Two developments this week have finally prompted me to
write up this sermon. I'd been thinking about it for some time. And this seemed
to be the time. What were the two events?
One was the anniversary (today, I believe) of the Damocletian descent of the atomic bomb on the unsuspecting
people of Hiroshima. It fell like
some great headsman's axe wielded by one of the Shinto gods. But in fact that
deadly avenger's name was Uncle Sam.
The other event was the merger of the ABC TV network with
Disney. From now on I suppose we'll be treated to sights like Sam Donaldson
wearing Mickey Mouse ears on Primetime. "Why, Diane? Because
we love you." But what bothers me is that what we have here is
really the promise of more bread and circuses from the Evil Empire, which is
how I regard Disney.
These events are theological in significance, even
biblical. Let me show you how.
Perhaps you may be familiar with Hal Lindsey and his
preposterous book The Late Great Planet Earth. In it, like his fellow exegete
Charlie Manson, Lindsey matches up current world events with biblical
prophecies taken out of context. He makes the events the fulfillments of the
bible texts. And he is wrong, as sound exegesis made clear then, and subsequent
events have made even clearer now.
But in a sense he was groping toward something valid. The
Bible, often even in its strangest parts, does provide a kind of cryptic guide
for understanding future events. It is not that the prophets predicted them.
Rather, what they did was to provide certain grand archetypes for understanding
the larger meaning dimensions of our history.
For instance, the image of the
Antichrist, the Great Beast. Sectarian fanatics love to count up the
letters of people's names to find out if Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Juan
may turn out to be the Antichrist. They are wasting their time in one sense.
The White House barber is not going to find a "666" birthmark on
But how else can you describe Adolf
Hitler? Khomeini? Saddam Hussein? They fit the type. Theirs is not a mundane
evil like Spiro Agnew or used car salesmen. Nor are they freak aberrations like
Jeff Dahmer. As Louis Farrakhan said of Hitler, they
are "wickedly great" in an almost superhuman sense. Without doubt,
Hitler was the Antichrist and, sadly, not the only one.
Farrrakhan himself will measure up to that standard
of evil remains to be seen, though he is working hard at it.
Now let me outline another great biblical myth so I can
try to show how it helps us to understand our own times. It is the myth of the
Principalities and Powers. It begins like the Babylonian creation myth, the EnumaElish, of which it is
another version. The gods are threatened by primordial dragons, Leviathan and Rahab, who happen to be their own progenitors. (Think here
of Zeus and the Titans, too.) Elyon, the old king and
father of the gods, is helpless to protect the others. The young warrior god
Yahweh steps forward and offers to combat the monsters if only the elder god Elyon will yield the divine throne to him. In return for
this promise, he does fight and vanquish the monsters. He creates the world
from their carcasses and assumes the throne of the cosmos.
He appoints his fellow godlings
each to govern one of the nations of humanity. But at length these Watchers, as
they are called, later redefined as angels, become corrupt. They deny justice
to their human subjects, requiring human sacrifices, teaching the wicked arts
of crime and seduction. In Psalm 82 we have the anticipated scene of Yahweh
toppling them all from their petty thrones, casting them down to Sheol, the netherworld of the dead, where their shuffling
steps cause earthquake tremors up here on earth. Yahweh himself will assume
direct rule of all the nations, and justice will at last prevail. This view of
the world is really an explanation for how evil can prevail in a world created
by a righteous god. This is a question we still ask. It has lost none of its
This myth is found in similar forms in the New Testament,
in Gnosticism, and in contemporary Stoicism. The basic idea is that the world
is under the control of wicked superhuman forces. They are called Archons,
Elemental Spirits, Planetary Gods, Principalities, Powers, Thrones and
Dominions. They are evil, and yet without them the world would collapse into
Chaos--unless God himself were to assume direct control. And this is what early
Christians like the writer of Ephesians expected to happen.
But in the meantime one must simultaneously pray for the
Roman Emperor and resist his excessive demands for worship. Caesar is at
present holding back the flood of Chaos, and yet he may soon become the Great
Beast himself. It might change from one to the other, so you had to be alert. Hence the warning of the Bible to discern the times.
"How is it," asked Jesus of his contemporaries, "that you cannot
discern the signs (i.e., the significance) of this present time?"
In a really brilliant little book called Christ and the
Powers, the Dutch theologian HendrikusBerkhof showed the relevance of this myth. It cannot simply
be dismissed along with demon possession and snake-handling as queer relics of
the ancient world picture. As Bultmann had argued, myths tend to reflect the
existential self-understanding of the people who told them. Once we realize
this, we may find there is much to learn for our own existence, about our
own existence even. And that is
what Berkhof showed about the myth of the Powers.
Isn't it obvious to you that our lives are in a real
sense ruled by super-personal forces greater than any one individual? This is
the meaning of the old fatalistic cliche "You
can't fight City Hall." Because you will be shadow
boxing. There is no single opponent you could sock in the mouth, as much
as you know you'd like to! No, there are only swirling, looming shadows around
you, as you are sent from one desk to another, from waiting line to waiting
line, as you hang on the phone forever trying to trace down a computer error on
your account. Good luck.
Where do these inhuman entities come from? How were they
conjured? What bumbling sorcerer's apprentice set them free? The answer is: you
and me, or fools like us. It is all a matter of what sociologists call
"reification," the process whereby institutionscreated by human beings for human
beings expand to the point of assuming a life of their own, bigger than the sum
of their parts. They begin as a human construct. They serve those who built
them. But they wind up being the masters, served by human beings. How does this
When more and more people get involved in the operation
of a system, an expanding organization, the organization has priority over
them. They were not the ones who built it. It has seniority, not them. They
can't switch it off. And as the thing grows bigger and even more people are
needed to run it, the whole thing becomes an interdependent web. For you to do
your job requires a great number of others doing theirs. The whole operation is
too big for any one person to have a serious impact on it. It's like in a spy
novel: no one knows enough of the whole operation to be able to betray it. You
are a cog in a machine. You are negligible in the big picture. You need
AT&T, but AT&T doesn't need you. "We're the Phone Company. We
don't care. We don't have to."
Here's a biblical example. One in which the writer
doesn't need to put in terms of the myth. Think of the reading from Mark. Jesus
and his disciples are gleaning grain, which ordinarily they have every right to
do, as poor holy men. But today, it happens to be the Sabbath, the day of
enforced rest. And some scribes are quick to point this out to him. Jesus in
effect counter charges them with reifying the Sabbath. "The Sabbath was
made for man, not man for the Sabbath, wasn't it?"
In fact rabbinic tradition did kind of suggest that the
Sabbath was a pre-existent heavenly being, kind of a Jewish equivalent of the
Virgin Mary in Catholic piety. The Sabbath was in effect a goddess of mercy. In
effect, people had been created for the Sabbath, to provide people to observe
the Sabbath! But, says the gospel passage, this is getting the cart before the
horse! Surely the whole reason the Sabbath was created (whether by God or by
beings) was to give people a
rest, to make things easier for them. And now we have legalists making the
Sabbath all-important in its own right. It takes precedent over human need,
whereas it was designed to meet human need! Such is the irony of reification.
Even the kindly Sabbath had become one of the oppressive Powers.
You couldn't ask for a better example of a reified Power
than the Atomic Bomb. In fact, I have capitalized it in my notes, because it's
the kind of thing that has a proper name. It began as a device created by
ingenious humans. But it immediately became an autonomous reality, a cruel and
lowering god. We tremble in fear of it. It conditioned my life from the time of
the Cuban Missile Crisis, when my family were looking
under our house to find a place to hide from the radiation. My parents thought
that under the concrete steps would be our best chance, but I reminded them the
space would have to be completely enclosed. Even Bultmann admitted that the
threat of thermonuclear Armageddon had revived the first-century myth of the
I found a perfect depiction of the truth about the Bomb
as a reified Power, a human creation broken free from Frankenstein's lab. It
occurs in the movie Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Human civilization has long
since been wiped out. Intelligent apes rule much of the old earth two thousand
years hence, but in a place called The Forbidden Zone, the remains of New
York City, in St. Patrick's Cathedral, a small coterie
of hideously mutated humans have a functional Cobalt Doomsday Bomb raised above
the altar. It represents their creator, the nuclear holocaust that formed their
twisted world. They worship the Bomb, and here is their litany:
declare the glory of the Bomb, and the firmament showeth
his handiwork. His sound is gone out unto all lands, and his light unto the
ends of the world. He descended from the outermost part of heaven. And there is
nothing hid from the heat thereof. There is neither speech nor language. But
his voice is heard among them. Praise him, my strength and my redeemer. Glory be to the Bomb and to the Holy Fallout-As it was in the
beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Right now, a couple of the Powers are named Disney and
The American Tobacco Institute. You can add as many other names to the list as
you want: McDonalds, the Roman Catholic Church, Political Correctness, Big
Business, High Fashion, the Republican and Democratic Parties, Network TV,
Turner Enterprises, the 700 Club, Hollywood,
It may sound paranoid for me to say that these Powers
rule our lives. But don't they? They set the rules, dictate the options,
control the economy, catechize our children in ways we simply cannot shut out,
just as surely as if the Soviet authorities appeared at our doorsteps every
morning to accompany Victoria and Veronica off to their classes in
I view Disney, like McDonalds, as the Evil Empire. Phil
Hartman's SNL skits, where he plays Michael Eiser of
Disney are right on the money. Disney and McDonalds are doing the same thing
Camel Cigarettes are accused of doing: using cute, apparently innocent cartoon
pixies to seduce children into becoming consumers of needless if not actually
dangerous junk. Joe Camel, Ronald McDonald, Mickey
Mouse--don't you see, these are all shameless hucksters. No different from Axis
Sally and Tokyo Rose. Ronald and Mickey and Joe are the strangers who lure your
children into their car by offering them candy and puppies. Don't you see that?
What is Pocahontas? A wholesome film
for children?An educational tool? Don't kid
yourself. It is nothing but a commercial for all the merchandise: Pocahontas
lunchboxes and clothing and what all. Disney knows they've got you right where
they want you. You will be a cruel parent if you deprive your little consumers
of what all the other robot kids on the block have, if you don't take them to
Disney World where they can fulfil their life's
ambition by meeting Mickey Mouse--the Antichrist. When I see that TV ad,
"I've been waiting my whole life to see you," I can't help thinking
of that creepy scene with Saddam Hussein dandling that little English hostage
boy on his knee.
The smarmy smiles, the disingenuous unctuousness of the
wage slaves in the McDonalds ads: they make you think their little micro-waved syntha-pastries are the Apple Pie that things are supposed
to be as American as. It's just like the bogus "love-bombing" of the
Moonies. Heavenly deception practiced in the name of one's god Mammon, the
Jean Baudrillard, in books
including The Political Economy of the Sign and The Mirror of Production,
explains how capitalistic society has finally succeeded in commoditizing
meaning, creating an all-encompassing false world of stimulating images via TV,
MTV, movies, commercials, the propagandistic promotion
of Basketball mutants as media idols so kids will pay hundreds of dollars for
their brand of sneakers. When American children are asked to name
their heroes and they list
Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Madonna, but don't even know the names of
Jefferson, Gandhi, or Madame Curie, you know Baudrillard
Media religion is another great and tragic example.
Twenty years ago Malcolm Muggeridge speculated that
had Satan offered Jesus Television to get his message across, as Judas
suggested in Jesus Christ Superstar, he would have turned it down. He would
have recognized it for what it was: a fatal delusion. And he was right. Look at
TV religion. It is vacuous, superficial, money-worshipping.
The medium is the message, the message is the medium. TV itself has become the
object of worship. The viewer's greatest religious duty was to send in pledges
to keep the show on the air. Buying the gospel.
Meaning had become a commodity. The PTL Club was just the Home Shopping Club
with Jesus Christ as the merchandise. Salvation for sale cheap! This week only!
Just 30 pieces of silver, not including COD.
The day I wrote this sermon I happened to hear a bit of a
CNN discussion of corporate behavior, how the new owner of the conglomerate
that owned New York Newsday killed off the paper not because it was losing
money (it wasn't), but because the new Head Honcho decided it would make him
look tough. People's jobs meant nothing to him. One panelist made a significant
Freudian slip. She meant to say "these companies" but actually said
"these countries." That's the truth of the matter. As the corporate
king says to Howard Beal, the mad prophet in Paddy Chayevsky's
brilliant movie Network, national boundaries are merely lines on a piece of
paper. The world is governed by international economics. And that's governed by
multinational corporations, not by national governments.
This is what John of Patmos
symbolizes perfectly as the Great Harlot Babylon. She is wealthy from her
prostitution with all the nations, who mourn her final destruction since their
greatest market for commerce is gone. She is literally a multinational
corporation who grows inconceivably wealthy by exploiting the innocent, drunk
on the blood of the martyrs, John says.
In John Jakes' Second Galaxy series of science fiction
novels, the universe in the future is governed completely by multi-planetary
companies. Their leaders are called "the Lords of the Exchange."
There is no longer any pretense of national sovereignty. But hasn't this
If it hasn't, tell me why it was for decades a federal
felony to disclose the secret contents of cigarette smoke? Better that smokers not learn they're inhaling deadly xylene gas, for example. The government didn't protect
smokers from the gas. They "protected" them from knowing they were
Remember the Drug War? Kind of a cross between two dystopias: Aldous Huxley's Brave
New World and George Orwell's 1984. It was as if we had targeted the makers of
the Soma drug to be our opponents
in a fake war, like those
between Oceania and Eurasia, just
to take the minds of the public off what the government was getting away with
Remember when we sent troops into Bolivia
to destroy the coca crops? What a mess! The whole thing's
hopeless when Drug Lords run the countries, as you can see in Columbia:when the government does try to pretend it's
in control, terrorism and assassination break out. How can the Drug Lords get
away with it? Because the population is in cahoots with them.
Since just about everybody uses or cultivates the drugs, they are more in
sympathy with the Drug Lords than with the nominal government. When we try to
shut down the drug trade we cause total chaos because we destroy a major crop
raised by the peasant farmers and destabilize the government. And yet drugs are
wrong--evil and demonic. The Drug Lords are the local Principalities and
Powers, and the people have taken the mark of the Beast, without which no man
might buy or sell, unless he have the name of the Beast or the number of his
It can't happen here, you say? It already has! Here the
Drug Lords are R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Ligget-Meyers. They are selling a death-dealing
addictive drug! And the government impotently flails about, trying to
"regulate" it. And even this they have trouble doing because the
Death Lords have so much pull in the government itself
(just like all the other multinationals).
But suppose the government actually did what
theoretically they should certainly do, outlaw the manufacture of cigarettes.
There might be mass rioting. There would be more drug wars, pushers selling
illegal cigarettes more deadly than ever, machine gunning each other to expand
their market share. And a lucrative market there would surely be. In other
words, the addicted population itself is firmly in the pocket of Joe Camel, the
Antichrist. They have taken his mark.
What can one do? Baudrillard,
who has seen all this more clearly than anyone else,
in my opinion, is pessimistic. He says we can only wait for the apocalypse, the
final collapse of the superannuated, over-extended system. Wait for the bottom
to fall out. A strange apocalypse: "The Day After" would not be a
landscape of smoking, glowing rubble and debris. No, it would be a skyline free
of TV antennas and billboards. It would be deafening silence. Stephen King puts
it well in his own apocalypse, The Stand: a new chance to start over without
Ronald McDonald--the Antichrist.
In the meantime we must compute a sectarian calculus for
ourselves and our families. We must decide how far we can afford to opt out of
this all-encompassing system. We cannot stop our children from watching the
propaganda box, the catechism tube, the manure duct. They will only watch it
over at their friends' houses. Or they will grow up resentful, just waiting for
the chance to become worse TV addicts than ever. That is out of your hands. The
Beast has seen to that.
But you can do what Communists and Mennonites and others
have done, encourage your kids to learn to see what is odd, what is phoney, what is devious about TV. You can try to tell them
what is going on, why they should be careful before cooperating with it. In the
same way student leftists used to give draft counseling. It's called
We don't want ourselves or our kids to seem like oddball
nonconformists, like the poor little Jehovah's Witness kids who can't go to
birthday parties or celebrate Christmas. But we don't want them to mindlessly
follow the lemming herd, either. We don't want them to become well-adjusted to
a sick society. Because then they would be sick, too, and not even know it! The
others lepers would be admiring their pallor. We must tread carefully in the
shadow of the Principalities and Powers. We must learn to be strangers in a
If we can, let us also start to build Powers for good.
But watch out; that's probably just what the creators of today's oppressive
Powers thought they were doing. In the climactic moment of the final episode of
The Prisoner, the hero has resisted all his captors' attempts to make him
conform and sell out. And he finally gets to unmask Number One, the master of
the Village--only to behold his own face! We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Perhaps the alternative left to us is to let our light
shine, the light of our refusal to buy into the prescribed values and lifestyle
of the advertisement world, so that others will see and decide to do likewise.
It would be authentic existence. It's tricky, "because we wrestle not
against flesh and blood, but against Principalities and Powers and spiritual
forces of wickedness in high places."