A long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away, I too was a fundamentalist; in fact, I was a minister in a fundamentalist Christian church. In that world, the final word was to be found with reference to the Holy Bible, a book far too opaque and contradictory to discern without someone to unlock its secrets, and this is where the religious leader, guru or institutionalized religious hierarchy filled the void. But the Bible has ultimate authority only in a ceremonial or symbolic sense, fulfilling the same role as the Catholic Tabernacle where Christ dwells or the Inner Sanctuary of the Jewish temple, where only the High Priest has access. True power resides with the priestly caste, the final interpreters and the ultimate beneficiaries of this created reality. Authoritative decrees or clearly defined sets of doctrines serve to identify, by their acceptance or rejection, the faithful or the heretical. By passionate argument, supported by frequent references to the Book, God Himself is brought to life and made to speak. It’s not unlike the speech from the throne in Parliament. The government prepares the legislative agenda and the Queen recites it in a solemn ceremony as though it were originating with her. The government does all in the name of the Queen. This is a complete fiction, of course, but one which grants the process a dignity and respectability it might otherwise lack. I suppose the Wizards have had millennia to work out just the right formula to pull the wool over our eyes.
When I first joined God’s Church (as it was called), we would rejoice at having found “The Truth,” which was, by definition, anything God’s Apostle pronounced upon. Though presented as absolute truth, an objective reality for all mankind delivered by the Wizard, it was just a disguise for one man’s opinions, preferences, obsessions, delusions, prejudices and outright deceptions, a delivery method for the Wizard’s ideas about heaven and hell, sexuality, skirt lengths, morality, geopolitics and prophesy. There was an answer for everything and these answers would keep on coming until the last mystery on earth had been wiped out.
When I was only 14, I had begun to read, on a regular basis, the Wizard’s glossy periodical magazine The Plain Truth. I would eagerly search each issue for answers to life’s important questions.
The Plain Truth had such an influence that a few years later I would attend the Wizard’s training college, an institution of religious indoctrination disguised as a liberal arts college. Interestingly, the college prospectus invited students to think for themselves, to reach their own conclusions, to study and prove all things. While this always remained a theoretical possibility, woe unto those who failed to arrive at the same conclusions as the Wizard. When making a point, when preaching a sermon or addressing the student assembly, he would rant and rave, fume and bluster just like the fictional Wizard of Oz. In speech class we were encouraged to express ourselves in the same way, to speak confidently and show no doubts.
My first contact with the Church was not with the Wizard but rather with his charismatic son Ted, the radio and television voice of the organization. Ted, unlike his father, was more liberal and colourful, an outdoorsman and something of an environmentalist, the latter being the reason I first became interested in the Church. He spoke of yearning to escape the smoggy, congested, artificial bleakness of L.A., seeking refuge in more serene places like Yosemite and its giant, three-thousand-year-old trees.
My first experience of the big city would begin early in life.
When I was five, my parents immigrated from a small town in England to Toronto, Canada, my father having been recruited by Ontario Hydro as an electrical engineer. I was heartbroken to be suddenly uprooted from a rural environment, leaving behind my extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles. What would happen to my cat? Someone would look after him, my mother said as we raced to the airport.
We arrived at our new home, a bungalow in the unfinished, muddy Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where to get to the front door we had to traverse a series of unstable, wobbling planks. And although, in those days, our house was close to fields and farms, Scarborough seemed a noisy, never-ending construction site and became known as “Scarberia.” Scarberia seemed a very, very dead world.
My greatest joy was escaping the city on frequent trips with my parents to the Thousand Islands near Kingston, Ontario. There we would rent a cottage and tour around the islands in a small motor boat. I also liked to escape on hikes with friends down the various untouched “ravines” near our home. We would make a campfire and roast wieners and sometimes spend the night in a pup tent. To me the ravines were sanctuaries where I could take refuge from the dead world. A good friend lived in a real farmhouse on a real farm close to the subdivision and I loved to visit him there, walking down the long lane, fields of tall grass waving in the wind. Later in life, my wife Roxanne and I would buy a hobby farm of our own with an historic farmhouse on seventy acres of pasture and woodland. To me the farm has a significance more symbolic than real, representing a long-forgotten and better way of life, one which fosters self-sufficiency and co-operation with nature, a world more natural to a human being and more consistent with our evolutionary heritage, a living world of personal freedom where local community is more important than remote bureaucracy. Life was brutal for the early homesteaders, but modern technology, correctly applied to community revival and self-sufficiency, offers the promise of a better world. Not a utopia, to be sure, but certainly preferable to the dystopian nightmare which, if the Wizard’s have their way, would be the alternative.
I am conscious not to ascribe to local governance and self-sufficiency, even one supported by modern technology, the attributes of a utopia. Many have been overwhelmed by the challenges of such independent living only to retreat bruised and disillusioned back to the enticements and comforts of the dead world. A few remarkable souls have made it work and this is good, if you are young and fit and work very hard and have another job, such as school-bus driver or receptionist at a clinic. Fundamentalists believe in utopia. I no longer do. You cannot simultaneously believe in utopia, and at the same time say that life is a veil of tears. I share the Buddhist view that “life is suffering” and I therefore mistrust ideologically-driven utopian dreams. Fundamentalists think they have found the magic formula to solve all of life’s problems. No ideology will solve the existential problems of human existence. Nevertheless, we make the best of an imperfect world. Making the best of things means avoiding the horrors of another Hitler or Stalin, if we can. The path to personal freedom means embracing self-reliance and personal autonomy in one form or another. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation of independent, self-sufficient landowners as his ideal of liberty. Nevertheless, he also believed that constant vigilance would be required to avoid the need for future revolutions. Could we be sleep-walking into a new tyranny made more sinister by the light of advanced technology? If the answer is yes, accepting the trajectory towards higher and higher levels of dependency will smooth the way. The result of such dependency is clear from history.
During the feudal period, the landowning gentry discovered that they could make more money selling wool in the international marketplace than by receiving vegetables from tenant farmers. The farmers were kicked off the land and replaced with sheep. This was the beginning of slavery, a time of starving peasants roaming the country, selling their labour for money. Disconnecting people from the land has always been the first step in controlling them. All around us, dependency increases along with the prospect of global tyranny. Years ago, people had a better concept of self-reliance than today.
At the end of the Great Depression, there were 3,100 community currencies in America, approximately one for each US county; but today, relatively few. During the Great Depression, people in Chicago kept chickens and had wood-burning stoves. Although unemployed, at least they could feed themselves and stay warm.
During a recent, relatively mild ice storm in Toronto, power was out in many parts of the city for over a week. My aging mother was in one such area. I was unable to start a fire in the fireplace because my father had bricked in the flu and installed an electric fireplace instead. I was unable to access the car in the garage because there was no manual way of opening the garage door. I had to evacuate my mother by taxi to her caregiver’s apartment where there was power. Lucky for us someone had power somewhere. I heard on the radio that people were dying across the city, poisoning themselves by lighting barbeques in their apartments to stay warm.
Soon we will have a cashless society. What happens when the system fails either by accident or design? How will communities continue to function without access to cash? Ask the people in Greece or Cyprus. The EU shut down the ATMs and access to private accounts, forcing those governments to comply with punitive austerity measures decreed by Brussels. As we become increasingly connected to the Wizard’s electronic surveillance and control grid, the threat of being unplugged renders dissent unthinkable. In the old days you could always walk away, blend back into the forest or the jungle. Joining Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest is not on option for the dumbed-down 21st-century slaves. Where will we flee when access to the land and the knowledge of how to live there is gone?
On our small hobby farm, we have learned how to tap our maple trees to make maple syrup. We have raised goats and learned how to milk them. I have harvested wood for our wood stove and for building materials. Quite apart from survival considerations, every small step in the direction of autonomy, whether economic or spiritual, can be enormously gratifying. It doesn’t have to be drastic. It could be as simple as getting out of debt. Corporate employers love it when you have a big mortgage, several children to support and a fancy car to keep up appearances. Hooked on consumerism, how can you walk away? If my experience with the Wizard has taught me anything, it is this: you must be ready to walk away.
Notwithstanding the difficulties, self-sufficiency and personal autonomy do offer the best chance we have of escaping tyranny, the kind of tyranny which thrives on remote centralized authority, where personal sovereignty is ceded to anonymous persons far from home. Fundamentalism is the very definition of tyranny. Ridding ourselves of tyranny is not an end in itself, only a beginning and a terrifying beginning at that. Suddenly we are responsible for shaping our lives, and this scares us more than anything. But we might discover a previously unrecognized creative potential, the exercise of which is our real purpose here. Wandering in the desert after escaping Egypt, we know we must not return to that place where sustenance came at such a heavy price; realizing the hardships, we might be tempted to seek out a substitute, another Egypt by a different name. Life is tough in the wilderness, but at least in the desert you are free.
Fundamentalists promise us utopia, if we accept their plan. They can fix everything if we rely on their personal revelation, insight, formula or philosophy, providing answers hitherto unavailable to humanity. In more recent times I have been drawn to Gnostic philosophy because Gnosticism says otherwise – the world cannot be fixed, it can only be forsaken. As the character Morpheus says in the 1999 film The Matrix, “there’s something wrong with the world” and that something is embedded in the structure of reality itself. It can’t be fixed but it can be transcended or transformed as the outcome of an evolutionary process. The entire universe and we in it are participants in that evolution. The rejection of fundamentalism allows for a return to the evolutionary path. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is an evolutionary cul-de-sac, a prison for the mind.
Cults and ideologies get us hooked by articulating our deepest yearnings, our discontent or our worst fears. They are the masters of diagnosis, setting us up for the cure.
The Wizard’s son, Ted, captured my attention because I related instantly to his desire to escape from the bleakness of urban life. My distress had me, perhaps inadvertently, looking for answers and Ted’s confident, charismatic tone enticed me to subscribe to The Plain Truth. Neither the magazine nor the Church’s broadcasts seemed religious at first. There were many articles on world affairs, and this is how the fear factor, another powerful instrument of indoctrination, was introduced. There was ample evidence that the end of the world was nigh. It was the cold war then, and the prospect of annihilation by nuclear war was prominent in the magazine.
I felt I needed to know more, so I wrote in for the booklet 1975 In Prophecy! which painted a frightening portrait of “the great tribulation.” The central theme of the booklet was Matthew 24, where Jesus was asked by his disciples what signs would accompany the end of the world. There will be “wars and rumours of wars,” Jesus answered, and “nation will rise against nation” but the end is not yet. There was something different about the booklet’s prophesied end-time scenario, however, something more terrible, not seen since the beginning of time; not just a local disaster, but one which threatened all life on earth and “unless those days should be shortened no flesh would be saved alive.” This all-out destruction was never possible before the advent of nuclear weapons, so the case was made for the end of the world – not a distant prospect but an imminent one.
Of course 1975 came and went without incident. Somehow this old world has a way of surviving those who predict its demise.
All ideologies are good at diagnosis but weak on remedy. They articulate the problems very well, reduce them to a single cause, then propose a solution which either does not work or more often produces something much worse. In this case it was disobedience to God’s laws which had caused the problem, and it was obedience which would fix it. God’s operating manual for mankind, the Bible, would, if consulted, usher in a utopian era of peace, prosperity and justice for all; a wonderful world tomorrow on the other side of chaos; a “kingdom of heaven.” Fundamentalists seem to be ruled by the same operating system, whether Christian, Islamic, neo-Marxist or neo-Nazi – attribute the problems to a single cause, propose the fundamentalist answer, expect utopia. But utopia never comes, just as it never came to Russia once the capitalists, the source of all evil, were eliminated. Needless to say, it left a profound impression on my youthful brain, and it was a short distance from the glossy magazine to more religious literature, then to the local Church, which became like a surrogate extended family; and finally, off to the college where I would encounter the Wizard for the very first time.
The Wizard knew how to surround himself with good people, ones who would further enhance his image and give him credibility. There were three colleges, one in Bricket Wood, England, one in Pasadena, California and the third in Big Sandy, Texas. They were high-quality operations, physically impressive with lovely gardens and fine architecture. The Bricket Wood campus was a former country estate of a wealthy, 19th-century jute merchant. The manor house became the library and this was one of my favourite places (I was sometimes warned not to become “unbalanced”; students who read too much aroused suspicion).
There was an organic experimental farm, a good music and athletic department with competent instructors and professors, some from places like Oxford and the Sorbonne. These qualified people added prestige, but on the other hand, they tended to ask questions and push back against blind obedience, producing unintended consequences for the Wizard.
The Toto pulling back the curtain moment arrived for me thanks to one such dissident. Several years after my graduation, when I was working as a minister, I learned of a former professor of history at the college, who had left the Church and had written subversive material deconstructing some of its central doctrines. Just as Big Brother warned against the treachery of Emmanuel Goldstein, we were warned about this man too – but I was developing an interest, which persists to this day, in reading things which have been suppressed or forbidden. Another dissident circulated a taped conversation between the Wizard and his lawyer/accountant, who was also a prominent Church member. From listening to this, it became clear that the lawyer was bullying him in an attempt to gain control of all that the Wizard had built. Far from sounding confident, the Wizard was acting more like the little man behind the screen. He seemed like a ridiculous enemy in that moment. The Wizard, I would later learn, had been under the firm control of his wife, who had been the moral force behind the Church, the Wizard acting as mouthpiece. But when she died, there was a loss of that moral compass, as well as a power vacuum which the clever lawyer was attempting to exploit.
As I became increasingly a dissident within the Church myself, and as Ted assumed more control, I entertained some hope that hard-line attitudes were softening. There was a general movement towards a less literal, more liberal interpretation of scripture, and real discussions took place about how Church doctrines should be modified or changed. But hopes were dashed after a falling out between Ted and the Wizard, and Ted was fired. After that, the Wizard moved to put things “back on track.” This resulted in more ministers getting fired, and I was one of them.
It all stated to unravel after I counselled a young man who was about to lose his job over his difficulty observing the Sabbath on Saturday, which was Church doctrine. His employer insisted he work that day and he looked to me for advice. I told him he did not need to give up his job. I recall referencing a verse in the New Testament: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Old Testament was less flexible. Sabbath observance was one of the Ten Commandments which God, with his own finger, had carved on tablets of stone: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” God thundered.
My attitude by this time was: it’s probably good to have at least one day off a week and who cares which one it is?
My advice to the young man somehow got back to the Vatican, so to speak. I was summoned before a Church official who insisted I meet with the young man once more, and tell him that he give up his job if that’s what obedience to God required. My impulsive response was: “No, I won’t do that.” The official was visibly shaken by this direct challenge. Surprisingly, this was not the end. It was only the beginning of the end. Nothing more was said for the time being.
The end came later, after I was instructed to give public and unequivocal support for the termination of a fellow minister, one who had become too outspoken. I was to get up in front of the congregation and tell them I supported Church officials in this decision, and in the exercise of their authority in general, as ordained by God.
Once again, I refused.
That was the end of my employment as a minister, but when I also refused to refrain from communicating my heretical beliefs to the congregation as a layman, I was excommunicated (“disfellowshipped” was the word in Newspeak), and “marked,” another label reserved only for the worst “thought crimes.” This meant no one in the Church was allowed to interact with me. At first I was happy to have some clarity around my increasing doubts and reservations. This joy was tempered by the realization that I was broke and needed a new career.
(c) Adrian Charles Smith 2019