Review by Christopher Dow
Religious fringe groups fascinate us. Although Islamic Jihad movements absorb the media today, there was a time a decade ago when the lenses of news cameras were lit by a building burning in Waco. But despite the intense scrutiny of that moment, there seems to have been little attempt by the public or scholars to understand the beliefs and experiences that so firmly ground the Branch Davidians and other millennialist groups.
It is an oversight that James D. Faubion wishes to correct with The Shadows and Lights of Waco: Millennialism Today (Princeton University Press, 2001). He also states a broader purpose: to provide a framework for comprehending human commitment within the dialectical tension between freedom and determinism.
The book is the result of more than five years of inquiry, including extensive conversations and correspondence with Amo Paul Bishop Roden. Roden has been with the Branch Davidians since 1985 and was the wife of George Roden, the Branch Davidian leader who was wounded in a 1987 gunfight with David Koresh in a dispute over control of the group. After Koresh took over, George Roden was expelled, and he died in 1998.
Amo Roden, who does not consider herself a follower of David Koresh, embodies, in many ways, the disconnect between reality and the public’s perception of fundamentalist millennial movements. Her upbringing was not particularly religious, and she describes her father as an atheist and her mother as a “lukewarm Christian.” Before the epiphany that eventually led her to the Branch Davidians, she earned a degree in mathematics with a minor in psychology. In other significant ways, however, Roden perfectly expresses what most of us probably consider to be millennialist beliefs. Many of her statements center on religious visions, physical and psychological persecution by the government, and forewarnings of the “end days,” when holocaust will consume the Earth.
Roden also talks at length about her epiphany and conversion and about the historical, philosophical, and ethical developments particular to the Branch Davidians. Faubion further elucidates these passages by placing them in historical and cultural contexts and showing how they apply more broadly across the millennialist spectrum. And in the midst of all the weirdness, Faubion brings it home by pointing out that millennialist beliefs often are firmly rooted in mainstream concerns. “What she wrote, what she actually put down in words, was hardly unreasonable,” he states. “On the contrary: it was very much in accord with all those more or less official pronouncements that had driven so many concerned citizens in the 1950s and 1960s to stockpile necessities, to construct or to finance the construction of underground shelters, and to identify and label local structures sturdy and impervious enough to offer them safe refuge—or so, mistakenly, they believed—if and when the bomb finally fell.”
Through his interaction with Roden, Faubion paints a complex and fascinating portrait of a little-studied religious phenomenon whose status as “fringe” is belied by its predominance on the national and even international stage.
This review originally appeared in the summer 2003 issue of Sallyport: The Magazine of Rice University.
The Shadows and Lights of Waco