While we have the option of religion, our relationship with the divine is not optional nor voluntary. The boundaries between religion and the divine are sometimes blurred for those who only know religion; the difference is obvious for those who know both.
His name was Andy Shaple. His stage name, anyway. Forty-nine years old, he had hosted the popular radio show Let’s Talk, nightly from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., for the past twenty years.
His looks were nothing special and, in his own eyes, entirely responsible for his failure to break into television. Five-foot nine inches tall, 163 lb., most of them around the stomach. His hair was black, curly, and inevitably sloppy. A bald spot showed on the top of his head despite the comb-over. His sideburns were half-way-white and suspiciously symmetrical, but he emphatically dismissed the rumor that he colored them.
He smoked heavily, and the new non-smoking policies forced him to get out of the studio during almost every break. When asked why he didn’t try to quit, Andy used to say that the habit kept his voice interesting. His voice, deep and harsh, was an unmistakable noise; only made bearable by the messages it conveyed.
He drank also -bourbon highballs- most times alone, after the shows.
Andy gave every fashion statement a chance. He wore an earring for a couple of years, got a tattoo on his shoulder, and more recently pierced his right nipple as per the request of his twenty-five-year-old girlfriend.
He exclusively wore T-shirts. His fascination with that garment was the product of its dual functionality as attire and advertising medium. In the early years, he made extensive use of such portable billboards to bare statements designed to cause shock and promote thinking. Lately, however, it was rare if they contained anything but trademarks and marketing slogans.
Andy couldn’t see very well, but he never wore his glasses. He carried them instead in his hand, and although his condition was diagnosed as severe and irreversible at a very early age, every time he encountered a piece of writing he attempted to read it with his naked eyes first, as if one of vanity’s side effects was to cure astigmatism. Inevitably though, after several adjustments to the distance between the writing and his eyes -and some heavy blinking- he finally, and covertly, resorted to the glasses to read it; most times holding them in front of his face as if they were a magnifier.
Since his divorce, wore his wedding ring on a gold chain necklace outside his T-shirt, to “remind me not to make the same mistake again.” He used to say.
He had no kids of his own, and no patience for other people’s kids. Although Andy understood the vulnerabilities of childhood, he disagreed with the unconditional privileged position in which society placed parents and their offspring. He could offer in a casual conversation thousands of examples of how parents abused the rights of other people in the name of protecting their kids, but felt incapable to gain consensus on that subject and preferred to keep his encounters with children and their progenitors to a minimum. In later years, he held a similar attitude towards pets and pet owners.
Let’s Talk had started twenty years earlier as a clever humorous criticism of the status quo. There was not set format, but most times Andy took subjects that had made the headlines and satirized them. His main targets included the government, the entertainment industry, rich or powerful individuals; anything and anyone with a strong influence on society. Institutions dealing with spiritual matters were, without a doubt, his preferred victims.
A very successful tactic of Andy was to find analogies between the institutions that he wanted to vilify, and those already proven guilty by the establishment.
For example, in March 1997 the news agencies reported on a sect called Heaven’s Gate that had committed group suicide in San Diego. In synthesis –according to mass media coverage- the members of the group believed that after death, they would be transported to the “Next level” by an alien space ship that was hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
The day that news came up, Andy started his show with this satire:
“You probably have all heard the details surrounding the mass suicide of the members of Heaven’s Gate. They basically killed themselves to catch an interplanetary taxi cab! If it weren’t so sad, it would have been laughable.
It is in moments like this that we worry about the vulnerability of friends and family members, particularly the young ones, who can easily fall into the spell of one of this groups and not only lose their lives, but waste them. Because: What could be more tragic than to find out that our kids live a life of mental and economic dependency, designed by the leaders of one of this groups for self-benefit or delusion?
The bad news is that Heaven’s Gate is only one of the numerous groups that, all around the world, are engaged in this kind of activity.
On the phone with us is our investigative reporter psychologist Dr Frouddy Seggy, who is now in an undisclosed place of South America, were he has been investigating one of these groups.
Dr Seggy , can you hear me?”
“Yes Andy, loud and clear”
“Where are you at this moment?”
“Right now I’m into one of the group’s temples.”
“What are you doing there?”
“I just finished witnessing one of their ‘Masses’, or ceremonies.”
“Dr., what are this group’s beliefs”
“In a nutshell, Andy; that humans are ‘Guilty of disobeying god’, and that unless we live our lives under a strict set of rules, we will be condemned to eternal suffering”
“Guilty of what? I’ve done nothing!”
“Well, it was actually done for you, Andy. Apparently the first humans ruined it for all of us, and after them every human born inherits the burden. They call it ‘Original sin’”
“Original, maybe, but definitely ridiculous! How can they convince people with such an obviously made-up story?”
“It sounds ridiculous to us because we are adults and outsiders. But most of these people were brought into the group at a very early age when they were unable to distinguish one thing from another. And when you are a kid, and the people you love and trust unconditionally – your parents – tell you that ‘that’s the way things are’, it is impossible for you to believe otherwise.
I want to add that this is not an exclusive characteristic of this group. All groups dealing with spiritual matters have to offer the solution to a problem, otherwise their influence will never exceed that of a social club. The first step in creating a cult is to create a problem to solve.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, in case I ever want to change careers and get into something really lucrative.
But seriously Dr,… Still makes no sense. Why don’t they leave the group once they grow up?”
“Many reasons Andy, primarily because by the time they arrive to adulthood these concepts have been around them for so long that they don’t even see them as unnatural. They simply don’t question it.”
“Come on Dr! I used to believe in fairytales when I was a kid, but at one point I grew up.”
“Don’t forget that peer pressure works in the opposite way with fairytales than it does with beliefs of this class, Andy. In the case of a fairytale you are ostracized if you continue to believe in them after certain age; with a cult’s beliefs it is the exact opposite.”
“Let’s say there are some sharp tools in the shed, what happens when they try to leave? Are they physically threatened?”
“No, not at all. They use ‘petty’ instead of punches. Of course, they still use it as a weapon, overwhelming you with expressions of sorrow and the constant call back to salvation; most times by members of your direct family. They are relentless in this approach! How can you ignore having your loving mother crying desperately her sorrow, asking you to ‘please, for her sake, allow yourself to be saved’. There are many layers to it, Andy. Let’s say that by the time you are an adult it is easier to remain than it is to leave.”
“OK. Let’s say that you can be that stupid. What do you do in these get-togethers? “
“The ceremony starts with repetitive chanting to remind the participants of the reasons and basis of the cult. I don’t what to repeat literally the specific words we heard today – they would mean nothing to us because it cites passages of their sacred book, words that are supposed to come from god himself and some of his prophets – but it’s basically an exercise of what is commonly known as brain washing.”
”If you ask me Dr, that’s taking hygiene to an extreme! That is the part of my body where I wouldn’t mind some dirt.
What happens after that?”
“Then, the priest reviews subjects relevant to the community in their present time, and basically characterize them as good or bad, depending on how they fit into their beliefs. This is also typical, free thinking is harmful to the hegemony of the group, that’s why they need to help you understand things by putting them into context for you.”
“What was today’s subject?”
“Well, Andy. The subject today had to do with an unfortunate episode in which four members of the community were killed by the military, who confused them with terrorists.”
“What did the priest say? I would hope that, at least, he suggested ways to obtain justice.”
“Actually Andy, what the priest literally said was ‘If they slap you in the face, instead of fighting you have to offer the other cheek’ which is a clear metaphor for non-resistance. Not a surprise, the priesthood of this group has clear and strong ties to the powerful individuals of the area. Officially, though, they said their position to be ‘Conciliatory.’”
“That’s shameless! It amazes me, though, the fact that people don’t seem to figure out the cheat.”
“Andy, you don’t question god’s statements”
“But Dr, I don’t care what kind of god this is. How can he survive with nothing good to offer?
“You’re right! That would be impossible, Andy. But, there is something you get in exchange for following the rules – and it’s not chicken manure-- you get ‘eternal life in Paradise’. Once you die, of course.”
“Dr. we don’t have much more time. What other things have you found in their practices that can be of interest to our listeners?”
“The most worrisome element to me is the clear sadistic edge this sect expresses in different parts of their practice.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Well, let’s take the sexual deprivation of the members of their clergy. They have a very sophisticated hierarchical structure of their priesthood class, and numerous elements to control it are in place. Again, that is typical for groups of this kind when their membership grows over certain numeric boundaries, and the rules always have a practical purpose. In this case, is to keep the riches the church gains during the administration of a particular priest in the church, and avoid having to deal with the hereditary law that governs the different societies where their churches are established. Nevertheless, Andy, I know a thing or two about human psyche, and I can tell you that this rule is one of the cruelest that have ever been implemented.”
“Any other example, Dr?”
“Ho, yeah! Many. Their icon comes to mind next. You need to understand that this icon is ubiquitous to this group, what means that it is being seen daily by its members; adults and kids alike”
“And... What is it?”
“Well, it is basically a naked man, covered only by a small cloth placed on top of his ‘private parts’. This individual is nailed to a piece of wood…”
“I’m sorry doctor, you said nailed?”
“Yes Andy, nailed! And not only nailed but there is clear evidence that he has been tortured because he is wearing a headband made of thorns and it has visible wounds in several parts of his body from where blood exudes”
“That’s disgusting! Who’s the guy?”
“It is their ‘savior’, the most important human of their faith – although not really human… But let’s leave it there for now. What worries me is not that they display their savior; it is that, of the many contexts in which it could have been depicted, they chose the goriest.”
“Freudian slip, maybe.
Dr, we are running out of time. Anything else?”
“One more, Andy. They also perform a symbolic cannibalistic act at the end of their mass, where they supposedly eat the flesh and drink the blood of this individual”
“Interesting way to pay homage!
Dr, we have to leave it here. Besides, I’m afraid to ask for any more details. Thank you for a great job.”
“My pleasure Andy.”
“Scary, isn’t it? We are surrounded by groups like this one.
Although there is nothing we can do for those that died yesterday in San Diego, the persons in groups like the one described by Dr Seggy are still alive. My question to you is: What can we do to help them? How can we prevent these lives to be wasted?
In other words, how do we make these people understand that the space ship is not coming? “
Any of his regular listeners would have testified under oath that Andy was an atheist, and they would have been wrong. They would also have been shocked if they knew that, a long time ago, Andy had seriously considered becoming a Roman Catholic priest.
Although that thought had been immediately placed aside when he discovered sex, deep inside he had always felt particularly close to God. Things changed though, after a terrible accident, a foggy autumn morning in 1972.
Andy was at the wheel of his uncle’s Camaro. His cousin and best friend Daniel was in the passenger seat. They were returning from Daniel’s two day long bachelor party in San Francisco, and the only reason Andy was driving him back home was because Daniel’s mom -his Aunt Margie- had specifically requested it. She considered him to be very responsible.
Tired, and anxious to make it home, Andy was doing close to 100 miles an hour, an uncommon speed for him. When he saw the truck, struggling with the incline of the road, it was too late. He managed to turn the car slightly to the left, but not enough to clear Daniel’s side.
For those who saw the condition of the car, it was impossible to conceive that Andy came out of it with only a couple of broken ribs and some bruises. Daniel, on the other hand, had to be put together with large quantities of makeup and what seemed to be some kind of plaster, in order to satisfy his mother’s desire for an open casket funeral.
The event was so plagued by small dramatic details that would have allowed a soap opera writer to find innumerable tragic angles. In the months following the accident, Andy explored them all in an endless self-punishment exercise.
Andy needed to know why God had done that to him. God didn’t care to comply with Andy’s request for explanation, so in his search for some kind of relief from his guilt, Andy resorted to religion. And although religion gave Andy lots of reasons, all answers were insufficient and the pain never went away.
A neatly framed sign hanging behind Andy’s chair in his office hinted of his disillusion with religion:
“They tell me there is an omnipotent, omnipresent God, which created the universe. They also tell me that he created the church and priesthood because in his divine wisdom he couldn’t find a better way to talk to us. “
Andy lied by omission to his listeners because he never told them about the accident, and the influence it had had on him. He limited himself to blame catholic school for his skepticism, and also for most of his problems as a man.
The show came about years after Daniel’s tragedy, and by then Andy’s attacks had extended to all other pillars of society. The passion he put in his criticism was such that he was able to capture the attention of thousands of people, building a very successful show around it.
In the last years, though, the show had dramatically lost listeners and Andy was under a lot of pressure, particularly from some old allies, who blamed his economic success for an obvious change in his tolerance of mainstream society. Times had changed, and his radical views had shifted to mainstream without him noticing.
He defended himself by saying that “The show is not trying to help answer philosophical questions. It is only a satire of reality and if anybody gets something more from it, it is by accident.” Many of his most loyal fans found deceived by that statement since they thought the earlier shows had a greater aspiration; and used the very same phrase to depict the later state of the show, and to express their criticism of it. If things didn’t pick-up by the end of the season, he would have retired.
That day began like many others did, with a phone call.
“OK, let’s go to the phones. On line three we have...God?” Andy looked at Steve, the studio engineer, to be sure he had the name right. Steve confirmed.
” OK God, you’re on the air.”
“Thank you Andy. First of all, I want to tell you that I love your show! I think you are great!”
“Thank you. Thank you.”
The name used by the caller had such an obvious implication that Andy though it may have been purposely misleading.
” Excuse me for asking... Is God your name, nickname, an acronym of some kind...?”
“No, no. It’s my name.”
Andy tried again.
“First or last name?”
The caller sounded slightly irritated.
“That is my name. My whole name. Come on Andy, you’ve heard it before. People use it all the time! “
“Oh! You mean God!”
It had happened many times before that listeners, used to Andy’s sarcasm, had contributed to the show with their own satires. Although Andy most times didn’t know if the calls were friendly or hostile, he welcomed those spontaneous creative contributions. Some of his best shows had derived from those kind of phone calls, and that one in particular seemed to have potential.
“It is an honor to receive your call! I always knew that my show reached influential circles, but this is definitely a surprise. What can I do for you?”
The now sweet voice on the phone responded slowly.
“Well Andy, I am calling because I need your help.”
“In the near future the world will be destroyed, and most of humanity will perish. There are some people who I want to save for various reasons, and in order to survive they need to be relocated before this happens.”
Andy loved it.
“I see! And, how can I help?”
“I am putting you in charge of the evacuation project.”
Andy couldn’t hold his laughter.
“I am sorry but I don’t understand what you mean. What would I have to do?”
With the same tone, the caller continued.
“Well... People need to be gathered, moneys need to be collected, spaceships need to be built...Things like that.”
“Wow! I am not sure I can handle it.”
“You can. I wouldn’t have selected you otherwise.”
“And I am honored! But I think it’s time for the quintessential question in these cases. ‘Why me?’”
The caller laughed.
“Because I act in mysterious ways!”
Andy laughed too.
“Of course! So typical of you!
May I ask when you are planning to destroy the world?”
“Saturday, February 17, 2018. Between 10 AM and 4 PM local time”
“Between 10 AM and 4 PM?” Andy acted as if he was confused. ”Haven’t made up your mind about the exact time yet?”
The caller answered immediately, apparently very interested in getting the facts right.
“No, no. You didn’t understand! [RB1] It will start at 10 AM and will end by 4 PM. Andy, these things take time!”
“I see.” Andy laughed. “On the other hand... It took you seven days to build, and it takes only six hours to destroy. It is scary to find out that even for supreme beings, destruction is easier than creation.”
“Andy!” The caller sounded slightly condescending. “You are mixing mythology with facts, but… Let’s simply say that destruction and creation are two names for the same thing.”
Andy still had no idea of what the caller’s agenda was. Nevertheless, he liked the exchange so far.
“Why don’t you save everybody? “
“I have my reasons.”
“OK. Let’s review the reasons.”
The voice on the phone expressed unequivocal surprise.
“I mean that if a lot of people are going to die, it better be for good reasons. You know…” Andy felt to have found an interesting angle to pursue “…I never understood why, if you love us, bad things happen to us; and this is probably a great opportunity to find out.
Could you please explain that to us?”
As if unprepared, the caller took a second to answer.
“Sorry Andy, no chance. It involves things that you are incapable of understanding.”
The familiarity of the answer and its obvious insufficiency made it a good answer in Andy’s eyes. He could have accepted it without further questioning and continue the exchange without putting excessive pressure on the improvisational talent of the caller. He knew his audience was smart enough to interpret it as sarcastic reference to the absurdity of certain ecclesiastical statements that blamed the inability of humans to understand divine actions. Nevertheless, he wanted to know how smart the caller was.
“Come on! You can do better that! I have heard that all my life. ‘God has a plan, and it is beyond our understanding.’ I thought it was preacher’s bull-crap. You know, a way to hide the fact that, maybe, there is no God. But if there is you… it would be nice to know why we need to suffer. You know, an explanation can go a long way in our acceptance of pain.
So tell me... Why do you make us suffer?”
After a couple of seconds of silence, and as if disappointed, the caller spoke.
”Andy, trust me! No way you’ll ever understand the reasons. What I could do is help you understand why things look the way they do from the human point of view.”
“Ok. Better than nothing, I guess.”
“Andy, what would you do if you find your beloved dog chewing on the cable that supplies the power to your TV set? Will you try to explain to Fido the concept of electricity and its effects on animals; or will you kick him in the ass to make him stop immediately, hoping that afterwards he will still love you?
My intentions are good Andy, it is just that as the dog, you can’t see beyond the kick.”
Andy broke into laughter, and gave the caller a passing grade. He was pleased with the way the show was turning out.
“I’m not sure that clarifies a lot, but thank you anyway.”
“I am glad it helped.” The caller also seemed satisfied.
Andy looked at his watch.
“Let’s move along with this. I have lots of questions that need answers, if I want to do a good job.
How many people are we talking about?”
“And where will I be taking them?”
“To three small planets, twelve light years away from Earth.”
“Who is going to be saved?”
“The chosen ones.”
“Same as always, lucky bastards! How do people know if they are one of the chosen ones?“
“They will receive the call.”
“Of course, the call! Stay close to the phone, this is not a telemarketer you want to avoid!
But…What’s the pitch? How do you convince people to join an enterprise like this?”
The caller answered in a patronizing tone.
“They will go. Every chosen one will go.”
Andy seemed to have found another opportunity to attack the ethic of the divine.
“OOPS! That sounds like there is no way out! I thought that you showed us the road and it was up to us to decide if we want to follow it.”
The caller answered authoritatively.
“No Andy, I don’t operate like that. Priests and other religious leaders need your faith to get you to do things. Not me! There is a big difference between religious and the divine, and although people seem to have a special problem understanding that, it’s very simple: If I say something, that something happens. Andy, for my own sake, I am God!”
Andy laughed loudly. When he stopped, and in an unexpected contrast, he asked almost solemnly, “Yes, but... How do we know if a statement, a command, or an explanation has divine origins or merely religious ones?”
The answer was fast and solid
“You’ll simply know. The difference is overwhelming”
Andy was having a great time. He wasn’t the only one, the whole console was lit up with phone calls. Every line into the studio was busy, like in the good old days.
“God, we need to go to some messages from our sponsors.” Andy signed Steve for a break.
“Please don’t hang up! I know you are allover the place, but I would hate not to find you when we come back from the break.”
“I am with you Andy, take your time!”
While the caller was on hold, Andy talked to Steve and the studio phone operators. “We were touched by the hand of God guys! This subject has to last us until the end of the show. I get back, round up the whole thing, and get rid of the call before it runs out of steam. We finish the show taking other calls. Look for controversy and humor and get them ready.”
Steve acknowledged with a ‘thumbs up’.
Andy got back on the air.
“OK, we are back. We’re talking to God on line three, about his new project... Do you have a name for the project?
“For the sake of identification, what do you say if we call it…Hamm… ‘Andy’s Ark ’?”
“Sure, why not.”
“OK, let’s recap. You want me to take care of moving people out of the world before it is destroyed. You realize that I still don’t have the vaguest idea of how to do this?”
“I’ll give you specific instructions. Don’t worry!”
“Are you going to tell me how to build the spaceships, how to govern such number of people...?”
The caller interrupted. “Everything you need, Andy, even how to finance the whole thing.”
“Fantastic!” Andy wanted to wrap it up with a light, humorous closing. “Just how are you planning to provide me with those instructions? You’re not thinking of writing them on stone like you did with Moses? Are you?”
The caller was silent for a couple of seconds, and then asked:
“What did you have in mind Andy?”
“I don’t know. Is there any chance of getting something more portable? Maybe a laptop computer?”
“Up to you Andy.” The caller replied in a resigned tone.
“A laptop it is!
Now the caller interrupted, almost timidly.
“Any other questions Andy? I probably should be going.”
“No. I think that’s it. I only hope that you know what you are doing. Thank you for calling!”
“I’ll be with you Andy.”
” Bless yourself, and take care.”
As soon as the caller had hung up, Andy experienced a devastating sensation of emptiness in his chest. A familiar one. He badly needed a cigarette.
When Steve saw the typical sign for a ‘Cigarette break’, he knew that the calls had to wait until Andy returned.
“OK, we’ll be back shortly with your comments about our celebrity call of the day. Stay with us, this is Let’s Talk! “
Andy was happy. It had been a while since the last time he had come up with a funny, up-tempo show. Maybe this was what he needed to convince them to renew his contract. Maybe things were looking up.
He hurried to the back alley where he used to smoke. By the time he opened the back door the cigarette was lit and in his mouth.
He recognized the man in the alley even before he fixed his eyes on him. Standing in front of Andy was his cousin Daniel.
The face of Daniel’s corpse had been imprinted on Andy’s mind, and after almost thirty years he remembered every little detail, from the lifeless color of the skin to the irregular surface showing clearly that it was composed of pieces that didn’t fit quite right. That face was painfully there again, this time staring back at him.
Daniel pointed to Andy with his index finger and, with a frozen expression and guttural voice said “You, son-of-a-bitch! You got a brand new laptop computer!”
Andy backed up abruptly and crashed against the corridor’s wall. Daniel placed the computer on the floor, and with the same expression, spoke again. “You lucky bastard!” He turned around and left.
Steve had to finish out the show playing music. The station manager was really upset, but even he got concerned when Andy didn’t show up the next day.
Most of the media picked up the news of Andy’s mysterious disappearance, and for a short while, there was a lots of speculations about the connection between the prank call of that day and Andy’s disappearance; but nobody took them seriously.
Time passed and even those who thought that this was a desperate promotional maneuver, began to wander what had really happened to Andy.
In the incoming years the radio station received numerous calls from people reporting sightings of Andy. Some placed him somewhere in the South Pacific, leading a spiritual group. Others placed him in Hollywood, leading an underground philosophical movement. Others yet, placed him somewhere in Nevada, hiding with Elvis.
Andy’s show was replaced by a Jazz program. Steve Miller is now the station music programming manager, and has inherited Andy’s office and air time. He replaced all of Andy’s items at the office with his own, the only thing that remains is the framed sign behind the desk chair:
“They tell me there is an omnipotent, omnipresent God, which created the universe. They also tell me that he created the church and priesthood because in his divine wisdom he couldn’t find a better way to talk to us. “
To which Steve added with a black marker:
“Andy! Telephone, line three. It’s for you”