When Satan Comes Sweeping Down the Plains, or Of Bread and Satanists

If the Satanist group that rented out a small theater at the Civic Center in Oklahoma City for a black mass recently is an indication of how pernicious evil is when it has a real face, we are all going to be just fine. To call it buffoonery might be a bit judgmental, but I am not sure what else to call a grown man in robes "casting out the Holy Spirit" in a "reverse exorcism." That hundreds of Christians arrayed in near-military looking ranks in front of the Civic Center to protest this melodramatic, low-comedy expression of one man's narcissism and anti-social personality disorder only shows that the conservative American church can't tell the difference between a bad Vincent Price impersonation and real evil.

First for the happenings inside, and then to the more interesting story outside. The press was herded into a foyer on the north side of the Civic Center. The entrance was where ticketed guests would enter when the doors opened, which is only a metaphor, as the only cop in the foyer insisted that the doors stay closed unless someone approached said doors. "All we need is one crazy to crash the doors, and we're all screwed," he said, clearly repeating lines from  his screen test for "tall, white, cop-looking guy" in season nine of Criminal Minds.

The traditional velvet rope was set up to stop us from wandering down the hall to see the theater prior to the arrival of Ahriman. So, quick side note here. The Satanist group that performed (officiated? held? presented? sponsored?) the rituals that night used Zoroastrian language. Go easy on yourself if you don't know much about it, but if you are a preacher, pastor, reverend, etc., do not go easy on yourself.

The modern concepts of hell and heaven are deeply indebted to the sixth century BCE version of Zoroastrian cosmogony. Zoroaster, a Persian prophet who influenced the Hebrew captives in Babylon after the Persian conquest, preached of a dualistic universe created by the good god Ahura Mazda, who was opposed by the evil demigod Ahriman, also known as Angra Mainyu. Jewish theology had no concept of heaven and hell prior to the Babylonian captivity, but the doctrines are adopted and integrated over the centuries between 539 BCE and the life of Jesus in the first four decades of the first century CE, thanks to Zoroaster.

All that to say that Adam Daniels, the leader (Dastur, according to his preference) of the Satanists, knows far more about the origins of "satan" than the Christians who were arrayed out front, and it is Ahriman he allegedly serves. Odd as it may sound, it's almost a complete waste of words to describe the rituals. Snippets can be found online to sate curiosity, but suffice it to say it was the sum of combining a desire to be blasphemous and contrary with a too-serious self-image and a bizarre respect for theatrical, religious language, costumes, and gestures.

If you have not seen the Nicholas Cage film 8mm, I recommend avoiding it, based on the axiom that what is seen cannot be unseen (barring amnesia), but there is a helpful scene near the end in which Cage finally confronts the man who has murdered a young woman as part of a snuff film. When the killer is unmasked, he looks like one of those fat, cherubic kids whose lives in middle school are a living hell, but he confronts Cage in a way that makes perfect, horrible sense: Did you expect a monster? His version of evil is real because it's visited on the innocent, and it has a this-worldly manifestation that is unavoidable.

Daniels could play that role, easily. But his form of evil is banal, not because he is incapable of evil, but because he worships yet another deity or demigod, but his version is maltheistic instead of whitebread theism. His god is evil, but still personal, still accessible, and still active in the world—if you believe the mythology. Which is to say, it's yet another god whose existence cannot be demonstrated and whose story stretches credulity.

One ritual genuinely involved casting out the Holy Spirit. The recipient of this "ministry" was a former Catholic. Apparently the Satanists don't understand Catholic theology all that well. Only someone who was raised in some Evangelical tradition that preaches "once saved, always saved" could believe that the Holy Spirit abides in apostates, but only a fool or a drunk or a grad student argues pneumatology with a Satanist. The other ritual was the much-billed Black Mass, basically, a blasphemous version of the Catholic Mass.

Originally, the finale was to involve stomping on a consecrated host, the wafer consumed by Catholics as part of the Eucharist, what Protestants call the Lord's Supper or communion. A consecrated version means that the wafer had already been blessed and was ready for Mass, and, according to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, would become the actual body of Jesus at the appropriate time during the Mass. The implications of that for a Black Mass should be obvious.

Daniels managed to obtain a consecrated host through unknown means: stolen, contributed, delivered by an agent of Ahriman, or created in a clever fabrication. That the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City pursued legal remedies is a strong indication that it was a real, consecrated host. An Oklahoma judge ultimately ruled that Daniels had to return the host, and, as he told me in a phone interview, "I said, 'Fine. You can have your cracker back.'"

Losing the consecrated host meant that the Black Mass was less blasphemous, as the bread trod upon at the end of the ceremony was not the actual body of the Christ Pantokrator, but in a very non-metaphorical sense was bread, not John 6:35 bread, which is also a metaphor, unless you are Catholic, but real "you can eat it and not go to hell" bread.

Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, has written at length about phrases like this taken to their linguistic/logical conclusion causing "irruptions of the real," which is a moment when the lexical meaning of the term is forced into the real world and shown to be absurd. This is clearly an example of that because we are talking about bread, not magic bread or Hansel and Gretel bread, just bread. The Catholics are uncharacteristically literalists on this point, as they manage to use the Magisterium to excuse every other non-literal interpretation of Jesus' words in the corpus of Catholic doctrine and dogma.

What all the good, Christian folk arrayed out front were saying by their presence and prayers and songs and sermons was that stomping on bread is a way of summoning evil. I realize that is a bit atomistic, but this is a case of metaphysical differences creating tribes. For people like me for whom the devil is childish nonsense or a poor externalization of mythical, Jungian archetypes, we are talking about portly Vincent Price trampling bread. For others, that tribe of theists who believe the world is magical, or at least believe that myths are referentially true stories, also called histories, the buffoon was summoning the actual devil.

Theism can exist quite nicely without a personification of evil. In fact, humans seem all too capable of hurting each other without inspiration from a smooth-talking, Miltonian fallen angel to guide our perversities. I left the ministry and the faith in 2006; I stopped believing in the devil a half dozen years before that. The concept is unnecessary and answers nothing. The entirety of Genesis 3 makes more sense as a mythological explanation (etiology) for the loss of innocence in a psychological sense, expressed as a universal reality, than as a talking snake (the devil) tempting primordial humans to forsake YHWH. In other words, Satanists have less credibility than Christians, Jews, or Muslims, primarily because the Satanists' god is superfluous. Everything he does, we do without his assistance, and without his love of verbosity.

Yet, there were 400-500 people gathered outside the Civic Center that evening, and all were convinced that portly Vincent Price was summoning God's principal enemy, as if free will needs a competitor in that regard. Milton's Lucifer was correct about at least one thing: God is a dictator, and the quest for free will runs contrary to ethical monotheism. The Christians—I saw no other tribe—were arrayed out front of the Civic Center, which faces east, in clans or families within the larger tribe.

Catholics were a full sixty percent of the crowd, including a group of approximately 300 members of TFP, a group that needs a bit of an introduction. The group was founded in Brazil in 1960 by Plinio Correa de Oliveira. The abbreviation stands for Tradition, Family, and Property, or, as I prefer to call it, the Holy Trinity of Missing the Point. You will spend many hours scouring the New Testament for Jesus' teachings on personal property. You will find a brief reference like this: "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head..." Don't let that trouble you, though. Jesus was definitely a fan of John Locke, because he foreknew Locke's idea of life, liberty, and property, which was changed in our Constitution to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

TFP is the group that got the Black Mass canceled at Harvard, and so they bussed 300 of the faithful here to prevent the Oklahoma City version, even as our beloved governor, just like a broken clock, was right this time when she refused to stop the event, even though she tried to find a "legal" way to stop it. Let's be clear: conservatives are way more concerned about tradition than they are about law. However, the Black Mass went forward, even with 300 TFP members out front, dressed conservatively and sporting red sashes with a gold lion pin emblematic of, as one idealistic teenager told me, "Our Lord, the Lion of Judah." Jesus, it seems, is always available for protests, lawn parties, and political campaigns; one only needs the name to invoke the power, prestige, or theological justification for a claim that can be conveniently tied to an all too agreeable Savior. Perhaps in his zeal to save us all, he can't say no?

To their credit, the Catholics were occupied singing hymns or praying the Rosary. They did have a dizzying display of signage, including pleas to return America to "one nation under God," and they were singing God Bless America when I arrived (not a hymn, alas), so their agenda was clearly religious in the sense of civil religion, but, again, to their credit, they were the best behaved tribe of Christians on the east side of the Civic Center, an area that is a large plaza, composed of sidewalks, benches, public art, and occasional covered areas, and toward which the entrance faces. In other words, if you walk out the east side of the Civic Center, you are facing downtown Oklahoma City, and on this day, representatives of "the Lord's Army," arrayed, squadron-style, in denominations and traditions.

To quote Jay Kelly, the plaza was a Tilt-a-Whirl and an Indian taco stand away from being the State Fair of Religion. That's a fair assessment. The plaza was a rallying point for many different squadrons of the Lord's Army. Catholics made up at least sixty percent of the crowd, but other groups were noticeable for their volume (voice, not number).

I talked to an Apostolic minister from Sapulpa, Okla., who divided his time preaching hellfire for those who cooperated with Satan and speaking (yelling) in tongues. His name was Albert, and after I coaxed him down from his park bench-soapbox-pulpit, he was soft-spoken and kind. He was there to explain the error of the Satanists' ways; he simply thought loud and histrionic was more effective than kind and gentle. He immediately started yelling his sermon as soon as we stopped the interview.

A group of young, African American men, sporting combat boots and dressed in purple and gold vestments emblazoned with "Israel United in Christ," held down the southwest corner of the plaza, and posed back to back, as if they were fighting a last stand, a la Thermopylae, while they shouted Bible verses, the gist of which was that Jesus came to redeem Israel. Israel, according to their understanding and proclamation, was composed of people of color, I assume. Of course. History be damned. Real Jews are black. Everyone knows that.

A Pentecostal congregation squatted on the northwest corner of the plaza. Their pastor preached and prayed in a Thulsa Doom-worthy voice about the fate of Satanists and all who cooperated with Satan. The congregation, variously sitting, kneeling, and standing with hands raised, prayed in English and "tongues of angels."

They were perched next to the TFP Catholics who composed the middle of the phalanx, if we are to extend the military metaphor. Behind the phalanx were various other sub-tribes, including independent fundamentalists and evangelicals. Even farther back were singles and couples who were praying quietly in out-of-the-way places, much like Jesus would have commended, it seems.

Two circumstances made the night more remarkable than it would have been otherwise. The first was a growing realization amongst the fundamentalists that the majority of the protesters were Catholic. The fundamentalists had been directing their invective at the Satanists for most of the evening. A few intrepid evangelists camped at the edge of the police line on the north side of the building—the cops blocked the north street to allow press and Satanists to enter unmolested. The evangelists had bullhorns, and they used them to direct a constant flow of sermon, prayer, and mockery at the Satanists on the north side of the building. In fact, most of the group gathered on that side was composed of a metal band that Daniels had booked for the show and then subsequently ignored, even as the band pleaded for a brief audience with the Vicar of Ahriman.

The bullhorns broadcasted the evangelists' displeasure with the blasphemers in various ways, including, "Shame on you for sneaking in the back door! You hide from the truth! Cowards!" The police and staff at the Civic Center had developed the logistics to avoid a confrontation, but the fundamentalist ministers were not going to let reality impinge on their sermons, and yes, this is only one instantiation of that pattern. Once the bullhorn bearers realized that their words were wasted, they found a new target: Catholics.

Yes, the fundamentalists posted up in front of the TFP group and began to mock/proselytize the Catholics. One of the evangelists held forth on the differences between soteriology in the Catholic framework and the "correct" one, which is to say some version of Protestantism, especially faux-literalist, fundamentalist Baptist. Apparently, their failure to use imprecatory prayers to stop the Black Mass left them no recourse but to save the Papists from false salvation, which is to say, trusting in works as opposed to faith. I want to use the term shitshow, but it's not really a word, so I'll just mention that the worst offender directed his efforts at clean-cut Catholic teens, all of whom maintained their composure in the face of egregious douchebaggery. As Mark Twain said, "God is better than his reputation," and this preacher buttressed the truth of that assertion.

Finally, the gathered tribes were treated to one of God's signs shortly after the reverse exorcism began. It had rained just enough to soil clean cars right before the event, and because science is more consistent in its predictability than theism, a rainbow appeared above downtown Oklahoma City. People in the crowd sighed expansively and took pics of the amazing phenomenon. A rainbow! During a Black Mass! What could it mean? Albert, the heavenly polyglot, was near me when it appeared.

"Do you know what that means?" He yelled, undisguised joy in his expression.

I took the high road. "That's God's covenant with Noah," I said,

He slapped me on the back, and said, "That's right, brother!" He moved off toward the east, praying in tongues, hands and Bible aloft.

I would have received no reward for saying, "According to the text, it simply means YHWH won't flood the world again. There is no guarantee against destruction by fire, wind, virus, bacteria, rabid wombats, or the herp."

There is no cure for pareidolia, the tendency to see patterns in random stimuli. People find signs where and in ways that suit their narrative. The rainbow reassured the faithful army that God was there and on their side. The rainbow was located above downtown, though. It could have easily been a sign that God likes portly Vincent Price and his stab at being evil. It could also have been an effect based on light refracted through water, but who knows? God works in mysterious ways, his bread to transform. 


To Kill a Mockingjay (apologies to Harper Lee), or How Clint Eastwood Lost His Groove

If you haven't read the The Hunger Games trilogy, stop what you're doing (after you read this) and go buy the first in the series. The three books are The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. The utterly beautiful and brilliant librarian Leanne "Ninja" Cheek introduced me to the series a couple years ago. I read Hunger Games in a matter of hours. It was one of the most captivating, unique, suspenseful, brilliant things I've ever read. I waited a year for the sequel. It did not thrill me, even though the New York Times Book Review said it surpassed the original. Just didn't buy in, mainly because the last sequence was so disjointed I couldn't follow what was actually happening. Still, it was good. Mockingjay arrived on Saturday. I studiously avoided any conversations with fans so as not to have the story spoiled. Finished it today. I'm prone to hyperbole where theological issues are concerned, but not books. Mockingjay is stupidly brilliant. Ridiculous. Unbelievable. There aren't enough adjectives.

You should probably know that Stephen King is a blurb-er for the series. When The Hunger Games was released, he provided a dust jacket blurb: "...a violent, jarring, speed-rap of a novel..." Violent is a gross understatement. The creativity exhibited in the methods by which children are killed is breathtaking. The suspense is like nothing I've read since the school shooter sequence in Empire Falls. The second in the trilogy took a step back and threatened to make the series a standard "hero starts revolution/things get better" series. My trepidation going into Mockingjay was that Suzanne Collins, the author, would succumb to the temptation to write a YA (young adult) novel that followed the typical YA trajectory: hero/heroine, conflict, self-awareness, overcoming, conflict, peaceful/cheery resolution.

***Spoiler Alert*** This is not your typical YA fiction. Collins goes for the throat, killing off major characters, not in Harry Potter fashion, but really killing off major characters, because, well, violence is stupid and destructive, and occasionally (frequently) the undeserving die, and in doing so, she occasionally manages to preach a bit much. However, the bleak, unflinching look at violence and revolution is refreshing. Americans are addicted to the "myth of redemptive violence," and many an author has fed the blood lust for stories about young people who took upon themselves the grammar of violence and the ethos of revolutionary, always with redemptive results. Kill enough motherfuckers, and the world is a better place, it seems.

This was Clint Eastwood's entire corpus in the 1960s and 1970s. Sergio Leone, who directed his spaghetti western films, defined the "cowboy indulges redemptive violence" theme, seemingly with zero irony. Fast-forward to the early and mid-70s, and Eastwood is doing Dirty Harry, High Plains Drifter, and one of the greatest Westerns of all time, The Outlaw Josey Wales. The trend of "kill enough motherfuckers" continues 'til the mid-80s when Eastwood makes Heartbreak Ridge, a film about a soldier who reads women's magazines so as to understand women. After that, there is a period of cynicism, wherein Eastwood looks unflinchingly at the demons cops carry with them, including S&M and bondage, until we get to the Rubicon of his career in 1992 with Unforgiven.

The film is the beginning of a series of films that includes Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Gran Torino, in which Eastwood attempts to repudiate his entire earlier corpus. The later films are an unequivocal rejection of the myth of redemptive violence, culminating in the messianic imagery of Gran Torino in which he takes the violence upon himself to purge the innocent of suffering and injustice.

Collins takes the same tack in the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy. Everything in me wanted things to turn out all right, but that is not how violence works. Once the ball is in motion, the consequences are unpredictable. There is no sense in pretending the just are spared suffering in the context of revolution. Collins, fulfilling my most unimaginable hope, has Katniss, the heroine, kill off the one person I thought should be killed off, because I, like Katniss, distrust people who desire authority. It's brilliant, beautiful, bleak, and wholly (holy) unexpected. Being honest to her theme, Collins is courageous enough not to allow the death of the one I loathe to be redemptive. Katniss is not purged of demons. She lives with the consequences of her violence and the violence against her loved ones every day. She settles for a life that is as good as it can be, given the circumstances. At no point does Collins allow us to believe revolutionaries are less prone to the lust for power than their adversaries. At no point does she allow us to believe that violence solves things. At no point does she allow us to believe we would not make selfish, destructive decisions given the right (wrong) set of circumstances. She is bold and unflinching, and it does not go down well.

It is painful to read, bleak like Cormac McCarthy, but it is honest, because where McCarthy and Eastwood are two sides of the coin of despair/hope, Collins is realistically cynical. Eastwood imagines a man who will die for "the other;" although, even in the Bible, that man is a god. McCarthy imagines a world dominated by Nietzschean supermen, but he is foolish enough not to follow the possible consequences through to their horrific possible conclusions. Collins is courageous enough to imagine a world where the supermen are evil douchebags who victimize children for the sake of a Machiavellian ethos, and where the messiahs are narcissists who save people for the sake of converting them to a cause that fulfills the narcissist's agenda. In true Coen-esque form, "the dude" gets fucked over and over. And when he tries to be good, he gets fucked again, because life is suffering and there is no noble path to overcome it. Live with it. Do the best you can. Cherish the love you have. Kill if you have to, knowing it will work sadness and despair in you. Good, honest lessons. This book is for kids? I can think of two dozen adults who need to read it.


The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers

Cathleen Falsani, an amazing religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, has put together an overview of the Coen Brothers' films, including a chapter on A Serious Man, the new film that releases in October. The book drops tomorrow, but Falsani's publicist mailed me a review copy, which I finished last week.

Coen

Fans of the Coen Brothers will enjoy the assessment, especially those Christians broad-minded enough to handle the profane world of the Coens. The book looks at all 14 films using a broad overview, a plot assessment (summary), and a theological question: what does god look like in this film? Falsani concludes with a brief, bulleted list of the Coens' gospel.

I've read Falsani for years and have great respect for her ability to make complex subjects lucid and her evenhandedness in her columns. She is an excellent writer with a fair-mindedness not always found in the faithful. Her lucid writing comes through in the book, and she's kind enough to warn about spoilers in the chapter on A Serious Man. I read it anyway.

If I have a criticism of the book, it is that we tend to interpret the images of god and spirituality in films according to our own categories and assumptions. Falsani, who appears to be an evangelical, often makes the mistake of thinking about god from just that perspective. In doing so, for example, she makes Fargo, one of the best of the corpus, into a morality tale wherein Frances McDormand's character embodies all the good virtues. I completely agree to that point. But it seems that god is wholly absent from the film, inasmuch as everyone else sins boldly and badly, leading to the catastrophic results. Redemption is nowhere in the film, unless you count McDormand and her husband, who embody the virtues of simplicity, charity, fidelity, kindness, and thrift. But the redeemed don't need a redeemer; the unredeemed, who do need one, are left to their own devices—a common motif in Coen Brothers' films. (Hard to watch No Country for Old Men and find a glimmer of god helping the floundering fools.) If there is a theology to Fargo, it is that practicing the virtues, including being content with what we have, is the way to salavation in this world. Yes, it's a biblical message, but it's an axiom that transcends sectarianism, appearing in almost every faith as well as among atheists and skeptics.

That being said, the book is an enjoyable, easy read, especially for fans of the Coens. For newcomers, there may be too much information. Probably better to see the films before reading the spoilers.