a gray and rainy day, I noticed something I had not seen before.

Looks like someone's been on the yellow submarine a little too long

Looks like someone's been on the yellow submarine a little too long

Charles Manson was (probably still is) a believer in hidden codes. He allegedly cracked a code in the Beatles’ White Album that led him to the belief in an apocalyptic battle that he was determined to begin. I wondered why the Manson Family tends not to be listed among other apocalyptic groups such as the Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate. They all share several traits, and although Manson’s revelations came from the Fab Four rather than the Holy Trinity, a revelation from on high spurred him into actions that had a tragic outcome, just as David Koresh or Marshall Applewhite.

The whole Helter Skelter code also reminded me of another, equally bogus pawning of randomness as divine messages: Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code. When I read this bestselling bit of intellectual dry rot a few years ago, I was amazed that anyone could possibly take it seriously. God writing hidden messages in a holy book like some hormone enraged high schooler? And figuring out that a singular genius would figure it out just before the apocalyptic end without realizing that it is possible to read messages back into any media after they occur? It seemed all too much for a rational mind to take. In one of my courses at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh I gave students the option of reading it for a secondary project. To my chagrin, when I had the papers in one particularly tear-stained paper wailed (seriously) that the writer wished she had been warned sooner! This book changed her life! Everyone must know! Unfortunately I left Oshkosh without finding out what became of her.

God may not play dice, but apparently he likes crosswords!

God may not play dice, but apparently he likes crosswords!

I felt bad for introducing an undergrad to such “academic” sleight of hand; some college students just haven’t developed the critical facilities to see through the remarks of Balaam’s various sidekicks. Come to think of it, Manson’s followers accepted his revelations uncritically as well. Maybe the real lesson in all of this is that we must examine very closely those who claim special revelation, whether it be from Lenin, McCarthy, Starr, and Harrington, or just from God Almighty.