What the Religious Right Gets Wrong About Monsters
Perhaps the certainty that you are not the monster—that no matter what you do, you will never become the monster—is what gives rise to monstrous behavior.
In high school, I thought often about the end times.
Personally, my bipolar disorder was still undiagnosed and depression my constant companion; each day felt like an interminable trudge towards nothing. I keened back and forth between ambivalence towards life and an active wish to end it.
Collectively, the end times were a frequent topic of discussion at the very small, very fundamentalist Christian academy I’d transferred to as a sophomore. My parents agreed to send me because they saw how unhappy I’d been at the public school, and the new one was affordable, as far as private schools went. We thought that a new environment would make me—if not happier—at least less palpably unhappy.
Sometimes, when I wonder now about why I know so little about US history, I remember that I went to this school. I know a lot about what I am interested in—what I chose to study in college or learn on my own—but I missed out on the broad strokes of a public education. Instead, my “history” teacher spent six weeks teaching us about Noah’s Ark and the contemporary explorers who discovered its location, only to meet untimely ends before they could share their findings with the world.
This history teacher’s curriculum overlapped with that of my “philosophy” teacher, since both of their classes were basically about religion. But while I found the history teacher tedious and foolish, I was enthralled by my philosophy teacher, who held court wearing a porkpie hat, smoking a bulldog pipe, and resting his hands on his small round belly.
“What scientists think are Neanderthal fossils are really just antediluvian homo Sapiens,” he told us. “Before the flood, people just looked different.” Or: “The constellations are God’s way of making sure everyone knows His word. That way, no one can pretend that they don’t know the Gospel.”
That was the seductive pull of this teacher, of this school, of faith: To believe, they seemed to say, was to never have to doubt again.
I didn’t believe what he said, but I was captivated by his kind of belief. He did not try to persuade. He believed what he said as fact and so stated it as fact. He was certain, the way most of the people at that school were certain, the way many right-wing fundamental Christians are certain about everything. Their opinions were not riddled with doubt—whereas I, at fifteen (and now, at thirty-one), I was (and am) only doubts.
Even now, there is a small part of me that envies these believers. I long for the stability of their worldview, though it is wrong; for their lack of cognitive dissonance, even though the lack stems from a refusal to let in any dissenting streams of information. Living in a constant state of cognitive dissonance is stressful. My heart beats wildly. Recently, my doctor added Xanax to my already complicated psychopharmacological regimen.
Ultimately, that was the seductive pull of this teacher, of this school, of faith: To believe, they seemed to say, was to never have to doubt again.
I love being certain. What I hate above all is not knowing. Why, I asked incessantly as a toddler. Why not, I asked as a teenager.
The problem is that I am hardly ever certain. Or rather, I am certain for much too brief periods of time. My bipolarity—or perhaps just my personality, regardless of mental illness—is one of strong opinions, loosely held. I can vehemently argue for something, then after being presented with opposing evidence, argue just as vehemently for the other side, without acknowledging or noticing that I’ve changed my mind. I am often wracked with anxiety, unsure of the right path forward, knowing that many of my opinions and beliefs can be as mercurial as my moods.
This is the part of me that finds communion with the mythical creatures of Japan called yokai or bakemono. (While the kanji in the word yokai designate the unearthly and mysterious, the characters in bakemono mean a changing thing; the term focuses on transformation rather than abnormality.) This is the part of me that struggles.
I want someone else to tell me unequivocally what is right. I want someone to choose for me, so that I do not have to sit with my racing heart, reading twenty different articles by twenty different epidemiologists as I try to decide if it is now safe to take my daughter to the playground.
Religion, then, is often a balm for people like me. It provides a code, a moral compass, a measure of certainty. But much of my doubt and cognitive dissonance is a result of my religion—of trying to align my beliefs with what I know of the world, with a society in which the most vocal proponents of that faith are also the most harmful, perpetuating racism and xenophobia and every other -phobia, explicitly or implicitly.
Even writing this essay, I feel the need to add: a Christian, but not those Christians; a God, but not that version of God. I want to tell everyone, I’m not stupid. If I had to sum up my defensiveness and anxiety onto a T-shirt, it would say, “I believe, but I also think!”
But if you asked me what I believe or what I think, I do not know if I could tell you. That is part of the problem: I do not know how to explain my faith properly, to say why I believe what I believe. I am a writer, but I do not have the words. A fatal flaw.
At the fundamentalist school, my philosophy teacher was the person to introduce me to Gog and Magog, the monsters waiting for us at the end of the world. In the first book of the Bible, Gog is mentioned as the grandson of Noah. The prophet Ezekiel mentions Gog of Magog (meaning Gog from the land of Magog), as a future enemy.
In the book of Revelations, “Gog of Magog” turns into “Gog and Magog” in these alarming verses about the end of the world: And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.
According to my teacher, this was a very literal event that was waiting to happen. Gog and Magog were the apocalyptic hordes who would bring about the final battle between good and evil, before good triumphed.
He did not tell us about the way that the concept of Gog and Magog had been appropriated and adapted by Western Christianity through the story of Alexander’s Gates. In this story, Alexander the Great, acting as an emissary from God, chased hundreds of thousands of his enemies (referred to as the Unclean Nations, led by Gog and Magog) through a mountain pass in the Caucasus and, with the help of God, shut them into it, where they will stay until Satan returns to loose them.
Medieval Europeans believed that Alexander’s Gate was an actual place—a geographic space behind which monsters lurked. Even until the fourteenth century, this gate was located on maps and in travelogues. Though at the beginning, the monsters were thought to be “real” monsters—hulking Cyclops, man-eating animals—they later mapped the ideas of Gog and Magog and the Unclean Nations onto whoever they believed their enemy to be. The Jews—ten tribes of Israel—were behind the gates. The Saracens were. The Moors, the Huns, the Mongols. In the 1500s, Marco Polo relocated Gog and Magog to central Asia.
Gog and Magog is a fascinating rhetorical device because it both alludes to the beginning and signifies the end. In the Bible, it appears in Genesis and Revelation, the first and last books of the Bible. Later, Western Christians used Gog and Magog to represent primitive peoples, one that each storyteller, certain of his own modernity and superiority, sees as a threatening incursion from the past not only into their present, but one that will hurtle them into an apocalyptic future.
Thus lies the genius of the circularity of Gog and Magog: While they are part of history, they are always also an impending threat. If the greatest danger of Gog and Magog happens at the end of the world, then we will always be afraid, for however far we run away, the future will always lie ahead of us.
The fear of the Central and South American migrants across the border, the fear of Black communities—they are fears located in the present, yes, but also one whose energy lies in the future: in white America’s fear of what our future country looks like. It is a fear of things that have not happened, will not happen, but could (possibly, potentially, perhaps) happen.
How, I ask myself daily, can I ethically be part of a religion whose most vocal followers believe in these monstrous ideas? Which parts stem from a flawed reading of the narrative, and which parts stem from the hot core of the narrative itself? These followers promote white supremacy and deny human rights while claiming God’s hand leads them, possessing an assuredness as old as time itself.
They are driven by an energy that results from being too certain that you are (and have been, and always will be) on the right side of history, and your opponents (the dreaded Other) always on the wrong one.
I do not see my doubt as being spiritually wrong—most mainline Christian traditions explicitly make room for doubt. Doubt as a way of seeking, doubt as curiosity, doubt as wondering. That is not why it plagues me. Doubt feels wrong, like a physical manifestation of my anxiety. I do not mind not knowing if, eventually, I can know. But so much of faith is being certain of what you do not see, what you will never see—not in this lifetime. It is a loss of control, one I feel in my chest.
I doubt because I am bipolar and I am often wrong and I am human.
This is why I am drawn to the essay, a form suited for my constant uncertainty. There is freedom to wobble, to say a thing and bite it back. Essays are made for but in facts and howevers. Essays are a form for the gun-shy, for commitment-duckers, for those who swerve. Essays are inherently political, Leslie Jamison posits, because they are committed to instability. I wonder: How much instability can you commit to before you are called unstable, or committed?
But the only other option is certainty without space for doubt. To believe myself always righteous, that the hand of God is always upon me, that they are Gog and Magog, that I am Alexander. Thank the Lord, I am no Alexander. I am a mere shifting thing, a bakemono who does not always trust my thoughts from one moment to the next.
I doubt because I see the way our faith has been used to shape a politics that promotes the lie that only believers deserve safety and security and community. I doubt because I am a woman of color in a religion that has not traditionally made space for these identities. I doubt because I am bipolar and I am often wrong and I am human.
But Lispector says, Who has not asked himself at one time or another:Am I a monster or is this what it means to be human? Perhaps the very certain, the very confident do not ask themselves this; perhaps they should. Perhaps the certainty that you are not the monster—that no matter what you do, you will never become the monster—is what gives rise to monstrous behavior. To never question yourself or the people you listen to. To never question your gods.
The only thing I know is that there is a God I do not understand, but whom I believe in, whose son died and gave us life eternal. My opinions on everything else about the faith slides back and forth from day to day like a spider trapped by windshield wipers. What will happen? I do not know. What will happen? I do not know.
Once, while overcome with anxiety, I hid in a corner and hummed the hymn Trust and obey, for there’s no other way . . . again and again until my breathing went back to normal. A friend told me that, during a bad trip, he paced and chanted the Lord’s Prayer until the effects of the mushrooms wore off.
Sometimes these words are cries to God; sometimes they are just rituals, remnants of something that once comforted us. I do not know how to explain. Only that as a child in bed, I would ask myself who am I / who am I / who am I,over and over and over, each time feeling myself fall into another level of unreality, until I scared myself and pulled the blanket over my head.
My faith is both the question and the hope that under the covers there is, if not an answer, then relief.
Jami Nakamura Lin is the author of THE NIGHT PARADE (Mariner Books/HarperCollins and Scribe UK 2023), an illustrated memoir that uses yokai & other Japanese , Taiwanese, & Okinawan folklore to investigate what haunts us. A former Catapult columnist, she's written for the New York Times, Electric Literature, and other publications.
Jami has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts/Japan-US Friendship Commission, Yaddo, Sewanee, and We Need Diverse Books.