Phenomenally weird religious things intrigue some phenomenally weird religious people.

Now I don’t trust anybody without a sense of wonder and a great many things that appear bizarre on first glance turn out to be true. Ripley made a living out of helping us to believe what seemed highly unlikely or bizarre. Many truths of modern physics are counter-intuitive. Daring to think the unthinkable, every once in a great while, is a cleansing mental event.

This natural curiously about the margins, one might think of it as edgy dialectical desires, can spice up a class. A class being lulled into a daze trying to understand the being and becoming distinction in Timaeus can perk up with a digression into the myth of Atlantis that appears in the same dialogue.

A teacher need not feel too guilty for such a bit of fun. Atlantis may not be the main point of Timaeus, but it is after all part of the book and a good deal for enjoyable for most students than working on the numerical relations that appear later.

So I am not talking about puttering around on the margins of the mainstream, some eccentricity is a delight after all, but those who insist on going further .  . . regardless of the evidence. They aren’t satisfied with Plato on Atlantis, but start to join groups with names containing too many capitalized words: the Golden Circle of the Hermetic Last Company of Roses and Swords Written in the Blood of Those Who Know A Good Bit More Than You.

This person starts out daring to challenge the party line, but ends up thinking Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, by itself a possible though unlikely idea, and thinking this fact more important than the plays themselves.

The phenomenally weird religious person becomes more interested in the date of the Rapture than feeding the poor, preaching the Gospel, or reading the Bible for anything other than his phenomenally weird obsession.

The Victorians called such folks monomaniacs, but the twenty-first century too often gives them attention. This is not merely a religious problem, as a glance at any hyper-atheist website or a viewing of recent Michael Moore stuff will attest. Who has not met the hyper-atheist convinced we are, all of us theists, reading Rushdooney, a man more quoted by atheists than theists?

I am, however, a Christian and following the generally salutary practice of plucking the moat of religious weirdness from my own eye before trying to take out the plank of theocracy conspiracy theories from my secular brother’s eye will move on.

There are more of us anyway and so we have a greater chance and variety of phenomenal weirdness to entertain and enlighten.

Evidently having plumbed the depths of the Bible, the phenomenally weird religious type needs something else on which to practice their astounding and rapid exegetical skills. They are bored with Romans, yawn, but are super-dee-duper interested in the relationship of pyramids to prophesy. The Philokalia is too straight forward for them and they long ago exhausted that most literal of manuscripts, The Shepherd of Hermas, of the fascination it brought to such dullards as Irenaeus.

What is next?

If the mystery of the Eucharist is not enough for you, then you long to see Mary in a pancake, Jesus in a truck window, or Elvis at the Seven-Eleven. Even better is when the weird thing gives you insider knowledge of the future, such as eighty-eight reason Jesus will return in 1988.

At present my favorite weird thing of this sort circulating in the church to which I belong is the prophesy of Saint Nilus. It is an amazing document that seems to predict events of the twentieth century with uncanny accuracy. I have seen this document show up several places on the Internet, source of much weirdness in society, and even saw it in my own parish. Since I have no reason to doubt that prophesies happened, I thought, “Great! I cannot wait to read the original!”

There began the problem with Saint Nilus and an important lesson for any reader of emails sent by the jillions through the good offices of pious friends. Saint Nilus is real enough, in fact there are several whose examples can be used with profit by any would be prophet, but none wrote the prophesy in question.

It is a pious fiction, otherwise known as a lie. It is pretty obviously a lie, since there is no single version of it I have ever been able to find, it contains anachronisms that mean it cannot have been written near the time of any of the actual chaps bearing the title Saint Nilus, and it contains internal contradictions.

It has the bonus feature of being almost certainly wrong. By now the Antichrist it predicts would be more likely to be retired and collecting Social Security than plotting global conquest. If Saint Nilus had said it, we would have to stone him as a false prophet. It is after all the twenty-first century and we are still here and not ruled (yet!) by a global Antichrist, though I have friends with condo boards that are pretty tough. A quick Google finds it has been debunked by people who should know. But then our pastor may be fun and smart, but he is always going on and on about reading our Bible, going to church, prayer, and feeding the poor.

It is all too tedious for words. We already know all about it!

Let us assume, however, that you do not wish to become the kind of gnostic semi-Christian that becomes monomaniacal about pseudo-Saint Nilus. You just thought it was a cool thing and you were thinking about emailing it to your friends. I have, more than once, read something in a source I thought true and mentioned it in an off-hand way in a lecture only to be burned.

As a result, I am learning ways to check stuff out lest I too become obsessed or burned by the phenomenally weird religious stuff on the Internet.

You don’t have to be stupid to fall for such things, but you do have to take care not to look too hard at them.

Here are five rules I always follow with something phenomenally weird and religious that help me.

1. The General Weirdness Rule

Reading the Bible, as mundane as that sounds, gives one a pretty good feel for the way the Christian God acts and speaks. Prophets mostly spoke for God and did not mostly predict the future. They cared about justice and were God and not man centered. They rarely ignored their own context to speak only of things to come.

Think of all the great Christian leaders of the past. Did they survive without your insight into pyramids, Atlantis, or the Conspiracy? If so, why not get to their level and then add your remarkable insights. If Billy Graham could be motivated to preach to millions without Saint Nilus, then you too can witness to your neighbor using the Bible!

2. The Quotation Rule

If you find a web site saying, “Saint Bob the Righteous said . . . ” there is one almost fool proof way of knowing whether it is true. Look for a very specific reference. Don’t trust “X said” ever. Do feel more comfortable with “As X said in Y” because then you can look it up yourself! Do it. Look it up. Is it there?

Don’t trust Googled quote pages.

In any area I know, the top quotations pages are full of errors. Do Google the original manuscript or look on Amazon for the book containing the quotation. If you start finding “nothing,” then you are most likely dealing with religious weirdness and not a real citation.

The first clue the Saint Nilus prophesy was bogus was the lack of any manuscript citation. If it is as important as a prophesy of the coming of the Antichrist, a little footnoting is in order or you should feel free to ignore it.

Of course one other thing to check is if there is actually a Saint Bob the Righteous and when he lived. The fact that there are at least two candidates for Saint Nilus the prophet who lived centuries apart should give you pause. It should also worry you when standard scholarly descriptions don’t mention the amazing prophesy.

3. The Oh-Oh Association Rule

I have made it a general rule that if the thing sent to me is Big News o nwebsites frequented by Communists, racists, conspiracy theorists, Nazis, anti-Semites, or is associated with same to pause.

Yes.

I know “guilt by association” is a fallacy, but there is common sense in not rushing into intellectual rooms dominated by weirdlings.

Call this “putting a hold” on assent to an idea, because phenomenally weird people or evil people really like it.

I don’t know about you, but if I get something that really excites fans of Edgar Cayce, Madam Blavatsky, or, well, Hitler, then I get very, very worried. When it turns out that one of the main purveyors of the Protocols, a wicked anti-Semite fraud that still torments us, was named Nilus and he has his own hard-to-pin down prophesies I get worried.

The Saint Nilus prophesy turns up on good sites too, but it seems to be a really big deal out there in the Land of Really Bad Guys with Clunky Web Sites. Any good religious site is, after all,  only three clicks from phenomenally weird stuff.

I want go slow and make sure that something very bad is not about to infect me if it starts showing up one click from real weirdness or worst of all evil.

4. The Why Is This So Different Rule

I don’t generally trust “new” manuscripts that sound radically different from mainstream texts by the author. There are spurious Plato pieces that mostly are thought spurious because they sound nothing like the Master. This can be hard to explain to laypeople, but years of reading Plato or any author gives you a sense of their voice.

When someone gives you something from “Plato” that reads as if written by a demented Aristotelian obsessed with fifth century (AD!) ideas, your doubts rise to the surface.

Any of us can do this  . . . and could with Saint Nilus. Read the messianic prophesies in the Bible and then read pseudo-Nilus. They don’t sound the same, do they?

Bad sign.

5. The Jolly Atheist Rule

Finally, we all need some jolly atheist as a friend who takes religion seriously, but is not apt to take us or it too seriously. I like to run any New Testament translation by friends who have no theological axe to grind . . . to see if it holds water. Now a naturalist may hate any prophesy or work hard to explain it away, but a sane one will concede an ancient manuscript is ancient.

Good rule: if your manuscript isn’t recognized as authentic (not true but authentic) by a mainstream secularist, then it is likely bogus.

All in all I find loving my neighbor and my enemy enough work for me. I find that exegeses of the Bible or Republic challenging enough to burn off spare mental energy. If I have time left, my pastor keeps suggesting I pray more. Phenomenally weird religious stuff is more entertaining, but a pretty big waste of time.

Which reminds me, to stop blogging about the weird and go spend time with my family.

Articles by John Mark Reynolds

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