My Heart Breaks for Micah – and Bethany

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Bethany and Micah, SU Commons, September 1, 2008

One afternoon in the fall of 2007 I walked over and sat down across from Bethany in the Southwestern Commons. I had a dazed look on my face.

“Were you just talking to Micah Moore?” she asked me.

I nodded. “How do you know Micah?”

“He’s in my Reel Jews class. What did y’all talk about?”

“He did most of the talking,” I said, in a perplexed voice. “He told me about Jesus.”

Micah Moore was a freshman. I’d met him at the beginning of July when he messaged me on Facebook and asked if I was living on campus for the summer (I was), and if I would be willing to give him a tour of the school (I did). When he moved in at the beginning of the fall semester, we became good friends. Sometimes at night we would visit the hookah bars on Sixth Street, and drive through Austin listening to music and talking. Sometimes he would play guitar or recite poetry he had written. Sometimes my friend Booth would tell a joke and Micah would laugh so hard, he had to leave the room.

But then we got pulled in different directions and didn’t see each other as often. I’d learned that Bethany and Tyler Deaton were starting a secret prayer group, and I had begged them to let me be a part of it. Micah had dropped acid with some of his hall mates, and lately he wasn’t himself.

That was what we had talked about—and what we would talk about again on the last night of the fall semester, when Beth and I prayed over him. He hadn’t felt safe since the acid trip. It was hard for him to know what was real anymore. His mind was full of disturbing, paranoid thoughts. What if reality is just a projection? What if the people around me don’t even really exist?

Micah hadn’t prayed in a long time, but lately running and praying were the only things that could help him.

And being prayed over by others. Beth and I prayed over him for two hours that night in December, and by the time we had finished he was feeling more peace than he had felt in months. He said he wanted to be part of a community. He really seemed to like us.

I felt cautiously optimistic. To be honest, I was quite nervous. Micah was a cool guy, and I had been worried about how he might react if the two of us tried to ambush him with Scripture. But this wasn’t a case of someone being forced to pray against his will. He had sought us out. He said no counselor he had seen could bring him the feeling of reassurance he felt when Beth laid hands on him.

The moment he left the room that night, Bethany gave me a mighty high-five.

“I think he might join our group,” I said quietly.

“I was feeling the same thing,” said Beth. “Just wait until Tyler hears about this. He’s gonna flip out!” And she ran to go find him.

The next morning, Micah showed up at the door of my room. He handed me a CD and a note he had written.

“I can’t tell you how blessed I am,” it said, “to have become friends with you. You have inspired me on so many levels. It seems like every time I begin to feel negatively about things, I think about things you have told me and it opens my eyes … I know you are always saying you have a long way to go, but don’t we all? We all hurt and grow and fall and that is why we need God. Anyway, I just thought I would tell you how much I respect and look up to you.”

Today I think back on those words, and they burn.

*           *           *

I failed Micah. This is what I’ve been feeling, in one form or another, for most of the last week.

It was already a stressful week. The ends of Octobers are always hard now, ever since the night two years ago when I learned that Bethany was dead. Booth warned me not to let my grief make me bloodthirsty, but I was already so certain there was more to the story than a newlywed taking her own life.

And the rest of what transpired in the fall of 2012 just seemed to confirm my initial suspicions, as a few of the leaders from the International House of Prayer in Kansas City staged a heroic intervention (according to their version of the story) to rescue the remaining 18 members of Tyler Deaton’s cult. At a series of public meetings in the middle of November, senior IHOPKC leaders described how Shelley Hundley had interrogated Micah until he broke down and confessed to killing Bethany.

Mike Bickle and Allen Hood painted in the blackest possible terms the depravity of the sex cult from Texas. The men’s house, they said, was an epicenter of darkness. The core leadership was all engaged in despicable homosexual acts with each other. Tyler and Micah probably weren’t even truly saved. They were murderers. It didn’t seem to matter that Micah was still awaiting trial (and that Tyler had yet to be charged with a crime). What mattered was that Shelley Hundley had exposed a tremendous evil. Because of her, IHOP would no longer be associated with a dangerous cult.

At the time, the murderer narrative made a certain amount of sense. I knew firsthand that Tyler was capable of extreme cruelty. I had seen him twist and manipulate the guys I had once lived with into doing horrible things that they would never have done in saner circumstances. Given the awful, nightmarish reality of Bethany’s death, it wasn’t a stretch to believe something only marginally more awful: that her husband had coerced a mutual friend into taking her life.

Yet there was always that nagging voice of hesitancy and discomfort, and it would come up in conversation whenever the subject turned to Micah. “Do you really think Micah…?”

It wasn’t that they thought Tyler incapable of ordering such a heinous act. No one doubted that. But anyone who had even the slightest familiarity with Micah wanted to know how someone like him—gentle, quiet Micah—could have been a party to something so ghastly.

Micah, who had once picked me up off the side of the road and driven me across town to a friend’s house, when no one else in the group would speak to me.

Micah, who would laugh and cry and cry and laugh whenever he felt the wind of the Holy Spirit.

Micah, who was beloved of my atheist friends because when I was being a total jerk, he had explained his faith to them in a way that was humble, and sincere, and made sense.

How could that Micah ever have done such a thing? What was he doing behind bars in Jackson County, unvisited by members of the group or anyone from IHOP?

And, in my darker and more honest moments, I knew there were several things that didn’t add up.

Like the fact that Bethany was clearly emotionally unstable, and apparently suicidal, in the weeks before her death. Shortly after her funeral I learned from friends and former members of the group that Tyler had shamed her during their honeymoon and shunned her when they returned. Knowing how traumatic the group’s shunning could be, and how prone she was to depression, even before the group started, there were times when I would wonder, what if…?

And then there was the fact that guys who had lived in the house at the time of her death, and whom I trusted, didn’t think Micah had been involved. And the fact that Micah had painted a lurid story of ritualistic sexual assaults that was not only totally outlandish, but also unsubstantiated by any evidence. And the fact—most worrying of all—that Micah was not mentally or emotionally stable, that for as long as I had known him he had been suffering from the after-effects of that drug trip: hallucinations, paranoia, and a tenuous relationship with reality. All those problems had been exacerbated by his association with Tyler’s group, and with IHOP.

*           *           *

And then last week, the week of the second anniversary of her death, Micah’s defense attorney released a 15-page motion to have his testimony rendered inadmissible. I read it—and had to admit that I have no idea what really happened, and that this case is even more twisted and confusing than we knew.

The defense makes a powerful case that Micah’s initial confession to Shelley Hundley was completely fabricated, and that the treatment Bethany received at the hands of Tyler and other group members pushed her to take her own life.

- Analysis of the suicide note found in her van revealed that it was written in Bethany’s handwriting.

- Micah’s DNA was not found anywhere on the plastic bag used to induce asphyxiation.

- Micah was unable to describe the crime scene accurately. He got some pretty important information wrong, such as the location of her body. He said I had helped him commit the murder, though the prosecution feels confident I was nowhere near the crime scene when it happened.

- Wal-Mart surveillance footage shows Beth buying the drugs that were in her system when she died, earlier that morning.

- Video taken from the IHOPKC prayer room web stream shows Micah in the prayer room at the time he originally claimed to have killed her. (I remember walking past him that morning. He was pacing around on the sidewalk outside the prayer room, reading his Bible. He said hi to me in a kind voice. I remember being moved and surprised by it. It was the last time life would be “normal” for either of us, ever).

But the thing that clinched it for me, that made me feel confident that Micah’s confession was probably fabricated, was when I learned the identity of the IHOP-affiliated group that had prayed over Micah and the other group members on the night of Micah’s confession.

It was Prisoners of Hope.

I’ve already written at length about my own experience with Prisoners of Hope. The leadership of IHOP denies that they’re an “IHOP group,” but they’re all IHOP staff members who are brought in to pray over sex-trafficking victims and people they suspect of being in demonic bondage. I went through a few “counseling” and “deliverance” sessions with PoH at the end of last year, and walked away feeling abused, humiliated, and insulted.

The ministry is like a mirror image of Tyler’s group. They implied that they had been following me on social media, wanted to know why I had been photographed with the director of an anti-IHOP movie, and performed a Charismatic “deliverance” ritual (speaking in tongues, snapping their fingers in my ears) designed to “break off” the false spirits of Catholicism, Mormonism, etc. Then finally, as if the parallels weren’t already explicit enough, they rebuked me for saying I would never battle the forces of Antichrist, telling me, “Tyler was right about that.”

So when I read the defense’s statement and found out that Prisoners of Hope had been involved in Micah’s confession… suddenly, a lot of things started to make sense.

I thought about how susceptible the group was to religious manipulation, and how during the summer of 2011 there had been a week (we called it “Fire Week”) where Micah and about half a dozen others would periodically start laughing, twitching, screaming, falling on the floor. (I would say one thing to Micah’s girlfriend and she’d collapse into the couch cushions, wailing).

And then I thought about the deliverance style of Prisoners of Hope, which seems designed to provoke exactly that kind of response.

And I thought about what a metaphorical person Micah is, and how difficult it would be for a literalist to understand that. And I wondered if maybe when Micah, overwhelmed by guilt and the rising tide of religious hysteria, confessed to murdering one of his closest friends—I wondered if maybe he was trying to express a feeling that for him was emotionally true, even if it wasn’t literally true.

Because the defense motion had made one other thing abundantly clear: if Bethany wasn’t murdered, she was certainly bullied into taking her own life.

“At her attempts to initiate a physical encounter with her husband by kissing him,” the report says of their honeymoon, “Tyler shunned her advance, became angry, and scolded her like a child—undoubtedly humiliating and devastating her.” And it kept getting worse: “Upon their return from their honeymoon, Bethany and Tyler began their married life in the basement of the men’s house. Because of Bethany’s attempted physical relationship with her husband, she was punished for her ‘narcissism’ by being shunned, isolated, and ignored. As further punishment, she was not allowed to sleep in bed with Tyler, and the newly married Bethany was forced to sleep alone on the couch. At a time when she had been physically rejected in the most humiliating way a woman can be rejected she was also being socially rejected—excommunicated from those close to her. She could find no solace—no reprieve.”

I hate that this happened to one of my best friends. It grieves me to think that the person responsible will probably never see justice in this life.

And if the defense is right, there are really two victims here. There is of course Bethany, who spent the last days of her life being rejected by a man who had systemically isolated her from her own closest friends and family until he was all she had left. Bethany, who found herself in the position of being the person on whom the group unloaded its anger, hostility, contempt.

And then there’s Micah—who, in effect, fulfilled that exact same role for IHOP.

And my heart breaks for him as it does for her—because even in my darkest imagination I have no idea what it’s like to wake up in a cold police station after a long, sleepless night, and find out that you just confessed to a crime that you didn’t commit. Because, as much as these last two years have been a nightmare for me and some of Beth’s other close friends, they’ve been even more of a nightmare for Micah, who was banished from his religious community, demonized by its leadership, and had to face the prospect of potentially going to prison for the rest of his life because of a statement he made in the throes of religious delusion.

And frankly, I’m haunted by the comment that Micah left tonight on Jonathan Barclay’s blog post about him. Haunted because what Micah says about IHOP is true—“they threw me to the fucking wolves and then walked away dusting their hands off”—and I went along with it. Haunted because his perspective on the similarities between IHOP and Tyler’s group—“to me, they are just two flavors of the same poison”—so fully mirrors my own, and it’s impossible to get IHOP to see that, and I wonder how many more Bethanys there will be, and how many more Micahs. Haunted because, yes, Jonathan’s post was full of empathy and compassion, and my own response, all too often, has not been.

And I’m so sorry that all of this happened. And I wish I had asked these questions sooner. I wish I had listened to the whispers of dissension. I wish I had fought harder for Micah.

Micah Moore’s Trial Is Cancelled

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Prosecutors announced today that they’re dropping all charges against Micah Moore related to the death of our friend Bethany.

You can read the full, 15-page motion written by the defense to see why they came to this conclusion. (Warning: it’s a long, depressing read):

Please keep the family and friends of all involved in your prayers at this time.

We Need to Talk About Charisma

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Not long ago I watched the film We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), a bleak tragedy starring Tilda Swindon as a mom who suspects that her adolescent son has some serious behavioral and mental issues. Her husband shrugs it off, thinking it’s just a phase he’ll grow out of. She watches with an increasingly helpless feeling as he becomes more and more dangerous, ultimately shooting up his high school, and killing most of his family, with a bow-and-arrow set.

That’s how I’ve been feeling for much of the summer as I read CharismaNews.com every morning and scanned the comments. I understand that the magazine was once the flagship publication of the Charismatic / Pentecostal movement, and that there are still many sincere, good-hearted people who work there. This is not a judgment on them.

That being said, we need to address what Charisma is turning into. Something has gone dangerously awry inside the once-venerated institution. It is not healthy. It is not good. And, more and more, it is not safe.

First, as I read, I saw that many of the articles were beginning to sport sensational headlines that prominently targeted a hated group or individual and offered them up as rage-bait for Christian viewers:

“President Obama, You Have Crossed a Dangerous, Unprecedented Line.”

“Some Honest Questions for Professing ‘Gay Christians.’”

“Vicki Beeching and the Reason So Many ‘Christians’ are Coming Out as Gay.”

“A Shameful Day in Christian Publishing” (accompanied by a picture of young Evangelical author Matt Vines).

Second, based on the comments section it became clear that the site was attracting a toxic demographic: people who were willing to believe any slander, embrace any accusation, as long as it was directed at someone they were predisposed to hate. I watched them arguing with non-believers and less extreme Christians (who were invariably labeled “trolls” and “atheists” and told they were going to hell because the Bible says so). They were immune to reason, immune to all appeals for compassion, immune to any scriptures that contradicted their preferred narrative of fear and demonization.

Terrifyingly, their endless diatribes against—you name it: gays, blacks, refugee children, pop stars, Christian entertainers, Democrats, evolutionists, filmmakers, conservative pastors—were routinely interspersed with the insistence that their venomous hate speech was “loving” and “holy.” Love tells the truth. Love judges. Love hates what is evil. Etc., etc.

The following comment is typical:
 PlantationAs is this one:
 Scary Posts 1
And, with a few exceptions, it felt like the broader Christian community was unaware of the evils being promoted and perpetuated at Charisma. But two things happened last week to change that.

First, the magazine ran an article with a shamelessly slanderous headline questioning the faith (and, by implication, the salvation) of Christian musician Michael Gungor. Gungor re-tweeted the headline, along with a plea for help:


Gungor

 

Following a public backlash, Charisma changed the headline (but kept the URL). Weirdly, the article itself barely mentions the divinity of Jesus.

And then on Friday—I don’t know how else to put this—it ran an article by Gary Cass, founder of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, calling for the sterilization, deportation, and killing of all Muslims.

If you haven’t actually read the article, that’s going to sound like the same sort of gratuitous hyperbole that Charisma traffics in. It is not hyperbole. Cass begins by laying out the arguments for enforced sterilization and deportation. But these measures will not work, because according to the Bible “Arab Muslims are God’s sworn enemies and are ordained by God to be against everyone.” Muslims, he goes on to say, can never be saved in large numbers. They are doomed in their billions to perdition.

And what’s worse, they’re creating a hell on earth for Christian believers right now. “ISIS is doing . . . what every true follower of Muhammad wants to do to you and yours—subjugate or murder you. They believe they have been given a mandate by Allah (Satan) to dominate the world.”

Which is why, in the end, only his last solution will be effective:

3. Violence. The only thing that is biblical and that 1,400 years of history has shown to work is overwhelming Christian just war and overwhelming self defense . . . This is not irrational, but the loving thing we must do for our children and neighbors. First trust in God, then obtain a gun(s), learn to shoot, teach your kids the Christian doctrines of just war and self defense, create small cells of family and friends that you can rely on if some thing catastrophic happens and civil society suddenly melts down . . .

“Militant Muslims cannot live in a society based on Christian ideals of equality and liberty. They will always seek to harm us. Now the only question is how many more dead bodies will have to pile up at home and abroad before we crush the vicious seed of Ishmael in Jesus’ Name?”

 Where to begin?

 I’ve been holding my own emotions in check for much of this post because I wanted to be careful. Anger in the pursuit of justice can so easily turn us into the monsters we fight against. But this is not the kind of article that calls for a cautious response. A mainstream Christian publication, a magazine that hundreds of thousands of Christians read and respect, published a call for the killing of over a billion people. It was not subtle. It’s not like you had to read between the lines to realize the full horror of what he was advocating—he came right out and said it. You’d have to be in massive denial (as so many were in the comments) to not see that he was saying what he frankly and explicitly said.

And that scares me. Not just because my father was Muslim. But because, as an Irish-Pakistani-American with a bronze complexion, I don’t have any faith in the ability of Cass or his followers to distinguish between different groups of brown people.

Because, given his ignorance of the fact that only about 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arab, I wouldn’t expect Cass to know the difference between a radical Islamist, a Sikh, a Hindu, and a Palestinian Christian.

Because it would not stop at Muslims. Because the commenters who lapped up that article, who overwhelmingly applauded Cass’s call to violent action against their Muslim neighbors, like the crowd that demanded the death of Jesus, have already made clear that they have no tolerance for anyone who rejects their white fundamentalist culture and their extreme interpretation of Scripture. And a call for the death of all Muslims, printed on the front page of a widely-read Christian website, is a shot fired across the bow warning that none of the rest of us—Arabs and blacks, the university-educated, liberals, gays and lesbians, artists and entertainers, women, Catholics—are safe.

But in a way, I’m grateful. Because even though the post was taken down following a massive public outcry on Sunday afternoon, the murderous spirit that was already operating at Charisma, even before last Friday, has been openly manifest.

I’ve written before on this blog about the pyramid of violence. The thing we have to realize is that the mindsets that make genocide and other acts of violence possible are already in place before the call to violence is given. It begins on the lowest levels with name-calling, false accusations, slander, rumors, and verbal aggression. If you’re in a community where people are constantly shaming you, refusing to acknowledge your preferred identity (“You may think you’re gay, but we know better”), subjecting you to de-humanizing jokes and vicious insults, and refusing to listen when you tell them to stop, you are already in danger. You are being subjected to violence, even if no punches have yet been thrown.

And, as I’ve said before, if they’re already not listening when you tell them to stop verbally abusing you, if the Bible is already powerless to stop them, they will not listen when you’re insisting that you have a right not to be physically assaulted and murdered.

And that’s why Charisma is out of control, and that’s why it needs to be held to account.

Because “Why I am Absolutely Islamaphobic” was not an isolated column, but only the latest and most glaring manifestation of a much larger problem. “Malice eats it like a cancer,” in the words of Faramir, “and the cancer is growing.”

Because if you go back and read the snippets from the comments that I posted earlier, and the hundreds of comments in response to Cass’s article, it’s clear that the site has become a beacon for bullies and extremists, for those who don’t listen, those who despise anything “different” or “weird” and would not be averse to using violence to be rid of it.

I realize that Internet comboxes are often cesspools of hatred and villainy. But until this weekend I’d never seen a commenter advocate the mass extermination of millions of people. The fact that this idea was first given voice by one of the site’s writers, in an article apparently read, reviewed, and printed with the editor’s stamp of approval, says everything you need to know about how dangerous Charisma has become.

Of all the tweets I read on Sunday, this is the one that probably best expresses what I’ve been feeling these last couple of days:Natalie

Reading the Gospels would be a start. In the meantime we can all pray that God will transform them through the light of the good news about Jesus.

The Apocalypse Has Been Postponed Until Gym: My Last Year of High School & the End of the World [revised]

ahs“But which is more important:

To comfort an old woman

Or see visions of the heavens

In the stumps of fallen trees?”

            — The Handsome Family, “Lake Geneva”

 My last year in high school was a strange time in my life.

It’s a year that I haven’t talked much about since I left the dangerous group a few years ago because it’s hard to describe what happened without sounding a little insane. But I’ll try.

Eric Booth had been my best friend for about three or four years. To the rest of our friends, we were an inseparable duo, one of the classic teams, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Boze and Booth. We were always getting into trouble and wreaking havoc.

And we were a great match. Booth was tall, outgoing, and good with women. I was quiet, bookish, a little awkward, and spent most of my time writing down entire conversations in a notebook I carried around everywhere. And while I was whimsical, romantic, and full of weird ideas, Booth was rational, pragmatic, and rigorously logical. (Once when a friend boasted that she was “one in a million,” Booth did the math and pointed out that there were at least 6,000 of her.)

Young Boze

Me, my senior year of high school

Booth and I had a teacher I’ll call Mr. McGowan. Mr. McGowan was our European History teacher, but he seemed to view himself as an entertainer first and teacher second. On the first day of my last year in Alvin in 2003, the day our story begins, he delivered a ten-minute monologue on the day’s news. “My Middle Eastern friend hasn’t been happy ever since we had that talk about Allah,” he said. “You know, Allah this, Allah that…”

(“Welcome to Mr. McGowan’s stand-up comedy class,” whispered Booth.)

I’d been feeling sort of anxious about going back to school. So, to alleviate my concerns, Booth tried to think of the worst things that could possibly happen. “Watch, you’ll get put in the Criminal Law class!” he teased me. To our friend *Brandon he said, “Your counselors will mess up your schedule so bad, you won’t be able to fix it. And, you’ll get put in Child Development with all the pregnant chicks!”

So our whole first day back at school was interesting, because yes, I did get put in Criminal Law, even though I hadn’t signed up for it. When Brandon went to the counselor that afternoon to complain about his schedule, she tried to put him in Child Development. By the end of the day Booth had also correctly predicted that *Lauren, a girl I was interested in, would call me, even though she hadn’t done so in almost two years.

But we thought it was all just an incredibly weird string of coincidences—until the next day.

New England was experiencing a tremendous electrical shortage. The night before, over 45 million Americans had lost power in eight northeastern states. Mr. McGowan decided to begin his daily monologue by plugging the virtues of the Texas electrical system when compared to the infrastructures of New York and California (which was currently going through a recall election in which actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was the clear frontrunner).          

“See, here we have a superior electrical system,” said Mr. McGowan, slowly warming up to his audience. “On the East coast, their facilities are sixty and seventy years old, and no one even knows how to fix ‘em anymore. Whenever a generator blows, they have to call out these really old men to take care of it. That’s why the New York electrical system sucks!”

Booth leaned over and whispered, “Watch, the lights suddenly go out!”

“Oh, and Ah-nold!” said Mr. McGowan, shaking his head and grinning slightly. “Can you imagine? ‘Governor Schwarzenegger, we have a problem with immigration!’” He held up an imaginary gun. “‘I VILL TAKE CARE OF IT!’”

But at that moment the laughter of the class was interrupted by the lights going out. There’d been a power spike across the entire east side of Alvin and over a thousand homes had lost power.

Booth denied it as best he could, but I could no longer doubt it: he was a prophet. Something strange and uncanny was happening in Alvin, and him and me and Brandon were about to be swept up in it.

*           *           *

Brandon and I became convinced that tragedy was going to strike our campus. In the swirl and haze of late summer, omens were all around us. Thirteen ravens sitting on a power line, the mysterious imprint of a child’s hand on the window of a car, the continual recurrence of the number 42. One Sunday the Houston Chronicle’s daily Bible verse was Isaiah 13:13, in which God warns that judgment is about to fall on the land.

On the thirteenth day of school the three of us took a walk around campus during our last class, and we saw some strange things. Total strangers who looked just like people we knew (“Doppelgangers,” I explained to Brandon. “Omens of death”). Two ambulances flashing their sirens in the exact same place. (We fled when we heard a third one coming).

The whole day had a weird, uncanny quality about it. Booth and I spent most of the evening on the phone, speculating about what it all could mean. But then at about a quarter to nine, Brandon called and explained everything. The parents of a good friend of ours had just been caught up in a high-speed police chase. A man had rammed their car, and the three of them had been life-flighted to a hospital.

“Do you need me to spell it out for you, Boze?” said Brandon darkly. “We know two of the three people in that accident. Just like we saw three ambulances, but only heard the third one.”

“We saw it,” I said quietly, my eyes brimming with sudden awareness. “We saw the whole thing.”

“Yes,” said Brandon. “And this is only the beginning. Whoever is behind this is trying to warn us of something. Something big that’s about to happen. Someone is going to die, unless we can stop it.”

*           *           *

 The whole world had become a secret code begging to be deciphered by us. At first it was an exhilarating feeling, being privy to secrets that were hidden from the rest of our classmates and teachers. Mr. McGowan, the only person who seemed willing to listen, encouraged us to stay alert and pay attention to the numbers and patterns all around us.

 He urged me to keep journaling our encounters, but he also advised caution. “Your senses are keen and you’re making connections; you just may not be correct about them. That’s the strength of a novel: it’s fun.”

 And it was, at first. But the longer it went on, the lonelier I felt. I was getting trapped in the maze of my own connections, and I wanted out, but there was no way back. Sometimes when I went into the cafeteria at lunch I would see four people I knew in succession, and the order in which I saw them would show me, with uncanny precision, how my relationships would unfold going into the next semester: which of my friends would suddenly betray me, which one would make an unexpected return to my life. And I was never wrong, and it was scary, in a way, because I felt sure I could see the future but I didn’t have anyone else except Brandon and Booth who believed me, and increasingly I felt isolated even from them.

 And sometimes I wondered if I really was crazy, like that woman in the old song “who wrote poems to Jimmy Carter but forgot to feed her kids.” Though, as the first trimester of school wore on, a lot of strange things were happening and people were beginning to notice. Booth and our friend *Adriana had the same dream on the same night. I heard the exact words Brandon was thinking, as though he had said them aloud, as I lay on the floor half-asleep. Mr. McGowan’s wife saw an angel in their house.

*           *           *

In November I reconnected with *Blazes O’Reilly, a friend who had recently left Alvin to attend an advanced school for mathematics in north Texas. Blazes had been in love with Booth for a long time. (Those were his two major temptations, he had once told me: homosexuality and witchcraft). Before we’d been on the phone for more than a minute I asked if anything strange had happened to him lately.

“Funny you should ask,” he said. He told me that since the middle of August demons had tried to possess him on ten different occasions. He would start cursing and throw his promise ring across the room. “It’s like Satan and the angels are fighting a war over my body,” he explained matter-of-factly.

“And what do you think it all means?” I asked.

“Well, I was going to say, you’re going to think I’m crazy, but after the story you just told me, I’d be very surprised. I think we’re heading into a major spiritual battle, possibly the final battle, and both sides are gathering their key forces for a major offensive.”

Blazes O’Reilly seemed to think I had a major role to play in the final end-times battle. That was insane, crazy. I told no one what he had said to me on the phone that night, because my reputation had already suffered enough.

A few weeks later, on a cool, sunny Saturday, Adriana came and sat down next to me at a UIL competition in San Antonio. She was a thin, quiet girl with short black hair and blue, sprightly eyes, and every time she watched the trailer for The Return of the King she wept, because it reminded her “of the great battle that is coming for us all.”

“What would you say if I told you that Jesus is going to return in our lifetime,” she asked me, “and that I will be one of his closest followers?”

I was too polite to tell Adriana what I really thought, which is that it sounded like Satan was preparing her heart to receive the Antichrist.

But apparently Adriana had similar feelings. Feeling encouraged by our conversation, she wrote me a letter that weekend. In it she revealed the horrible truth about her life. In dreams and visions God had shown her that she was soon going to meet the Antichrist. She would fall hopelessly in love with him, and the fall of men would begin.

“In a battle,” she wrote, “my love will be wounded and killed, though not by my hand, and he rises again. In the last battle, I am able to get past his defenses and, in the most horrifying moment of my life, kill the darkest love in the universe. And though I realize that I have saved my life and my fellow men, I know that my life will never be normal. I will never again feel the all-powerful passion of that love or the security of that touch. Though I know it was worth it, I can’t help but hate the loneliness that will accompany me for the rest of my life.

“Can I deny this fate and give it to someone else? And if I do, will there be someone to answer my call? Am I the only one who can achieve this end? I need to talk to someone, but no one but you believes me.”

*           *           *

On the night I returned home from a long trip at the end of January, I called Booth and he filled me in on what had happened in Alvin during the week I was gone.

Winter had taken over our high school. Friends were behaving differently, not like themselves at all. They were grumpy and depressed. They walked through the halls with scowls on their faces, barely lifting their heads to greet one another. Even the timid and pure were drinking, throwing wild parties, having sex. Booth had been invited to an orgy, but politely declined: he could see what the lure of sexual temptation was doing to the rest of his friends, and it scared him.

But the biggest changes of all had taken place in Brandon. He had injured himself playing soccer and was no longer sure he would be able to attend the school of his dreams. His teammates had held him down and shaved his head. Now he was bald and wore a hood all the time like a Sith lord.

And he hated me. “I hate Boze,” he told Booth. “And you’re turning into him!”

For much of the first half of the school year Booth had been skeptical of our prophetic encounters and the battle that Adriana and I both felt was coming to our campus. But now he was beginning to reconsider. He told me how Brandon had yelled at a girl and threatened her with a baseball bat because she took a kitten that he wanted. He related how Mr. McGowan had snapped in the middle of class and started running through the room with a pair of scissors, screaming and laughing.

“I walk through the halls in the mornings,” said Booth, “and all I can see are faces of despair. I look into their eyes, and there is no hope. One by one, it’s overtaking everyone.”

It was after midnight. Booth told me to hang on for a second and put down the phone. When he returned a moment later, there was a note of worry in his voice.

“I don’t know what that was,” he said. “There was this thing, this noise… I think it was coming from under my bed…”

And then, without any warning, he began yelling hysterically.

He took the phone and ran from the room. From the safety of the kitchen, clutching a knife, he explained to me what had happened. There was a heavy breathing sound, and at first he thought it was the cat. But the cat was in the other room, and the noise was getting louder, and closer…

When Booth’s parents found him sleeping in the hall the next morning, they grounded him. But it didn’t matter. He knew what he had heard that night, and for the first time all year we were unequivocally on the same side. Too long had the darkness lingered. It was time to take back our campus.

*           *           *

Over the Christmas holidays Blazes O’Reilly had returned home and summoned a council. Though I had not mentioned to him the specifics of Adriana’s prophecy, I told him I felt they needed to become better acquainted, so the three of us gathered one wintry night in a back room of his parents’ house.

The reception was not cordial. From the beginning of the meeting Adriana sensed a dark aura around Blazes, “the darkest I’ve ever seen.” At one point when he left the room to make tea, she confided, “My voices just told me not to trust him, because he’s been tempted”—an assertion that was seemingly affirmed a moment later when he returned and told her as much of his story as he had already told me. How could she possibly have known that? I wondered.

For his part, Blazes swore he could see spirits of deception circling around Adriana. “There were three of them,” he explained with a casual air. “They were each taking turns whispering lies in her ear.”

Oddly, though, Blazes couldn’t deny that he felt a strong sense of destiny about her. “I just have this feeling about her, like our fates are intertwined. Like we’re destined to fight to the death. Kind of like Lucifer and Gabriel, only I’m not sure which of us is which.”

Adriana was sure, though. “My voices have shown me,” she said, “that Blazes is the Antichrist!”

*           *           *

For my own part, God had revealed to me during the break that Lauren and I would be sexually tempted in the first week of March. Each of us who were called to be players in the end-time drama would be tempted by the end of the trimester. Whether we passed on to the next stage of our mission would depend on whether or not we passed the test.

As if to confirm my suspicions, my first week back on campus I was propositioned by a sweet blonde girl with a twangy East Texas accent and her best friend in gym class. They wanted to know if I would have a threesome with them. I reached into my tote bag and pulled out a copy of the most recent edition of the school newspaper, in which I had written a long article about the importance of saving yourself for marriage. They read the article with expressions of deep fascination and thanked me. I implored Booth not to tell anyone else, but the whole school knew before lunch.

As a result of some back-room finagling, I began giving a short message on the intercom every morning right after the Pledge of Allegiance. I urged the campus to pursue joy and beauty and resist the darkness that was seeking to devour. Together Booth and I wrote six pages in the next issue of the newspaper exclusively devoted to that subject. I negotiated with Mr. McGowan to let me teach European History for an entire week, and performed a spontaneous musical with Booth on the importance of enjoying life.

*           *           *

We waited for the first week of March, for the end of the second trimester.

I began having utterly terrifying dreams in which I seemed to be traveling out of my body at night and wandering through the rooms and halls of the trailer in which I lived. There were things in my bedroom I had never seen before. I heard footsteps in the hallway and saw strange lights outside my window.

I received my letter of acceptance from Southwestern University. I wondered if it was wise to go. I thought about staying in Alvin and fighting alongside my friends in the battle that was soon to come.

And then the trimester ended. We all settled into our new classes. And nothing happened.

There was no battle, no moment of tempting. Lauren started dating a guy she had met two weeks before. And I could feel the ground giving way beneath my feet.

*           *           *

On a quiet and warm afternoon near the end of that week, Booth, Adriana, and I sat facing Mr. McGowan from across the desk in his classroom. We were all disconsolate and hoped he could give us answers.

Adriana told the story of how she had nearly died the summer before, and how she began hearing the voices shortly after. Booth and I tried to explain all that had happened since Christmas, but it was clear from the moment we began talking that Mr. McGowan didn’t believe us. And by the time we related how Adriana learned that Blazes was the Antichrist, and how Blazes himself seemed to think that he was, and how we had briefly debated using physical force to try and subdue him, small beads of sweat were breaking out on the sides of his round face.

I watched him imploringly. I just wanted someone to explain what was going on. My prophetic gift had never been wrong before. Why had it failed me now, at the most critical time?

“First of all,” he said, in a very low and quiet voice, “what you’re going through is not unusual.”

I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t this. “Are you serious?” I asked.

He nodded. “For one, the three of you are reading from a shared text. Whenever three or four people read from a shared text, it’s not hard to induce shared delusions.

“Second, I think you’re scared. You’re scared because you’re about to graduate, Boze, and you two will be graduating in about a year. And you’re leaving the only home you’ve ever known, and that’s an incredibly traumatic experience. And it’s not uncommon for students who are juniors and seniors in high school to start having apocalyptic visions, because it’s their way of expressing kind of the terror they feel at the future.

“Because, let’s face it, the world may not be ending, but the only world you’ve ever known is ending. You know how they say, ‘You can’t go home again.’ You may come back in a few years, but the school that you knew will be gone. Reality won’t live up to your memories. When you go away to college, you’ll forget about me. And when you think about me at all, you’ll think of me as some sophomoric teacher who liked to pretend he knew everything. But I don’t. And some day you’ll realize that.”

My entire experience of the last eight months, all I had felt and foreseen and suffered, was slipping away. The apocalypse wasn’t going to happen, it might never happen, or else it had been postponed. But I was determined to hold on.

“What about all the others?” I asked. “We’re not the only ones. What about Blazes?”

Mr. McGowan shook his head. “There’s something very dark and unnatural about that man,” he said. “He went wrong somewhere… became something different than what God intended.”

He stood up summarily from his desk, as though to suggest that the meeting was over. Together the four of us walked to the door.

Booth turned in the doorway and faced him.

“I do have a question,” he said. “Was it you? Were you the one who orchestrated… you know, all of that?”

Mr. McGowan stared at him quizzically. “No,” he said with finality.

We waited. I looked at him, more confused than ever.

“Do you mean, was I pandering and manipulating you?” He laughed lightly. “Oh, of course.”

He clapped us both hard on the shoulders. “It was quite fun, actually. I’m honestly kind of sad it took y’all that long to figure it out. Your senses were picking up on stuff, but I was putting a spin on it. It’s good that you wanted an order to life, but you have to want it in order to see it. That’s why the super-sensible is so hard for empiricists to get.”

He closed the door behind us. Adriana and Booth and I walked forward into the harsh sunlight.

*           *           *

It’s been ten years since that conversation in Mr. McGowan’s room, but the course my life has taken since graduation has been in a lot of ways a vindication of his warnings. Sociologists tell us that conspiracy theories and apocalyptic thinking are deeply intertwined, and that wherever you find one, you’re likely to find the other. It’s a pathology in the American psyche, a sickness, this fascination with the end times. There’s something deeply un-Christian about it. It’s as though Jesus and the Bible have become nothing more than cultural totems with the power to drive us mad.

I’ve held on to my faith, but just barely. The realization that I was not a prophet was devastating, but what has been much worse is seeing the damage caused by End-Times fanaticism, the toll that it takes. I’ve seen it drive otherwise sane people to the brink of madness. I’ve watched it transform them until they were no longer recognizable, until they were willing to do the most horrible things to even their closest friends. I’ve seen it claim the life of one of my dearest friends in the world.

So I find myself thinking about the events of that year, and the great disappointment of third trimester, and Mr. McGowan’s explanation for what had happened to us. I think about it whenever a good Christian whom I respect is incredulous that I’m not prepping for the end times, as though it makes me some lesser species of Christian that I don’t have an opinion about when Jesus is coming back. I think about it when I’m sitting on the shuttle next to a man who wrote a 200-page book about the role of the nephilim in the last days that he’s trying to sell me, when I’m in a meeting with Christian counselors who are demanding that I pray out loud to accept my calling to battle the forces of the Antichrist. I think about it whenever someone on Facebook tells me they can’t wait to be martyred, that they hope they continue to laugh long after their head has been severed from their body.

“Boze, where do you find these people?” Bethany once asked me, the first time I recounted my story—back when the dangerous group was just forming.

And sometimes I listen to that song, “Lake Geneva,” by The Handsome Family, about a woman whose husband is hospitalized because he sees visions of the heavens in the stumps of falling trees:

 

“You remember how he cried

When they strapped him to the stretcher

Convinced his arms were burning

With electricity from heaven

 

“You remember how he told you

Black holes were like Jesus

And the crucifix was a battery

That filled the air with fire”

And I hear that and I think, isn’t that my story, and the story of our country? That we’d rather read about the mysterious code that foretells the day of judgment than lift a finger to help the teeming masses on whose treatment the nations will be judged? And aren’t we a sick society, when conspiracy theories and end-times mania, the province of the young and confused and deranged and scared, are mistaken for true worship?

alvin

Alvin High School, May 2004

After my last conversation with Mr. McGowan, I accepted the nature of the fantasy I had been living in. I was no prophet. I wasn’t destined for greatness. The only certain thing in my life at that moment was graduation.

And instead of running away from it, as I had been doing all year, I learned to accept it. I embraced my own normalcy, and in doing so I found freedom and a certain measure of happiness.

And at the end of May I graduated and left high school behind me. I worry that some of us are there still.

 

 

 

“If You’re Feeling Sinister”: A Look Back

if-youre-feeling-sinister-belle-sebastianIn 1995, Stuart Murdoch’s life did not seem to be moving anywhere fast. The twenty-seven-year old Scotsman had been suffering for upwards of six years from the effects of myalgic encephalomyelitis, better known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Because his condition made even playing on the piano an exhausting endeavor, he was unable to find work.

Living in Glasgow on public assistance, Murdoch joined “beat box,” a government program for the unemployed. He would later compare it to a “refugee camp for unemployed musicians.” The unemployed took a music training course and played music together. Once a month they were given access to a recording studio.

It was here that Murdoch first connected with the people who would form Belle & Sebastian; and it was here in the summer of 1996 that they recorded what are now widely regarded as two of the best albums of the 1990s, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister.

Though the beloved indie band has covered a range of genres in their nearly twenty-year career, from folk to shoegaze to chamber pop, and has stylistically referenced bands as disparate as The Left Banke and The Smiths, the elegiac wistfulness of If You’re Feeling Sinister has become their defining sound. Even after they gained renewed critical acclaim and an unprecedented level of public attention with The Life Pursuit (2006), a collection of irresistibly danceable power-pop anthems, critics and long-time fans rightly pointed to their earliest work as their magnum opus.

Writing and recording twenty songs in the space of a few weeks would be a career-worthy accomplishment for any band. But Belle & Sebastian went a step further, crafting songs that seem to have been whispered out of the ether, songs that don’t so much seem to have been written as captured.

Take, for example, the Satie-like simplicity of “Fox in the Snow.” With piano, guitar, violin, and vibraphone, the band conjures up a serenely autumnal world in which soft-hearted youth have fallen on hard times. For me the special gift of Belle & Sebastian, my all-time favorite band, has always been its ability to evoke the rhythms and changes of the seasons, using lyrics and music to engage the senses so fully that it really feels as though the listener is standing on a wintry street corner in Edinburgh.

Fox in the snow

Where do you go

To find something you can eat?

Cause the word out on the street is

You are starving

If the lyrics are precious, they’re also devastatingly effective, compressing whole years of hope and despair and angst into the space of a few verses. “Fox in the Snow” showcases what would become one of Belle & Sebastian’s hallmarks, their knack for writing realistic, sharply observed character sketches about people who are young and lost and very much in over their heads.

Just prior to the recording of If You’re Feeling Sinister, Stuart had moved into a bachelor flat above a church. There he worked in the parish hall and sang in the choir in between writing songs for the album.

“I always wanted to write about normal people doing normal things,” he recalls in a Pitchfork documentary about the making of the album. “Because I wasn’t normal, I was out of the game. It was very attractive to me what normal people were doing.” So he set out to write songs about the “normal” folks he ran into in the streets and on the buses of Glasgow, though his own sly perceptiveness was always winking through, creating vividly eccentric figures who are instantly recognizable and yet somehow bigger than life: a track star who was driven to fame by the lure of getting to wear terry underwear; Hilary, who’s into S & M and Bible studies; Judy, who walks the streets dreaming of horses.

Of the ten songs on this album, the penultimate song, “Boy Done Wrong Again,” is the weakest, a slow sleeper that saps much of the energy from an otherwise rollicking back half. Like Tigermilk before it, the album begins in minimalistic fashion, with only the quiet plucking of strings to accompany Murdoch’s voice. But as “Stars of Track and Field” progresses, the rest of the band gradually joins in, adding new instrumentation (organ, trumpets) layer upon layer, building slowly and progressively to a powerful conclusion that promises good things to come. “Seeing Other People” is a near-perfect evocation of early morning and the ambivalence of two people trying to let go of each other but not being able to. “Me and the Major” explores the unbridgeable gaps between classes and generations with lyrics that are both spirited and resentful: “We’re the younger generation / We grew up fast / All the others did drugs / They’re taking it out on us.”

In terms of pure atmosphere, the next two songs are probably the album’s high point. “Like Dylan in the Movies” recalls Murdoch’s experience of having to walk through Kelvingrove Park, a shady Glasgow park. The combination of guitar, strings, and xylophone powerfully evokes a sense of the year ending, of autumn, and twilight. “Dylan” is followed by the wintry and underrated “Fox in the Snow.” The placement of these two songs on the album, and their musical kinship, seem to suggest that one is a continuation of the other. It’s worth listening to the two back to back.

“Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” is a light rocker about a naïve young man. Musically it’s as good as anything on the album, but the lyrics are achingly, almost embarrassingly sentimental. “I always cry at endings,” Murdoch sings, and then, as if already regretting this exercise in vulnerability, adds in the next verse, “Oh, that wasn’t what I meant to say at all.”

However, the shortcomings of this song are more than offset by the eerie brilliance of the one following. If You’re Feeling Sinister’s title track is also the album’s standout, with a backing track of children playing and enigmatic lyrics that have been variously explained as a satire of organized religion and the final thoughts of two people preparing to kill themselves.

 

Finally, “Mayfly” is a jangly guitar ballad in the style of The Byrds, while “Judy and the Dream of Horses” closes the album in high spirits with an almost pure distillation of pop craftsmanship.

Not satisfied with the production quality of the original recording, Belle & Sebastian recorded a live performance in 2005 for All Tomorrow’s Parties. It’s worth hearing just to assess the differences between the two recordings—in 1995, the band was young and unproven, while in 2005 it was one of the most successful indie rock bands in the world. But the original is the reason for their breakout success, and it remains the better version of their best album.

Buffy, Rwanda, and the Kingdom of Elsia

Xander zeppo

One of the best episodes of Buffy shows Xander having his own crazy adventure while in the background the other Scoobies battle to save the world from being destroyed by a hideous monster. We catch glimpses of their battle throughout the episode. They’re all crying and yelling at each other. At the end Buffy tells Giles he did one of the bravest things she had ever seen (but we never learn what he did).

It reminded me very much of the weekend in 2007 when our cult had to unite and battle the demonic spirit that was over Southwestern: all the feelings that come to the surface when you’re fighting an enemy that only a few people are able to see.

And then I got to thinking about… something I thought a lot about in the aftermath of that weekend: the scary things I used to see in my bedroom that weren’t normally there. Traveling out of my body was an experience very much like that of Frodo when he put on the Ring. He went into another realm and could see things no one else could. And basically, when the group started, we were all doing that.

And then I read a story about how Rwanda’s Christians are coping with the aftermath of genocide by turning to Pentecostalism. It provides them a framework for understanding the supernatural evil that was unleashed on their country in 1994. This article in Foreign Policy magazine tells the story of a young woman named Rebecca whose family was offered sanctuary in a Catholic church. It turned out to be a trap, and her parents were killed.

And then this happened:

 

Two years later, having found a home with a foster family, Rebecca made friends with a girl of her own age named Alice. One day, Alice led her into a cemetery, and there, as Rebecca tells it, the ground opened up, revealing a flight of stairs that led down into the realm of Satan. “It was a place where there was always twilight,” says Rebecca. “It was a world of bad spirits. They put an evil spirit into my body and then they sent it back out into the world.” For the next five years, she says, her body wandered the land, causing ill wherever it could. “I had the power of causing accidents on Earth. The demons gave me that power.”

It took her five years to fight her way back. She suffered terribly, she says. But one day she encountered a group of Pentecostal Christians who prayed for her release from the powers that plagued her. With their help she finally found release, and “accepted Jesus as my king.” At age 17, she converted from her ancestral Catholicism to the Pentecostal Church, a move that finally brought her “inner peace.”

 

So when I think about The Children, and invisible realms that are super-imposed on this one, and mysterious invisible objects, and the Air Loom Gang, and my own made-up kingdom of Elsia, I can see a mythology emerging. Inevitably, I think the story will have to be about four or five kids who have, or think they have, unusual powers, and who are at war with unseen forces that no one else sees. And they belong to a society of people who have these gifts. And this society believes the end of the world is imminent. And it provides a place for the kids to learn and grow up and fall in love when they’re not saving the world. And the world itself seems to be going to pieces around them, with living houses and nightmare clouds and whatnot, strange disturbances in nature. And as the series goes on they begin to question the nature of their mission, especially as friends die and the “enemy” becomes not just invisible creatures but real people. And they begin to wonder whether they really are doing the right thing, and whether they’ve been misled, and whether the world is really ending.

The Knuckles of Sam Hose

12-Years-a-Slave-Lynching-Scene-02-720x300On April 23, 1899, a man named Sam Hose was stabbed, burned alive, and cut to pieces.

Sam was a black farmhand from Georgia who was suspected of murdering his master. On the run from the law, he fled across country, was captured and taken into custody. But as he was being transported by train to Atlanta, word leaked out that the infamous fugitive had been arrested and was going to be lynched.

Hose was hauled off the train at gunpoint and taken to a nearby farm in a small town while a crowd gathered round him. Some estimates place the size of the crowd at over 2,000 people. The news sparked a mad rush of worshipers from churches in Atlanta, where Sunday services were just ending. Demand to see the lynching was so great that the railroad company arranged several unscheduled runs, while those who were unable to buy tickets climbed in through the windows and clung to the sides of the trains.

Sam Hose was chained to a pine tree. His ears and fingers were cut off, and as the crowd cheered, he was stabbed and set on fire, dowsed with kerosene they had been given by a local vendor at no cost. He tried to pull himself out of the fire with his fingerless hands, but was pushed back in.

Twenty minutes later, he died. His last words were, “Oh my God. Oh, Jesus.”

What remained of his body was cut into pieces and passed among the crowd as souvenirs, like a twisted form of communion. His knuckles were placed on display in the window of a grocery store in Atlanta.

sam-hose-1Sam was one of 27 people lynched that year.

This is why I can’t understand when people say America is more wicked than it’s ever been, when they long for the glory days of our Christian past. Sam Hose was murdered by the honest, God-fearing folk of Atlanta. Sam Hose was burned into cinders by a crowd on its way home from church. And when I think about the rhetoric used in our churches to demonize outsiders, when I think about how so many believers are gearing up for what they believe is an apocalyptic war between the forces of good and evil led by a vengeful, slaughtering messiah, I can no longer accept the lie that a true Christian would never be swayed by a mob, that we could never find ourselves fighting on the wrong side in the conflict of right and wrong.

Some people say, “It’s hard to see how conditions in America could ever get so bad that Christians would be willing to murder.” But the truth is, it already happened. And it happened for a long time.