You need to know about what goes on in the head of your favorite OC Weekly literary arts blogger like you need a hole in your own head or one of these, an E-Meter. But you might want to know about how what is in Mr. Bib's noggin actually gets there, at least by way of tardy recommendations of a couple of terrific reads. This E-Meter “Mark Super VII Quantum”- for sale on E-Bay (!) as it happens – is a high-tech looking gizmo that measure galvanic skin response, which is basically how much you are sweating, which increases conductance of your skin, which is about as valuable as a mood ring. No, it's not much to begin with, but this baby is a far cry from crazy-as-a-loon sci-fi hack writer and all-around con man Lafayette Ronald Hubbard's original, a bit of mad genius gimcrackery just perfect for the perfect all-American fake religion meets Ponzi scheme, only mildly critiqued in Lawrence Wright's otherwise excellent nonfiction take-apart of the religion, its founder and the leadership of that criminal enterprise in Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.
Which is to say that you, like the Bibster, knew all of that already. But having read the Lawrence Wright book I can't stop thinking about, writing about, talking about this important book, a kind of case study of the kooky religion whose truths positively glow on the page. Just as I couldn't stop all of the above after Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, especially the history part, about the Second Great Awakening. That 2003 book by the writer known best for Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, was ostensibly about a couple of crazy woman-hating renegade Mormons who God told to kill. But the other story, explaining the ancestors of these two, and the beginnings of the mass delusion that is the homegrown American religion perhaps most obviously setting the bar for Scientology, was my favorite. I love the history deal, folks. It explains so much. By the way, I was about to lament the unlikelihood of there ever being a film made of Under the Banner, but note that it's in the works, with Ron Howard directing, and screenplay by the brilliant dude who wrote Milk, screenwriter and activist Dustin Lance Black. Perfect!
I reproduce here Krakauer's excellent intro to those political conditions which he argues helped created one religion, and leave to you the obvious conclusion about a parallel one, with maybe a nudge in that direction later, as relates to one of the ugliest of extremely ugly prophets you will ever want to read about.
Following the Revolutionary War, the new republic was jarred by a period of ecclesiastical turmoil, during which the established churches were viewed by a large segment of the populace as spiritually bankrupt. The flood of religious experimentation that roiled the United States during the first decades of the nineteenth century, christened (sic) the Second Great Awakening, was roughly analogous to the religious upheaval that swept the country in the 1970s…People imagined the acrid scent of brimstone in the air. The Apocalypse seemed just around the corner…It was in this super-heated, anything-goes religious climate that Joseph Smith gave birth to what would become America's most successful homegrown faith.
No kidding, a nation of disappointed citizens betrayed by institutional religion, who turn to nutty soap salesman who claim magical powers? Here he comes, talking to a deity in a hat: “An earnest, good-natured kid with a low boredom threshold, Joseph Junior had no intention of becoming a debt-plagued farmer like his father…His talents called for a much grander arena. Although he received no more than a few years of formal schooling as a boy, by all accounts he possessed a nimble mind an an astonishingly fecund imagination.”
No, not the guy who made a machine so he could talk to plants, but a hundred years earlier a
similarly odd child who found that hucksterism could be a path to spiritual, well, you know enlightenment or what-ever. L. Ron is portrayed as almost the same kind of weirdo, except his oeuvre was a super-rocket charged Space Age medium, and comic strips, combined with his love of high seas adventure stories. Thus the funny fake nautical uniform and the leadership cult of the “Sea Org,” not to mention that his first really big con job was stealing money from fellow adventurers sailing the world to document cultural practices for sale to the movies. Ahoy, we''re broke. And I spent the money, yo ho ho. You likely already know this part of the story, too, though Wright's telling of the Scientology nonsense and the phony illness to recovery narrative and even fake war-hero record is all meant to help us to understand and, presumably sympathize, empathize with Paul Haggis, the writer-director (Crash) whose departure from Scientology this book traces.
So imagine my delight at discovering a writer whose ultimate Say No to Proselytizers short story, “Winter Elders” appears in a recent issue of Ecotone, that excellent literary journal our of University of North Carolina-Wilmington. The murderous tale of revenge, rehabilitation, told in a kind of manic deadpan, caused me to immediately purchase and read Shawn Vestal's short and wonderful collection, Godforsaken Idaho, which I recommend here, big-time. It turns out Idaho, USA is second only to Utah and California in Mormonification, and little Shawn lived the nightmare. As a mature writer (and journalist), he seems to be something less than bitter, and only better for it. Easy to say now, or uneasy. These nine brilliant, different, connected short stories mine that particular shaft, or perhaps fall into it but then dig their way out, with the most excellent recontextualizing into art by way of humor, appropriation, caustic brilliance, darkness and the elevation of the spirit as antidotes to all the bad religion.
The first story, “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death” is a deal breaker.
Either you think this is hilarious (just the title) or you are, well, not meant to read this blog or anything ever again. This is the same droll afterlife of Talking Heads song about heaven, where nothing happens, except for more bad things, as your relatives still hate you because you were an asshole then, and still are: The food is excellent. The lines are never long. There's nothing to do with your hands. These are the first things I tell my son. Then we don't talk again for something like two hundred years.”
Vestal co-opts all the easiest, fun oddness of the religion, takes it myths and supplies more details from the perspective of somebody who's been there. And left. And, look, there's Joseph S. on the cover, which helpfully evokes the iconic beehive inter-connectivity of the faith, one of its tropes I gather. Let's stick with titles a moment longer, “Families are Forever,” being another of the dismally funny jokes about ancestor worship that sets a tone of both authority and remove, intimacy with skepticism, even as its heretical wise-assery ultimately makes the mythology and phony folklore so much richer. The final three stories reconstruct religious history through characterization which honors rather than only teases, and even produces a couple of empathetic characters among the predictable rogues' gallery of con artists, awful parents, thieves, bad people. “I was a stupid child, well into adulthood,” is a line from the title story told by its narrator which, embarrassingly, rings true for me and, I imagine, many survivors of the mind-numbing crazy bee hive on fire that is religious practice. It goes a long way (in fact, it's a very, very short way) to explaining his really bad behavior and the shame and anger which elegantly animates this careful, humane, darkly vindicating set of stories.
The subtitle of Krakauer's book, “A Story of Violent Faith,” though perhaps risking redundancy, certainly works for all three of these books. The violence of coercion and duplicity is alternately fun, funny and sickeningly fascinating, you pick. Maybe in all three. Did you you know that the Church of Scientology successfully coerced the United State Internal Revenue Service? Did you know that although the church claims millions of members, actual polls and surveys and real scientific research suggests that there are more practicing Rastafarians in the US than Hubbarites? There's more, much more, and Wright's book, now in paperback, along with Vestal's stories, have got me in a good place myself, creatively, writing a short story of my own about somebody a lot like me, a guy who reads a glowing book, has a cosmic experience from — of all things — revelation, and then does something about it by way of objecting.
Godforsaken Idaho, Shawn Vestal, New Harvest, 209 pgs, $15.95
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, Vintage, 500 pages, $15.00
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer, Anchor, 399 pgs. $16.00
Miller time: Apropos of not sure what, exactly, the retirements of both liberal Democrat George Miller of Contra Costa County and Republican Gary Miller of Orange County once but now further east allows Mr. Bib to consider where he's been, which is in the audience applauding one (at California Federation of Teachers events) and sitting down, if just barely, with the other, at a meeting some years back to object to my truly wicked and dumb ex-Congressman's positions on the war (for it, natch). I say barely because of the 15 minutes the extremely busy and completely corrupt Gary had allotted for meeting with the small group of a dozen or so of his canyons constituents, he made it to about minute 12 before he had to rush out to rebury the bodies of all the dead soldiers he'd exhumed in an impressively cliche-driven mass pandering to the glory of war and the need for more, more, more. It was his effort to coerce us, to shame us, that old trick where if we didn't support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq we didn't support the “USA, USA, USA.”
It was embarrassing. For him. I got to spend the morning with some really fine people, local activists and just plain stand-up, fed-up citizens who deserved to be treated at least a bit better. Still, the un-ironically displayed Nixon memorabilia (!) displayed in the Brea office of Gary the M. should have been warning enough from the staff of a Congress member who likes to play Civil War dress-up when not being investigated for corruption charges. Good bye, and Semper Fi!
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.