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What started as a critical but lighthearted post from last year about an almost comical cult growing in Austin has ended up changing my life. After uploading the post, I was threatened with a lawsuit and then harassed by incessant phone calls until I was ultimately intimidated into removing the post. But after several good conversations with their head theologian, I became sympathetic to their program.
The church suffers from ongoing persecution by their Fundamentalist neighbors in Bastrop, and are even accused of being “devil worshippers” due to the nature of the film they venerate—Evilspeak (1981). Yet, I have realized that they are the only bona fide Christian organization currently in America because, unlike “Christians” of the proto-orthodox stripe, they preach the gospel of the historical Jesus—the coming of the Son of Man.
Note: This post was originally uploaded on July 7, 2017.
As most of you know, I was forced to delete my exposé only two weeks after posting it. And as some of you predicted, I was threatened with a lawsuit. Worse than that, I was ‘phone bombed’ for a week.
Fear is a powerful motivator. I am terribly sensitive to legal threats. I don’t even sample in the bulk sections of grocery stores anymore. I actually weigh and sticker a bag of one or two nuts and then eat them and then pay for the empty bags at the register. Just to be safe.
So I took down the post, but to no effect. The calls from Unknown continued that night past 10 PM. But then they stopped.
Until two days later. Then something marvelous happened. I got to talk to one of the founders, talk to some of the cast from the film, and became friends with their metaphysician, Frater Baal-Fred. This bizarre organization that I had mocked online, called the Church of the Son of Man (COSOM), is now asking me to clean up their website and edit their theology.
Below is my original post as well as a brief account of how my quarrel with the COSOM leadership improbably led to my decision to promote and support them. A stranger turn of events I never could have imagined.
If the Devil lives anywhere, it could be in San Fransisco.
… or perhaps in Austin, where an obscure Christian sect called the Church of the Son of Man (COSOM) is spreading like a Texas brushfire.
A cult has become popular in Austin
As far as small Christian denominations go, the Church of the Son of Man is pretty small. Its headquarters (and its only physical church) is in Bastrop, TX—a tiny rural town of benighted rednecks just 45 minutes east of Austin. It has a local membership count of 23 and a newsletter subscribership of 75. COSOM is so tiny and unremarkable that I never would have heard of them if my friend Dave hadn’t mentioned them.
“So, have you joined COSOM yet?” Dave asked.
“COSOM. It’s a religion.”
“Never heard of them.”
“That’s a surprise,” he said. “They’re right up your alley—creepy and weird.”
He was referring to my lifelong interest in new religious movements and creative mythologies—and my fascination with the people who join them. I don’t think people appreciate how profound the cult-joining experience really is. The act of voluntarily surrendering long-held axioms and promising to believe something else is surely a distressing and life-changing event. Christians refer to this foundational overhaul “being born again.”
What Dave knew about COSOM he learned from various band members and managers around Austin. Dave is a live music app developer and spends a lot of time marketing his platform. COSOM had become something of a fad among Austin musicians. Once word spread that Gibby Haynes and Genesis P-Orridge had joined, every wannabe punk intellectual in Austin was driving out to Bastrop to to observe COSOM’s practices and possibly join its ranks.
“Two of my frontmen joined last week,” he continued. “But it’s too ridiculous to be true. They say it’s a mix of Wicker Man and Christianity. And they worship this horror movie like it’s some kind of divine revelation. I’m pretty sure it’s a parody religion like the Church of the SubGenius.”
My investigation begins
When he finally gave me some details it didn’t sound at all like a parody.
COSOM is a new religious movement that sees itself as the true Christianity, faithful to the original teachings of the historical Jesus. What sets them apart is the fact that they see the fulfillment of their beliefs in an obscure horror movie from 1981 called Evilspeak.
Hearing all this made me super excited. I’m fascinated by new religious movements, creative mythologies, and the people who attempt to live by them. This includes organizations like Landmark and Scientology, whose rational-sounding promises to “transform” and “clear” their prospective members seems free of mythic content.
Also, for my tastes, the cheesier the cult the better. First, it is often the case that the weirder the myth, the more insightful (or insight-inspiring) the metaphysics. Second, weird myths and practices express universal wants and needs—just in offensively high relief. They provide grotesque solutions to real but subtle emptinesses, and give us easy-to-read cultural symptomatology of the current shape of social alienation. Third, I enjoy the challenge of any investigation that requires me to give sympathetic interpretations to repulsive and opaque myths. But most of all, I find the people who join them very interesting, and I’m sympathetic to their loneliness, sadness, and disaffection with American mall culture.
So, starting a few months ago, I began interviewing some of the Austin band members that Dave was willing to name.
My inquiries in Austin eventually led me COSOM headquarters in Bastrop. When I tried to interview the church officials whose names I had learned in Austin, I was told that they did not exist. I was given pen names, it turned out. (Since then I’ve learned that none of the staff use their real names.) So I interviewed the residents instead, and that got me nowhere. The locals in Bastrop without exception shunned COSOM members. From my notes, the locutions included the following: sick joke; devil worshippers; Satanic bullshit; faggots; and nigger lovers. It was told horrifying tales of devil worship that were obviously fake. It looked like COSOM was hated in its hometown.
While COSOM was cool in Austin, it was reviled and feared in its capital city. And that probably explains why Austin artistes found the obscure organization so cool. It looked like the COSOM fad was just another case of typical Austinite contrarianism. The avant-garde, ever desirous of appearing as eccentric as possible, had aligned themselves with an insignificant group of underdogs just to look alternative and altruistic.
Results of my investigation
I finally spoke with a band manager who was both serious about COSOM and historically informed (she has a PhD in history). Here’s what I gathered from our talk, which I was unfortunately not allowed to record:
Christian theory—COSOM members really are old-school Christians. The place is run by an ex-Jesuit priest and a staff of social workers from the Union Theological Seminary. They do not worship Jesus, like Paul did, but worshipped the Son of Man, like Jesus did. According to most scholars, Jesus didn’t worship himself, but rather a curious character from the Book of Daniel called the “Son of Man.” The Son of Man lives in the sky, rides a cloud, wields a sword, and kills people with it. Jesus believed that the Son of Man was literally on his way to kill the Romans and enthrone Jesus as ruler of Israel.
Christian practice—So that does make them old-school Christian. But more importantly, in my view, they also enact old-school Christianity in their concern with concrete acts of compassion—providing basic necessities like food, shelter, and medical care. They are very serious about social welfare, especially regarding prisoners, ex-prisoners, homeless, immigrants, poor people, and the lonely elderly. This stands in sharp contrast with the majority of American Christians who voted for Trump precisely to increase the misery of these groups. (I think the conversion or manufacture of the current breed of sadistic Christians by Republican think tanks is the greatest propaganda coup in American history.) So, yes—COSOM is Christian, but not antisocial, racist, anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant, anti-women, and anti-education like Evangelicals and other Fundamentalists.
Esoteric liturgy—As for the Wicker Man part, COSOM has apparently adopted some very basic stuff from Western esotericism. To idiot Fundamentalists who believe that any system of poetic correspondences, such as references to the zodiac or the four cardinal directions, is Satanic, the COSOM outdoor liturgy will surely seem Satanic or Wiccan. Such people just need to be reminded that these things were developed by Christians in Christian Europe. The Golden Dawn, which is the template for all these “occult” groups and systems, took a very Ophra-fied version of Christian Kabbalah as its foundation. Everything in Western occultism (besides Kabbalah and the Emerald Tablet) was written by a Christian.
Official scriptures—As for scriptures, COSOM accepts parts the Bible but read it historical-critically. The epistles are pretty much thrown out except for their mysticism. The Gnostic Gospels and Gospel of John, being plainly mystical, are read as for metaphorical metaphysics and used for their guided meditations—something else the illiterate will deem Satanic. Some of the Essene texts are read.
The one weird part
However—and this is the weird part which makes people think the whole thing is a joke—they also accept an obscure horror movie called Evilspeak (1981) as theirscripture.
Evilspeak is about a poor orphan named Stanley Coopersmith who attends an affluent military academy. After suffering incessant physical and emotional abuse from all those around him, Coopersmith happens upon the former grimoire of one Father Lorenzo Esteban in the chapel cellar that he has been forced to clean as punishment. After translating the Latin in the grimoire into English using an Apple II, he acquires the information he needs to revive Father Esteban, and eventually Satan Himself, to come to his aid and take revenge on his tormenters.
Apparently, COSOM believes that Evilspeak is the only cultural artifact that accurately represents the original teachings of Jesus, which centered around the “Son of Man,” an obscure character from Hebrew folklore. They specifically cite the film’s climax—in which Coopersmith, having invoked “Satan-Estaban,” is transfigured into the Son of Man, and slays his persecutors—as somehow being the only actual enactment of the Son of Man ideal in material human history. Specifically, they call the film an “unintentional documentary”—they believe that the writer, director, actors, and crew were all being manipulated to present what they did by an invisible hand. The makers of the film thought they were making fiction, but they were being used to convey some kind of super-real allegorical truth.
Though the film itself was entertaining, I found the revered climax to be more hilarious than epic. Evilspeak seems like it was created solely for the purpose of being chosen as one of Alamo Drafthouse’s Weird Wednesday selections. Due to their attaching themselves so adamantly to this film, I am forced to rank COSOM beneath Scientology and Landmark in my list of favorite cults.
Only six days after I uploaded the original post, I was contacted by COSOM attorney Lynn Hancock. She told me that I would be sued for defamation (for my post) and copyright infringement (for using Evilspeak footage on my YouTube account) unless I removed both immediately. She added that her “courtesy call” was being recorded and would “serve in a court of law as evidence of [my] due notice.”
From her tone of voice I suspected that she might be bluffing. I asked if she was representing Warner Bros. (the producers of Evilspeak). “Not officially,” she said, “but I do represent the interests of quite a number of people.” Why so vague? I took this as more evidence of lying. Also, how could my own thoughts be in violation of anything? What about the First Amendment?
Despite my skepticism, I told her I would delete the post. But I never did.
That was a mistake, because the very next morning (July 14) my phone started getting bombed with calls and texts from Unknown. This went on every morning for almost a week. If I called the police, might I get myself in trouble?
On one hand, her childish methods were reassuring. When someone threatens to sue you and then harasses you, it means that their threats of suing are themselves part of the harassment. As they say: “Those that can, sue. Those who can’t, threaten to sue.” On the other hand, it made me sick with fear of other kinds of harassment.
So the following Friday, I took down the post. But she still kept calling. This made me think that the issue had become personal and dangerous and that COSOM drones would hound me like Scientology Squirrel Busters until I either fled town or killed myself.
I called my friend Brian, a famous local civil rights attorney, and he told me to answer the call and record it. On Sunday, July 23, I finally picked up the phone and discovered that it wasn’t the angry attorney, but rather the Archbishop of COSOM, “Frater Baal-Fred.” I calmly told him that I had notified the police about the harassing calls, that my post was protected by the First Amendment, and that I had lawyers ready and on standby.
To my surprise and great relief, he was both peaceable and contrite. He apologized for Ms. Hancock’s aggression and told me that nobody was planning on suing me. He said it was just a reflex acquired from years of persecution by critics. To my shock, he told me that the post could stay up as long as I made certain changes.
For the rest of the call, Baal-Fred apprised me of the hard time that new religious movements have in the US—especially in the rural south. In areas just outside of Austin, COSOM members are getting their cars keyed and their garage doors tagged (spray painted) with Bible verse numbers about the dangerous of “false prophets” (he gave me four of them to look up: Mt 7:15, Mt 24:24, 2 Tm 4:3–4, 2 Pt 2:1). Their children are bullied at school, obviously at the behest of nominally Christian parents. Last year, their church in Bastrop was destroyed by fire. In the same week someone erected a burning cross on a member’s lawn at midnight that fell and ignited her house—and the neighbors never even thought to wake her up or call 911. Neither event was ever mentioned in the local news. He likened these events to the ones leading to the infamous Mormon War of 1838, in which Mormons were harassed and evicted from their homes.
I agreed that Evangelicals are the terrorist wing of the Republican party. And I found out that we had a lot in common. And then I felt sorry for them.
It occurred to me that if members of new religious movements come off as creepy, it is not by design but because they are under siege by more senior cults, such as rural Evangelicals. Constant harassment makes them defensive, exclusive, and wary. Religions compete for market share, and larger groups are quick to play the “cult” card on new and smaller movements in order to destroy them. It’s just like Walmart and the tiny neighborhood grocer, except that gods—especially the Canaanite ones—are war gods, and expect war-like allegiance, or so Fundamentalists believe.
Being a diehard sympathizer of even the most despised underdogs and outcasts, I decided to do a 180° on my original stance. I told Frater Baal-Fred that I would give them a temporary platform—here on MapSelf! (Even though my readership is a joke, analytics show that I still get more traffic than they do. In fact, their website isn’t even up and running.)
I also have a selfish reason for helping. I have often wondered what it would be like to be a member of a new religion in its early stages. Can you imagine? Being in a new religion at the beginning must be bizarre because everyone in the organization knows that the leaders are making the whole thing up as it goes. Everyone in the group is in on the secret. All you need is charisma, skill at mythic fabrication, and followers who promote you with a straight face. This is no different from starting a business. The sales department is just inventing the value and awesomeness of the silly product inside clever language and imaging. It’s bullshit, but is it evil?
Jesus and his followers were ridiculed, and Jesus was executed for being a genuine political threat. If Jesus tore up the Capitol building and told CNN that he was actually president, had armed followers to prove it, and would be installed in the White House any day now, as soon as his Cloud-based Weapon System came online, he would be arrested in a jiffy.
But COSOM members aren’t doing anything like that. And here their Evangelical neighbors are treating them just like the Romans treated the Jesus’ early Son of Man cult. COSOM members are being bullied by their redneck neighbors solely for having weird ideas. I think it’s a good exercise to get a taste of what it is like to belong to a minority ostracized merely for its belief—a taste of Trumpist xenophobia that is poisoning the land.
Scott Heftler (with Frater Baal-Fred)
Inquiries to the COSOM can be sent to Frater Baal-Fred by clicking on the link below.Email Frater Baal-Fred
I am happy to announce that COSOM has just purchased the premium domain name Evilspeak.org.
You read that correctly. MapSelf will no longer be hosting COSOM Online Ministry. It has found a better home, a home of its own, with a name that is actually related to its content.
Evilspeak.org was (formerly) the #1 Evilspeak fan forum. How did COSOM pull this off?
Frater Baal-Fred, wizard of cold calls, followed the following complex procedure:
- He called the site owner.
- He asked for the site using the following Scientology-grade hypo-chatter:
Hello. I represent a religious organization based on the movie worshipped by your fansite. We would like to buy it from you.
I spoke with FBF about his victory on the phone:
CSH: Sounds like a slow start. Then what?
FBF: Well, I was just calm. If you are super calm and friendly and not pushy, people’s natural pro-social wiring kicks in. It’s just a biological response. Your job is to emote the normalcy of the interaction, that socialization is normal and intrinsically pleasant. If you act like it’s fun, they won’t feel threatened. Also, acting nervous can also, especially in a sales or transactional context, appear as guilt—that you feel guilty about some forthcoming imposition or scam. The same goes for acting fake-friendly. Both are alarming. If you are uncomfortable, your listener will suspect that the coming climax is genuinely worry-worthy. Acting nervous can turn even a compliment into a threat.
CSH: Thank you for that deep analysis. Would you mind telling me how you put that into action?
FBF: I was calm and persistent and convinced him that I was serious.
FBF: Oh—and I was flattering, but genuinely so because I’m obviously interested in his interests. I was calm, complimentary, and enthusiastic. So there was no fear, no fakery, and no manipulator’s guilt.
But the clincher was something else entirely, and it just dawned on me in the moment.
CSH: And that was …?
FBF: I told him he could speak with the cast Lynn [Hancock] and Joe [Cortese].
I told him I could call him back with Lynn [Hancock] or Joe [Cortese] on the line. I also told him I could arrange a conversation with Damien [Garofalo, son of the late Joseph who wrote the screenplay]. I gave him a chance to meet, verbally at least, his lifelong idols. He didn’t believe me, so I told him that we could use Skype and he could see the video.
So I called back on video conference with with Lynn. His response when he recognized her was classic. It was that line from [Carpenter’s] The Thing—“You’ve got to be fucking kidding.” His eyes welled up and he couldn’t speak.
CSH: I bet.
FBF told me that Saint agreed to sell the site for basically nothing. He even offered to integrate the old forum database into the new site to retain the fanbase.
So it looks like this will be the only article about COSOM on MapSelf for for now. You check out their new home here: