Sad tale of how charisma choked truth

Sad tale of how charisma choked truth Photo: Netflix/ Gizmostory

We’ve always had to put up with extremism and while it is fuelled nowadays by social media, it is not dependent on modern technology. Religious extremism is the worst of all, mimicking something that should be about love and dignity. The phenomenon is particularly evident in cults and in cultish behaviour sometimes found in mainstream religion.

Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle (BBC Four) was a two-part documentary in the excellent Storyville series, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, exploring the story of The Peoples Temple, its cult leader Jim Jones and the mass suicide he orchestrated in Guyana in 1978.

It was a riveting and shocking film, with compelling and heart-breaking survivor testimony, interviews with two of his sons and disturbing audio of Jones ranting at his followers and of the final tragic hours.

How people could be so naïve and gullible was mystifying, but Jones’ charisma was so intense that people were taken in. A few left, but others rationalised, thinking the main thing was the creation of a paradise on earth.

Jones started as an apparently idealistic preacher, promoting socialism and campaigning against racial segregation. Whether this was ego tripping or not, he soon became what one contributor called a “power addict” and eventually it was all about him.

He seemed to regard himself as god and saviour and expected adulation accordingly. He became a drug addict as well, and while initially he was favoured by many powerful people in the US, the truth began to creep out with the help of journalists and defectors, and so he fled to Guyana with hundreds of followers, ostensibly to set up a paradise-like community. But there was violence, extreme control and terror.

Paranoia was encouraged so that they could claim persecution – in one incident Jones staged an assassination attempt on himself, and there were fake miracles – the ultimate cynicism.


Programmes like this provide a salutary warning but, no doubt, there will be more charlatans eager to prey on well-intentioned believers.

If there was religious extremism in that programme, there was no religion at all in the drama series Virgin River (Netflix) which I finished last week. The story was about a young nurse who leaves the city after a personal trauma and goes to work in an idyllic rural community in the US.

Now, given the strong religious practice in rural America it was surprising that there wasn’t some element of religion in the community.

What was noteworthy however was how relatively innocent and old fashioned the show was – quite refreshing. There was no foul language, nothing graphic, and the characters were almost universally likeable, though the lady mayor was quite irritating. There was warmth towards the characters, while the problems they faced in relationships were entirely credible.

However, and unfort-unately, while it was passable and undemanding entertainment, it was a bit soapy, quite predictable and repetitious at times, with more than a few stereotyped characters and situations.

The flashbacks were so annoying and you could see them coming a mile away. Alexandra Breckenridge was appealing in the main role, and without her commanding presence the whole thing might have fallen apart. I was glad to see Tim Matheson in a leading role – I fondly remember him playing Jesus in an old Paulist video about the Holy Trinity – Jesus B.C. – which you can see on YouTube.

Religion is certainly a strong presence in Northern Ireland communities but too often it is marred by religious extremism and sectarianism. It was good to see the restoration of the Northern Irish Assembly last weekend, though it was too late to prevent the decriminalisation of abortion in the North, which was introduced rather cynically through the back door – the death toll from this, if it’s not reversed, may be worse than that of the Troubles. It was quite frustrating to see the collapse of the Assembly for three years and those who kept it collapsed have a lot to answer for, taking unacceptable risks with the peace process.

On Sunday Sequence (BBC Radio Ulster) last weekend historian Eamon Phoenix pointed out that technically the new measures involved in the restoration of the Assembly puts a formal end to the Penal Laws – those 18th-Century laws that discriminated against Catholics and Irish Speakers.

Good news there and I thought last Sunday’s Responsorial Psalm hit a relevant and optimistic note – ‘the Lord will bless his people with peace’.


Pick of the Week:
RTÉ1, Sunday, January 19, 11 am

Service to mark The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity led by Rev. Ken Rue and Fr Kieran O’Mahony with music led by Ian Callanan.

Songs of Praise
BBC1, Sunday, January 19, 1.15 pm

Human interest stories with hymns from around Scotland, and Eddie Reader singing ‘Amazing Grace’ in Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire.

EWTN, Friday, January 17, 2 pm

Live and complete coverage of the annual March For Life in Washington DC.