Escape from the Island of Aquarius, pp. 66-71
This whole section is weird weird weird weird weird.
Let’s start with a quick reminder of where we are. Dr. Cooper, Jay, and Lila, were imprisoned in the “confinement hut” and a fly that can deliver a deadly poison was intentionally inserted through the roof. Dr. Cooper killed the fly and knocked out the guard and, because everyone else in the cult town was outside town limits having some sort of meeting that involved chanting, they were able to escape the town. Instead of leaving the island, they decide to investigate.
Their hearts were pounding as they pushed on through the jungle, following the winding trail, always taking quick little moments to listen and watch. The sounds of wailing and chanting new closer. The Coopers kept moving.
This would make more sense if children were not involved.
Then Dr. Cooper stopped and pointed at his nose. Jay and Lila sniffed the air. They could smell something burning, like the smell of sparks or hot stones. They pressed on, step by step, picking up that smell more and more.
Do hot stones smell differently from fire? Or sparks—do sparks smell differently from fire? I’ve never tried to tell the difference between the smell of separate types of fire, but my guess would be that it smells differently depending on what is being burned, not sparks v. fire v. hot stones.
Firewalking. It’s firewalking.
Now they could see what looked like another clearing coming up, and an orange, fiery glow shining on the trees. The villagers must be having some kind of bonfire.
What is that last line even trying to do? Either stick with describing what they can see and hear or put the editorializing in someone’s head, this is just weird.
The “party” was in full swing when the Coopers finally slinked and prowled up to the clearing’s edge.
Slinked and prowled?
Lila found a good spot in a tree from which to watch, Jay climbed up on a very handy boulder, and Dr. Cooper was tall enough simply to conceal himself and observe what was happening in the clearing.
I had to read this three times to figure out why Dr. Cooper’s height meant he didn’t need to hide, only to realize that he actually is hiding … somehow.
The area looked like a large, outdoor amphitheater, with logs rolled into place to serve as benches, all facing a huge fire pit in the center, now red, glowing, and covered over with stones. The benches were full of villagers—mothers, fathers, children, workers—and all of them were wailing and moaning some strange chant as if in a devilish, hypnotic worship service. The participants were entranced, and swayed back and forth like a field of grass, their eyes vacant and staring, their necks craned as if they were hanging by their hair.
Wait, what? WTF is happening with their hair?
This is weird, man, it’s weird.
But it was the glowing, smoldering, fiery mound of stones that grabbed the Coopers’ attention. With great amazement and dread, they watched as former college professors, lawyers, and executives, like puppets possessed, stepped barefoot onto the hot, glowing rocks, walked over them, and then stepped off onto the ground again to the cheers of the crowd, their feet unaffected by the incredible, searing heat.
I want you to remember this, because we’ll come back to it—they watch “as former college professors, lawyers, and executives” walk barefoot across the rocks. Those are the three professions Peretti chose to emphasize.
Having passed through this fiery test, they then knelt before Adam MacKenzie, who stood at the other end of the mound, officiating over the whole ritual, encouraging the new initiates, and basking in the admiration and glory.
I’m genuinely interested in how these people got here. I listened to a whole podcast season about Waco, and I’ve read more about Jonestown than I probably should have. And then there’s that Netflix series on the cult in Oregon. The dynamics of cults are utterly fascinating to me. What did Fake MacKenzie tell these people, exactly? How does he explain his own position, to create such worship? Is he a prophet? A god reincarnated? I want to know more!
Dr. Cooper doesn’t, though.
Dr. Cooper was angry and ashamed at what he was seeing.
“A firewalking party!” he said, shaking his head. “People under demonic power, walking on incredibly hot stones without being burned, and they think they’ll find salvation in that!”
Wait wait wait.
Peretti needs to make up his mind here. Are these goings on demonic, or not? Recall that when the Coopers were discussing the “Moro Kunda” curse in the confinement hut, one of the kids suggested that it might be demonic, but Dr. Cooper dismissed that suggestion, saying that in his view there was probably a perfectly ordinary explanation for the curse, because the whole curse thing was just too convenient for Fake MacKenzie—and he was right. The curse was induced by a poisonous insect. But now this is demonic?
I feel like there’s a lot going on here. First, there’s the firewalking itself. Second, there’s the relation to the cult and its power structures and beliefs. I’m curious whether this is a thing cults have actually done—this use of firewalking. This webpage suggests that it is. Third, there’s the relationship between firewalking and evangelical Christianity—the claim that demons are involved.
This this last part seems most interesting. Peretti is inveighing spiritual authority on firewalking when most people I know think it has a scientific explanation. Evangelicals do this quite frequently: consider the claim that Mohammad really had visions, that the Koran was dictated to him by a demon disguising itself as an angel. It’s an interesting choice, bestowing supernatural power—albeit demonic—to phenomenon others view as natural.For evangelicals, even witches have supernatural power—through Satan and his demons. God is not the only power in the universe. Maybe that’s why I find this so interesting—bestowing so much power on others would seem to make God’s power less impressive, and certainly less unique. There is not one God; there are many gods. In some sense, evangelicals argue that their god is the most powerful god, the best and greatest god—but not that he is the only god. (This depends of course on how one defines “god” and evangelicals would not like my rephrasing.)
The trouble is that this doesn’t really feel like it fits with the rest of this story. Peretti already had Dr. Cooper dismiss the idea that there was any spiritual power involved in the curse, including demonic power—is this story about natural shenanigans, of supernatural shenanigans? Pick one, please!
Interestingly, the reasoning taken in this 2016 Christian Post article would seem to fit better with the rest of Peretti’s rating:
A firewalk at a motivational seminar is mere child’s play when compared to this everlasting fire. And the natural power of man is nothing compared to the power of God that resides within everyone who is born again through faith in Jesus Christ.
The devil is a vicious giant in the spiritual realm, and he is after your immortal soul.
This would make sense—Peretti could see firewalking as natural, as yet another trick Fake MacKenzie is using to control his followers. Why ever not? The red scarf thing isn’t seen as demonic. It’s Fake MacKenzie manipulating people! But here, we get demons. It’s weird! Why is this demons? Why this?
“Some beautiful new world,” said Jay.
“It’s nothing but tragic! They’ve obviously turned away from God and form the turret of Jesus Christ, and now, thinking they’ve discovered some great new cosmic power, they’ve done nothing but fall into the darkness and bondage of witchcraft and paganism! Civilized, Western, supposedly Christian intellectuals … firewalking!” Dr. Cooper shook his head again.
I told you, it’s weird! A curse whose affects they had seen definitely had natural explanations, but firewalking is clearly demonic! Witchcraft and paganism!
Also! Civilized! Western! Intellectuals! Remember earlier where Peretti wrote that these were “former college professors, lawyers, and executives.” It seems as though these professions are the most “civilized” and “Western” Peretti could think of, so they’re the ones he chose to highlight. (How the heck did the Coopers know these people’s professions? The contract between their perspective and the details the narrator randomly throws in for readers feels off to me.)
“But now we know where he and all his followers are.” Dr. Cooper gestured to Jay and Lila, and they came down form their observation perches. “While the cat’s away, these mice are going to play. Let’s have a look in his cottage.”
When they arrive back at the town they find there are a few guards patrolling—how these guards didn’t hear Dr. Cooper’s scream-ruse earlier, or notice the disappearance of the guard he knocked out, I don’t know. Regardless, they manage to avoid detection and enter Fake MacKenzie’s unlocked cottage.
The living room contained souvenirs from all over the South Seas, from primitive weapons to pagan animal amulets, charms of stone, and trinkets of bone. There were idols everywhere, images of monsters, snakes, and lizards, staring in all directions from the floor, walls, and ceiling with fiery, jeweled, hideous faces, and gruesome, bare-teethed expressions. The place looked like aa demonic hall of fame.
Egads, the level of prejudice here, while unsurprising, is almost overwhelming. It points to how very intertwined colonialism and Christianity have been for centuries—and the ongoing impact of this interaction. Native art and iconography is stigmatized not only as “primitive” but also as literally evil.
Along one wall was a vast library containing hundreds of books. Jay looked over some of the titles and found that most of them dealt with mysticism, witchrcaft, sorcery, fortunetelling, and on and on.
Pick one! OMG, pick one!
This is like a grab bag of all the things evangelicals find most scary! People don’t usually do the whole grab bag! Is MacKenzie a cult leader who uses various manipulative tactics to control his followers, using the language of new age and empowerment? Or is he dabbling with demonic powers?
I’ll tell you why this distinction matters—if he’s only a charlatan, this sort of story ends with him being unmasked. But if he’s dabbling with demonic powers, this sort of story ends with him losing control of these powers and paying some price. I read books! I watch movies! That’s how these stories work!
So which is it? Which story are we in?!
Other things happen, but I’m not going to bore you with the details—Dr. Cooper finds a picture amongst old blueprints for a church that makes him start, but he doesn’t explain why (Jay and Lila will have to wait to find out why he started, but I won’t make you wait—the picture confirms that Fake MacKenzie is not MacKenzie). Dr. Cooper also finds a cage full of deadly tiger flies, thus confirming what they knew—that Fake MacKenzie tried to have them killed.
At this point, they suddenly realize that they hear voices—the town is full of people, and it’s too late for them to make their escape.
Next week, what happens next.
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