Chariots of the Who? – part one
It’s a strange tale involving a hack writer’s bad grasp of history and half-baked sci fi sensibilites, rural American evangelicals’ even shakier grasp of history and science, a Mormon community invaded by mostly southern oil worker families, the tent revival epidemic of the 1800s, black lights and phosphorescent chalk, one queer sci fi nerd, and a three-piece suit the color of lime sherbet. It’s a bit convoluted…
Essential background: the evangelical fundamentalist Christian movement, in many ways, started with the tent revival phenomenon of the early 1800s. Traveling preachers went from town in what was then the far western frontier—such as Ohio (what we think of now as the west wasn’t yet part of the U.S.), setting up tents and holding services to bring the gospel to communities that often didn’t yet have a church. Some of the preachers were simple missionary types who felt a calling, but many were into faith healing, speaking in tongues, and other things not often found in the more traditional Christian denominations at the time. Tent revivals became an entire industry and by the 1920s (probably a lot earlier), it was common for the each traveling preacher’s entourage to be practically a miniature circus. Some members of the family would specialize in singing or various activities that were often repurposed circus gimmicks passed off as miracles/gifts from god.
By the 1960s, when I was a kid, the Southern Baptist denomination still held on to a version of this tradition. At least once a year most Southern Baptist churches have a revival week, where there will be a church service every night of the week, and a guest pastor is brought in to preach fiery, inspiring sermons each night. Most of these revival pastors had a gimmick. One guy, for instance, sang four-part harmony with himself (he had tape recordings of orchestration with tracks of his voice singing three of the harmony parts, and he would sing along with it). There was another guy whose wife, sister-in-law, and a third woman were a musical act that put on a short concert each of the nights, with the preacher giving a short sermon and altar call. There were (and probably still are) a ton of these guys, but I was only familiar with the ones that came to the churches I actually attended.
Because of my dad’s work in the oil fields, we moved a lot (ten elementary schools, four states). A couple months into my fourth grade (1970-71), we moved from mid-Colorado to a tiny town in eastern Utah. We were informed after moving that that the county in question had the highest percentage of Mormons in the entire country. When my little sister and I were enrolled in the school, we exactly doubled the number of children in the entire district who were not members of the Mormon church. Various weird things that happened to us there were the cause of my early and steadfast belief in the value of the separation of church and state. A couple of months after we moved there, a few more families moved in, as two of the major oil companies had decided that the previously not terribly profitable to extract oil reserves there were suddenly worth extracting.
The number of families with kids moving in became a flood. An early attempt to cope meant moving most of the library books to off-site storage and converting the school library space into four “classrooms.” A particularly wide hallway in another part of the building became a yet another classroom. A bunch of teachers who had previously been part-time substitute teachers and at least one retired teacher were called in full-time to teach the new classes. All of this before my fourth grade year ended.
One of those substitute teachers turned full time was fairly young and was referred to by some of the other teachers as a newlywed. She wasn’t my teacher. I met her because one time that I was being beat up by a couple of guys, she intervened. She was one of the rare public school teachers who only sent the bullies to detention, rather than assuming that I had started it or provoked them. She apparently decided I needed protecting, because from then on she would track me down during recess and similar breaks to check up on me. We wound up talking about things. One day, (this was probably April of ’71) she asked be to come to her desk after class, because she had brought in a book she thought I would like.
The book she handed me was Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past by Erich von Däniken. Däniken puts forward the notion that all sorts of things from human history were the work of extra-terrestrials visiting earth and being welcomed an worshipped as gods. The original was published in German in 1968, it was translated into English the following year, and by 1970 had been published in the U.S. in paperback form.
I thanked her for the book and took it home and read it. But even at ten years old, I saw a lot of big logical holes and contradictions. Maybe it was because of all the hard science fiction I read, but I remember thinking the this von Däniken guy was either not very bright, or was a con man. I remember trying to explain to the teacher a couple of the things I found less than believable, and she was shocked. I specifically remember her being amazed that I wasn’t just familiar with evolution, but believed in it. She made some comments about not realizing Baptists were into that. I don’t think I explained that I sometimes got hassled at church for believing in science.
Anyway, because the small Utah town we were in happened to be only an hour’s drive from the town my Dad had grown up (and my parents met, and I had been born), sometimes instead of attending the small Baptist church in Utah (which was suddenly getting a whole lot of new members with all the oil field workers moving in, most from the south), Mom would take my sister and I over to attend the church my grandparents attended. One of the times was to attend a Saturday night service of the revival preacher they had that year, and we stayed over night at with my grandparents and attended Sunday morning to hear the same preacher.
That was the first time I heard a sermon specifically refuting von Däniken’s book. It wasn’t terribly involved, and the pastor spent a good part of the sermon explaining the book, because most people weren’t yet familiar with it. The pastor, or course, suggested that several of the “historical mysteries” were actually either miracles from God, or the work of the devil to deceive humans and lead them astray.
During my fifth grade year (1971-72), still living in Utah, the school district had set up portable buildings in a lot near the school and moved a bunch of classes out to there. Unfortunately, the tide of oil field workers had barely gotten started, and midway through the year the town set up more portables in a park next to the VFW hall about a half mile away from the school, converted the VFW hall to a several more classrooms, and moved about a quarter of the grade school population over there. The school library, which has been previously moved into a small classroom and most of the books put into storage, was moved to an even smaller room, and someone had the brilliant(?) idea to put a subset of the library into each classroom and rotate the books from room to room over the course of the year.
One of the teachers (not my homeroom teacher, who was an abusive SOB who called me “pussy” more often than my worst bully among my classmates), saw me looking at a Heinlein book that I was thinking of checking out to re-read, asked me what I liked about Heinlein. And then a couple days later he handed me yet another copy of Chariots of the Gods, because I like that “space stuff.” I told I’d read it already and didn’t like it much. He seemed very disappointed.
That influx of new citizens had also meant a big increase in the membership of our church, which meant a lot more money coming into the offering plates each week, which prompted our pastor, who was very elderly and had only been able to work on the small salary the church could afford because he was on Social Security, to announce he would like to retire, and suggested the church could afford to hire a young pastor and pay him a decent wage. This resulted in various young men recently graduated from one Bible college or another an anxious to find a post as a pastor, to come and audition for the job.
I remember two of them giving anti-Chariots of the Gods sermons. The main reason I know there were at least two, was because some church members afterward compared the second guy’s refutation of the ancient astronauts idea unfavorably to the earlier sermon. The earlier pastor, as I recall, had spent a lot of time flipping us back and forth through books of the old testament and speaking grandiloquently about the angels who visited Ezekial and the ladder to heaven which Jacob saw in his dream.
I, on the other hand, had really liked the second pastor’s take, because he had referred to the Star Trek episode, “Who Mourns for Adonais?” as another example of heathens trying to explain away the actions of god and the devil by making them aliens. This pastor was an adherent of the idea (fairly common among evangelicals at the time) that most non-Christian/non-Jewish/non-Islam religions were the result Satan pretending to be Zeus or Hercules or whoever to make people believe in false gods. Anyway, Star Trek had not originally been a very highly rated show, and had only been in syndication for about a year at that time, just beginning to start to build it’s soon-to-be cult following in syndication, so I think there just weren’t enough people in the congregation who even knew what he was referencing for that comment to make sense.
In any case, it was clear by 1972 that the notion of ancient astronauts being the explanation of anything that might be miraculous in history was being viewed as a dangerous insidious notion taking hold in popular culture, and that it had to be countered by evangelists, or else.
In 1973 things got really interesting…
(To be continued)