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steve tomkins
crows nest
By Stephen Tomkins
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By their fruitcake ye shall know them
October 2000

Crow's Nest is fortunate to have news this month on the latest whereabouts of the prophet Elijah. Last seen massacring the prophets of Baal in an Old-Testament-style inter-faith conference on Mount Carmel and ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire, the prophet made a brief and more seemly reappearance on another mountain in the Gospels. Since then he has been relatively quiet.

Now, though, the Times-Colonist newspaper of Victoria, British Columbia, has tracked Elijah down to an apartment on Oak Bay Avenue, Victoria. He has apparently been reincarnated in accordance with the closing prophecy of the Old Testament: "Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes."

Born in Winnipeg under the name of Clifford Hitchon, our hero had already practised the prophetic arts before he realized exactly who he was. He changed his name to Starbuck for reasons that are not entirely clear, but presumably inspired by the hero of late 70s Star Wars clone Battlestar Galactica. In this capacity he predicted the coming of a Shining Face, and sure enough one famously appeared in a forkful of pasta on a billboard advertisement in San Diego.

"It was the fulfilment of a prophecy," the prophet tells the Times-Colonist. "I spoke many times on the street before the story of the billboard appeared in the papers. That makes it the fulfilment of a prophecy, making it a holy thing and therefore an act of God."

From there, it was just a short step to realizing that in him Elijah lives again. The full details of this revelation are published in The Book of Starbuck, but no one up here in the Nest has managed to get hold of a copy yet.

At 50, Starbuck/Elijah/Clifford shares a flat with his only known disciple. According to the newspaper, the walls are "laden with newspaper clippings and tight, cramped writing and arrows drawn to link related passages. All of it, Starbuck says, contains information that demonstrates his identity" (if you saw the movie Seven, you should be getting scared at this point).

Asked for proof of his identity, our man uses a system of his own devising based on numerology, musical divination and evangelical text-crunching – which he calls, without any apparent irony, "sound wisdom". The latest evidence is his gold tooth. Shunning anything so passé as Toronto-style supernatural fillings, the prophet has had one of his teeth filled with gold after extraction and mounted on a silver leaf. This, he and his latter-day Elisha explain, proves his identity beyond any question of a doubt, for those who truly understand sound wisdom. It is a system of proof, I think, that leaves plenty of room for faith.

And there you have it. What are we to make of such a claim? It's by no means an original one. It's a perennial hobby of the more excitable wing of the church to run after Elijah wannabes, despite the fact that Jesus himself seemed to settle the question by indicating that John the Baptist was the man.

I would imagine you're not wholly convinced by Mr Starbuck's claims, and find them risible – why else would I bother repeating them? – even pitiable. But why? Where is our man going wrong? Claims to be re-embodied Old Testament heroes are notoriously difficult to disprove. As are all reincarnations, which presumably is why people who go in for them seem invariably to have been Cleopatra or King Arthur or at least a Roman noblewoman, when statistically almost everyone must have been peasants.

But aren't Christian beliefs about the afterlife equally immune from proof? As are the pretty hard-to-swallow claims made about the activities of the original Elijah. How long are we to wait till scientists prove the existence of heaven, or historians confirm that Elijah did indeed make axeheads float, called down fire from heaven and was waited on by ravens?

In fact, the same goes for just about all religious beliefs. The Trinity, the deity of Christ, salvation, the resurrection, the sinfulness of Sunday trading. This stuff simply inhabits a different universe from proof and disproof. We religious types put our trust in "authority" rather than proof. We accept the resurrection, because we're told to by the Bible, and the Trinity because we're told to by the Church. In these authorities we have been persuaded to put our trust, just as Mr Starbuck's smaller following has decided to put its trust in him.

So what exactly separates us sensible believers from the fruitcakes (of which Mr Starbuck may or may not be one)? The claims of Christianity are not, from a crow's eye view, intrinsically obvious or credible. Jesus may have been a man accredited to us by signs and wonders, but such credit doesn't get us very far unless we already trust the Bible's account of them. Our spiritual experience may substantiate the claims of our Church, but Starbuck's disciple says the same: "My life was without meaning until I met Starbuck. This is the way of the Lord."

Christianity does have numbers on its side – numbers such as 2 billion, compared to Starbuck's two. And yet we started off in AD30 as an unprepossessing roomful of fishermen and social rejects, followers of yet another failed (and more to the point) dead would-be Messiah. It is in fact time more than anything that has given mainstream Christianity credibility, and raised it from the Starbuck level. Two thousand years of survival and growth are something you have to take seriously.

I can't imagine that Elijah II's "sound wisdom" will be around that long, but then to be honest I probably would have thought the same of the apostles. Time will tell, though it won't tell anything much to the late you and me. But then again, Starbuck reckons to be ushering in the great and terrible day of the Lord, so presumably he doesn't expect his minimalist sect to be around that long either. If we scoffers are wrong about him, the one consolation will be we won't have to wait long to find out after all.
 
also see
hubris 2
Mark Howe's regular rant about Internet culture
strangely warmed
Andrew Rumsey's regular column about the religious life
loose canons
Stephen Tomkins' regular round-up of the saints of yore who were one wafer short of a full communion
   
 
 
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