Babylon A Go-Go
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Nothing brings out the inner Mazes and Monsters fanatic in the fundamentalist Christian like a war. Times of peace and prosperity are, for the deep believer, relative fallow periods, where all the drama of existence is confined to shouting matches at P.T.A. meetings and pseudonymous requests for sexual advice in whispered late-night phone calls to Dr. Laura.
Wartime is different. During a war, all of the things the Extreme Christian has spent his spare time reading about in those books with the cheesy illustrated covers are suddenly in play . During times of peace, hope for deliverance always remains far off, but in times of war, there is always at least a theoretical chance that the entire physical world will be reduced to rubble, clearing the way for the magic moment when the sky opens up, and an angel floats down from heaven, saying, "You see, Jerry, you were right all along ... the others were fools ... they should never have given you shit about your station wagon ... the Glorious Appearing is Nigh ..."
The Christian nerd factor for this particular war in Iraq has been higher than usual, and for obvious reasons. One, it is being waged for no obvious reason, making it fertile ground for all sorts of wild scriptural speculation just about anything you want to dream up, even the idea that Saddam Hussein is the antichrist makes more sense than the actual justification for the war given by the government. Two, our occupation of Iraq is, or at least has evolved into, a confrontation with Islam. Three, it is led on our side by a Christian. Four, it is taking place in the site of ancient Babylon, a territory with no small significance in the Armageddon story.
That said, not much of the rhetoric emanating from the apocalyptic crowd is all that coherent. There isn't much of a consensus as to what it's all about. In fact, a lot of the murmurings from places like End Times magazine and the Lahaye/Jenkins Left Behind set will remind you of Butthead's reaction to a Kraftwerk video: "Hey, Beavis. This means something."
There are some general themes, of course. In general, the Christian right strongly supports the war, and is deeply concerned with Saddam Hussein's persecution of Christians. It has suddenly become very worried about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It Supports The Troops, who are vaguely supposed to be doing God's work. And of course the fundamentalists are in a hurry to send Bibles by the hundreds of thousands, so that they can be read as soon as the electricity comes on. But with regard to the question of what the war is all about, where it's leading us, and why, the picture is much more confused.
There is absolutely nothing in the world funnier than a fundamentalist Christian in a state of high spiritual agitation, happily injected into the middle of a grotesque secular disaster. Hand him a pen, camera or guitar in these situations, and he is likely to outshine even the pre-rehab Sam Kinison for pure comic power. He becomes a resource the country should really treasure.
With that in mind, here are AlterNet's nominations for the Christian right's five funniest Iraq war moments:
1. Missile crate baptism photograph from "A Greater Freedom," edited by Oliver North.
This picture deserves to be considered a classic of military photojournalism. It depicts an American human being on the decks of an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Truman, sitting up to his nipples in a munitions crate filled with water. Aviation Technician 2nd Class Sean Zahornacky is being baptized. In accordance with the solemnity of the occasion, he is wearing a t-shirt that reads "Old Navy Clothing Company." To his left and to his right, a pair of buzzcutted geeks in military khakis welcoming him to their mad, mad world.
A Greater Freedom was ostensibly "edited" by Oliver North, but his real contribution was the introduction. Most of the work was done by Sara Horn, a staff writer for the corporate communications office of LifeWay Christian Resources. Essentially a coffee-table book of photos and personal stories of "men and women of faith" serving in the Iraq theater, A Greater Freedom is remarkable mainly for its utter absence of actual war or battle scenes. There is never any hint of violence or bloodshed in the book; war in North's layout looks like a quiet and peaceful place where middle-aged men can chat with each other and sing songs in concrete rooms. But the underlying, and disturbing, theme of the book is the idea of a merging of worship and preparation for battle, making the two things one and the same. The book searches constantly for military metaphors for worship: daily prayer is "A different kind of firepower" or a "spiritual assault," while "staying the course" also refers to faith. But the most priceless moments come when one can actually be baptized in a bomb crate, or when the search for Foreign Object Debris on the carrier deck can be turned, simultaneously, into a "prayer walk."
This book might end up being a blueprint for America's future, where militarism actually becomes the national religion. When that happens, Sean Zahornacky won't be funny. But we're not there yet – and today, he's still a laff riot.
2. Comic artist Guy Gilchrist's "Angel Art"
Following up on the theme in A Greater Freedom, Guy Gilchrist – the comic artist best known for his work in continuing the famous "Nancy" strip – contributes "Angel Art" to the Presidential Prayer Team's (PPT) "Adopt Our Troops" campaign. The PPT, for those who aren't familiar with it, is an organization dedicated to organizing its followers in prayer for the health and success of George W. Bush. It features daily prayer guidance ("Additional Leader to Pray For Today: Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson") and national campaigns such as its upcoming "national online prayer rally" to sweep Bush to victory on election day.
Another of its campaigns is the "Adopt Our Troops" campaign, where members can sign up online to receive the name of a real live Iraq-theater soldier to adopt in prayer (I adopted a Marine named Peter Azevedo and received a certificate of "adoption"). Those who are interested are welcome to adopt their own soldiers at presidentialteam.org/adoptatroop.php.
As part of the campaign, the PPT asked various artists to contribute supporting materials. Included in this were the drawings of Gilchrist, who drew a picture of an angel, armed and apparently Kevlar-clad, looking downward in a somber pose. The caption reads: "May God protect those who protect us." Again, the theme of war as something holy comes into play here, and it wouldn't be funny at all, except that the art is so goddamn bad.
3. The Iraq satellite photos on Prophecy Watch
Prophecy Watch is an Oklahoma-based group that meets regularly and has a seminar once a year to discuss our current temporal standing relative to the impending Armageddon (one of the guests at last year's seminar, incidentally, was Tim Lahaye, author of the enormously popular Left Behind books). Their site is one of a number of web and print outlets that are really Christian variations of the 24-hour news cycle cable networks, running constant updates on how the latest news effects our standing in prophecy. Others include such marvels as tribulation.com (which plays a cheery end-of-the-world soundtrack when you log on), endtime.com (which features, no kidding at all, a "6th Trumpet Watch"), and raptureready.com, which among other things, advises viewers on such questions as whether or not their pets will accompany them to heaven after the Glorious Reappearing. All of these sites are very interested in Iraq, which of course is the site of ancient and perhaps modern Babylon.
Contrary to popular perception, the U.S. invading Iraq does not make a whole lot of sense as an immediate precursor to final Armageddon. In fact, what Revelations predicts is that Babylon will be rebuilt under the protection of the Antichrist, and its armies will lead an invasion of Israel. Thus the first Gulf War, when the invader was promising antichrist candidate Saddam Hussein (who actually tried to rebuild some Babylonian structures), inspired a lot more of this nonsense. That said, Prophecy Watch still features satellite photos of Nebuchadnezzar's Palace and other Iraqi Babylon sites, just so you can "see for yourself" how it all fits.
4. Cheesy book covers redux
The Iraq war is inspiring a golden age of shoddily-illustrated books about the impending tribulation. Some are actually old classics that are once again relevant, like the Proustian " Saddam's Mystery Babylon" and the postmodern masterpiece, " A Palace For the Antichrist," both on sale for under $20. Some are old Gulf War I-inspired books that have new chapters added to make sense of the coming conflict, like Dr. Charles Dyer's The Rise of Babylon: Is Iraq at the Center of the Final Drama?" (1991, 2003).
There is also a new cottage industry for preachers selling audio recordings of their rantings about Iraq. One is the " Prophecy Café" series recording by Ron Graff, entitled "Iraq in Prophecy." That one is only $7.99 and includes shipping and handling.
5. Another dead missionary
Christians keep saying all of these awful things about Islam ("[Mohammed] was a demon-obsessed pedophile," noted Jerry Vines, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention), then they wonder why they keep end up getting carved to bits when they go to Iraq to hand out Bibles. The specter of missionaries once again cheerily rushing to the front to be hacked to bits is probably the most encouraging sign yet that America is re-embracing its conquistador heritage.
Missionaries, whom the U.S. government apparently cannot prevent from entering the country ("Imagine what the U.S. Congress would say to us," said a USAID spokesman in April) have been killed with increasing frequency in recent months, but that is not denting the resolve of the Bible-thumpers.
"God and the president have given us an opportunity to bring Jesus Christ to the Middle East," said Tom Craig, an independent American missionary working in Iraq and Cyprus, told the New York Times. "This is my commandment. No amount of danger will stop me."
However, after a pair of South Carolinian missionaries named Larry and Jean Elliot were murdered in Mosul last April, residents from their hometown got together 16,000 care packages to send to Iraq. Included were toothbrushes and Ibuprofen. Town residents were prohibited from enclosing religious material in their care packages, not wanting to offend Iraqis with their gift. A little late for that kind of foresight!
Matt Taibbi is a columnist for AlterNet and lives in New York. He covers politics for Rolling Stone and the New York Press.