Killing the Buddha

How Glenn Beck Re-Invented Himself as a Crying Conservative

The following is an adapted excerpt from Alexander Zaitchik's book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, due out this month on Wiley & Sons.

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What Drives a Death Penalty Lawyer? A Conversation With Texas Defense Attorney David Dow

In New York? Come hear Mark Dow in person on Saturday, May 1 at the KtB-sponsored panel discussion “The Prison-Spirituality Complex“!

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Have You Ever Taken Ayahuasca in the Peruvian Amazon?

Noemi Vagus, an Ashaninka shaman, standing in front of an Ayahuasca vine in the Peruvian Amazon

Ever since I first began playing with psychedelics as a teenager, I have wanted to do them in the jungle. It took only one or two bad trips in the city before I started imagining the experience away from the car alarms and ambulance sirens, and closer to its millennia-deep origins in ceremony and sacrament.

If this sounds like a familiar story, it is. Amazonian psychedelic tourism predates today's better-known trends in eco and cultural immersion tourism.

Through word of mouth, High Times features, Discovery Channel specials, the books of Terrance McKenna and the "Yage Letters" of Burroughs and Ginsberg, northern-hemispheric drug culture has over the last half-century become steadily more hip to and enthralled by the living Amazonian tradition of ingesting Ayahuasca, a potent psychedelic brew used throughout the region as a healing tool and portal through which to communicate with the jungle spirits and the dead.

The magic molecule animating Ayahuasca is the fearsome and revered tryptamine known as DMT. Aside from its strength, DMT in both its natural and synthetic forms is unique for the similar sensations and visions shared by its supplicants. Unlike other man-made psychedelics such as LSD, synthetic DMT takes many users to the same "place," where they report meeting elfish, clown-like, and insectoid beings who frequently extend the same warm and welcoming message: "We've been expecting you." This phenomenon is documented in Dr. Rick Strassman's book, DMT: TheSpirit Molecule, which describes his remarkable findings over the course of the first FDA-approved psychedelic study in more than 20 years, conducted at the University of New Mexico Medical School in the mid-'90s.

The natural DMT experience of Ayahuasca is likewise known for taking users to a common destination, where they are greeted by the dead, as well as assorted vine goddesses and jungle spirits, chief among them the serpentine "Ayahuasca madre."

I finally got my chance to meet the Madre in March, when an English rainforest preservation non-profit called Cool Earth invited me to join a press trip to the Peruvian Amazon. The last-minute invite allowed just a few days to round up jungle gear and malaria pills, but there was never any question of accepting the offer. It was the juiciest of junkets: starting in coastal Lima, we would venture deep into primary rainforest, roughly midway between the Andes and the Brazilian border. Our final destination was the Ashaninka village of Tinkerini, a place so remote that the locals have seen only a small handful of whites in their lives, including the anthropologist who would be our guide. Tinkerini was no forest-edge Potemkin village full of trinket-hawking nativos. It was the real thing. Not far from Tinkerini dwell some of the world's last uncontacted tribes, the kind who want nothing to do with the modern world, shoot arrows at passing helicopters, and have zero immunity to foreign germs.

The group consisted of myself, a few journalists from the States and the UK, a Cool Earth rep, and a Welsh anthropologist named Dilwyn Jenkins, who has been studying the Ashaninka since his undergraduate years at Cambridge in the late 1970s. It was a good-humored crew, and on the bus out of Lima we even managed to laugh at the fact that not one of us had a snake bite kit, despite the fact that the Peruvian Amazon hosts the world's densest and most varied collection of poisonous snakes. More than 200 killer breeds live in the area where we were headed. The tarantulas, while not as lethal, are the diameter of microwave pizzas.

The trip got off to a rocky start, literally. Our first attempt to cross the Andes by bus was stymied by a rockslide on the sole cliff-hugging road that winds east out of Lima. After losing a day of travel, we backtracked and chartered a small prop plane over the mountains to the jungle frontier city of Satipo, where we landed on a military airstrip built during the government's war with the Shining Path guerillas. From Satipo, we crawled into a battered six-seat Cessna and flew further east over endless broccoli bunches of Amazon canopy. An hour later, we made a bumpy landing on a riverside airstrip of pressed grass, cheered on by Ashaninka children in face paint and traditional robes. From there, we hiked several hours further northeast into the jungle, fording two rivers along the way.

We arrived at the village of Tinkerini at dusk. Surveying the scene of straw huts and shy Indians huddled around small fires, my first thought was of the Ewok village in Return of the Jedi. My second thought was Ayahuasca. During that night's meal of rice and chicken, held under the thickest band of Milky Way I have ever seen, I approached Dilwyn about my interest in the Vine of Souls. To my delight, he agreed to speak to the village shaman the following morning. "She's like my second mother," he said. "It shouldn't be a problem to arrange a ceremony."

The shaman, Noemi Vagus, was like no octogenarian I had ever met. Her jet black hair, nimble barefoot stride, and straight-backed squat reminded me more of a teenage gymnast than her elderly counterparts in American cities, with their four-legged walkers, slouching postures, and debilitating arthritis. Then there is the fact that she habitually consumes more elite psychedelics than every parking lot 'shroom dealer at Burning Man put together.

Noemi's health and vigor are not uncommon among the elders of the Ashaninka tribe, whose population of 45,000 sprawls across the national borders of Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Brazil. When asked about this vitality, the Ashaninka will point to Ayahuasca, known as "Kamarampi" in the tribal language. As do most Amazon tribes, the Ashaninka consider the vine to be the ultimate healing plant. For millennia it has been imbibed and smoked as a way to cure a range of mental and physical illnesses. Since it often induces violent vomiting and diarrhea, it is also used to purge vicious jungle parasites. Judging by the fit state of Ashaninka tribal elders, regular use is also something like drinking from a fountain of youth, or chewing on the branch of immortality.

Smashing up the Vine of Souls

Smashing up the Vine of Souls.

Like most psychedelic aficionados I have known, Noemi did not need to be pressed very hard before agreeing to hold a ceremony that night. She immediately led us into the jungle and over to a thick-barked vine the width of a baseball bat. "Here," she said, touching it reverently. Then she led us a little deeper into the forest and pointed to the nondescript green leaves of a plant known as Chakruna, which contains natural DMT. When boiled together with the Ayahuasca vine, which contains a class of alkaloids known as beta-carbolines, the Chakruna leaves' DMT is activated for oral ingestion. Botanists have estimated that the chances of randomly mixing the two plants together is around one in five billion. When I asked Noemi how the Ashaninka knew to mix the two plants in such a way as to unlock their power, she pointed to the sky. "The thunder and the lightning told us," she said, matter-of-factly.

The process of making the Ayahuasca brew began that afternoon, after Noemi had hacked down a vine and collected the leaves. The cooking is simple but takes all day: First the vine is stripped of its bark and hacked into strips. It is then soaked and bundled together with Chakruna and placed in a pot, where it is tended to and stirred for several hours. Slowly, the water becomes dark as it absorbs the divine plant matter. The resultant broth is left to cool and strained into another pot.

The Ayahuasca is stewed all day together with Chakruna leaves to activate the DMT

The Ayahuasca is stewed all day together with Chakruna leaves to activate the DMT.

At sundown we gathered at Noemi's hut, where she had placed a thin black blanket on the packed earth. She instructed us to lie down and wait, then disappeared. She returned half an hour later carrying the pot in both hands. By then the stars were out and the jungle's nightlife was in full swing. Nobody spoke. One by one, she called the four of us participating in the ceremony up to the pot, where she ladled out the psychedelic soup into a grapefruit-sized gourd. The lukewarm liquid was bitter, but I didn't gag on it, as I sometimes do when chewing psilocybin fungi. North American magic mushrooms taste like sour shit; this tasted like moist soil, like drinking the forest itself. I wiped my chin, mumbled thank you, and returned to the blanket.

We lay quiet for some time, listening to the rushing river to our left and the teeming jungle to our right. Then, gently but swiftly, the Madre spirit announced her arrival and mine. She did this with a sound as natural to the jungle as the taste of the vine. The noise of the river rushing over rocks began to merge with that of the buzzing rainforest to form a warm insectoid hum. It was as if waves of bugs as big as rodents were swarming from every direction; as if the river was full of prehistoric flying insects. Yet somehow this wasn't frightening or even creepy. The enveloping sound did not threaten us; the forest and its many creatures were our protectors.

I shut my eyes and breathed deeply. The jungle drug was taking hold.

Noemi spends the afternoon tending to her potion; the ceremony begins at sundown

Noemi spends the afternoon tending to her potion; the ceremony begins at sundown.

Then, as if on cue, the singing began. The strangest and most beautiful singing I have ever heard. Noemi and two other Ashaninka elders who also drank the broth began to intone the first of the night's many sacred chants, or icaros. The men sang in a lower register, with Noemi singing lead high-pitched melodies that flitted through the air like snakes. Visions of serpents as small dancing squiggles filled my head, whether my eyes were open or not. They would grow in size, disappear, then reappear, according to the music. The snakes were always moving with the melody. They were the melody.

This serpentine vision is the most common one in the Ashaninka Ayahuasca ceremony, and the music is meant to facilitate it. The chants' tones and rhythms were designed to influence and homogenize Ayahuasca visions among the group. "The roots of these songs go back at least 4,000 years, possibly even in close to their modern form," Dilwyn explained the next morning. "Visions of snakes are interpreted as visions of 'madre Ayahuasca,' the genie or spirit of the sacred plant, a conscious being you can talk to and learn things from."

I won't attempt the futile task of attempting to relay what I learned from the Madre. I don't know if it's even possible to bring such insights into the light of the next day. But very broadly, the Madre took me through the usual psychedelic funhouse tunnel of failed relationships, insecurities, fears, regrets, and finally into a place where all of those things are reconciled and then cease to exist. This place was green and fresh and wrapped in vines and watercress. It felt feminine and moist.

The brew was potent, but it was not overwhelming. During the four-hour trip I never experienced complete ego loss (i.e. a sense of having died) and did not meet with the spirits of the dead, as I had hoped to. But I did think about an old girlfriend in a way that I had not allowed myself to for years, and the visions were dominated by a totalizing jungle motif--swaying trees looked like tarantulas, audio hallucinations were all of living creatures, insects mostly, and the snakes kept reappearing, slithering through the air to the melodies of the icaros.

The next morning, over a breakfast of bland mantioc root, fresh grapefruit and instant coffee, we talked.

"When I first came here in 1978, the entire village took Ayahuasca on average three or four times a week," says Dilwyn. "Children participated in those days, even babies being given it from their mothers' mouths."

Noemi says she is saddened by the fact that the ceremony is not as popular as it once was, especially among the young. "Now the children take [Ayahuasca] and get scared, they don't like the jungle visions sometimes," she says. "They didn't used to get scared."

Jaime, a young male Ashaninka, attributes the change to the state teachers that are beginning to appear deeper in the jungle to teach the young. They preach Christianity and mock the traditional religion. "They make the children think that the jungle spirits are not real and are something to be feared," he says. "The new generation is pulling away from the old rituals." He also mentions that the Shining Path killed a lot of the old villagers and especially sought out shamans in an attempt to stamp out local traditions and convert the Indians to Maoism.

"The last of the real shamans in the area lives six hours away, alone in the jungle," adds Noemi.

When I ask her what separates her from a "real" shaman, she smiles and looks right into my eyes, as if to say, in her kindhearted Ashaninka way, "If you have to ask, you'll never know."

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Bible Porn

Once, when I was eight, I knelt down at my bed alongside my mother, admitted I was a sinner, and asked Jesus Christ into my heart. Once, when I was eleven, I stood up at a Bible campfire and promised my peers and elders that I would earnestly strive to bring my unsaved friend to church. And once when I was 22, among ten high school boys whose souls had been entrusted to me for a week, I sat down on the carpet and read them, for their edification, Bible porn.

"Judges 19:29-30:  When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, �Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!� "

These high school boys were members of what I have in the past called �My People,� a term that referred sometimes to those who accepted that a salad was to consist of, and only of, iceberg lettuce, tomato wedges, thousand island dressing, and Bacos. Sometimes the term referred to Midwesterners, sometimes to Swedish American-immigrants, sometimes to evangelicals. But mostly "My People" meant the Evangelical Covenant Church of America.

Created by a pietistic break-off of the Swedish State Lutheran church in the 19th century, the Evangelical Covenant Church is a denomination of about 100,000 members. Although they are now found in almost every state of the nation, My People cluster predominantly around Chicago and Minneapolis. Leaving the dry, empty formalism of state churches in Sweden for something more real, My People are Scandinavians with a heart for Jesus. Born again Swedes. They are evangelical enough to think that a heartfelt conversion experience is necessary to ensure your spot in the Kingdom of Heaven, but Swedish enough to not make a big fuss over it.

Migrating to the US, Covenanteers found greater religious freedom, but greater competition as well. Unable to simply baptize their infants into the state church before the kids even knew what was happening, My People now had to wait until some age of accountability and then let their kids make their own decisions. From every side – from charismatics, to archaeologists, to MTV – forces threatened to take Covenant kids from the faith of their fathers.

Hence the creation of CHIC.  Once standing for Covenant HIgh Congress, now like KFC or FedEx,CHIC stands for nothing but itself. Every three or four summers, CHIC calls every 13-17 year-old Covenant Kid from across the country to a big college campus where for a week they are bombarded with so much high-power Christian fun and high-volume Christian rock, and so many high-impact Christian speakers, that they have no choice but to dedicate their lives to Jesus Christ.

I attended CHIC in 1984, but because my mom had gone and gotten me saved seven years before, all I could do was get �recommitted.� And I had already been recommitted 19 times. So during the altar calls, while gospel music played softly and the speaker asked people to cast off their sins, come on down and accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, I sat and felt guilty for feeling nothing at all.

On the one hand it made perfect sense for me to sign up as a counselor for the 1991 CHIC held at Indiana University.  Family connections plus regular Covenant camp attendance plus having just graduated from the denomination's college, North Park, plus coordinating Covenant volunteer groups through my job with Habitat for Humanity, meant that I probably already knew 300 of the 3000 kids and counselors in attendance, and the others were probably only separated by single degree. These were My People, after all. Not to go would have been like ditching a big family reunion. But on another hand, signing up made as much sense as shaving my head and passing out the Bhagavad Gita at airports. Because I didn't really want anybody to have a conversion experience, I went to be a counselor at CHIC to save the children from being saved.

The CHIC counselor application asked for a statement of belief. I knew that the right answer was something like "Once I felt tempted to go to a party where alcohol was being served" or "Once my friends' parents got divorced and I was feeling really down and I didn't know where God was in all of this." Then I would relate how I turned to a favorite passage of scripture and how it made me realize that Christ indeed was alive and relevant for my life today. 

But I had no such simple heartfelt story of Christ's presence in my life. I stayed away from all the traditional Christian events at my Christian college and instead hid away in the library and struggled through deep thoughts and hard texts trying to make God and Jesus and the world as a whole make some sort of sense to me. From Kierkegaard I knew that "Truth is Subjectivity," from Nietzsche that Christians were pop-Platonists, and from Rene Girard that the New Testament revealed the scapegoat mechanism secretly present in all other myths. I knew Christianity, like life, was something far more complex and messy and hard and weird than you could explain to teens in a week. And I knew that it was condescending and wrong to make teens feel dysfunctional if they did not have a Jesus experience in just the way CHIC had pre-ordained for them.

I still considered myself a Christian, but I had no statement of belief. I wasn't even sure if belief itself was very Christlike. So, I wrote down on the application the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ, His Only Son..." Look, I said, I just believe what everybody else believes; please don't make me personalize my belief the way that everybody else personalizes their belief. I knew it wasn't at all what they were looking for, but I figured if I quoted a central Christian creed they couldn't keep me out.

So it was that on a warm August afternoon, 1991, I was sitting in a circle on the carpet with the ten high school CHIC boys whom I would "counsel." The first activity we were to undertake together was a scripture lesson. The official CHIC scripture lesson was from Matthew 14, in which Peter starts to walk toward Jesus on the water, but then the disciple starts to sink. CHIC had provided brightly colored Xeroxed papers with "hip" clip art and with questions for me to give to each of my charges:  "Have you ever felt like you were sinking and called out to Jesus?" "What risks might Jesus like you to take this week?" 

I put away the sheets and asked my kids to turn to Judges 19. Judges 19 tells a tale less popular in evangelical circles. It tells the story of a Levite man who goes off to Bethlehem to track down his unfaithful concubine. On the way back, the Levite and his retrieved concubine stop to sleep in the town square at Gibeah. A Gibeahan offers to let the two travelers stay at his house instead.  But then the men of the town come and ask to have sex with the Levite. So then the Gibeahan host goes out and says, "No, my friends, don't be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish." They rape and abuse the two women who then come crawling back to the house at dawn. What happens to the concubine next I mentioned at the start of this story.

After reading the passage to the kids that I was supposed to be turning on to the love of Jesus, I asked them what they thought. One kid from Alaska just got up and walked away. (He got himself assigned to another group and I didn't talk to him again.) I don't know what kind of reaction I was hoping for from the kids. Maybe, "Oh my God! This Bible-Christianity thing isn't as straightforward as I thought! I'm going to run away from my namby-pamby Covenant home, smoke unfiltered cigarettes and read about Kierkegaard and despair in a poorly-lit coffee house!" But instead, they just lounged there in their brightly-colored beach shorts and played with their sunglasses. One said something like, "So that's in the Bible. Huh." Then another one asked if they could go to the mall.

Everything was going okay until one of the CHIC authorities, Dale, came up to quiet us down. For most of the year Dale was the Youth Pastor for the Johnson County Covenant Church, and I had worked with him the previous summer when he brought his church youth group to Habitat for Humanity. But this week Dale was the Head of CHIC Security, The Covenant's Top Cop. It was his job not only to keep the kids away from unsafe and illegal activities, but from sinful ones as well.  He came up and asked me to keep my young ones in line. I explained to Dale that everything was okay because these youth were part of an experimental ministry project called "ARMMFART". ARMMFART stood for "Alternative Role Model Ministry For Apathetic and Reluctant Teens". My logic, as I explained it to Dale, was that not every kid at CHIC was going to connect with the rah-rah, happy shiny form of evangelicalism. I felt that it was my role to reach out to these kids. And if it took a few shenanigans to win them for Jesus, I thought it was worth it. I don't really know if I believed any of this. But I had good Covenant credentials and it sounded good, so Dale let it ride.

Bible porn continued. In place of the official CHIC lesson every night, I read to my campers about how Lot's daughters got him drunk and had sex with him, the sexual purity laws from Leviticus, how Noah got drunk and naked and his sons had to cover him up, and the place in Song of Songs where it talks about breasts. Again, the kids were amused, but mostly felt like they were getting to skip homework. The fact that the book the Covenant Church holds up as God's "only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct" was full of smut made no apparent impression upon them. But, slowly, I believed, my message, whatever that message might be, was sinking in.

The last night of CHIC was the big altar call. Everything that was told to them so far in the week was just softening them up for the final night. The softer meaningful songs went on longer than other nights, and the speaker didn't make as many wisecracks. No fire, no brimstone, but in a sweet sincere voice, he made it clear that tonight was the night to give yourself to Jesus. Jesus loves you no matter what you've done and he wants you to start living for him today. Soft music played, whole rows of people put their arms around each other and swayed.

As emotionally-wrought CHIC kids came up to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, tears began to stream down the eyes of everyone in the arena. Except for ARMMFART. I was nervous about desanctifying this, the most sacred point of CHIC and of many young people's lives. But ARMMFARTers were mock-sobbing, loudly blowing their noses, hardly able to keep from busting out laughing.

Youth Pastor Cop Dale shot a glance back that let me know in no uncertain terms that this behavior was not okay.  But I only shrugged, helplessly, to tell him know that this was now out of my control. He came up and whisperingly (so as not to disturb the mood) told the kids that they should be ashamed of themselves and to keep it down. Apparently he had given up any hope of their souls being reached.

The kids quieted down eventually, but I was distraught. I was distraught by the emotional manipulation being perpetuated by the CHIC leaders. I was distraught by my kids' not knowing where to draw the line. I was distraught by my inability to make sense of what I was doing there. The soft music played on, the preacher again asked the kids to make a decision for Jesus tonight. Should I be listening to him? What had my arrogant ways done but created a bunch of teenage hooligans?

That night, back at the dorm, in place of our usual Bible porn lesson, I asked my kids what they thought of the altar call. No one had been paying enough attention to even know what was being said. Disgusted, I went to explain the whole program: just how and why CHIC had been trying to save them, and how I had been trying to save them from that.  What I had been trying to teach them that week was that salvation isn't enough. You aren't altogether without merit before you accept Jesus and you certainly aren't altogether good once you do accept him. You can't judge others based on whether or not they call themselves Christian or if they've had some special experience where Jesus entered their life. I don't know what happens after you die, I told them, but if Jesus is up there separating the sheep from the goats based on whether or not they get all weepy when Amy Grant songs are played soft, I don't want anything to do with it. There's a lot of other stuff going on in the world. People get drunk. People have sex. There's brutality, there's rape and mayhem, and that's just in the goddamned Bible. There's a whole filthy, messy, complicated world out there and nothing you learn at CHIC or Bible camp or at church tells you the first damn thing about how to deal with it. Do you understand?

Josh turned over on his bunk where he had been lying listening and scratched himself. Seth flipped through his motorcycle magazine. Some of the other kids started talking about which CHIC girls they thought were the best looking. I was ready to beat them all senseless for being so oblivious, for paying no attention at all to my theological message or to anyone else's. Then for a brief flashing moment, I saw them. I saw my kids. I saw the kids I counseled not as saved or unsaved, brainwashed or reflective, good or bad. I saw them as just boys in high school, each having their own lives and thoughts, even if such thoughts were only about how to blow things up, how to get girls, how to drive cars. For a brief and shining moment, I saw them like me, fellow Covenanteers, fellow children of the earth, yet entirely unlike me and entirely unfathomable. It was like watching a pornographic movie and all of a sudden – instead of feeling desire or disgust or even humor – seeing the real people behind the porn actor bodies and wondering who their mothers were, how their houses were decorated, what they had for lunch. I saw my kids, My People, for the first time in my life.

All week at CHIC, like my fellow counselors, I had been trying to convert my children to a program I did not really understand myself. Because it was too much, too much, to just let them lie there without categorization, without direction, without ultimate meaning. But the full reality of nine separate kids with all their own lives, their own thoughts, their own experiences, their own being, lasted only for that moment. The godlike perspective was too overwhelming to bear. So we all packed into my car and Seth drove us to the Steak & Shake and we popped straws and ate fries and talked about girls and cars and exploding Barbies.

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