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    PloughCast 32: Vikings, a Bishop, and Apocalyptic Comics

    Hope in Apocalypse, Part 2

    By Eleanor Parker, Owen Cyclops, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    July 5, 2022

    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah speak with Eleanor Parker, @clerkofoxford on Twitter, about Archbishop Wulfstan and his sermon in 1014 calling the English to return to fidelity with God and each other, in the face of the apocalyptic Viking invasions. They also discuss what happened after those invasions succeeded: Wulfstan worked with the new king, Cnut, to draft just laws for this new Viking-Anglo Saxon polity.

    Then, Peter and Susannah talk with extremely online illustrator and self-described mystical idiot Owen Cyclops, @owenbroadcast on Twitter, about his journey from general weirdness to Christian weirdness. They get into his cartoon for Plough, and his interest in the specific American temper of Christianity, and how universal principles and teachings get refracted by different cultures.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Section 1: Eleanor Parker: The Sermon of the Wolf

    Peter Mommsen: And now welcome to Eleanor Parker. Dr. Parker is a lecturer in medieval English literature at Brasenose College, Oxford, and she is perhaps the internet’s official medievalist. She’s also a columnist at History Today and she’s written a piece for the current issue about Archbishop Wulfstan and his hopeful apocalypticism.

    And I should hasten to say that one of the best things that you could do on Twitter would be to follow Eleanor because one of the things she does in line with this book, Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year, is she tweets some fantastic resources on all the different feast days that you knew of and possibly didn’t know of throughout the year. And you’ll learn immense amounts about the way that people in an earlier era thought about the church year, in a way that I’ve found both sometimes just hilarious, but then other times like genuinely spiritually deepening, right? It’s a really wonderful project. How did you get into that?

    Eleanor Parker: I think it was just … it’s grown over time, really. It was just through my reading of medieval literature I came to this appreciation of how important the structure of the church year was for medieval experience of time and life and how important festivals were to these communities and how that intersects with the seasons of the natural year, the cycles of time. So it’s kind of become an increasing interest of mine just because it’s so prevalent in medieval literature and so important to so many different writers.

    Peter Mommsen: What have been some of the feast days that became your favorite feast days through this project?

    Eleanor Parker: Oh, there are quite a few actually, depending on my mood and depending on the time of year. So I’m really fond of Candlemas. That’s one of my favorites. That’s something people don’t much celebrate anymore, but that’s the end of the Christmas season, commemorating Christ’s presentation in the temple. And there’s just this beautiful custom of taking candles to church and having them blessed and then taking them home and keeping them all year. And the idea of a festival of light around the beginning of February when I think that is exactly when you need a festival of light.

    Peter Mommsen: That’s when you need it most.

    Eleanor Parker: That’s probably one of my favorites.

    Peter Mommsen: In your article, which ties in, I guess, a little bit in the sense of looking at life from a different view, from a foreign cultural view, you’re writing about an Archbishop of York who’s speaking to a very troubled congregation in the year 1014. Who is this Archbishop Wulfstan?

    Eleanor Parker: We kind of first know about him when he comes to prominence as Bishop of London in 996. So right at the end of the tenth century. And then after being Bishop of London for a few years, he became Archbishop of York and Worcester, which made him the second most important ecclesiastic in the land. So he had a prominent role in public life and in political affairs, as well as, obviously, in church affairs as well.

    Peter Mommsen: One reason that we were so eager for you to write this piece, was that we wanted a piece that would get back inside the heads of people who thought the world might be ending a long time ago. Sympathetically, not in the sense of, “Oh, those foolish people thought the world was ending and it didn’t,” but rather what were they really thinking? And you get the sense that people in England around the year 1014 had ample reason to think the world was ending. What was going on?

    Eleanor Parker: This was a time in which the circumstances of England in this time were so dire that it really did seem that things couldn’t get any worse. And this particular text that I chose to talk about, he gives us this picture of a country in political collapse and moral collapse and societal collapse as if everything is just falling apart, mostly under the pressure of repeated Viking raids. The Vikings had been raiding in England for decades, pretty continuously.

    And what Wulfstan talks about in this sermon is the pressure that that has put on English society and on all the different kinds of social bonds that people need to have a flourishing, healthy, peaceful state. All of that stuff is just being put under an unbearable pressure. And he thinks about that very much in apocalyptic terms that the world must be getting close to its end now because things are just so bad that – look around you, is kind of what he’s saying. This is recognizing the signs of the time, seeing just how bad things really are; this is just about reckoning with reality about acknowledging and admitting just how bad things are and then asking, “Well, what should we do about it?”

    He actually says almost nothing about the Vikings, even though that’s the ostensible threat. What he’s really concerned about is what that threat is doing to English society from the inside.

    And he talks about this sense that just people have given up on their obligations to each other, whether that’s their duty to family members, to members of their community, duty to the king, duty to the church. All the kinds of different obligations that he thinks people ought to admit and acknowledge and kind of live up to, they’re turning away from, partly out of fear, partly out of sin and greed and pride and lust and all kinds of other sins, which are sort of running rampant as these social bonds which are meant to contain them are breaking down.

    It’s not a warmongering sermon at all. It’s not a sermon about like, “Oh, the Vikings are the Antichrist and they’re going to bring the end of the world.” It’s kind of, Look what this is doing to us.

    Peter Mommsen: And the sermon you’re talking about, that’s the “Sermon of the Wolf to the English.” Could you talk about this as a document?

    Eleanor Parker: Anglo-Saxon archbishops and bishops were very politically engaged so they were all engaged in advice to the king in the writing of laws and councils. We know that he was a close advisor to King Aethelred and he was trying to get his ideas across to the king and his other counselors. One possibility is that it was preached directly to the most powerful people in the kingdom, the King’s advisors, the Witan, and that it was meant to change their hearts and minds and that they were meant to implement what it’s saying.

    Peter Mommsen: Do you have a favorite passage from it you’d be able to read?

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah, I could just read from the beginning of it, I guess. So he starts off by saying, “Beloved ones, know what is true. This world is in haste and it is nearing the end. And in this world, the longer things go on, the worse they are. And so it has to be that things grow very much worse because of people’s sins before the coming of Antichrist. And then indeed it will be grim and terrible throughout the world. Understand also seriously that the devil has now led this nation astray for many years. And there’s been little loyalty among men, although they spoke well, and too many injustices have reigned in the land. And there were never many people who considered the remedy as eagerly as one should, but daily, one evil has been piled upon another and injustices and many violations of law committed all too widely throughout this entire nation. And if we are to have any remedy, we must earn it better from God than we have previously done.”

    So he is really emphasizing that idea that we’ve deserved that this terrible stuff should be happening to us.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, if you imagine him speaking to the leaders of the kingdom, including presumably King Aethelred that’s some powerful words.

    Eleanor Parker: It’s really direct. Yeah. Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: Do we have any sense of . . . did the sermon work?

    Eleanor Parker: That’s a good question. I don’t know how you would measure that, exactly. But at the time the sermon was preached in 1014, that was right at the end of the reign of King Aethelred, the Vikings, as I said, had been attacking for a really long time. And just around this time, and especially in 1016, England did fall to Danish rule.

    So in one sense, that was a kind of loss, but what Wulfstan kind of went on to do at that point was to become an advisor to the new Danish king and to try and kind of implement the ideas that he’s talking about in this sermon about restoring the bonds of community and kind of agreeing on common values and things like that. And to try to use those to shape the newly conquered country. And from that point of view, it did kind of work that the Viking King Cnut was quite successful and he and Wulfstan seemed to have worked quite well together. So Wulfstan was effective.

    Section 2: Eleanor Parker: Wulfstan the Lawmaker

    Peter Mommsen: And you describe in your article some of those laws, right? So this took quite practical form.

    Eleanor Parker: So at that point, it’s very much about trying to produce a set of common values around which the Danes and the English could unite because you’re in a situation of a country just exhausted by decades of warfare and riven by internal division, and what Wulfstan and Cnut are trying to do in their first law code is to agree on, these are the things that we value. These are the things that we are going to protect. That’s partly social bonds like protection of vulnerable widows or whatever it might be and making sure that crimes are punished, making sure that the church is getting its proper dues, that taxes appraised at the proper time. So it is very practical, but it’s also things like, We all agree that we’re going to be loyal to the king. And we all agree that our loyalty to God is going to be our ultimate goal.

    And of course, if you think about the fact that a lot of the Vikings were probably newly converted Christians, or hadn’t been Christians very long, even just getting them to agree to an explicitly Christian form of law was quite an achievement and an important source of unity.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Had Cnut himself been converted by that point?

    Eleanor Parker: We don’t know exactly. He might have been a Christian from childhood, but he certainly lived an incredibly violent life out to the point where he became King of England, though he was only about eighteen or something at the time he became king. So he was quite young. He’d only really ever experienced warfare. He had no experience of ruling or being a king or the responsibilities of kingship. So a lot of that he had to learn, and probably Wulfstan was one of the most significant people in shaping him into a king. And he did become a much admired king then: someone who was for centuries afterwards renowned for the justice of his laws, the laws which Wulfstan had helped him to write.

    Peter Mommsen: But one of the backgrounds for us doing a special issue on apocalypse is that many people, again, as people have repeatedly throughout history, feel that things are ending in a certain way. You have climate change, you have widespread reluctance that you can see in surveys for people to have kids. You have the war in Ukraine right now, which kind of re-ups a whole bunch of issues that people had thought put to bed from the Cold War, including the real prospect of nuclear war. And on a more conservative front, you have people seeing the demise of a Christian inflected society reflected both in law and in family life. So a lot of big questions.

    What were the takeaways for you and from this episode with Wulfstan, the Archbishop of York, but perhaps also some of the other medieval episodes where people thought the end of the world might be coming for now? Because I think a lot of your work has had to do with helping people see the medieval era, not as these strange people with unenlightened views, but maybe getting into their heads a bit and perhaps even learning something from them.

    Eleanor Parker: The thing that I really admire about Wulfstan’s sermon is that it’s not hopeless. It’s not despairing. It’s not saying, “Well, the world is ending and we’ve all sinned and we’ve all earned this, that’s it. We deserve it. Let’s just all let the world go up in flames.” That’s not how he talked. He’s still thinking about things that you can do, even if you feel like the apocalypse is only a couple of decades away. It’s like there are still things that matter and still things that are worth doing, even though they don’t stave off the apocalypse. They aren’t going to keep the darkness away, but they are still valuable and worthwhile and still important because they’re right in themselves, as he sees it. Observing these duties to God and to other people, it’s the right thing to do.

    And also it can kind of do some good in the meantime, because if you want to reconstruct a society, even with the sense that maybe it’s not going to last very long, maybe the apocalypse is still not very far away, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter what you do in the meantime.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The motivation for doing good, even if the world’s about to end, is the good you do won’t be lost, and there is another world that will be … The end of the world is not the end, in the Christian view. And it’s just interesting to realize the way that that kind of firm belief in there being new Heavens and the new Earth, actually in a way, allows you to live well on this Earth. Because even if it’s true that the apocalypse is about to happen, you can still act as though you’re building for the long term, because you know that what you build won’t be lost.

    Eleanor Parker: And that maybe in fact, you work harder for the present world, because you feel like you don’t give into despair and hopelessness and you don’t just say, “Well, nothing matters.” They still feel like the world matters very much because the things that you do here might affect eternity, might echo in eternity.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Was Wulfstan calling those people back to values that they had left behind? Or was he saying, “No, this is Christian. This is Christianity that this is a new thing that you need to commit yourselves to now”?

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. So it’s interesting because particularly at this period, you’ve got this period in Anglo-Saxon history, you’ve got a kind of mixed population. On the one hand Anglo-Saxons England have been Christian for many centuries. And particularly from Wulfstan’s point of view, the tenth century had been a high point of English Christianity. So there was a period in the second or around the middle of the tenth century when the king and the church were working in quite close harmony together. This is a period it’s often called the Benedictine reform. It was a time of revival in monastic life in England and Wulfstan and his contemporaries in the beginning of the 11th century, looked back a couple of decades ago and they said, “Things were better then. And then the Vikings came and made everything worse. Can we get back to that?”

    So that’s part of it, but then at the same time, you’ve got a population of more recent Viking immigrants or Scandinavian immigrants who are much more recently Christianized for whom Christianity and all the ways of living a Christian life are newer and need to be introduced from first principles. And one of the things that you can see Wulfstan doing, not so much in this sermon, but in some of his other sermons is trying to negotiate that mixed population – like, what can you ask of the Danes living in England? Should they maybe just be allowed to make their own laws, or should they be asked to be subject to the same laws as the English Christian population of whom you can hold them to a higher standard? So it’s quite a difficult situation in some ways.

    Susannah Black Roberts: What conclusions did he come to with that? Did he aim at a unified law, and on what basis? Did he hope to thoroughly Christianize the Danes or was it a natural law, lowest-common-denominator-but-good, thing?

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah, I think what he hoped by the time of the reign of Cnut was to have the Danes at least theoretically admitting to one law that you have to have. One kingdom needs one law, but that also there might be aspects on which they can be allowed to have their own law that may be smaller local disputes or things like that could be settled in a local way.

    Because obviously if you’re thinking about law in a society like Anglo-Saxon England, a lot of it’s being decided at the very local level anyway. So how much oversight the king and his advisors have over is the . . . so there’s some room for flexibility in allowing the Danes to follow their own customs.

    But the more serious the subject, the more you want them to be conforming to Christian law. And certainly whatever kind of law they practice as he sees it ought to be Christian. It shouldn’t be a heathen kind of law. He tries to outlaw heathen practices, and outlawing them, that is part of what he thinks the law should be able to do, stopping people sacrificing to patron gods and things like that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Can you talk about the concept of getreowþ? Can you talk about that as a kind of basis for public life or for personal conduct?

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. It kind of links together things that we don’t necessarily connect, I think, because it’s about truth in the broadest sense. So its personal integrity and individuals’ obligations to the people to whom they owe loyalty. So whether that’s your parents or your spouse or your children, or wider members of your kin group, it’s that sense of your integrity. But also loyalty within a society between different social groups. So that might be between a lord and his followers or between the king and his people. And then of course also the truth that everybody, all Christians, owe to God who is the ultimate source of truth. So it’s like all of those things are connected with each other and all of it is part of truth. And a break in one aspect of that web is kind of a threat to all of the peace and security of every other obligation, I suppose.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s interesting to see that there’s a hangover of that meaning in the idea of pledging your troth.

    Eleanor Parker: Exactly. And so things like observing marriage vows are as much a part of it as observing your legal duties, because it’s about being a fully truth-filled individual in every aspect of your life.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s a Christian culture and a pagan culture attempting to live side by side and be a polity together in some way. And it’s very hard not to see that as something like what’s going on now. In your work, how do you make use of those ideas? Do those ideas come up for you? And how do you negotiate not being too charmed by them while still maybe allowing yourself to think about them?

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. I don’t know. I guess the question is, if we think about what is going on in British and American society in terms of a culture war, what is it people are actually at war over? And I think one of the things that Wulfstan really emphasizes is the importance of having things that you can agree on in a society, even if you don’t agree on everything. There have to be shared values. And I feel like one of the challenges of what’s become culture war discourse is the fact that people don’t agree on anything. They can’t find common ground anywhere. And that there’s almost like a desire to avoid finding common ground, like a resistance to finding any place where OK, we can agree on this much, even if we don’t agree on everything.

    So I think that emphasis on trying to find unity in, for instance, trying to bring the English and the Danes together and trying to agree on at least we’ll have one king or we’ll have one law or something. We’ll have one thing in common, even if we don’t conform our lives to each other in every other aspect. It’s the opposite of a culture war, I suppose.

    Peter Mommsen: Of course the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in which Wulfstan was working as Bishop was in its last decades at the time he made his sermon. Of course he died before 1066. But how does that make us look back at this period differently? How much of his England survived into what became English history later?

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah, it cast an interesting shadow back over his time, I suppose, that we know the Anglo-Saxon state wasn’t going to last much longer. But actually quite a lot of the legal culture that Wulfstan and his contemporaries and the people that he worked with created did actually survive the Norman Conquest. It was one of the things that survived because the Norman Kings were aware that Cnut had been a previous conqueror of England not that long ago. It was only just out of living memory. And so they actually did follow that precedent of trying to make law a sort of unifying force. And they ostentatiously followed the law of Cnut and said, “We’re going to follow Cnut’s laws,” which was Wulfstan’s law. And so aspects of that law continued after the conquest. So of all the many things about Anglo-Saxon England that died as a result of the Norman Conquest, actually Wulfstan’s legacy and his preaching and his laws didn’t. They did survive, which is sort of nice. It wasn’t the end of his world in that sense.

    Peter Mommsen: That’s amazing.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Can you talk about what the character of that law was? In what way would it have been different from the law that prevailed among the Vikings in their homeland or that they would’ve preferred?

    Eleanor Parker: I suppose the difference to a Viking law was that it was absolutely Christian, so that the observation of things that we would consider to be more like private, I guess, church oriented Christian practices, were part of national law. So things like the observance of Feast Days, paying tithes to the church on particular days, observance of fasting, support for the church and priests and monasteries and so on like that. It’s written into the law itself.

    I mean, we started off talking about the importance of feast days and the very fact that you can lay down like Wulfstan does in this law, This is the day on which everyone will be fasting. We’re all going to keep eighteenth of March as the Feast of Saint Edward or something. Obviously Viking law didn’t have Christian feasts. So that aspect of trying to associate that with the other aspects of law, like punishment for theft or whatever it might be, suggests that all of those things are integrated and for Wulfstan, that’s really important: that sense that church law is not optional. It’s not a private matter. It’s something that’s a matter for all of society.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, obviously our stereotype of what this kind of thing would’ve been about was that it was bringing of something what we might think of as Christian gentleness into Viking culture. Is there any truth to that from a legal perspective?

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. In one sense a lot of it is kind of about trying to prevent people taking the law into their own hands, I suppose. So trying to prevent, say, the feuds that are quite common in pre-Christian Viking culture, where essentially punishment for a crime is up to the family of the victim and they are entitled to take the punishment as whatever they want. So part of these law codes is about almost like taking that personal element out of it and saying, if a wrong is done to a member of your family, you’re not failing in your duty to your family, if you agree for money to be paid rather than for violent revenge to be taken. So that’s part of it. I think it’s trying to give a more Christian structure to things like settling disputes and wrongs rather than just allowing people to do it as seems best to them.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, this has been wonderful.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thank you very much.

    Eleanor Parker: Great. Thanks very much. Nice to talk to you both.

    Section 3: Owen Cyclops: His Story

    Susannah Black Roberts: So welcome to Owen Cyclops, which is not his real name. He is a Christian illustrator living in the woods with his dog and his wife and his baby. You may know him from Twitter, which is definitely where I first ran into him and which is probably the best place to hunt him down. He’s also got a new book out called Channel One, which I actually got for my then-fiancè, now husband for Christmas, and which I cannot recommend enough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: One of the reasons that you’re on here is that you have a piece in our new “Apocalypse” Issue. I’d been wanting to get you to do some kind of cartoon for us for a while. And the apocalypse is, it seems like, really kind of a perfect intro to Owen for our readers and perfect topic for you. And you also focused pretty strongly on the American aspect of it, which is one of your recent kind of more intense interests, like the history of American Christianity and how America puts its own spin or its own energy behind the more universal Christian teachings. Do you want to talk about that?

    Owen Cyclops: So I became Christian, like I said, a while ago now and when I first entered that world, I thought, “Okay, which group do I sign up with?” I guess I have to sign up with a group or something. And it’s kind of funny: if you imagine someone like me having grown up not Christian, and also in a place and environment where that would be a very weird path for my life to take. I had all these questions that were now suddenly very important, but who do I ask, because everyone has their own view. Is the Pope the person I’m supposed to be listening to? Or do I join this Lutheran church down the street? What is that about actually?

    So because of that, it necessitated me basically going through all of Christian history and building up my understanding of that story as a whole. I realized I had the biggest gap in America, the 1800s, basically from the Reformation and Pilgrims leaving, to Pentecostals and 1900s American Christianity.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Have you come to any tentative conclusions? Are you still in seeker mode or research mode for that?

    Owen Cyclops: I wouldn’t say I’ve drawn any conclusions, but I have learned a lot. It’s definitely illuminated a lot for me about America. The American character is sort of unique. I guess every country has its own unique character, how the histories played out. And then my own spiritual inclinations.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Can you just describe your conversion or how you got to the Christian thing and from where?

    Owen Cyclops: I was raised not religious. My parents never talked about God or anything like that. I had the normal conception of religion just being superstition. And when I went to college I got really depressed. And for some reason I had this instinct of there are all these old books around. People must be keeping them around for some reason. I’m going to find the oldest book I can and read it and just see what it says. And I think I actually took my computer out and just Googled, “What is the oldest book?”

    And it came up as the Tao Te Ching which is a book of Chinese philosophy and I read it and I thought, “Wow I thought religion was like extra stupid, but actually it’s this whole other way of peering into this aspect of life that I never realized.” And I realized that I had been misled about what religion is in general. And then after that, I pretty much only read religious texts probably for the rest of my life.

    Long story short, I got really into Buddhism and doing psychedelics. I was pretty much the platonic ideal of the nerdy white guy doing acid and mushrooms as part of his spiritual life and having a relationship to Eastern religion. If that’s an archetype that was me a thousand percent. I started drifting away from Buddhism for a variety of reasons. Mostly it wasn’t really anything about it being incorrect. I started asking questions that in my opinion Buddhism isn’t focused around. Those two things mostly being, where did the universe come from? Who made the universe? That kind of thing. And why does evil exist? The classic theological questions. Actually in Buddhism, there’s a list of things called the four imponderables. It’s four things that Buddha said, basically, Don’t think about this. It’s not going to help you get enlightened. And where the universe came from is one of them.

    So I started getting obsessed with these questions and my boat started drifting further and further away from that island. And then eventually, I couldn’t see the island anymore. So I was like, “Okay, now I’m out here by myself.”

    And I thought, “I really need some outside force to help me and guide my life.” I thought that I could drive this car myself, but I really can’t. I was actually sitting on my bed and I laid out everything I thought. And I was like, “Wow, that’s really close to Christianity, what I’m describing.” Even God having some way of interacting with the world because he cares about humans. And it really kind of weirded me out.

    And that was like the seed planted that eventually grew into me identifying with it and saying, “Yeah, this is actually my spiritual path. I think this is real.” That’s the shortest possible version of that tale.

    Peter Mommsen: That’s fascinating.

    Susannah Black Roberts: There was a lifestyle aspect to this. It sounds like the wife and dog and baby and woods-adjacent town thing kind of happened pretty fast after you. . . . There was a certain amount of massive life readjustment that happened alongside this.

    Owen Cyclops: It was basically everything at once. I mean I was a very, frankly, drug oriented person, drinking, smoking weed, doing psychedelics and all that. I really bottomed out with that. I fell out of the world socially where I was living, which was, this is relevant, in New York City.

    So I had fallen out of that culture, is how I would describe it. I suddenly realized I was kind of the black sheep all of a sudden for a variety of reasons that you could imagine that go along with all this. And yeah, she and I basically both hit the same wall at the same time and we packed up everything in a van and moved out here.

    Section 4: Owen Cyclops: American Apocalypse

    Peter Mommsen: I’d be fascinated to talk, Owen, a little about the comic you did for us about America, titled “American Apocalypse.” And it is short, right? It’s two pages, but it’s so open-ended and evocative and leaves you with a sense – I remember getting to the end of it and going outside and looking at the sky and saying, “Hey, any day now.” You mention how apocalyptic ideas, what a big role they’ve played in US history, the long range of very screwy, sometimes disturbing, sometimes downright evil groups that have played with apocalyptic themes.

    And yet what’s great about the comic is the idea of something from the outside coming to change everything isn’t written off, right? There’s something to it, right? So would you be able to talk a little bit about that the American tradition of apocalypse, and the good sides of it, and the bad sides?

    Owen Cyclops: I got this quote from someone. I think it was William James . And he said, “You can learn something about the normal, let’s say just speaking casually, sort of like the norm, what’s in the middle of the bell curve in religion by going to the fringes and seeing the fringes and the tendencies on the fringes.” And that’s been part of my study of American religion: going to the frankly way more atypical or weirder groups and noticing organically – I didn’t go in with this presupposition – that it kind of does reflect something back onto the whole in good or bad ways. Could be pathological, could be really positive. Usually it’s a mix of those things together probably for every group, myself included.

    It’s almost like if you took some of the ideas that were present in the Reformation and just slammed it to 200 miles an hour. It kind of makes sense that America got to certain places. You have a group together and you’re like, “Well, we can communicate with God directly. We don’t need the church. We don’t need these priests. We don’t need all this stuff.”

    And then eventually you get some guy in the room who’s like, “Well, why do we even need the Bible? If we can just talk to God directly we don’t even need scripture or anything.” And then everyone else is like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Pump the breaks, buddy.” But taking a premise and it accelerating maybe a little bit too far for some people, let’s say, is part of what I find really interesting about it.

    Now we have this new continent open and people are free, in my opinion, almost for the first time, really in a way to do what they want and think what they want, again, whether that’s good or bad.

    So anyway, that all comes together with the Apocalypse, because it’s this imminent sense of urgency. Where are we going? What are we doing? American spirituality often does look down the road towards this: Okay, but if Jesus is coming back, shouldn’t we be ready for it? It’s really going to happen.

    I also just think that, because I realized that’s where I started answering that question is that it also relates to the American psyche for me in a way. I touched on it in the comic for a second. But there also is something about the American spirit that, whether it’s real or not, feels like it just broke free of these chains. And I think that contributes to the wild energy that’s present in it, kind of a paranoia, like maybe the chains are going to come back and then that paranoia bleeds out into revelation, prophecy. There’s a whole history of people having visions to a pretty crazy extent. I mean like almost normalized, like, “Hey, did you go to church on Sunday? Did you have a vision or something?” Like, “Yeah, I did. Let me tell you about it.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: How do you think about the contrast between the universal nature of the Christian message – Obviously Jesus is for everyone, the gospel is the same everywhere – but it’s inflected. How do you understand Christianity in the context of thinking about it in these more culturally specific terms?

    Owen Cyclops: Yeah. It’s only something that vexes me literally every moment of my life. Literally, no exaggeration. It’s so interesting because you pick up the Bible and you say, “Okay, well I’m just going to read this. I mean, I’ll just see what it says.” But for me then suddenly you’re a thousand miles down the road in weird academic philosophy world because that inherently entails the historical lens that you’re interpreting it through. Also, what do these words even mean? And also when this person wrote them, what did they mean by them? Do I need to become a scholar of the time and place this was written to understand this?

    Well, no, that can’t be the case. And then what if I do that and then scholarship conflicts with what everyone else thinks the message is? And surely God didn’t want everyone to get a PhD in every time and place that the Bible was written in to understand this very simple message right?

    Someone might say, “Well, you actually can’t even pick this up and interpret it yourself because that’s not how it’s supposed to be. Jesus didn’t write the Bible. He left you a church. You’re supposed to go to the church and the church can tell you what it means.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: So, you are baptized at this point, yeah?

    Owen Cyclops: Actually very unpopular with the listeners, probably. I’m actually not baptized.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Owen.

    Owen Cyclops: Yeah, I know. Well, it’s interesting because the thing is that honestly, some people don’t know me here, obviously, maybe most people. So this has actually been a very big obsession of mine because I’ve thought about going down the street to some Baptist church or whatever, and just doing it one weekend. But I feel bad because I’m not a part of that church. So everything I’m talking about isn’t theoretical. That’s also part of why it’s interesting. Sometimes when I talk about this with people, it’s on a very theoretical plane, but I’m like, “No, I actually need to figure out where I’m taking my baby to church this weekend, right now.”

    So it’s been interesting because, no, I haven’t gotten baptized. My wife and I have talked about it, but I’m kind of floating in this place where I’ve been wondering, do I have to just pull the trigger and if there’s a group where I don’t agree with them 100 percent about literally everything, does that really matter? I guess not because obviously we’re here to worship God. Isn’t that kind of weird and obsessive to try and find the perfect group that thinks everything I do about everything? And who am I? I’m just some guy.

    But then the flip side of the coin is, so do I just arbitrarily drive to the church closest to me? I guess. So it’s been a very interesting part of my spiritual journey and the baby has accelerated it into the realm of like, now this is an imminent question of where I’m taking my family to get spiritual direction and things like that. And I can cut it both ways. Some days I wake up and I’m like, “This is really stupid. I should just go join a church. This is literally insane.” And then other days I’m like, “But if I really don’t agree with them about X, Y, and Z then aren’t I just planning the seed of doubt for later?” What’s the story?

    I was going over some really, really early Christian stuff with the Arian controversies, like way in the first centuries and everything. And I found some letter or something where, I didn’t know we were going to talk about this so I didn’t pull it up. But I think it was some bishop in Egypt writing to some other bishop who was really pumping, like cracking down on Arianism stuff. And it was interesting because the guy was presenting it as the bishop was saying, “Look, you don’t need to be doing this and making sure that everyone thinks doctrinally the right X, Y, and Z way. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. And you should just drop this whole thing.”

    And it was so interesting because he’s not just some random guy. But it’s interesting because it raises the question of, “Well, does everyone agree with literally every single thing for every church they go to? And what does that mean? And who has the authority to tell you what to believe?” And then that ropes back into the whole American thing of, “No one’s going to tell me what to do.” So it’s a crazy, interesting topic. It’s really fascinating on every level, all the way from the bottom, all the way up to the top.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I just hope you keep posting about how you’re thinking about this because I just enjoy the way that your mind works. And also it’s going to be annoying for you to post about what you think about this because all of your followers are going to be trying to recruit you for their denominations. And so I don’t know, just keep doing it anyway. At some point, I don’t know where exactly you are, but I think you would get a kick out of visiting one of the Bruderhof communities. The Bruderhof is the group that publishes Plough, which I am very much not a member of, although I’m very much a fan and adjacent to. So it’s an Anabaptist group and they do the whole “holding all things in common” thing. So they’re like full Acts 2 and 4, living like the early Christians.

    Owen Cyclops: That’s funny because when you first contacted me about Plough, I was like, “I thought this was an Anabaptist magazine.” But I was looking at the site and I was like, “Is it?” I was like, “I can’t tell.” And then I was like, “All right, whatever.”

    Peter Mommsen: Oh, oh, OK. So obviously we got to go more Anabaptist here. So I am a member of that community, the Bruderhof, and we do try to share all things in common, toothbrushes excluded. And yet the one reason that Plough is not just all Anabaptist all the time is we’re aware that we’re part of a greater body of Christ and we feel it’s important, maybe more important because of this whole church shopping phenomenon – you mentioned this consumerist approach to Christianity, which so much goes against what the Holy Spirit was starting at the first Pentecost It’s maybe more important than ever to find common ground and emphasize points of unity than ever. And that’s what we need to do: we need to encourage each other that there’s real flesh and blood reality to living out our Christianity. There’re places you can see it. And it’s not that the doctrinal differences don’t matter. They do, but from an Anabaptist point of view, they matter a lot less than how we’re living our lives as brothers and sisters, trying to follow Jesus, trying to do what he says in the Sermon on the Mount. And so that’s really where Plough comes from, which is why Susannah and I can have our Anabaptist-Anglican fights from time to time on this podcast.

    Owen Cyclops: Yeah, well, it’s so interesting, the community thing.  90+ percent of my life, my religion was just something I did in my room alone with some books. Literally, no exaggeration.

    So the idea of other people being involved in my spiritual life and having a community is really interesting and strange. I’ve come around to seeing why it’s essential, obviously, over time. But for me spirituality and being alone were tethered together intimately for essentially all of my spiritual life. If someone asked me, “What’s your spiritual life?” I’d say, “Well, there’s my bedroom and I read stuff in there alone. That’s basically it.”

    Peter Mommsen: Right. And Christianity explodes that doesn’t it? Because you have this community of saints and then you have to start dealing with them.

    Owen Cyclops: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, thanks a lot, Owen, this has been a really great conversation. And if you’re ever up in New York State and want to come and see some Anabaptists, you’d be very welcome.

    Owen Cyclops: Yeah. I should do that, man. On my end, if anyone’s interested in checking out my stuff, what I do, Twitter is the main hub. It’s @Owenbroadcast. I’m on other platforms also like Instagram, Tumblr. I’m on pretty much every platform. Just getting my stuff out there. It’s all @Owenbroadcast. I have my website, And yeah, I just released a book in December. It’s called Channel One. It’s on Amazon. If you came this far, I would suspect that you would find it enjoyable in some way.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts and for a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You could also subscribe. $32 a year will get you the print magazine or for $99 a year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits from free books to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: Join us next week, as we talk with the author and demographer Lyman Stone about demography, hope, babies and the end of the world.

    Contributed By EleanorParker Eleanor Parker

    Eleanor Parker teaches medieval literature at Brasenose College, Oxford.

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    Contributed By OwenCyclops Owen Cyclops

    Owen Cyclops is a comic artist and illustrator living in New York State who focuses on history and religion.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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