by Lorette C. Luzajic
Those of you who enjoy reading my Pillars of Faith column may like Michael Largo’s book, God’s Lunatics, even more (Harper Collins, 2010). My columns offer a brief sketch of revered Christian leaders- the unflattering stuff they’d rather you ignore while offering unwavering obedience. Largo’s compendium doesn’t seek to skewer authority-abusing Christians so much as to reveal how very many religious are truly nuts. Far from being a rare aberration of faith, the nut may be the norm, and is usually the seed that grows into a full-fledged cult or religion. Largo introduces us to a fascinating medley of “lost souls, false prophets, martyred saints, murderous cults, demonic nuns, and other victims of man’s eternal search for the divine.”
Some may decry the choice of title, arguing that it belittles the sacred lost. But it’s a perfect fit. You probably know that the words “lunatic” and “lunacy” have something to do with “lunar”- the moon. Lunatics are literally followers of the moon- of Luna, the moon goddess. This marvelous treasure trove spans history and cultures, giving tantalizing sketches of religious lunatics of every stripe. By bringing so many stories into one collection, it’s easy to see how madness pervades religion. Far from being the exception to the rule, religion is densely populated with bizarre ideas and fixations. In these vivid illustrations, Largo dismantles our sacred cows.
Help yourself to some capezzoli di St. Agatha- Sicilian breast-shaped pastries in honor of Agatha, who endured the torture and excision of her breasts rather than sully them through marriage’s sexual demands. Find out how Buddha got his belly. Meet the patron saint of hemorrhoids. Revisit one of the first megachurches, Sister Aimee’s Angelus Temple. Learn how the Virgin Mary herself handed the first rosary to St. Dominic in 1214. Choose from among a wide sampling of alien or UFO religions. Meet ascetics of every flavor, including Simeon, who crawled atop a flagpole in the sixth century and stayed there for 37 years. Incidentally, his mother had had a vision, where the severed head of John the Baptist floated before her and announced that her son would become a saint.
Since the author has a sweetly sarcastic sensibility, his cheerful storytelling seldom veers into mean-spirited terrain. And while the collection collates endless sources to extract the nutty bits, the brief snippets can’t possibly provide the whole story. This book is not meant to be an academic treatise, so verifying and expanding any given information remains the responsibility of the reader. It’s meant as a tantalizing smorgasbord for the curious, with an invitation for follow up in a library of over 400 suggested titles. Ironically, it is the sheer variety of madness, hucksterism, conviction, and oddity through all of religious history that shows us how it’s all the same.