Cults

Goths, games and what seems to be faith: New York Times dives into vampire fantasy culture

Goths, games and what seems to be faith: New York Times dives into vampire fantasy culture

Before too much time goes by since Halloween, I wanted to spotlight an alternative religion -– no other word for it –- piece in the New York Times that talks about Goths and vampires.

I had no idea that Goths had a spirituality but freelancer Sam Kestenbaum, who has written on the occult and alternative traditions before for the Times, found a businesman-and-would-be-vampire who’s good at mining the Goth search for meaning, as it were.

It’s not a group I know anything about, so I gave it a read.

The big question, of course: Does the word “religion” apply to all of this? If the answer is “no,” then why is that?

In the dim corner of Halloween Adventure, a two-story costume store in Manhattan, a man called Father Sebastiaan sculpts vampire fangs by hand. A Ouija board hangs crooked on the wall, near a purple crystal and an uneven pile of occult books. His work stall, no larger than a broom closet, is barely visible behind pirate and cowboy masks.

A small gaggle had soon formed at the door, and Father Sebastiaan looked up. “The people who come to me are lost souls,” he said to a young assistant. “This is why I’m here. Fangs help them tap into their primal vampire nature. Fangs are magic.”

Two women squeezed in the stall to be fitted for fangs. “I’m a modern-day vampire who loves life,” said Christina Staib, a woman with leather boots and bat tattoos. Her friend Melanie Anderson had come for her first pair. “They give off an aura,” she said. “A spiritual vampire aura.”

Obviously the “Father” part of Sebastiaan’s title is faux.

Father Sebastiaan is just the man to help cultivate that aura. A 43-year-old with long hair, the fang maker once styled himself the king and spiritual guru of New York’s vibrant vampire scene in the 1990s. He hosted raucous parties, wrote books and launched product lines — jewelry, contact lenses and the fangs — with financial success. It was a good time to be a vampire in New York…

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Young Satan worshippers foiled in Florida -- but there's a deeper story here somewhere

Young Satan worshippers foiled in Florida -- but there's a deeper story here somewhere

You don’t get much creepier than this. Combine Satanism, teen-aged girls and weapons and you’ve got a keeper of a story.

Bartow, Florida, is in the central part of the state — due south of Lakeland and about an hour’s drive southwest of Orlando. Because of the Assemblies of God college in Lakeland, the area is full of pentecostal-charismatic churches. There are other evangelical houses of worship in the area and a significant Catholic population, as well.

Then from WFTV-Ch. 9 in Orlando came one of the better headlines of the day: “Leave body parts at entrance': Bartow MS girls planned to kill classmates, drink their blood: Cops.”

Is this a religion story or a crime story, or both?

BARTOW, Fla. — Two students at Bartow Middle School came to school with knives and planned to attack students Tuesday, according to the Bartow Police Department.

The school resource officer was alerted to a complaint about armed students around 1:30 p.m.

· Police said the girls allegedly planned to kill as many as 15 students.

The girls have (understandably) been expelled. Although some of the news accounts seem sensationalized, remember that it’s been less than a year since a massacre only a few counties to the south of Bartow — when 17 people were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School. That shooting surpassed Columbine High School’s 1999 massacre as the deadliest yet on high school property.

From USA Today:

Police say the girls — ages 11 and 12 — were found in a bathroom stall, allegedly with multiple knives, a pizza cutter and knife sharpener in their possession. The girls planned to commit suicide after stabbing other students, police say.

"The plan was to kill at least 1 student but were hoping to kill anywhere from 15-25 students," an affidavit said. "Killing all of these students was in hopes it would make them worse sinners ensuring that after they committed suicide ... (they) would go to hell so they could be with satan."

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Are Satanists of the MS-13 gang an under-covered story on the religion beat?

Are Satanists of the MS-13 gang an under-covered story on the religion beat?

Recently the saddest story ran in the Los Angeles Times about a 10-year-old boy who was slaughtered by his mother’s boyfriend. The point was that the boyfriend suspected that the child was gay and so tortured Anthony to death.

I’m not going to argue whether or not the child was gay or whether a kid can know such a thing at that age, as there’s plenty of talk about this issue in the comment field.

What drew my attention was something near the end of the article. Notice the fourth paragraph:

Anthony Avalos came out as gay in recent weeks, and authorities are now investigating whether homophobia played a role in the death of the 10-year-old Lancaster boy, a county official said.

Anthony was found mortally wounded at his home last week with severe head injuries and cigarette burns covering his body.

Brandon Nichols, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, revealed in an interview Monday that Anthony “said he liked boys” but declined to provide more details, including whom the boy told and when…

Nichols said that his department’s caseworkers documented years ago that Leiva was allegedly a member of the MS-13 criminal gang, but that information was not classified by the workers as a safety threat necessitating Anthony’s removal from the home, and the department never moved to have him permanently removed.

What I didn’t include in the article was a description of how Anthony and his siblings were tortured. Because that is part and parcel of how MS-13 operates and when I looked further into them, I discovered something else about them.

MS-13 is heavily into Satanism. Somehow I’d never realized that a surprising amount of outlets have written about this, especially since late last year. 

For those of you who, like me, didn't know this, the Washington Post probably has the best history of this group and its satanic roots:

Some of the gang’s founders were devil-worshiping metal heads, according to experts. And although the connection has waned over the past 30 years, it can still be seen in MS-13’s use of satanic nicknames, tattoos and other imagery. The gang’s devil horns hand sign is known as “la garra,” a Spanish reference to Satan’s claws. And some MS-13 members have told investigators that they committed their crimes at the behest of “la bestia,” or the Beast.

“The beast … wanted a soul,” an MS-13 member nicknamed Diabolical said after killing a 15-year-old girl who’d disrespected his satanic shrine, prosecutors told a Houston courtroom earlier this year.


Please respect our Commenting Policy

Washington Post Magazine examines a Lone Ranger church, without any help from experts

Washington Post Magazine examines a Lone Ranger church, without any help from experts

One of the tragic facts about religion is that true believers have been known to go off the rails. Sometimes they take groups of people -- large or small -- with them into various degrees of oblivion. When this happens, it is common for people outside of these groups to use the word "cult" -- one of the most abused words in the religion-news dictionary.

Long ago, I took a course in contemporary religious movements and "cults" as part of my graduate work in the Church-State Studies program at Baylor University. It was easy to see that the term "cult" is like the word "fundamentalist." One person's cult is another person's "sect" or another's freethinking religious movement.

But here is the crucial point I need to make, before we look at that massive Washington Post Magazine feature that ran under this headline: "The Exiles -- Former members say Calvary Temple in Virginia pressures people to banish loved ones. What happens to those who leave?"

People who study "cults" use this term in one of two ways. There are sociological definitions, usually linked to the work of prophetic figures who hold dangerous degrees of control over their followers. Then there are theological definitions linked to religious groups in which a leader has radically altered core, historic doctrines of a mainstream faith.

You will find all kinds of "cult" talk if you plug "Calvary Temple" and the name of its leader, the Rev. Star R. Scott, into an Internet search engine. However, veteran freelance writer Britt Peterson avoided this term, for the most part, in this feature. I think that was wise.

Has this congregation in Northern Virginia evolved into a pseudo-cult operation? I don't know. What I do know is that it appears to be a perfect example of a trend in American Pentecostal and evangelical life that causes all kinds of trouble for journalists. I am referring, once again, to the rising number of independent churches -- large and small -- that have zero ties to any denomination or traditional faith group.

Many of these Lone Ranger churches are perfectly healthy. Many others go off the rails and, tragically, there is no shepherd higher up the ecclesiastical ladder to hold their leaders accountable. Thus, here is the crucial passage in this first-person magazine feature:

When the Azats joined Calvary in the mid-1980s, its charismatic pastor, Star Robert Scott, had been there for over a decade, starting as youth pastor at what was then the Herndon Assembly of God in 1973, according to former congregants.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

God, guns and grace: Sun Myung Moon's sons put their spin on dad's religion

God, guns and grace: Sun Myung Moon's sons put their spin on dad's religion

One of the benefits of working at the Washington Times –- as I did for more than 14 years -– was watching the soap opera that was the family of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, which through its subsidiaries owned the Times.

Not that I ever got to see much of Moon's 14 children. But I sure heard about them, especially when their infighting led to massive budget cuts at the Times in 2009.

One of the older daughters and several of the sons all had similar Korean names (which were anglicized to Preston, Sean, Justin and Tatiana), but it was clear they all had designs on their father’s vast empire.

It was also clear they were going to reinvent the theology that undergirded the Unification movement and create their own religion. What sort of religion that may be comes out in a recent Washington Post Magazine piece on a church pastored by one of the younger sons; a church that encourages members to bring automatic rifles to church services. (By the way, I've also written for the same magazine rather recently). 

Sanctuary Church — whose proper name is World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, but which also goes by the more muscular-sounding Rod of Iron Ministries — stands inconspicuously on a country road that winds through the village of Newfoundland, Pa., 25 miles southeast of Scranton. The one-story, low-slung building used to be St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. Before that, it was a community theater, which is why there are no pews, only a semicircle of tiered seats facing the old stage, now an altar.

On a Sunday morning in late February, 38-year-old Pastor Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, son of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, entered stage right wearing a white hoodie and cargo pants…One tenet of the Sanctuary Church is that all people are independent kings and queens in God’s Kingdom — a kind of don’t-tread-on-me notion of personal sovereignty. Hence, symbolic gold and silver crowns bobbed on row after row of heads.

Anyone who’s watched any Unification Church ceremonies knows these folks seem to have a fixation with robes and crowns. Sean Moon wears a literal crown of golden rifle shells. Photos show a congregation in white robes and scarves with guns cradled in their arms. 

A key pillar of Sanctuary dogma is the importance of owning a gun, particularly the lethal, lightweight AR-15 semiautomatic, which the National Rifle Association has proclaimed “the most popular rifle in America.” Last fall, Pastor Sean had studied the Book of Revelation. It makes multiple references to how Christ one day will rule his earthly kingdom “with a rod of iron.” Although Revelation was written long before the advent of firearms, Pastor Sean concluded that “rod of iron” was Bible-speak for the AR-15 and that Christ, not being a “tyrant,” will need armed sovereigns to help him keep the peace in his kingdom.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Gaps abound in articles on new female mayor in polygamous Mormon town

Gaps abound in articles on new female mayor in polygamous Mormon town

The story of how a polygamous sect rules the sister towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., has fascinated journalists and law enforcement for years.

I’ve previously written about the sect for GetReligion here. The latest news has been how an influx of new residents into the area is slowly loosening the FLDS’ grip.

One’s worst enemies are always from within, as the Associated Press told us last week. It turns out that Hildale’s new mayor, who is stirring up things, knows the ins and outs of the sect only too well.  

The new mayor of a mostly polygamous town on the Utah-Arizona border is finishing off a complete overhaul of municipal staff and boards after mass resignations when she took office in January to become the first woman and first non-member of the polygamous sect to hold the seat.
Six of the seven Hildale, Utah, town workers quit after Mayor Donia Jessop was elected and took charge of the local government run by the sect for more than a century. They were joined by nine members of various town boards, including utility board chairman Jacob N. Jessop. All were members of the sect, the mayor said.
Jacob Jessop said his religious beliefs prevented him from working for a woman and with people who are not sect members, according to resignation letters obtained Thursday by The Associated Press through a public records request. The mayor’s husband is distantly related to Jessop in the town of about 3,000 people where many have that last name.

Most are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of Mormonism that continues polygamy more than a century after mainstream Mormons ceased doing so.

What’s really interesting is the nature of the new mayor herself:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Why did that bizarre AR-15 wedding-renewal rite get big-time national news play?

Why did that bizarre AR-15 wedding-renewal rite get big-time national news play?

"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken opened our conversation this week with a rather snarky question: Why did those rather bizarre AR-15 infused wedding rededication rites at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary draw attention from national media? (Click here to tune that in.)

Obviously, it had something to do with the mass-shooting in Parkland, Fla.

So this story had guns. That's a very big deal right now.

What else? This is the snarky part. The Associated Press report featured a car in parking lot with a sign requesting prayer for President Donald Trump. So the story had -- sort of -- the Trump factor. There was an earlier "President Trump Thank You" dinner.

What else? Maybe a bit more snark. It also had amazing visual images -- always crucial in a world of glowing screens -- showing lots of very non-mainstream looking religious people. The crowns made out of rifle bullets were especially nice.

Thus, Wilken said, you have guns, Trump and crazy religious people. And the tsunami of Parkland follow-up stories on AR-15s provided the news hook, turning a rather strange local or regional story into a national story. Take it away NPR:

Hundreds of faithful at a Pennsylvania church on Wednesday carried AR-15-style rifles in adherence to their belief that a "rod of iron" mentioned in the Bible refers to the type of weapon that was used in last month's mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.
The armed ceremony at World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, about 20 miles southeast of Scranton, featured gun-toting worshippers, some wearing crowns of bullets as they participated in communion and wedding ceremonies.
Attendants carefully placed a zip tie into the receiver magazine well of each weapon to assure that a clip could not be loaded.
Concern over Wednesday's gathering prompted a nearby elementary school to cancel classes for the day.

Now, pay close attention to that last part. This congregation has held these rites before. Were classes at that school cancelled then?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Blessing the AR-15s: So this was a 'mass' in an ordinary church linked to famous 'evangelist'?

Blessing the AR-15s: So this was a 'mass' in an ordinary church linked to famous 'evangelist'?

If you want to understand the current cyberspace freakout about those church rites to bless AR-15 rifles (or something like that, that were based on the Bible, or something like that), please watch this CBS News video.

If you are a journalist who works on the religion beat, you are going to want to place coffee cups or other beverage containers far, far away from your computer keyboard or the glowing-screen device of your choice. Try to stay calm.

Did you watch the video? OK, now let's proceed. Based on the contents of this video, answer this: Who are these people and what kind of church is this?

Apparently, these are run-of-the-mill Christians at a normal church. Right?

Or maybe you turned to CNN for further information -- like this online report, with this headline: "Pennsylvania couples clutching AR-15 rifles renew wedding vows." Pretty far into this report, news consumers learn the following about the Rev. Sean Moon, the head of this organization:

Moon is the son of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who founded the Unification Church in the 1950s. Before he died in 2012 at age 92, the elder Moon was a high-profile international evangelist for decades. He was famous for conducting mass weddings, including at New York City's Madison Square Garden and another one uniting 360,000 couples in South Korea.
The Sanctuary Church calls itself Rod of Iron Ministries, and is a breakaway faction of the Unification Church, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Unification Church distanced itself from Wednesday's event, saying its ceremonies and teachings do not involve weapons.

Wait, wait, wait. Sun Myung Moon was famous because he was AN EVANGELIST, as opposed to the content of his teachings? He was an "evangelist" like, well, the Rev. Billy Graham?

Believe it or not, even that wording is a little bit better than an Agence France-Presse visual report that started like this:

A mass of unusual sorts takes place in a church in Pennsylvania, where dozens of revelers come to pray armed with semi-automatic weapons.

Wait, wait, wait. A "mass"? You mean like a Catholic Mass? I don't think so.

So what is going on here? Let's turn to religion-beat veteran Bob Smietana, who shows remarkable restraint here:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Death outside Waco: Did Mount Carmel believers die because the experts didn't get religion?

Death outside Waco: Did Mount Carmel believers die because the experts didn't get religion?

The subject of the class at Baylor University was contemporary movements in American religious life. On this particular day, the subject under discussion -- with the help of a guest speaker -- was debates about the meaning of the hot-button word "cult."

I was taking the class as part of my master's degree studies during the late 1970s in Baylor's unique church-state studies program, an interdisciplinary program build on studies in history, theology, political science and law. This particular class was important, since legal disputes about new religious movements have helped define the boundaries of religious tolerance in our culture.

To paraphrase one of my professors: Lots of people with whom you would not necessarily want to have dinner have helped defend your religious freedom. True tolerance is almost always tense.

The speaker in our class that day was a soft-spoken leader in a ground that would become infamous more than a decade later -- the Branch Davidians. His name was Perry Jones and it would be another five years or so until a young guitar player and Bible-study savant named Vernon Howell would arrive at the group's 77-acre Mount Carmel headquarters. Howell, of course, would change his name to David Koresh. Jones' daughter Rachel married Koresh, who would eventually become a polygamist.

The main thing I remember about listening to Jones that day, and talking to him after class, was his consistent emphasis on pacifism and biblical prophecies about the End Times -- remaining doctrinal ties back to Seventh-day Adventism, the movement from which the Davidians split decades earlier.

Why share this information? Well, this was the rather personal frame around the contents of my On Religion column this past week and the "Crossroads" podcast that followed. (Click here to tune that in.)

Both focused on religious issues -- in journalism and public life -- addressed in the six-part Paramount Network miniseries called "Waco," which will run through the end of this month.

It was, to say the least, rather haunting to see Perry Jones fatally wounded in the dramatic recreation of the first moments of the two-hour gunfight on Feb. 28, 1993 that opened the 51-day siege outside Waco by an army of federal agents. The hellish fire that ended it all -- its cause remains the subject of fierce debates -- claimed the lives of 76 men, women and children.

Were the Branch Davidians truly a "cult"?

Please respect our Commenting Policy