It’s a rather odd topic for a blog post on Covenant, I know, but anyone with a little interest in the spiritual trends of our pop culture must have noticed just how widespread conspiracy theories have become. This used to be the specialty of anti-Semitic, New Age, or Christian dispensationalist subcultures, but over the last decade it’s become more mainstream. Back in the olden days (that is, in the 1990s before most of us had regular access to the Internet), secret knowledge about the Masonic symbols hidden in the layout of Washington, DC or about the UN’s intention to roll out an economically and religiously united “New World Order” had to come through self-published books by alleged insiders or end-times preachers. I thought I had “Left Behind” all of this in high school, yet the turn of the millennium produced perfect conditions for the explosion of conspiracy culture on a far larger level.
Michael Barkun is a scholar who has written a lot on apocalyptic movements in modern culture, and back in 2001 he put out a book outlining the present shape of conspiracy culture called A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. It’s a book that I’ve come to far too late. For, if you’re like me, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, you would have run into a lot of people who seriously considered that George W. Bush had orchestrated the whole thing. And like me, maybe, you would have thought that this would wear off in time, as it increasingly has after more than a decade. Yet if this debate has receded a little from public, it would still seem that conspiracy culture is here to stay. Let’s not forget the “birther” movement that began in 2008.
Here is why I’m wasting my time writing on this topic. On my yearly trip back home to British Columbia over the holidays, I found myself on the bus beside a couple of obviously stoned young men, one of whom was relating to the other his experience of communicating with his “higher self” during a lucid dream while holding onto a copy of a David Icke book. Having had conversations with a number of conspiracy enthusiasts in the past (many, troublingly, among my own friends), I knew that striking up a discussion about their spiritual worldview would be pointlessly difficult and not just because of the mental haze due to drugs. To understand why, I will turn to Barkun who points out that conspiracy beliefs attempt to delineate and explain evil, and the explanation ends up being highly dualistic.
History, it is thought, is controlled by massive forces of evil that are disguised as innocent and upright. Moreover, nothing happens by accident in this world, everything is by design. The result is a world far more coherent than the real world, a world in which everything is connected. As such it is nearly impossible to falsify a conspiracy theory since it explains everything. Barkun writes that, to the conspiracist, “information that appears to put a conspiracy theory in doubt must have been planted by the conspirators themselves in order to mislead” (7). Psychologically, the theory is reinforced by the fact that mainstream sources of knowledge stigmatize the knowledge claims of the conspiracist, which only confirms his belief that the mainstream has been duped. Barkun describes the problem well:
For the most part … stigmatized knowledge subcultures are at a distinct disadvantage as far as mass media are concerned, for the latter are precisely the mainstream institutions best positioned to confer stigma on certain knowledge claims, including those that are overtly conspiracist. This contempt is reciprocated by conspiracists themselves. Not only do conspiracists distrust the mass media as distorters and concealers of the truth; they also regard them as part of the conspiracy, a tool controlled by the plotters in order to mislead the public (12).
The fact that it is difficult to take conspiracists seriously only confirms them in their closed-mindedness to other viewpoints. Hence they surround themselves with online communities of the like-minded who may argue with each other over details, but who are generally agreed about the dualistic framework. Furthermore, it is doubly hard as a Christian to make a case for an alternative view because, of all things, the Vatican often functions in conspiracist thought as the archetypal secret society. Indeed, the Youtube phenomenon Zeitgeist asserts that Christian theology (although not perhaps Revelation’s end-times scenarios) has been produced by the conspirators in order to control the masses.
So far I have not written anything terribly insightful, and I would certainly encourage others to read Barkun’s book to get a better sense of this movement. What I would like to focus on is Barkun’s observation that the magnification of the power of evil in these theories can be frightening to the conspiracist. And yet knowledge of the conspiracy gives him a definable enemy to struggle against, it gives a life’s purpose. The problem is that having rendered the world in the Manichean chiaroscuro of light vs. dark, it is a small step to resort to violence to defeat the unenlightened. Again, this is a rather obvious conclusion about the natural direction apocalyptic thought can lead its adherents, but one Philip Jenkins has illustrated rather well in his recent study The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.
It would be rather tempting, therefore, to throw out the familiar, scriptural “light vs. dark” motif altogether as just another instance of this kind of thinking. I would argue, though, that Scripture turns the conspiracist’s certainties upside down. If conspiracists magnify the power of evil and find salvation only in a kind of Gnostic insight into evil’s simple causes, Scripture emphasizes both our ignorance of the designs behind the world’s evils and evil’s impotence. True, “our battle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:9), which might suggest a demonic conspiracy behind it all. But this statement is meant to shift our attention away from the earthly causes the conspiracist focuses on, causes which in any case are entirely under the control of God for his purposes, as I will briefly show.
The classic instance is Job, whose troubles, one will notice, are limited — indeed initiated — by God. “Have you considered my servant Job?” he says to Satan (Job 1:8). Without an orthodox mind, one can quickly fall into the opposite error of monism here, thinking that God is the author of evil. But once the qualification is made that God cannot be responsible for the evil actions of his creatures, it still remains that everything is entirely under his control. I have recently noticed how this is communicated in the books of Kings in the fact that the word of God initiates every event, for good or for ill, by the word of his prophets. Given the title of “Kings,” it is easy to forget that the prophets are the actual protagonists of the books, books which are a part of the mini-canon called “The Former Prophets” by the Jews.
Three brief examples should illustrate my point. First, in 1 Kings 11 the prophet Ahijah initiates the division of the kingdom by telling Jeroboam to rebel against Rehoboam. Despite this fact, the division is a sin. Second, in 2 Kings 8 the word of God through Elisha initiates Hazael’s coup against Ben-Hadad, a prophecy that brings Elisha to tears because of the violent effects it will have on women and children in Israel. Third, Elisha then initiates Jehu’s coup against King Ahab’s son in the next chapter. This coup is entirely justified given Ahab’s injustices, except that Hosea 1:4 says that God will punish Jehu for the bloodshed he caused. How does one reconcile God’s apparent initiation of evil with his goodness, how does one explain why God would punish Jehu in Hosea for his good deeds in 2 Kings?
These are difficult mysteries that have been given explanations that I will not get into because I only want to emphasize that they cannot be reduced to the simple causes of the dualist conspiracist. Our experience of evil does not follow an easily understandable pattern, and because of this we cannot with certainty point the finger at an “Antichrist” against whom we can war. This ignorance should not frighten us, however, because we know that God is sovereign. The Christian believes in his design, but, unlike the conspiracist, we are conscious of the limits of our knowledge and sceptical of our own ability to trace out that design. Another post might get into the details of such an ethos. For now I can only point my readers to the writings of the Anglican divine Joseph Butler for more wisdom.
The featured image of an all-seeing eye is from a photo of the entrance to Blenheim Palace, uploaded to Flickr in 2011 by user 1967jwm. It is licensed under Creative Commons.