Sunday, 6 July 2014

Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People

Tim Reiterman's "Raven" is one of the most compelling and complete histories of a New Religious Movement that I've ever read (up there with Atack's Scientology history "A Piece of Blue Sky"). His book follows Jim Jones' life from his birth to his death and captures the parallel track of the life and death of his Peoples Temple.

This odd man, who seemed to move from sincere Christian belief to atheism and back in his early years, evolved into an atheistic con man who lead over 1000 people on a journey from Pentecostal worship at his faith healing meetings in Indianapolis to communal "socialist" living in Guyana.

He, and his close aides, conspired to deceive his followers, critics and neutral observers at every turn. Fake attempted assassinations, claims of hate crimes, imaginary miracles and over-egged promises of a paradise in Jonestown are just a few of the lies he put out (and it was the fear of those lies being exposed to ultimately lead to the exodus to Jonestown and the ultimate end for over 900 people).

He was a utopian who seemed to believe the ends justified the means. Though it is an age old story, he was just one of many such men who left the 20th century littered with bodies in their wake. He raped women and men, he instigated "catharsis" sessions where members of the Temple were forced to confess to sins and take abuse (sometimes physical) from other members (a similarity with Scientology's Int Base antics) and ran fake suicide drills.

Reiterman had the misfortune to be in Jonestown on its last two days and was among those shot as Congressman Ryan's party tried to shepherd to safety those Temple members who wished to escape the growing madness of Jonestown . His narrative of the end days, however, remains as neutral as possible and with interviews with the handful of survivors and members not in Jonestown that weekend he manages to paint a near complete description of the horror that unfolded as Jones directed his people to die (some of whom did not go willingly).

This is a big book, and it is very thorough going over every detail of the rise and fall of this man and his movement. The people, good and bad, who rose and fell with him get their stories told as fairly as possible. If you want to understand where religious and political ideologies can go wrong and how normal people can be lead to their deaths by a con man, this book gives you plenty to ponder. 

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