Although religious cults are the subject of many glowing news stories, what seems to get missed is that they can sometimes also have a darker side. The effects on those involved are not always as positive as current affairs journalists would have us believe. The following recounting of an untrue story offers an example of this.
Troublous Times for the Sunshine Cult – A Short Story
Saul (real name Jackson Daly) stood amid general hilarity by the lake, drenched in moonlight and old and tawny port, a bottle of which he clutched to his chest. It had been procured earlier that day from the one and only liquor store in the small New South Wales coastal town of Sunshine. A scattering of his brothers and sisters, sprawled on a grassy knoll, partook of wine and herbal cigarettes. They looked at him expectantly, as though he might have something important to say, but he backed away, without comment, and headed toward the road. It traced the edge of the lake and could have led Saul, if he’d wished, all the way to the pier.
He paused to clear his head, though it proved difficult. A strange sense of unease had come over him. Or perhaps it was his undiagnosed schizophrenia. He gazed up at the stars, feeling tiny and insignificant; peered down at the ants, feeling godlike and omnipotent; stared out across the lake, and suddenly felt dizzy. He was only half conscious now of the sounds of campsite chatter and laughter somewhere in the distance. He reached for a railing but staggered, his thoughts befuddled, and vision blurred. A loose stone lodged beneath his shoe, causing him to stumble and collapse to the ground. He was asleep before his head hit the ground. The bottle of port collided beside him, its scarlet contents oozing onto the lakeside surface.
The army of ants, bedazzled by this apparent act of god, arrayed themselves before him, poised for action, drawn toward the prize: the remains of the port, and especially the gleaming intrigue that was the glass bottle. They were saved from this trap by several hooded youths who, having witnessed events from a caravan park across the road, now ventured from out of the shadows to make mischief. The tallest of them bent low and replaced the port bottle with an empty whisky flask before retreating with the others back into the shadows to avoid detection.
Morning sunlight beamed down upon Saul, temporarily blinding him and exposing his predicament to anyone who cared to witness it. For a moment, onlookers were speechless. It was still quite early, and most had hangovers. Yahweh, the group’s leader (birth name Doug, reported missing by his legal guardians back in May), was among the witnesses. He tugged in agitation at his pony tail, realizing that if he didn’t have a haircut soon, he’d be in danger of violating his own health and safety regulations.
“Is he dead?” asked the park’s manager. He was a stout man. His eyes darted up and down the street as he estimated, perhaps, the damages owing if a dead body happened to be found on the premises. He took a bite of crumpet, honey dripping onto his fingers.
“Mm, breakfast time,” said Esther (name changed by deed poll). “Looks delicious.”
Yahweh shook his head. “Just sleeping.” He turned to see Satan (Keith) approaching, and eyed him with suspicion. “Did you put him up to this.”
Satan was noncommittal. “I’ve been wandering to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down on it.”
“In this general vicinity?”
Yahweh held the whisky flask up for others to see. “He was drinking this,” he announced with distaste.
Satan didn’t follow. “I thought you said whisky’s okay now. Since the floods.”
Yahweh grimaced. “It’s malted.”
Satan nodded, understanding now. Despite the floods, malting remained an abomination unto Yahweh.
“Are you sure, Yahweh?” Esther eyed the flask skeptically. “Jackson can’t stand whisky.”
“His name’s Saul,” corrected Yahweh, but he considered this for a moment. “I could be mistaken, I suppose. It’s been known to happen.” He turned and headed back toward camp, then realized he still hadn’t dealt with Saul. “Hold him in purgatory,” he said over his shoulder. “We’ll deal with this when he’s back on his feet.
There was a measure of disgruntlement among Sunshine’s townsfolk that day. By late morning, some had gathered at the mayor’s chambers to air their grievances.
“How long do we have to put up with it,” demanded a man in a straw hat. His angular frame towered over the others. “They party all night and sleep most the day.”
“Their antics are raucous,” concurred a blue-haired lady.
There was general agreement on this score, with many voices added to the chorus.
The chairperson struck her gavel. “Ladies and gentlemen. One at a time, please.”
“I don’t believe they’re even particularly religious,” said one councilor. “They just say they are for the tax exemption.”
This was met with loud noises of approval.
“I beg to differ,” said a man in shirt and jeans. “They’re a net gain for the town. It’s been good for business.” It was the owner of the town’s only liquor store.
Someone sneered at this, but the mayor seemed impressed by the argument. “We don’t want to stand in the way of business,” he observed.
The bickering is rumored to have continued for much of the morning, but seeing no further minutes were recorded, it is difficult to speculate what else might have been said.
By midday, a blistering sun scorched the campsite. Yahweh, slouched in a fold-up chair under an annex, peered in anguish at harsh summer skies. “Father, why hath thou forsaken me? Why doth thou persecute me so?”
Satan, shaking dust from a rug just outside, rolled his eyes. “Talking to yourself again in the third person,” he said.
Yahweh grimaced. “Don’t you start.”
The camp had just received an unwelcome visit from the law, a couple of local police officers inquiring after the events of the previous evening and wondering if, in future, the group might not object to keeping the volume down a bit, at least after midnight.
Mother Mary (Jenny to her blood parents) appeared at the open doorway of the annex with the sun above her head and smooth pebbles beneath her feet. “Son,” she admonished, “are you just going to sit there all day, moping?”
Her testing tone drew Yahweh out of his brooding. With abruptness, he flung a large stick at Moses, demanding water. “I’m parched,” he complained.
“Last night you drank too much,” observed Mary. “You’re dehydrated.”
Yahweh looked to the heavens in futile appeal. “Damn it and blast you all to hell …” he muttered in anguish. The words had been mouthed under his breath, but Mary’s glare told him they had not gone undeciphered.
He was rescued from further reprimand by the youthful Rainbow, Star and Shine, who appeared at the entrance beside Mary, dressed in white and radiant in the sunlight.
Yahweh sighed in resignation. “What are you here for?”
“They have a question,” said Mary. “A rather good one, if you ask me.”
“Well, I didn’t.” Yahweh took a moment to compose himself. “It’s alright,” he said, addressing everyone. “I forgive you.”
He motioned for the youths to kneel down on the grass before him.
“It’s about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” said Star, a girl in a long flowing white skirt. She seemed eager to resolve the matter.
“Well, in particular, how you told us to eat the fruit.”
She observed him intently. “Why was that again?”
Yahweh rummaged through a pile of papers till he located a bible and opened it to the first chapter of Genesis. He began to read, silently to himself, but it was quite boring. He looked up to see his audience still kneeling on the grass in front of him, and remembered them.
The girl persisted. “Most other denominations say that it was a mistake to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. They say that, in doing so, Adam and Eve sinned.”
Yahweh ran a finger down the page until he reached verse twenty-nine of the first chapter. He read, “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”
His young audience remained silent. Yahweh marveled at this dimwitted generation.
“In that passage God gave humankind every tree yielding seed for food. Every tree.” He turned the page. “So what can be made of this fellow going by the name LORD God in Genesis 2 who contradicts this by saying, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”
“That he is a false god,” suggested Star.
“Well, in any event mistaken,” agreed Yahweh. “This LORD God character says that Adam and Eve would surely die in the day that they ate the fruit. But they clearly did not die in that day. The serpent had told the truth. Furthermore, the serpent said that by eating the fruit they would be as gods, which LORD God admits in the very next chapter by saying, ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil’.”
“But Yahweh,” said Star. “Isn’t LORD God who you claim to be?”
“That’s right,” said Shine, a blonde-haired boy. “God is elohiym, LORD God is Yahweh.”
Members of the growing audience nodded amongst themselves, rather pleased. Their leader had, it seemed, been caught out in a contradiction.
“No!” thundered Yahweh. He was filled with a great wrath, or at least was quite annoyed. “Father have mercy on their souls.”
“See. There he goes again,” said Satan. “Always in the third person.”
“Can’t help himself,” said Mary.
Yahweh took a deep breath to settle himself and then explained as patiently and calmly as he could manage, “We went over this in vespers.”
“Could you explain one more time?”
Yahweh reached for a glass of water, which unfortunately had not turned into soothing wine. “Okay. One more time. I am the LORD, not the LORD God.”
The youths appeared nonplussed by this.
He continued. “The LORD is Yahweh. That’s me! The LORD God is Yahweh Elohiym. That’s not me! And God is Elohiym. Maybe that’s me. I’m looking into it.” Yahweh collapsed back into his chair, suddenly exhausted. “Could it be any plainer?”
Now it came to pass that Lot’s wife (Jim’s girlfriend Sandra) got arrested for shoplifting salt for Yahweh, who liked his fish and chips nice and salty.
On hearing this, Lot’s two daughters (Sandra’s two friends, Chrissie and Joanna) who also liked their fish and chips salty, but more importantly could anticipate Yahweh’s fearful reaction to a salt shortage, were concerned, and met on Main Street to discuss the matter. They felt that if only they could get their father drunk in his tent, they would create an opportunity to pickpocket the funds necessary to replenish the camp’s salt stocks.
Also, they realized that if they had sex with him, they might get themselves pregnant.
When word of this wickedness got back to the annex, Yahweh was beside himself with rage. He loved his fish and chips, but only when sufficiently salted.
He ordered Mother Mary to bring Lot and his two daughters before him in the Main Tent to answer questions. When she refused, he asked nicely, and she agreed eventually.
Yahweh had many questions.
For example, how had Lot’s wife got herself arrested when shoplifting a shaker of salt should be such a simple job?
And what was this about Lot’s daughters turning to pickpocketing?
Above all, why hadn’t Lot volunteered to pay for the salt and saved his wife and daughters all the trouble?
Once Lot and his daughters had been excused from further interrogation and permitted to leave the tent, Mother Mary eyed Yahweh sharply. Eventually he couldn’t avoid eye contact any longer. The moment was awkward, and Moses, who had been rehearsing turning his stick into a serpent, which was not yet working as advertised, departed soon after the others and sought refuge by the lake.
All the while, Mary held her gaze.
Yahweh sighed. “For the love of God, what is it?”
Mary placed her hands on her hips. “You have issues with the salt and pickpocketing, but nothing to say about Lot having sex with his two daughters?”
Yahweh looked at her in amazement. She was right, he realized. For he, Yahweh, was a very jealous man.
“Seeing it’s the sabbath, how about showing a little leadership,” said Mary. “Your flock is growing wayward, and you haven’t given a sermon in weeks.”
Yahweh reflected on this. “You’ve got a point,” he conceded. “Call back Moses and have him arrange it.”
Mary remained unmoved.
“Please,” added Yahweh.
“All right, then.”
With a gentle late afternoon breeze rustling the leaves, Yahweh, atop a hill, delivered a sermon to his flock gathered lakeside below. His congregation sat cross-legged on the ground, or stood, clustered into small groups.
“How evil is this generation?” marveled Yahweh. “Don’t ye know that thou art nothing? That thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return?”
“I thought we were as gods,” said Rainbow.
“What is he talking about?” asked Shine.
“His words are strange,” agreed Star.
“Speak in English,” said Mary impatiently. “Honestly. What is this incoherent babble?”
“Silence!” exclaimed Yahweh. “Okay. Let me make this very simple.”
He took a smooth pebble and used it to draw on the ground. But the sketch did not please him, so he rubbed it out and continued.
“I’m tired,” he said. “I’m tired of all your selfish behaviors. All I ask is that you devote yourselves to me. That everything you do is for my glory, and that alone.”
There was silence.
Yahweh felt a little better, sensing that he now had their full attention. “I am very jealous,” he explained. “It is just a little foible of mine. If you do as I say, I won’t send you to hell.”
“You’re much more than that!” came a loud cry, but not from the congregation.
There was general astonishment.
Yahweh looked to see the source of the cry. It was Saul, who had somehow broken out of purgatory and located them by the lake.
“Saul. What are you doing here?”
“It’s Paul,” said Saul. “From now on, everyone call me Paul.”
Yahweh was unsure what to make of this. “Okay,” he said. “Whatever.”
“I was blinded by the sunlight,” said Paul, formerly Saul, “And I saw what must soon come to pass.”
Yahweh was intrigued. “Go on.”
Paul turned to his fellow brothers and sisters. “This man, Yahweh, is a good man. The light of the world.”
Yahweh nodded his agreement. “Quite true,” he said, pleased.
“Are you sure?” asked Mary, unconvinced.
“Quite sure,” said Paul. “For this man has sent himself as his only son to die for our sins, so that we may have eternal life in heaven and avoid hell.”
“Say what now?” interjected Yahweh. “I think I did that already.”
But Paul’s words were pleasing to the congregation, and they were no longer listening to Yahweh, only to Paul.
“He will be hung on a cross, then buried for three days, after which he will resurrect himself and go into heaven to prepare mansions for us,” said Paul.
Yahweh stood to attention, aware that he was now encircled by a number of his flock.
“There is nothing we can do to save ourselves,” said Paul. “Left to ourselves, we are doomed. Drink malted whisky if you wish. What difference could it make?” He pointed toward Yahweh. “It’s all down to this great man.”
Yahweh caught sight of Moses, brandishing his stick. It did not turn into a serpent, but even so it was threatening. Yahweh backed away, but others were there to prevent his escape.
These people are crazy, he realized. How have I not noticed this before?
After that Yahweh was taken away into parkland to be tested by Satan. Mother Mary, not trusting him, also came along to keep an eye on proceedings.
Satan pointed to a creek within viewing distance of where they stood, and to a housing estate on the other side. “If you let me be leader,” he said, “I will buy you those houses.”
Now Satan was a wealthy man, and Yahweh knew that he could afford it, as the houses in this area were not overly pricey compared to city real estate. Yahweh also saw that the houses were quite stately, and that with his own meager savings and lack of regular income they would be beyond his own financial means.
Recognizing the opportunity for what it was, he reached into a shirt pocket for his leadership button and was about to hand it over to his wealthy companion when Mary intervened, pulling him aside by his color.
“Honestly!” she said. “Have some pride.”
Satan left them then, and went to help with the construction of a cross.
Immediately, Rainbow, Star and Shine arrived with a damp cloth and a bottle of water to tend to Yahweh.
The cross was made of hardwood, and very sturdy. Paul, accompanied by Moses and Satan, examined it with satisfaction. It had taken almost a week to assemble all the materials and fashion it into its present state.
Yahweh, watching on from a polite distance, continued to receive comfort from Rainbow, Star and Shine. Even Mother Mary laid off him for a bit.
On first being reminded of his plan to send himself, as his only son, to die for the sins of his children, and to raise himself on the third day, Yahweh had been quite perplexed and wondered what might have possessed him to come up with such an idea. But, on reflection, he’d come round to the view that it was perhaps right and good that, if he was to be lavished with everlasting glory, perhaps he should do this one selfless thing as a kind of divine offset to his eternal jealousy and as solace to his hapless flock who, on their own, could do nothing, were nothing, and would never amount to anything.
Later that afternoon, an already dead Yahweh was hung on the cross. He had been given an overdose of sleeping pills first, to ensure that the experience was as painless as possible.
At dusk, he was buried, and there was great joy in the land.
Three days later, however, Paul was getting edgy. He paced beside the lake, exchanging worried glances with Moses and Mary. Even Satan seemed quite concerned. They stood near where they’d buried him. Others were congregated on the hill, for a time none the wiser, waiting expectantly for the resurrection and Yahweh’s ascent into heaven.
But as nightfall drew near, the crowd also grew anxious, sensing that things might not have gone entirely to plan, and that they, in fact, might have committed mass murder. Or, at least, it seemed that a mass of them might have murdered Yahweh. Nobody could confirm if there was even a technical term for that, and there were no lawyers among them. The lack of legal certainty on the matter was disconcerting.
Come night fall, Moses, who had remained relatively calm and clear headed, suggested that everybody behave pretty much as they usually would that evening. If they had a good time as normal, the local folk and especially the police might fail to notice that anything out of the ordinary had happened.
“There’s a train for Sydney in the morning,” he said. “I suggest that, after a few hours of reveling, we get some sleep, and then head quietly out of town, never breathing a word of this to anyone.”
Paul was unhappy about this. “Our task is to spread the word to the entire world.”
Mary grunted. “Shut up, Saul. You’ve done enough damage already.”
That night they partied quite hard, but no harder than usual. It was just the right amount of partying not to arouse suspicion from the locals. Next morning, they boarded the train for Sydney, and were never spotted again in the coastal town of Sunshine.