Thirty years ago today, Jim Jones coerced more than 900 members of his Peoples Temple in Guyana to kill their children and commit suicide by drinking Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide in order to “die with dignity” rather than suffer retaliation for the killing of Congressman Leo Ryan and other members of his party.
About three months prior to that event, I began my freshman year at Oral Roberts University. For those who don’t know, ORU was established by Oral Roberts — a preacher and faith healer whose charisma not only drove thousands of old ladies to empty their savings accounts into his ministry’s coffers, but also shaped many of the university’s policies. Being at that time a believer with only modest reservations, learning about the events at Jonestown suggested some frightening analogies — especially when Oral would loudly declaim against those who were out to discredit him. Let’s just say that I abstained from communion on campus for a while.
Of course, I had good reason to be even more mistrustful. I should have recognized the cult-like quality of the Oral Roberts ministry from the start, having led a mini-cult of my own when I was a young teenager. My religion at that time, which had seemed so profound, was pretty run-of-the-mill: a new and highly unlikely interpretation of the Bible combined with a heavy dose of pseudoscience to produce a new gospel, of which I was the Prophet and Messiah. It gathered a small following among my peers before I disavowed it two years later and became a fundamentalist Christian instead.
You see, being a cult prophet is altogether too strenuous. You have to keep your nose very clean, because after all you’re supposed to be perfect. And then there’s all those nasty stories about how you weren’t so perfect when you were younger. It’s a real advantage to a prophet to have died at least 20 years prior to attaining full Messiah status. By then, all the old stories have been forgotten, suppressed, or transformed into new ones that are more consistent with Messianic claims.
Another thing that led me to abandon my cult was my inconvenient honesty. Over the course of two years of studying the Bible, I began to realize that my new interpretations were certainly not related to the story being told in the text. Of course, the New Testament acted as my pattern and justification for reinterpreting existing scripture — and for a long time I told myself that any real prophet has to break some textual eggs in the making of a Messianic omelette. But it gave me spiritual heartburn.
So I decided to adopt a more traditional interpretation of the myths, a decision that was immediately followed by a “born again” religious experience. I was not the type to settle for a drowsy, ritualized religion. As a cult leader, I had experienced visions and even an out-of-body episode — and I expected just as rich a mystical life from Christianity. I became involved with the Charismatic movement, and learned to pray fervently and speak in tongues.
This all seemed to me at the time to be the product of a faithful interpretation of the Bible, as did also the Oral Roberts ministry. But I continued to study the Bible passionately, reading up to thirty chapters a day in various translations. I took a major in Biblical Literature, Old Testament — and a minor in New Testament. I learned Hebrew and Greek and read from the originals (as good as we have them). It was from this intense study that I came to see that Oral was also twisting the Bible into his own image, just as I had done — only with much more subtlety. He may not have even been aware of it himself.
The study of Hebrew in particular made it clear to me just how far we are from the culture that produced the Bible. If you think the King James version sounds foreign, the Hebrew version might as well be from another planet. I don’t just say that because the language was unfamiliar. In fact, it became very familiar to me. I steeped myself in it to learn to think in it — so much so that I quit translating my Biblical Hebrew assignments ahead of class, and just translated on-the-fly from the original when my turn came. No, what’s really different about the Hebrew Bible is its entire world view and system of thought — or rather, lack of system. Attempting to apply logic to Biblical thought is like trying to fit shoes on a fish. We can’t get around without it, but they didn’t even consider it.
Despite the mourning of mathematicians and scientists over the lack of rigorous thinking in our culture, we are nevertheless wholly reliant on logic — even though much of that logic is flawed. We cannot escape our notions of causality, space, and time. But it seems evident to me that the ancient Hebrew mind held quite different conceptions, which were, naturally, never even explicitly defined. They relied much more heavily on analogy and metaphor. As such, any attempt to systematize the theology of the Bible will perforce be unfaithful to the original — and the use of the Bible to support any modern-day cause constitutes abuse of the Bible.
Many of my fellow students at ORU consoled themselves with the knowledge that Jim Jones had departed from “Biblical” theology — and they ascribed his fall to that fatal flaw. It also comforted them to know that Jones was a radical leftist, whereas conservative Christian ministries have a high incidence of leaning right politically. But I saw much more commonality than difference between these religious personality cults. Now I no longer have any need of religion, though I’ll allow that there may be a kernel of truth in some religious beliefs. My cynical side suggests a different metaphor: a shred of truth covering a much larger lie.
The bigger question is: why do such cults find followers? My provisional answer is that most people are too lazy or too insecure to take the larger questions of life onto their own shoulders. They want certainty and solace, and they want someone else to give it to them. As Jonestown demonstrated, the risks associated with abdicating that responsibility can far outweigh its relief. Every person is ultimately responsible for what they will believe, even if they decide to let someone else decide for them. In that respect, Jonestown should be a group winner of the Darwin Award — except that it wasn’t funny.