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.