“Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins.”
— Revelation 18:4
If you’re a white Evangelical Christian who came of age in the early 2000s, you’re probably used to thinking of the GOP as God’s Own Party.
If you were a dedicated churchgoer in a white Evangelical church, you would never consider voting for a Democratic candidate. Democrats were liberals who supported safe sex and abortion on demand; the Democratic president was caught in a sex scandal with one of his interns. They had no values. They weren’t really Christians, though they sometimes used the language of Christianity to deceive us.
Republicans, by contrast, were the party of faith. They believed in God, family, our country, and our military. When George W. Bush was asked to name his favorite philosopher during a townhall meeting in 2000, he said without hesitation, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” He was mocked for this answer by the godless media, but it resonated with countless men and women in the heartland who had never heard of Voltaire or Rousseau.
I was a staunch Republican until late into my teens. I supported the invasion of Iraq (at least until the actual bombing started) because I thought Bush had been chosen by God to lead our country and reshape the Middle East. During my first semester in college I picketed an abortion clinic and wrote an article for the school newspaper making fun of Democrats like John Kerry for trying to speak the language of faith. I described the 2004 election as the most important election of our lifetime, and Bush’s reelection as a stunning repudiation of the liberal elites who defended Islam, immigration, and sex on TV.
When an English teacher I respected—one of the few outspoken liberals in our small, conservative town—asked me why I supported Republicans, I said, “Because they have morals!”
I was surprised she even had to ask.
But something happened early in Bush’s second term. I think the first blow was the revelation that our Christian government was running secret prisons and torture sites in foreign countries. Somehow it was hard to picture Jesus forcing a man to stand on broken limbs for days without sleep. It was hard to picture him approving the crushing of a child’s testicles.
I learned about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, how it drove white Southerners afraid of blacks into the arms of the Republican Party. I learned about Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to woo those disaffected white voters with coded language like “tough on crime” and “law and order.” I learned how whites turned out for him in record numbers because they understood the subtext buried in these words, that he was going to make life harder for people of color like myself.
I began to understand why the Republican Party was overwhelmingly white.
Here in Texas, especially, it’s been clear for some time that white Republicans aren’t driven by some high-minded adherence to conservative principles. Partly it’s a religious thing: Republican voters are driven by their faith to vote for Republican candidates.
But it’s something else, too. George W. Bush was very clear that the war on terror was not a war against Muslims. But I can tell you that’s not how it was perceived in the heartland. Millions of people supported him in his bid for reelection because they believed he was going to make war on the whole Middle East and defend our land from the savage hoards who wished to destroy us and our way of life.
In the ‘60s the GOP became the haven for people who were afraid of blacks. In the 2000s it wooed those who were afraid of Muslims and Arabs and Hispanics. Each of those groups, in turn, left the Republican Party, because it was clear to them, long before it became clear to the rest of the country, that something incredibly dark and toxic had taken root in the heart of God’s Own Party.
All of this has been happening for years. Decades, even.
But if you had tried to point that out before last year—pointed out that the GOP has become the party of racists, hatemongers, and authoritarians who want to torture and kill brown people in grisly fashion—it would have been a tough sell. Most mainstream Republicans were still too committed to the idea that their party is the party of God, the party of family and faith and freedom.
And then Trump happened.
Trump happened and now the GOP has officially become the party of the alt-right and anti-Semites and anti-feminists and “every unclean and hateful spirit.”
Trump happened and now suburban Republicans and conservative intellectuals and even Republican politicians are abandoning the party in droves because they no longer recognize it. Because they hate what he’s done to it.
But maybe we should be grateful for Trump.
Because he’s exposed the truth that’s been obvious to our black and brown brothers and sisters for years, back when they were lone voices crying in the wilderness and no one would listen.
Because even when it wraps itself in the mantle of faith, no party that is rooted and grounded in white supremacy is a Christian party.
Because regardless of its views on abortion, no party that promotes torture and black sites and the gutting of welfare and endless bombings of other countries is a pro-life party.
This has always been true. Trump has just awakened us to it.
So Christians, maybe it’s time for us to leave the Republican Party. Maybe it’s time for us to admit,with Rich Mullins, that all governments that are controlled by men are “anti-life and anti-God.”
To admit that a vote every four years for abortion isn’t worth continuing to prop up a party that is now defined by white nationalism and terrifying, murderous rage against anyone who isn’t white, and male, and Christian.
To admit that when the veil was lifted, Donald Trump was revealed to be the true face of the Republican Party. And he has been all along.
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 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 authorMatt 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: As is this one:
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:
Following a public backlash, Charisma changed the headline (but kept the URL). Weirdly,the article itselfbarely mentions the divinity of Jesus.
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 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 blogabout 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:
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 arecoping 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.
On the night I returned home from a long trip at the end of January, I called Booth and he filled me in onwhat had happened in Alvinduring 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. Booth even penned an article about the “Economics of Joy” in which he graphed the school’s GDP: “Good Deeds Potential”:
I negotiated with Mr. McGowan to let me teach European History for an entire week. On Friday I announced that I had brought in a motivational speaker, Mr. “Ebenezer Scrooge” of Scrooge & Marley’s. The entire class groaned as Booth strode up to the front of the room. Then, as if out of nowhere, music began playing. Scrooge and I spontaneously broke into a dance and were joined by a guy in the third row who knew all the lyrics to the original song (from the 1970 Scrooge musical). For four and a half minutes we twirled around the room and sang about the pleasures of enjoying life:
Where there’s music and laughter
Happiness is rife!
Because I like life!
The entire class watched with mounting incredulity, and by the end of the song Lauren was in tears. “That was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen,” she said sadly. Booth and I sat quietly back down as though nothing had happened.
* * *
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 counselorswho 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 methey 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 aboutthe mysterious codethat 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?
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.
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.)
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.”
Holly Fisher, Twitter provocateur and wife of an army veteran, created a stir this weekend when she posted a picture of herself holding a Bible in one hand and clutching an AR-15 in the other.
She had been attracting media attention all week, both positive and negative, for posing in front of a Hobby Lobby wearing a pro-life t-shirt and holding a Chik-Fil-A cup. The caption read, “ATTENTION LIBERALS: Do NOT look at this picture. Your head will most likely explode.”
Friends suggested that all the picture was missing was a Bible and a gun, so on the Fourth of July she provided that image.
Fisher defended the picture in an interview with Inquisitr.com: “I have always been extremely conservative and passionate about my views. The last few years of the growing hate and intolerance among the ‘tolerant’ left has made me want to stand up and speak out. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to show where I stand . . . I want younger Americans to know it’s okay to not follow the current liberal path.”
Unfortunately for Holly’s brave stand, pundits soon noticed that the picture bore a striking resemblance to this picture:
That’s Reem Riyashi, a Palestinian icon and mother of two who blew herself up at the age of 22 in 2004, and killed four Israelis, at a Gaza border crossing after faking a disability to bypass a security checkpoint. Even before her death Reem was famous for posing in pictures holding weapons, sometimes alone and sometimes with her three-year-old son.
Sometimes an entire line of argument can be summed up in a single photograph. For months I’ve been arguing that, psychologically, Christian extremists and Islamic fundamentalists *aren’t that different.* Whenever two groups hate each other, they tend to become like each other. Yet no matter how pointed the similarities became, a lot of people weren’t buying it. But now there’s Holly.
Sociologist Bob Altemeyer spent decades studying the phenomenon known as “right-wing authoritarianism” (RWA). He wrote an entire book about it,which you can download for free on his website. Basically right-wing authoritarians (who constitute about 25 percent of the American population) are defined by three things:
(1) Blind loyalty to established religious and political authorities
(2) A willingness to act aggressively in order to defend those authorities
(3) and a deep sense of conventionalism. They are the normal ones. Society is endangered by “weird” groups and minorities that threaten to disrupt the social order, and these unruly elements need to be put in their place, by force if necessary. They tend to agree with the statement that we need a charismatic leader to purge society of these unconventional elements.
You ever find yourself arguing with someone and realize that they’re not operating on the same logical plane as the rest of us? Do you sometimes wonder how some folks can claim to follow the teachings of the Bible better than others while ignoring much of what it says? You may be dealing with an authoritarian personality.
Authoritarians are highly dogmatic: they refuse to change their beliefs even when presented with overwhelming evidence that those beliefs are wrong. (They insisted that George W. Bush had never said we would “stay the course” in Iraq, though he had constantly said this). They are profoundly ethnocentric: they may demonize speakers of foreign languages for not using the English words for “God” and “Jesus.” They are selective in their reading of Scripture, frequentlyrationalizing ways to ignorethe numerous passages about not insulting or attacking others. (In a study done at the University of Michigan, fundamentalist students rejecteda set of statements based on the Sermon on the Mount). They only care about facts to the extent that they support their already predetermined conclusions. Altemeyer found that if he said something was “the biggest problem our country faces!” they would always agree with him, no matter what he said the problem was.
Perhaps most importantly, authoritarians define themselves by who is and is not a loyal member of their team. Anyone perceived as being an outsider they view with suspicion and hostility. This may include the majority of their fellow Christians (who, in a neat evasion, are “not real Christians” for one reason or another). Yet if they perceive someone as being on their side, they will trust that person without question. This presents problems. “Authoritarian followers are highly suspicious of their many out-groups,” says Altemeyer; “but they are credulous to the point of self-delusion when it comes to their in-groups.”
So, although right-wing authoritarians can be found in all cultures, members of one tribe are not likely to trust the members of another tribe. Christian fundamentalists in America view Islamic fundamentalists in Palestine and Afghanistan with the same level of contempt that the Islamists feel towards them.
And they’re not likely ever to trust each other—even when they take identical selfies.
But as it happens, this idea that “Christian and Islamic fundamentalists are the same, lol” isn’t just a liberal fever dream. It’s borne out by the evidence.
As soon as Mikhail Gorbachev lifted the restraints on psychological research in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, a colleague of Altemeyer’s, Andre Kamenshikov, administrated a survey to students at Moscow State University. These students answered the RWA scale (a scale Altemeyer and his colleagues had developed to assess the level of authoritarianism in an individual) along with a series of questions about who was the “good guy” and who was the “bad guy” in the Cold War. Who started the arms race: the US or the USSR? Would the US launch a sneak attack on the Soviet Union if it knew it could get away with it? Would the Soviet Union do this to the US?
At the same time Kamenshikov was doing this study, Altemeyer asked the same questions in three different American universities.
What they found was that in both countries, the high RWAs believed their government’s version of the Cold War more than most other people in their country. The leaders of their nation were the good guys, and the leaders of the other nation were out to kill and destroy all that was good and holy. In other words, says Altemeyer, “the most cock-sure belligerents in the population on each side of the Cold War, the ones who hated and blamed each other the most, were in fact the same people, psychologically.”
“If they had grown up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, they probably would have believed the leaders they presently despised, and despised the leaders they now trusted. They’d have been certain the side they presently thought was in the right was in the wrong, and instead embraced the beliefs they currently held in contempt.”
Soviets and Americans. Westboro and the Taliban. Holly and Reem.
Sometimes the only difference is where you grow up.
They’re sharpening their cleavers and their knives
And taking all their whiskey by the pint
— The Decemberists, “The Shankill Butchers”
They were the worst gang of serial killers in British history. From 1975 to 1979 they terrorized Northern Ireland. Today the area they haunted, Shankill, has become synonymous with savagery.
The Shankill Butchers were a loyalist (Protestant) gang, many of whose members belonged to the Ulster Volunteer Force. Headed by Lenny Murphy, a former convict, the gang brutally murdered 23 people within a period of four years. Catholics were abducted on the streets and slowly tortured. Some were ferociously beaten. Others were shot or had their throats cut open.
The group’s deeds were so legendary that they soon passed into folklore. Catholics who grew up during the height of the “Troubles” (as the war came to be known) recall how their mothers would warn them not to go out at night, or the Butchers would get them. Yet as sadistic as their methods were, it’s worth asking whether this gang was really the most extreme form of evil in a conflict that ultimately claimed nearly 4,000 lives. Continue reading →
This week I’m very excited to announce that one of my articles is being featured in The Atlantic online.
“Seven Signs You’re in a Cult” gives an overview of my time in Tyler Deaton’s prayer group, beginning in 2005 when I met him and Bethany Leidlein and concluding with Bethany’s death in Kansas City in 2012. It was an extremely difficult piece to write, because reliving the emotions associated with that period in my life, and losing her especially, is never easy. There were times when I thought it would never be finished, but I’m pleased with the response it’s been getting.Continue reading →
After I left the group I began studying the mechanisms of scapegoating.
French sociologist Rene Girard said that all human conflicts are built around something called “mimetic desire.” Here’s how it works. Suppose two brothers are happily playing in their front yard. The older one grabs a toy soldier from their pile of toys and begins playing with it. The younger one immediately wants it—not because of its inherent worth, but simply because his brother has it. This makes the older brother want it even more, and before very long the two are engaged in a huge fist fight.
Luckily, though, the neighborhood whipping boy, Jerry, happens to walk by at that moment. Jerry wears glasses and is chubby. The two boys forget all about their argument and run off together to torment Jerry. Continue reading →
If your eschatology inspires you to pray for violence and destruction rather than an end to armed conflicts, your eschatology is wrong.
And one more thing – to the extent that the Bible talks about a figure called “the Antichrist” appearing in the last days, it always, always refers to a deception that emerges within the Christian community. Not in Europe or liberal America or in some out-of-the-way place.
What is his deception? Simply this: that we can create a new and better world by taking up arms and cleansing the earth of unbelievers – meaning anyone who doesn’t embrace his twisted faith.
“The time will come when anyone who kills you,” said Jesus, “will think that he is doing God service” (John 16:2). The greatest threat, the greatest danger, the greatest deception in our world today, is not humanitarians wickedly pursuing an agenda of peace, love, and social justice, but zealous believers willing to commit bloodshed in the name of righteousness.