"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 4 April 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Agnostic Front



Their motivations are now as

unfathomable as death - or as an

unusually hip, cryptic ad. The

event hovered on the edge of

intelligibility. Still, it might

yet be possible to understand,

to perform the totally

unaccustomed feat of grasping

the Heaven's Gate group

simultaneously as Nike wearers

and as a religion.


A predictable collusion between

imagination and advertising

ensured we had a superficial

interpretation as soon as the

trademarked image snapped into

place. A product and slogan for

people who want to test their

bodies to the limit, and those

for whom their bodies are the

limit. The logo long ago passed

the point of being easily

recognizable and entered the

world of archetypal images. The

umpteenth iteration of "Just Do

and Ti It" punch lines makes it

easy to draw the conclusion that

as loyal consumers, we're the



But this interpretation is just

the first of a series of

mirages. Obviously, religion and

advertising function similarly,

like any of the forces that put

on shows for the mind's eye. To

observe this is hardly profound,

and hardly a solution. The only

possibility for understanding

comes afterward, in the play of

differences, and the difficult

work of comparison.



The evidence is there already, in

Applewhite's living eyes and on

his dead body's feet. These

images, however, need enormous

distance to decipher; not our

scant two decades from Jonestown

(for us, it seems, all recent

history is equally ancient and

equally trivial), but 18

centuries' hindsight. It's there

that the first attempt at a

responsible analysis of Heaven's

Gate began. Chris Lehmann made

the crucial observation that

Applewhite's crew manifested

certain tendencies deeply seated

in the history of religion: That

the body is a garment, that the

universe is nothing like what

most people think it is, that we

are divine but have forgotten

who we are.


Unfortunately, his analysis also

ended there, bogged down in

resemblances. For Lehmann, not

only the ancient Christians and

Heaven's Gaters, but also Greil

Marcus, Joseph Campbell, Harold

Bloom, the Germs, and Kmart

shoppers are "gnostic."

"Gnosticism," says Lehmann, "is

the faith, par excellence, of

the hermetically isolated

consumer." The ring of certainty

fades when you try to find a

single thing that all

"gnostics," let alone all

gnostics and "hermetically

isolated consumers" share. The

Romanian scholar of gnosticism

Ioan Culianu was dismayed, years

ago, to find that:


Not only Gnosis was gnostic, but
the catholic authors were       
gnostic, the neoplatonists      
too.... Science is gnostic and  
superstition is gnostic; power, 
counter-power, and lack of power
are gnostic; left is gnostic and
right is gnostic; Hegel is      
gnostic and Marx is gnostic;    
Freud is gnostic and Jung is    
gnostic; all things and their   
opposites are equally gnostic.  



Since hardly anybody called

themselves gnostic, and these

tendencies are strewn

inconsistently across a number

of texts and cultures,

gnosticism becomes something you

have to invent in order to

analyze. That's why straight

Marxist analysis, with its

frequent abhorrence of the

individual and the concrete, is

ultimately as risky here as

calling up CNN's "cult experts"

(Protestant anti-cult activists,

ex-cons with psychiatric records,

or retired shrinks) to analyze

Heaven's Gate. Going to Bob

Waldrep ("of the Watchman

Fellowship, a Christian ministry

that tracks cults" notes USA

Today) for analysis of Rancho

Santa Fe is like faxing Elohim

City and the Aryan Resistance

every time you have a question

about what the B'nai Brith are

doing, and the successfulness of

this MO can be summed up in one

word: Waco.


Let's be specific: The Heaven's

Gaters manifested a recurring

human belief that the beings who

run this part of the universe

want to bind us to fate and this

world, using tricks and traps,

sexy images and lies, and they

don't want us to know who we

are. Sound familiar?


In fact, we may want to keep this

one; Theodor Adorno did. Such

an image, stark and weird as it

is, lets us begin to visualize

things like public relations and

trend-spotting: "The bent little

fortunetellers, terrorizing

their clients with crystal

balls, are toy models of the

great ones who hold the fate of

mankind in their hands. Just as

hostile and conspiratorial as

the obscurantists of psychic

research is society itself." But

Adorno parts company with the

gnostics when we reach the next

part of the story. They believe

a foreign being adopted the body

of a man called Jesus and tried

to tell us where we're from and

how to get back. Here the

Heavens' Gaters actually agree

with actual ancient texts like

the Apocryphon of John. In both

cases, the myth is only intended

as a metaphor, a vehicle.



And this opens up a problem.

Myth, cross-culturally speaking,

is a real bitch. The OGs

("original gnostics") attempted

to use myth to provide insight

while transcending the details.

As a movement of protest against

the phantasmic world (false

consciousness, or even flesh

itself), the Heaven's Gaters

existed at a time when the

things we hold most real are

themselves phantasmic, when

brand names have a deeper mythic

resonance than revelation. Thus

the media's endless, awkward

consumerist metaphors; thus the

irritating quote marks around

everything. One could argue that

the tawdriness of '90s goods and

lifestyles fooled the cult

members into thinking that a

final act of faith would be

enough to dispel the fake

spectacular world.


The fact is that they were forced

into it by a series of practical

failures; time and again, the

saucers refused to land. And

unlike Jim Jones, Marshall

Applewhite wasn't even

calculating enough to fake his

own death and resurrection.

Heaven's Gate's real crime was

physically challenging our own

views with nothing to back it



That's what they're being

punished for now. The terrified

descriptions of the cultists'

lives as governed by "ritual"

and isolating them from their

families masks a different

accusation: heresy. An awkward

accusation to make nowadays

outside the Catholic church, so

reporters condemn the Heaven's

Gaters with family values,

talking about how inconsiderate

their suicides were. This is

what sets the newspapers' and

cult watchers' attacks on

nouveau gnostics apart from

those of the early Christian

church fathers.



That, and the fact that in the

age of swoosh tattoos and

instant news, the charge of

heresy does not defend the word

of God but the word of CNN and

Nike. Like ancient gnostics,

they got their phantasms where

they could find them; but there

are deep and crucial changes

that occur once your myths come

from TV and your slippers from



The big difference in their myths

comes from the modern shift from

transcendence to

self-improvement. Blitzed out on

TV death, you could have pulled

a gnosticesque message from

Sally Ride's US Robotics modem

commercials, aired during the

news orgy. She comes back from

space to deliver a message about

transcending human limits,

ascending to the stars, and

getting a new, better product.


The deeper role Nike plays in

this, the real symbolism of the

swoosh, is that religion, magic,

and advertising share an

interest in using imaginary

images to motivate people. The

eeriness in the by-now-classic

blurry photo of the shoe

emerging from the body bag comes

from the collapse of different

pictures of triumph: At the dawn

of Christendom, a martyr's body

replaced Nike, the Greek

goddess, as the Western world's

symbol of transcendant victory.



At this moment, the cultists' own

fantasy of their resurrected

bodies has been obscured by

their badly-dressed corpses.

Unlike Christ, they failed as

myth. Like Christ, as a

marketing campaign, they may yet


courtesy of Hypatia Sanders

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The Fish

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Barrel Image

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Gun Image
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Fish Teaser

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