a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

the fringe (attraction to)

by J. C. Hallman

Paroxysm by <a href='' target='_blank'>Bart Vargas</a>
Paroxysm by Bart Vargas

The real question is: why are you reading this?

I’m just the writer here, someone else will provide the headline or the title, but chances are that headline or title lit the fuse of your imagination. A curiosity was ignited. You now have the impression that herein “the fringe” will be explained. A kind of light will be shined on something a little weird, and probably a little “spiritual.” It will be well outside the mainstream, a thing hot with danger, with a warmth that has drawn you in just as the candle pulls the moth. That’s why you started reading, or scrolling down, or clicked.

So here goes.

As Heraclitus wanted us to believe, the fringe, like everything, boils down to fire.

A few decades ago, to burn something—a flag, say, or oneself—was a measure of righteousness. Passionate flames registered indignation at ideals betrayed by power. Long before then, of course, burning had a completely different meaning. It was a kind of punishment—of witches, books—a literal fire that stood for hellfire.

Not long ago, when a zany small town pastor attracted international attention with a threat to publicly burn a Koran, the misguided hate of the latter masqueraded as the conviction of the former.

All of this was quite openly a stunt. Pastor Terry Jones said plainly that he knew nothing of the Koran, and that he was only doing it for attention. The most remarkable thing was that it wasn’t even a stunt—yet. It was talk of a stunt. The “narrative”—to slip for a moment into journalese—flopped back and forth. The burning was on, then it was off, then it was off “for now.” From the perspective of the zany pastor, it didn’t matter if he actually burned the Koran. The goal of the stunt was achieved long before he reached for the matchbook.

Which returns to our original question: why did you read that story? And why are you reading this one?

In other words, the story is as much about you—presumably, the norm—as it is about the fringe. What is the basic attraction of the fringe and the extreme for normal people? Why do fringe religions fascinate us—why can a tiny movement command the international stage—while, at the same time, one can level no greater political criticism than that something or someone is “extreme.”

Some kind of door has opened. Long gone are the days when fringe movements or ideas had to resist blanket charges of godlessness, or dodge anti-witchcraft laws, or struggle for time on public television. It’s not particularly shocking to suggest that the Internet has created an unruly egalitarianism of information. But is the fringe always bad? Maybe not. With no fringe, arguably, you have no variety, no diversity. Like sterile conformity? Abolish the fringe. It’s the fringe that gives us fringe festivals, and it’s the extreme that gives us “extreme sports,” which have been around for more than a decade. The fringe is where curiosity leads us. The fringe is the first name of the new. Without the fringe we have no idea what normal is.

Nevertheless, sociologists who study religions prefer the term “new religious movement” to “fringe religion” or “cult.”

Back in the nineties, two fringe religions in Southern California heralded the imminent arrival of friendly aliens. They weren’t the same aliens, and neither arrived. One of these movements you’ve never heard of: they confronted their failed prophecy with introspection and went on with the quiet self-help work of their “Star Center.”

The other, Heaven’s Gate, performed the stunt of all stunts. That’s why the name alone raises the hair on the back of your neck.

But now we’re past even that. Even a chess player can tell you that the threat of a good move is more powerful than its execution. If we’re honest we should acknowledge our complicity in the Koran burning episode. Our talk of Pastor Jones’s stunt left us stunted.

In 1903, the philosopher and psychologist William James, having just produced what is still the go-to book on fringe religions, wrote to a former student of the media coverage of his moment: “Our American people used to be supposed to have a certain hard-headed shrewdness. Nowadays they seem smitten with utter silliness. Their professed principles mean nothing to them, and any phrase or sensational excitement captivates them. The sensational press is the organ and the promulgator of this state of mind, which means … a new ‘dark ages’ that may last more centuries than the first one.”

The fringe tickles our imagination. It fascinates because we either hope or worry that it will become the mainstream. In the best of cases, we entertain the fringe to knead and stretch our sense of the possible; in the worst, as with the attention paid to the would-be Koran burners, we try to tell ourselves a cautionary tale about what the future may hold.

This time, however, the tale backfired—and our attention transmuted into a kind of Heisenberg propulsion system.

When the New York Times beefed up International Burn a Koran Day into “a bonfire of Korans” (there were fifty members of the pastor’s flock; at one Koran each, a campfire, at best) their readers’ curiosity fanned the flames of the very blaze they would have preferred extinguished. When Pastor Jones at one moment called the burning off, the Times asked whether the media might have contributed to the problem, quite as if the Times were not the media itself, as if they were not the country’s paper of record.

What even Pastor Jones knew is that the media is only an organ, and, like fire, organs remain silent if nothing breathes air into them.

Fire represents change, the way things shift from one form to another; and the mainstream, like actual streams, also has a tendency to change. The Koran burners, whose rhetoric was as incendiary as their stunt, would like to instigate change, to fight fire with fire, and we unwittingly armed them. It was a “norm” that got burned.

Ablaze with information, we have yet to figure out what we ought to ignore.