One of the most startling things to happen after I deconverted was the foretold coming together of the Jesus of the East and the Jesus of the West. Oh, did you not hear about that? Well, listen on, and you shall hear the tale.
I was living in Vancouver in 1997 when I heard that “the Jesus of the East” was coming to the airport to await the arrival of “the Jesus of the West,” which was apparently the precursor to some great world-shaking and humanity-shaping event.
I’d deconverted a couple of years previously and had moved to Vancouver, BC, after dumping Biff, but I was still slowly working through my indoctrination and figuring things out. The event I’m about to describe did a lot to make me more certain that I’d been right to leave Christianity, and made the religion look a lot more obviously man-made.
The real surprise is that it took something like this event to make me see that simple truth.
The Problem with Subjectivity.
The big problem with religions is that they’re all almost entirely subjective. There’s no real way to falsify their claims. There are no natural checks or balances against their proclamations. In science, those checks and balances are largely “what reality actually does.” If someone declares that he or she can float off the ground by chanting a whole lot, we can test that idea by asking the person to chant a whole lot to see if any floating occurs. If a martial artist claims that he is telekinetic, we can ask him to please move stuff with his mind in controlled environments. If a doomsday preacher predicts the end of the world, we can certainly wait till the appointed day to see if anything weird happens.
But when all of these observational tests fail in a system based on subjective ideas, the religious nut making the claim can always spin the failure into success some other way–pushing the prediction forward again, perhaps, or claiming that the observer must already buy into the delusion before it can be observed, or even complaining about weather conditions hindering the ability to float or a hundred other weak excuses.
Because religious claims don’t depend on observation for their validity, they rise and fall according to how convincing their claimants seem in telling their stories and in how generally-consistent those stories are with already-accepted canon. A vision of an Inuit Jesus holding a machine gun and wearing Louboutin heels would likely be rejected, while one of a hippie Jesus with flowing dark-blond locks and a long white-and-red robe would be accepted without question by most Christians.
But the canon is, itself, subjective in Christianity especially. The Bible can famously be used to argue for or against any idea whatsoever. The only thing holding people back from claiming a vision of an Inuit Jesus with a machine gun and Louboutin shoes is that it’s just a little too outside the cultural tapestry of canonical Christianity. Otherwise, the sky’s the limit within that framework, and no matter how tenuous the tie-in with this or that Bible verse, as long as there is a tie-in of some kind, nobody can really deny the claim without calling into question all the other claims that Christians allow to stand.
There is no observable reality behind the value of prayer, the existence of any kind of supernatural realm, or even of the Christian god’s very existence. Anything said by its adherents is going to be purely subjective, though Christians don’t tend to realize that fact. Non-believers often say that the Bible is terribly contradictory and confusing, while believers–who, don’t forget, are very much invested in this belief–think that there’s some way to spin-doctor away any perceived failing in their holy text to make it into a true assertion again. Non-believers won’t be fooled, but a believer will be downright desperate to find and cling to any of these contortions. And even believers can, after repeated exposures to dissenters calling attention to just how weird and unconvincing these contortions sound, start seeing problems with this common Christian apologetics strategy.
That’s why dissent is so important. Some years ago, while I was still as true-blue as can be, I had one of these pulling-up-short moments while parroting an apologetics contortion to an atheist around the many contradictions in the Resurrection myth; his absolutely dumbfounded reaction shocked me enough to make me begin critically examining the admittedly-weak, unconvincing “Blind Men and the Elephant” approach I’d bought into to make the contradictions sound less serious. I’m still thankful that that atheist freely expressed his reaction to what I said. Until then, I’d said–and heard–that sentiment only in the fundagelical echo chamber, where it was expressed without any challenges whatsoever. The more times someone hears criticisms of such self-delusionary tactics and elaborate irrational contortions, the easier it gets to begin questioning that programming. It’s like a permission slip for questioning.
Really, one of the worst things Christianity can do is brush up against reality a little too closely. What sounds perfectly reasonable in the echo-chamber starts to look absolutely ridiculous in the cold light of reality’s day.
Case in point: the Jesus of the West.
The What in the Who Now?
So first, a little background. Over in Taiwan there was a church called True Way, started by a certifiable whackjob named Hon-Ming Chen. Right when I deconverted in the mid-90s, they were starting to move to the United States and incorporating UFOs and other such woo into their belief system. In 1997 Mr. Chen predicted that on a particular day in 1998, his god would magically appear on every single television on the planet and give a message of some kind to all of humanity. Obviously, that never happened, but that wasn’t (in my opinion) the weirdest thing its leader did or said. No, that honor belongs to his discovery around then of the next incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Well, one of them, anyway. Apparently Jesus would lose his own head if it weren’t bolted onto his shoulders, because to hear this guy talking about it, there were a whole clutch of Jesuses running around the world. The “Jesus of the East” turned out to be a nine-year-old Taiwanese boy named Lo Chi-Jen whose father was apparently, by the wildest of all wild coincidences, Hon-Ming Chen himself, who had become by now the abbot of that increasingly out-there Christian cult that was now located in Garland, Texas (apparently because Mr. Chen thought “Garland” sounded uncannily like “God’s Land,” and having been to Garland all I can say in response is BWAHAHAHAHA, and also I’m not 100% sure if the kid was really his son or not now). I couldn’t help but wonder if this situation was like if Pat Robertson decided that his son was Jesus. I obviously also couldn’t help but remember similar times I’d heard about Jesus or the Anti-Christ showing up to say OHAI Y’ALL, but oh no, we can be totally sure that this time, the information was correct:
[His translator, Sam] Wood said the nine-year-old discovered he was the Eastern Christ after meeting with his mentor, Hon-Ming Chen, founder of God’s Salvation Church. Both Chen and the boy said they received word from God of his true identity. God also apparently told them that another Christ — a six-foot-three-inch Canadian-born Caucasian — was living in Vancouver. So they came yesterday to find him.
The boy and his entourage had come to Vancouver because Hon-Ming Chen had had some kind of prophecy (which came to him in the form of bouncy golden floating balls in the sky and through the humongous diamond ring he wore backwards) that told him that there was another Jesus in North America, and they were bound and determined to wait for him till he arrived. Of this mysterious “Jesus of the West,” they knew that he was in his late 20s, tall, Caucasian, and living in Vancouver–and that this guy knew perfectly well that he was Jesus.
So they came to the airport, and they waited.
I’m sure this will totally shock you all, but the Jesus of the West did not show up.
Well, correction: a few Jesuses showed up. Just none of them were the one the cult wanted to see. One guy was born too late and was subsequently too old to be the one they sought. Another was too short. One would think they wouldn’t be that fussy.
Most folks in Vancouver didn’t seem all that stressed about the idea of two divine incarnations meeting up in their city’s airport. I avidly followed the news about this momentous occasion, so it didn’t escape my attention that most people’s feelings about this situation were good-humored amusement and tolerance. Nobody seemed in the least worried about what would happen if these two Jesuses met. Hell, nobody seemed to think the group would even find the person they sought, despite the prophecies they said they’d had.
Even for a Rapturebation group they didn’t seem to have unlimited funds, something they made pretty clear every time someone from the news channels or papers showed up to ask how things were going, though that didn’t stop them from taking out full-page advertisements in local papers pleading with the Jesus of the West to get his ass in gear.
The photos of a bored little nine-year-old Taiwanese Jesus eating burgers and sipping soda from a plastic dinosaur cup were both striking and distinctly anticlimactic. Somehow that’s not what I envisioned when I thought of Jesus returning to Earth in triumph when I was Christian–somehow I didn’t see a kid in a Garfield T-shirt dawdling on an airport bench and milling around with a plastic cup in his hand, killing time while waiting for the other Jesus to show up. I never understood why they had to wait at the airport rather than at a rented house or hotel room or even a sympathetic friend’s house; at the time I thought they were actually from Taiwan, and it wasn’t till very recently that I figured out that they had actually flown to Vancouver from Texas. Of course, that just raised more questions–like why they had been obligated to go to Vancouver at all. Why hadn’t the Jesus of the West simply traveled to Texas? Why had the cult had to haul their cookies all the way to Vancouver?
But most devastating of all was an incident that occurred halfway through the group’s airport vigil. A young man, it seemed, had shown up to claim the kewpie doll:
A man calling himself David approached the boy, saying he had hitchhiked from Chilliwack after a vision. “I was called,” the 34-year-old said, his pupils as big as saucers. “I have gone through an awakening.”
Chen shook his head. “You are not the one.”
When I read about that at the time, I remember it hurling a spear right through my mind’s eye.
How exactly had he known that?
Why was his assessment more valid than David’s?
Really, how could anybody prove that David wasn’t actually the Jesus of the West, any more than they could prove that this little boy was the Jesus of the East?
I began to think about how, when I’d been Christian, I’d been so sure of so many claims I’d made–but I couldn’t demonstrate those claims’ validity any more than Mr. Chen could demonstrate exactly how he knew that his son was Jesus or that David was not Jesus. It all rested on a series of nested assumptions and shared fantasies.
Seeing it all so starkly presented, seeing something so obviously fake, something so obviously untrue being pushed as true on subjective grounds, is a big part of what helped me start my recovery from the harm I’d been done by religious ideas and people. When I got down to it, there didn’t seem like much difference between “Jesus is a nine-year-old Asian kid slurping soda out of a plastic cup” and “Jesus died and rose again.” After all, neither claim could really be refuted on observational grounds.
I really don’t know what happened to that group after the airport incident. They went back to Texas and apparently they found an incarnation of the Buddha too–who’d ever have thought they’d have that kind of cosmic luck, huh? And the police got involved when the family of a teenaged girl who’d joined the cult asked for help retrieving her. This was all happening right around the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate people, so obviously everybody was worried, but the group vehemently insisted they weren’t going that route with a “see, this is why we can’t have nice things” tone to their denial. Apparently the leader of the cult went on to declare a date for the end of the world, but when that didn’t happen the group kinda fell apart.
That little boy is now pushing 30. I wonder if he’s still living in Texas, and what he thinks about the day he sat in an airport waiting for the other Jesus to show up. I wonder what he thinks about being friends with the incarnation of the Buddha. Think about that for a moment, and wonder and marvel at just what these children have gone through in the last two decades and what they’ve lost out on because someone pushed this cult idea into innocent minds. And wonder, as I did, about just how that’s different from anything right-wing Christians do to their kids.
I’m still trying to build belief systems based on stuff that is real. I’ve become very leery of stuff that simply can’t be proven and that rests as heavily as Christianity does on a shared body of entirely subjective ideas. It’s a challenge all right. But the alternative is to put myself at risk of buying into something really delusional and harmful, and end up waiting in an airport for half a Messiah so the end of the world can start.