Clouds, When Determined by Context

In Los Angeles a 30-year-old college president named Dr. William Frank Graham has just become Billy to the nation, launching the biggest revival since the days of Billy Sunday, thirty years past. The new Billy makes the wild old Billy seem buttoned-down; New-Billy wears pastel suits and hand-painted ties, the best he can afford. He's almost good looking enough to play a cowboy, a gunfighter, his soon-to-be-famous blue eyes glowering between his rock jaw and a wave of blonde hair. A hero or a villain? He has been to the desert, weeping over the wheel of his car on the outskirts of the city weeks before the revival, wandering alone in the dark through the California hills. Submit, submit, urged his friend J. Edwin Orr, one of Abram's "field representatives," preaching his modern American gospel. Billy did not know how. Doubts swarmed his mind. Submit, submit, preaches Orr. "Starve doubt, feed freedom," Abram advised.

In 1949, at the start of his great revival, Billy declares himself a free man with a trumpet-blast sermon, twenty straight verses from the prophet Isaiah as its opening. "Ah, sinful nation," he begins, his voice curling around the crowd. "A people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption!" To them he brought a vision: "Your cities burned by fire . . . !"

Just months past, the Soviets had tested their first nuclear weapon, years ahead of schedule. Mao had completed the Communist takeover of China, the "sleeping giant" of which FDR had warned the nation. Asia seemed lost, possibly as a result of Red traitors in the State Department Joe McCarthy charged, and Soviet tanks mustered in East Germany. The American forces facing off against them were meant at best to be a "trip wire," to give the U.S. enough time to get its bombers in the air.

Too late. God has chosen Russia as His "chastening rod" and awarded her as her prize the flying saucers from the movies, the better to execute His wishes. Such was the writing on the screen. Scripture could not make it more plain: "In the first place," declare the radio preachers,

we have the following biblical terminology which is descriptive of the Flying Saucer: Chariots of GOD, Wheels of Ezekiel and of Daniel, Glittering Spears, Shining Arrows, Flying Swords, Flying Sickles, Shafts of Lightning, Engines of War (from which are hurled Hailstones of Fire).

The list goes on:

Weapons of Indignation, Weapons out of His Armory, Weapons Out of Heaven, New Sharp Threshing Instrument, Whirlwinds, Burning Winds, Flaming Chariots, Armored Chariots, Chariots of Salvation.

Finally: "Clouds, when determined by context."

The Christianity of American fundamentalism is a faith for futurists, the sort of people who delight in imagining what is to come next, even if it's awful. The brightest of the believers realize that to hone one's predictions, one must study the past as well. Our Ohio radio men declare that to be wise as serpents, one must be both a futurist and a historian. But World War II had changed the steady plod of Christian futurism, quickened it. Fundamentalism had at times raced toward apocalypse before, but never with such technology at its disposal -- no rockets, no bombers, no nuclear missiles. The stakes are higher, the enemy stronger. In 1950, American fundamentalism responds with great imagination, not just following the popular trend of spotting flying saucers and aliens among us, but driving it into the future, old time religion resurrecting as the cyborg doctrine -- part faith, part technology -- that hums and blinks and winks from the same screen on which you are reading this transmission from fundamentalism's past.

This article is reprinted with permission from Killing the Buddha.

Jeff Sharlet is co-editor of Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith (2009), author of the New York Times bestseller The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008), and coauthor, with Peter Manseau, of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004).

6/15/2010 4:00:00 AM
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