“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.
Over the weekend, some of my progressive Christian friends were grousing on Twitter about how growing up in ‘90s Evangelical culture and being taught that we would be raptured up to heaven before anything terrible happens in the world, ever, left us ill-equipped to face the reality that we would one day die.
I quit believing in the rapture early on in high school when I realized it was inconsistent with Jesus’s own teachings on the end-times, but in retrospect I can see how this denial of death bled over even into the forms of Christianity towards which I was drawn in my teens and early twenties. Inthe doomsday cult I was a part of in college, we believed we would be impervious to the bullets fired at us in the Middle East by the Antichrist and his hordes of demonically driven Muslim supporters.
“If it wasn’t time for us to be dead,” my friend April* told me, “God could just send us back down. So that might be a really great option! Whenever we’re in any kind of danger, we can just shoot each other! Like if they were going to behead you, I could just SHOOT you and then Jesus could send you back!”
“I don’t think I like where this is going…” I said in a low voice.
April cocked an imaginary gun. “‘I’LL SEE YOU IN A MINUTE!’” she yelled.
After I left the group I began studying Gnostic groups (like ours) that believe they have a special mission to accomplish at the end of history. This sense of being in a cosmic drama relieves us of the appalling tedium of being not-particularly-special people living in a fairly uneventful period of history. One writer made a point that has stuck with me: he said that these Gnostic groups, even the ones that call themselves Christian, deny the wisdom of the Old Testament writers that life is an incredible mystery, and that everything that has a beginning must also have an end—ourselves, our relationships, our accomplishments, the world itself.
And I don’t think I fully got that until I stood in front of my friend’s coffin, face to face for the first time in my life with the awful specter of mortality. Nothing in my upbringing or religious education had prepared me for this. Bethany had been there not long ago and now she was just gone. I could spend the rest of my life roaming the earth trying to find her and would never find her. The body in the coffin had once belonged to her, but now it resembled her less and less. I had no idea what to make of this. As I wrote in my journal on the day after the visitation, “She was dead and I suddenly had no idea where her soul had gone, or if she even had one.”
I had already begun to abandon the convoluted eschatological scheme accepted by most Evangelicals (seven years of tribulation followed by a thousand-year reign of Jesus) before Bethany’s death—the Catholic Church which I was in the process of joining teaches only that Jesus will return at some point in the future and set up his kingdom forever. The rest is just speculation. But it was only after I had thrown out most of what I had been taught and believed all my life about the end of the world that I ran into a problem—namely, that science already has a pretty clear idea how the world is going to end, and it’s pretty grim.
Basically, carbon life has only existed on earth for about two billion years out of the roughly fifteen billion years of the lifespan of our universe. The first Homo sapiens emerged some tens of millions of years ago, only a second ago in geologic time, sweeping down out of the trees onto the savannahs with a miraculous awareness of themselves that is surely the greatest mystery and miracle of cosmic history—“the universe,” as one scientist put it, “becoming aware of itself.”
Barring some nuclear or ecological disaster, our species and life on our planet as a whole will lumber along for another few hundred million years until we are wiped out by an asteroid, a comet, a meteor, a chance collision of two black holes somewhere in our galaxy, an explosion from a neighboring supernova or some other ghastly and xenocidal event. Assuming we manage to survive each of these extinction-level threats, within a mere five billion years the sun will enter the next stage of its life cycle, becoming a red giant and swelling up to gargantuan proportions, in the process casually destroying the three closest planets in its orbit.
Of course by then it’s entirely possible that we’ll have developed the means of leaving earth and colonizing other solar systems. But even if we do, it turns out we’re only delaying the eventual end of our species, for the stars are going out one by one, leaving us in a cold void of perpetual night.
On the bright side, if there is one, this is still an inconceivably vast number of years away from happening, and by the time the sun winks out, everyone you know will be dead. Maybe you’re okay with that. It’s hard enough getting people to care about rises in ocean levels that will flood coastal regions and cause massive droughts, leading to war and famine, in the lives of our children and grandchildren. Still fewer are kept up at night by the cosmological certainty that our species will eventually be annihilated when the sun, the giver of life, blows up and devours its own offspring. But I am.
It troubles me because even as a child I had a mystic’s eye for the goodness and beauty of the world, because I believed that this world is full of more good things than we can possibly dream or imagine, and love makes it hard for me to accept that all this—the churches of Greenwich, the bistros of the Left Bank, the factories of Birmingham and Philadelphia; every piece of flannel, every strip of paper, everything you ever built or wrote—will perish in solar fires, unobserved and unremembered. Surely if anything can test a person’s faith, it is this. Philosopher Bertrand Russell felt keenly the implications for humanity when he wrote, “All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system … The whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”
Perhaps Shakespeare glimpsed something of the futility in which all humanity’s ambitions must end when he had King Lear ask, “Is man no more than this?” This is the sort of question people of faith are going to have to take seriously, if we want to be taken seriously by the rest of the world in our time.
As a Christian blogger, I’m supposed to state here that it’s all going to be okay and we don’t have to be afraid of extinction and Jesus will come down and save us before the universe reaches Threat Level: Midnight. But I don’t know that for a fact, and you don’t, either. In this life we’re given promises, but no guarantees. We have assurances, but no certainties. That’s why it’s called faith.
Ironically, part of what led to my current existential crisis was the Catholic faith in natural processes, in the idea—going all the way back to St. Augustine, who developed an early theory of evolution to describe how life on earth had come into being—that God uses natural methods and natural laws to accomplish his purposes in the natural realm. (This is still a major source of division between Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists: it was a Catholic priest and astronomer, Georges Lemaitre, who first proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory, which is almost uniformly rejected by fundamentalists who don’t seem to realize how it converges with the Genesis account). Once I accepted that maybe God had used a slow unfurling of cosmic evolution to bring the worlds into being over a span of eons, I couldn’t help wondering if maybe God would end space-time in precisely the same way: slowly, over many billions of years.
I spent much of yesterday reading a book by John Polkinghorne, a renowned Cambridge physicist—his work was instrumental in the discovery of the quark in the 1960s—who is also an Anglican priest and amateur theologian. The book, The God of Hope and the End of the World, summarizes his conversations with several other scientist-theologians at Yale University who are trying to reconcile our scientific knowledge of the eventual extinction of our species with the Christian faith in a bodily resurrection in which God raises individuals from death and restores them to their bodies in a natural environment. (The belief I was taught growing up, that when we die, our spirits leave our gross bodies behind and fly up to heaven to be with Jesus forever, is actually Gnostic).
Polkinghorne and his colleagues raise several possibilities for how this might happen in a way that doesn’t contradict current scientific findings or Christian orthodoxy. For example, maybe the information-bearing part of a human being (what we call “the soul”) is stored in God’s memory after death until the day of resurrection. Maybe we all die at different times and then find ourselves together again at the same time, as happened in the final episode of LOST. Maybe we awaken to find that the billions of years between our death and the end of the old universe have already transpired while we slept.
Ultimately, as even Polkinghorne himself seems to concede, none of these answers can be entirely satisfying because they all have to be taken on faith. “Any hope of a destiny beyond death,” he writes, “can ultimately rest only on the faithfulness of God the Creator.” In the end we’re left only with hope: hope that we were created for a purpose; hope that our creator loves us; hope that this world of unthinkable beauty is leading us towards a world of beauties even more unthinkable.
And, if I’m being honest, hope is what I’ve been missing ever since Bethany’s death. She trusted God to protect her, and God seems to have failed her. After she died, I could no longer entrust myself to pious certainties. People die. People are murdered or take their own lives and no deity intervenes to save them. Terrible things happen because this world can be a terrible place, because humans are terrible and depraved and a savage darkness lurks in even the most devout heart. Just look at what they did to Jesus.
And ultimately that’s why I remain a Christian, because even with all my doubts and questions I know I’m not asking anything new or original. Nothing has changed in human nature just because we now understand that the sun will eventually destroy us. It was Thomas Kempis in the twelfth century who said, “Look on all things as passing away, and thyself as doomed to pass away with them.” It was Job who asked why man is born to trouble, and it was Jesus who in the agony of his final hours dared to ask God why he had been forsaken, and heard only silence in response.
My first day of high school in 2000, my pre-AP English teacher (and Sunday school teacher, and super-woman) Mrs. Pauley ran through the list of everything we’d be reading in the coming trimester. Then she asked us, “Have any of you read Great Expectations?”
One hand went slowly up into the air. Blushing, I could feel the stares of the rest of the class as they turned to look at me.
“Boze,” said Mrs. Pauley, in her usual droll voice, “I knew there was somethin’ wrong with you.”
It wasn’t the first time an English teacher had teased me for my Dickens obsession. Two years before, I had torn through Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities in short order. I’d begun speaking and writing in a pastiche of nineteenth-century Victorian writers. (“Magniloquence is a virtue much to be admired in a gentleman,” I would say, to the friends I did not have).
I found Dickens irresistibly fascinating; David and Pip and Joe Gargery and old Fezziwig were like old friends, in the same way Ali Baba and Sinbad befriended young Ebenezer Scrooge. As a poor boy growing up in an abusive home environment, I connected with the violence and destitution and rage and filth and gore of Dickens’ imagined England, with this gothic and grotesque world in which convicts leapt out from behind tombstones and frightened little boys out of their wits, in which stepmothers and stepfathers beat their kids until they bled and eccentric old women set themselves on fire.
Dickens was haunted by what Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called “the grotesque”; it was the darker half of his Gothic imagination. His books were filled with wild, extravagant, deformed figures, twisted in soul and body. He got into a fair bit of trouble when a roguish, “ogling” dwarf woman in the not-yet-completed David Copperfield turned out to have been based on an actual person, who was so hurt by Dickens’ characterization that he was compelled to revise forthcoming installments of the novel, to portray her in a less appalling light.
Arguably, though, it was this gallery of grotesques that made Dickens so massively popular. They burned themselves onto your brain. Novelist Susanna Clarke once described him as “huge—like the sky,” and the same could be said of his characters, even the most minor ones, like the grinning, inebriated old robber David meets on the road to Dover who shouts, “Oh, my lungs and liver! Oh, goroo, goroo!” It is a dark, violent world Dickens builds for his characters, and heaven bless him for it.
At around the time I was beginning my freshman year of high school, and reading Great Expectations for the second time, the Christian contemporary musician Steven Curtis Chapman released the single “Great Expectations,” a track from his massively popular Speechless album. (If you attended Christian summer camp in the late ‘90s or early 2000s, it’s likely you were subjected to the song “Dive” off of that album).
I remember the curiosity and interest I felt when I learned that Chapman had a new single entitled “Great Expectations.” His previous songs, from “Lord of the Dance” to “More to This Life,” had not been found wanting. But, like a young orphan discovering that his mysterious benefactor is something less than he imagined him to be, I found myself disappointed by the sheer immateriality and vapidness of the song, which didn’t seem to be about anything.
We’ve been invited with the Son, sings Chapman:
We’ve been invited to come
And believe the unbelievable
Receive the inconceivable
And see beyond our wildest imaginations
So Lord, we come
Oh, Lord we come…
With great expectations
Now, musically the song isn’t bad. It has a subtle but wonderfully evocative piano intro and a stirring string section. And I’m willing to concede that my disappointment may have been a case of… well, misplaced expectations. When you title a song “Great Expectations,” I expect greatness. I expect gritty ballads about orphans and outlaws. What I got instead was another generically written worship song with some abstract lyrics about power and glory and the obligatory pun on “Sun / Son.”
Lest it seem like I’m picking on Mr. Chapman, I should add that this is a problem endemic to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), both then and today. (“Your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me,” sings Passion on the most recent WOW album). So often Christian-brand music, and worship music in particular, sings ethereally of “approaching the throne room” to encounter God’s grace, compassion and mercy. But rarely do these songs give any indication of what this is actually supposed to look like, nor how God’s goodness and mercy manifest in our actual lives, the place where we live and move and breathe.
We’re left with uplifting platitudes that fuel a quasi-Gnostic spirituality divorced from the realities of time and place.
Yes, this is a long way from Dickens in the opening chapter of Great Expectations, describing Pip’s encounter with the runaway convict Magwitch: “A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled.” But it’s also a long way from the very best of which Christian music is capable.
Which brings me to this man:
In January 1968, Christian, country-western musician and recovering drug addict Johnny Cash performed two shows at Folsom State Prison in California, one of the most notorious prisons in the country, a place where the most dangerous criminals were imprisoned, men who were just waiting around to die. Those two shows became the basis for one of Cash’s most celebrated albums, the live album At Folsom Prison.
Listening to the opening and most famous track, “Folsom Prison Blues,” you can hear and practically feel the exhilaration of Cash’s audience as he states his name and launches into his dark, hopeless and morbidly funny ballad about desperate men in desperate places:
When I was just a baby
My mamma told me, “Son
Always be a good boy
Don’t ever play with guns”
But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die…
And when you hear the loud howl of recognition that one guy yells out right at that moment, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that here was a musician with a preternatural gift for connecting with people in their deepest pains and regrets, a man who descended into caves of guilt and despair and emerged out of them again like the apostle Paul with a burning revelation of grace, a revelation that made him almost irresistibly compelling to the Magwitches and Havishams of the world—freaks, outcasts, thieves, murderers—life’s grotesques. The people whom ordinary church music could never reach.
This aspect of Cash’s legacy, and the controversy it raised among regular suburban churchgoers, is perfectly captured in a scene from the 2006 movie Walk the Line:
The best Christian music, the most truly “Christian” music, whether it’s performed by outsiders like Dylan, Bono, or Cash, or by artists in the Evangelical mainstream like Jars of Clay, Rich Mullins, or Gungor, never loses sight of this world in search of the next one. Unlike the disembodied worship songs of so much CCM, with their vague descriptions of a personal, mystical experience, they remain fixed in their own time and place, in the reality of original sin, in the rhythms of liturgy, in the simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying beauty of nature, in real situations that real people face.
The best Christian music sings about actual things: an open field of wild flowers; a mudslide in Decatur, Illinois; the moon spilling laughter on the cold Dakota hills.
And Christian-brand music will never be relevant until it follows the examples of its best and most talented artists, and embraces this crooked world.
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.
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.
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 lengthabout 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.
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 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 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.
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.”