Jericho’s Folly

The sound was compellingly familiar although it had been years since I’d heard it.  We were visiting the Quakertown farmer’s market for the first time—this weekend event is widely advertised and we were curious.  Part fresh produce, but mostly flea market, it was a tribute to my generation.  You could find stuff from my childhood years here, making it a species of time travel.  We stepped out of the car on a gray morning when I heard it.  I was drawn to it.  I’m at the age where I recognize things before I can name them.  “Where are you going?” my wife asked.  “Toward Pink Floyd,” I replied.  Music has a way of doing that to you.  It took another minute for me to place the song.  It was from the album The Wall.

After we returned home I had to hear it again, uninterrupted by the distractions of a flea market to new home owners.  It was a frightening experience in the age of Trump.  Although they’d never been my favorite band, I had a long history with Pink Floyd.  My older brother used to listen to them, and when I was working as a church intern (yes, there is such a thing) while in college, the kids in a family I was staying with took me to see The Wall on laser disc—an affluent family in the neighborhood had just bought a player, and I was curious both about the technology and the film.  The Wall is one of those concept albums that requires attention—you kind of need to listen to the whole thing.  The accusations against those who are different being sent “up against the wall” chilled me with thoughts of Trump and American fascism.  I can only listen to the album within prescribed headspace.

Even those who’ve never been sent to boarding school can imagine how it lends itself to abuses and horror.  At Nashotah House the album was almost as frequently cited as Hotel California.  When the religious isolate themselves odd things begin to happen.  On one of the occasions when I was left home alone in our New Jersey apartment, I pulled out my DVD of The Wall and began to watch it.  As the years melted away, I suddenly felt young and intensely vulnerable.  The visuals, like a little pin-prick, were jabbing at nerves a little too close to the surface.  I had to turn it off and watch a horror film instead.  It’s even scarier to listen to the album when democracy has failed its constituents.  The wall, after all, is a most protean of metaphors.

Hotel Nowhere

HotelCalifornia1977. I was in junior high school and I wore my hair long. I hadn’t yet donned the cross that I carried through my high school years with a constant fear of Hell on my back, but I did listen to the radio. The haunting song “Hotel California,” by the Eagles, scared me. There was something lurking there—something undefined and yet compelling. Cults were in the news, and after the People’s Temple suicide a year later, we were all pretty well convinced that the song was based on fact of some sort. Religious analysts concluded that the song referred to everything from the Antichrist (“they just can’t kill the beast”) to a New Religious Movement that had taken over a western mission (“we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969”). Members of the Eagles, when asked, said their intentions were to expose the darkness of the music industry as idealistic hippies came of age and realized, yes, it’s just business. Still, I shivered.

Nashotah House used to be on the frontier. Although it is only 30 miles from Milwaukee, it could still feel terribly isolated less than two decades after the Eagles had flown. Indeed, there were sotto voce suggestions that “Hotel California” should be the official seminary hymn. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” The nights could be very dark in the Wisconsin woods, and for those attuned to some of the more honest aspects of a religion based on exclusion this didn’t seem too far to stretch. “Hotel California” came forcefully back to mind reading about Oneiric Hotel in Wired. (Mentioning Wired makes me look smart.) The Oneiric Hotel is a lucid-dreaming device by artist Julijonas Urbonas, the kind of thing Wired finds newsworthy. The story mentions that Urbonas’s previous project—called Euthanasia Coaster—was designed to kill its passengers.

Now my mind checks into Bates Motel. I know Psycho is set in Arizona, but the desert southwest is terra incognita to an easterner, and besides, it’s just a metaphor. It looks like California to me. I saw Psycho as a college student, and was rather afraid to watch it while at Nashotah House. Indeed, the night I moved to campus I found a dog-eared script from a play about a murderous maid at the seminary left on my coffee table. “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell.” Psycho, it is asserted, was based on the macabre case of sociopathic killer Ed Gein who had roamed these self-same woods of Wisconsin, and who had died less than a decade earlier just down the road in Madison. There was, I knew, a psychiatric hospital just across the small lake that the campus bordered. We don’t call them cults anymore, but we all know what we’re talking about. There are indeed places that you can never check out, even if you leave.

Tortured Gospel

Tornadoes? I don't see any tornadoes.

It is a little difficult to force yourself to think of tornadoes when you’re in sunny California. On my flight into Santa Barbara I could see the tail end of the gray whale migration from a few thousand feet in the air. Outside the tiny municipal airport (with its full-body scanner) I see palm trees swaying in the wind. The air smells like flowers. Life is too easy in California for me ever to live here. I need more angst in my diet. I can’t come to the sunny coast, however, without the Eagle’s “Hotel California” replaying endlessly in my head. It was the running joke at Nashotah House that the real Hotel California was located in the woods just outside Delafield, Wisconsin. The haunting lyrics by Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey managed to capture the witch’s brew of mind control, humiliation, and desire that laced that little, gothic seminary in the woods. Yet even sitting in California with its full greenery in March, I see that Pat Robertson is blaming the devastation of the recent tornadoes on lack of prayer.

Blaming the victim is a classic fascist technique, and it is very easy to proclaim one’s own righteousness when not in harm’s way. Herein lies the darkest sin of the self-justified; they think themselves specially blessed and therefore not responsible to help the victims. While flying over the Santa Ynez Mountains, seeing the smoke from California wildfires climbing like the terminal flames of Babylon, I could hear a voice like a choir of fascists singing, “Alleluia And her smoke rose up for ever and ever.” Schadenfreude fuels too much of the evangelical worldview. According the Gospel writers, when Jesus foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem, he wept. WWJD, Rev. Robertson?

Tornadoes look so much like divine judgment that it is almost understandable how a naïve believer might see them as coming from God. We, however, are the gods destroying our own planet with the accompanying degradation of the weather. Neo-cons deny the fact of global warming. It is not a myth or a theory, there is inconvertible proof that it is happening. Still, it is more convenient to blame God. After all, chances of him showing up to deny false charges, as history repeatedly shows, are very slim. Ask any innocent woman tied to a stake in Medieval Europe accused of being a witch. Apparently the divine calendar is too full to worry about the troubles of hundreds of thousands, or even a few millions who are falsely accused. Why not send some terror from the sky? It is hard to think of such things in sunny California. Yet as the “good news” of the televangelists spreads to the ends of the earth, even those forever in the sun will need to stand in judgment before a very capricious deity.