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October 25, 2006

Book Notes - J.C Hallman ("The Devil Is a Gentleman")

J.C. Hallman's The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe is more than the title suggests. Yes, Hallman does visit and investigate several fringe religions, but along the way also provides a very readable biography of William James. Hallman has created a 21st century version of James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, visiting Wiccans, satanists, and others and giving an honest, unbiased account of the practitioners as people as well as believers.

In his own words, here is J.C. Hallman's Book Notes entry for his book, The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe:

The Devil Is a Gentleman is about eight new religious movements and the philosopher William James, so I have to admit that when I doing the book I was surprised by how often I wound up writing about music. Probably, I shouldn’t have been surprised—I mean, I was attending a variety of religious services, and music is something you should expect. I can easily recommend songs or bands for the chapters of the book—each devoted to a different religion—but I should admit too that as a whole the book did have at least one musical inspiration. My work tends to combine styles of writing—history, journalism, memoir, reportage—and I think of it as a kind of collage. At least in spirit, this is similar to Jonathan Elias’s The Prayer Cycle, which combines varieties of prayer music. I listened to it a good bit, and a sample of it can be found here.

I started out in Devil by visiting a pair of UFO groups in San Diego, Heaven’s Gate and the Unarius Academy of Science. I trespassed onto the land where the Heaven’s Gate members killed themselves, and then visited Unarius on the occasion of a failed prophecy. I think the lyrics to Elton John’s “Rocket Man” take on a different kind of sound when you consider that the Heaven’s Gatists facilitated their rendezvous with the Hale-Bopp comet with Phenobarbitals. And when I was visited Unarius their choral group took a stab at Joan Baez’s “No Man is an Island.”. They butchered it, but again the lyrics captured the spirit of a group that was much more benign than their San Diego counterpart.

From there I headed north to Chico to visit a Druid healer. Druids are pagan, so their music tends to have lots of drums and tambourines (instruments, in other words, that you don’t actually have to learn how to play), but my time there—I visited for the Druid New Year—was captured neatly in a song by a band called Ceredwen. “Y Galwad—The Calling” was about Lindow Man, a 2,000 year-old bog-preserved corpse that was deemed a Druidic human sacrifice because mistletoe was found its stomach. It was a catchy tune, and I hummed it for weeks.

Next I roadtripped with the Christian Wrestling Federation, a ministry that uses professional wrestling as a hook to draw in an unlikely congregation. They’re part of the megachurch and youth evangelical movements. Before one of their shows (something like a morality play with righteous wrestlers triumphing over those who have strayed from their Christian walk), they primed their crowd with songs by Christian rapper Tobymac. The lyrics of one ran:

Livin’ on the edge of obnoxious
They call me raucous
I’m a freak, I can’t stop this
Ardently enthused about God
No hand-me-down nod
You’re gonna get all I got…

Really, who would want less?

Naturally, the Church of Satan came next—I participated in a Satanic ritual in Canada. As it happens, the Church of Satan’s founder, Anton LaVey, was a composer and organist, and it looks like at least one of his recordings, “Satan Takes a Holiday,” is doing quite well on, though admittedly it’s close to Halloween as I write this. You can hear a bit of it here. Another obvious choice for the Church of Satan—because I ultimately found its members to be as poignant as they were potent—is The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”.

Back in California, I joined Scientology for a short time and experienced their auditing process and an L. Ron Hubbard birthday celebration. There’s no music in Scientology Sunday services—it’s all consciousness-raising exercises where you concentrate on obeying commands like “Keep your left arm from going away” and “Wear your head”—but here’s a musical analogy: Scientology is basically what you’d wind up with if you decided to choose a band as your role model, and picked Devo without realizing they were camp.

The Atheist group I visited—all forms of organized non-belief are considered religions by sociologists—took it upon themselves to prove to me that they could have a good time even though they were godless. I have to admit—it’s hard to think of a song that fits with Atheism. I choose The Eagles’ “Hotel California.” A long time ago I decided it was useless to continue trying to figure out what the lyrics to this song meant. They looked like they meant something, but really they didn’t mean anything. This pretty much captures the way Atheists react to the universe.

A more genuine musical experience came when I solsticed with a Wiccan group in Seattle. Because Wicca is a young religion, its music can have an adolescent quality, but at least in the context if the ritual I attended, I began to get a sense of how it informed their concept of the divine. Here’s kind of a Wiccan music sampler plate:

Finally I took a week’s retreat at the monastery at New Skete. The monks of New Skete are famous for both their dog-raising program and for what is considered by some to be a fairly unorthodox brand of Orthodox Christianity. They sang liturgy in English, for example. Their music combined a variety of forms, and was quite beautiful, I thought. It sank deep into my chest, and was never more lovely than when the dogs chimed in from the kennels.

see also:

the author's Bookslut interview
the author's Earthgoat interview
the author's Bookgasm interview

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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