Reading Gore Vidal in Waco

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I've been re-reading a book that is quite eerie in light of the upcoming anniversary of the 1993 Waco disaster, the catastrophic fire at the Branch Davidian compound.

Long before that event, in 1954, Gore Vidal's Messiah offered a wide-ranging satire of religious fanaticism, which stands out today because it depicts true believers pursuing their faith by ritual suicide. As I have argued, we should be very skeptical about claims concerning such "cult suicide" events. In the Waco case, we can debate whether the Branch Davidians actually did cause their own deaths, as opposed to being killed as a result of official action. In other cases though, as at Jonestown and in the Heaven's Gate cult, devotees really did end their lives, as Messiah foretold.

New religions continually surface. In some cases, religious entrepreneurs construct new faiths, usually claiming some deeper roots for them. Others originate as jokes or fictional devices, but then acquire remarkable traction in the real world. Invented faiths abounded in the 1950s and 1960s, partly because authors were intrigued and impressed by L. Ron Hubbard's success in promoting Scientology (his Dianetics appeared in 1950). They naturally wondered what else might lie on the horizon. Also driving interest in religious innovators was Fawn Brodie's classic 1945 biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History.

In the same years, the sense that the world was facing a near-apocalyptic crisis led science fiction writers to imagine new messiahs and prophets who could deal with the anxieties of a deeply disturbed public. In Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut invented the cynical pseudo-faith of Bokononism. Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land created the proto-hippyish Church of All Worlds, which subsequently morphed into a genuine real world movement. In the 1966 musical Sweet Charity, devotees of the prophetic hipster Daddy recall how a message from on high told him to spread his Rhythm of Life church throughout the nation. After all, Daddy learns,

Brother, there's a million pigeons
Ready to be hooked on new religions.

In 1954, perhaps the oddest of these new faiths appeared in a book by up and coming author Eugene Luther Gore Vidal. I stress the full name, because Messiah's hero is one Eugene Luther, a transparent Vidal substitute, who is working on a book about the Roman Emperor Julian. Vidal's own novel Julian appeared a decade later.

Messiah tells the story of John Cave, a mortician who has learned the core cosmic truth that death is superior to life. Postponing a natural temptation to suicide, he realizes that he must spread his truth throughout the world, from his base in Southern California, the natural home for all quirky new creeds. He now becomes a messianic prophet, the "J.C." for the contemporary era, and in Christian eyes, probably the Antichrist. Much of the book concerns how Cave's followers spread his message, using television and other media then becoming available. Anyone who saw last year's brilliant Hubbard-based film The Master will have flashes of recognition.

Luther initially helps the project, using his historical background to show how Cave's teachings purportedly fit into the world's great religious and philosophical traditions (which, as he well knows, they certainly do not). Over the next forty years or so, Cave's doctrine -- Cavesword -- sweeps the Atlantic/Western world, and penetrates other non-Western regions, including Arab and Muslim territories.

Vidal uses Cavism to parody and critique Christianity, which he also sees as an intolerant religion that favors death over life, sterility over sexuality. He is also asking Christians how they would like to be on the receiving end of the treatment they had themselves dealt out to their historical competitors. As Cavesword spreads, so its leaders become ever more repressive towards any and all rival creeds, including Christianity itself. All churches and cathedrals burn, and the last Pope dies a martyr in the ruins of the Vatican. Christmas becomes Cavesday.

Not only does Cave's Testament have absolute authority, but each new edition of this ultimate truth demands that all previous versions must be rounded up and destroyed, lest anyone be rash enough to detect contradictions. Cave's surviving telecasts also have scriptural status. Any deeds or words that might deviate from orthodoxy demand the forcible reprogramming of the unfortunate heretic, by brain surgery if necessary. The new faith becomes rigidly hierarchical and bureaucratic.

Much of Messiah is a satire of institutional Christianity, grounded in Vidal's deep historical awareness. What makes it memorable, is the logical culmination of Cavism. If death is better than life, then death is something to be welcomed rather than feared, and ritual suicide is the ultimate act of piety.

The Church struggles to make the passage to non-existence as easy and pleasant as possible, as believers take Cavesway. Suicidalists take poison in the most pleasant of circumstances, in the hospitable Cavite Centers. This is the development that forces Luther to abandon the movement. He goes on the run, knowing that in the new order his very name has become a byword for treason. Nobody wants to be a Lutherist, any more than a Judas.

For anyone who remembers the news film from Guyana in 1978, the suicide accounts sound very prescient. I know no evidence that Messiah actually influenced either the People's Temple or any comparable movement: in fact, the book rather dropped out of view, even among Vidal's fans. That is unfortunate, because Messiah deserves to be better known as an imaginative case-study of the birth of a religion. The book also does a wonderful job of taking an aberrant idea and exploring its consequences to their ultimate conclusion.

Before the 1970s, we might have said it was wildly improbable, but we have since learned better.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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