The Return of the Revenge of the Mahdi

As noted above, this blog deals with “culture, geopolitics and religion.” But its main focus, as often as possible, is meant to be Islamic eschatology–particularly Mahdism. Unfortunately, aspiring Mahdis have been few and far between in the last few years. But that drought has ended! Last Friday, during the khutbah at the Grand Mosque of Mecca, “an armed man, in his 40s, was detained after attempting to attack the Imam [prayer leader/preacher].” Said attacker was “a Saudi man claiming to be the awaited Mahdi, local media reported.” (Source: “Mecca Grand Mosque Pulpit Attacker Claims to be Awaited ‘Mahdi.”)

Who was that veiled man?

The story ran in Gulf News, a UAE outlet. So you’d think they could get the Islamic background on the Mahdi–the primary Muslim End Times actor, predicted in both Sunni and Shii hadiths–correct. Not exactly. The article says “the anticipated Mahdi is the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will rule for seven, nine or nineteen years…before the Day of Judgment and will rid of the world of evil.” Actually, according to the hadiths and Islamic scholars, the Mahdi doesn’t “redeem” anything. Islam in fact has no concept of a “redeemer,” as Jesus Christ is in Christianity. The Mahdi will conquer the world and impose a global caliphate that enforces Islamic law. Most of his evil-ridding will consist of forcing Jews and Christians to convert to Islam–while polytheists and atheists will be eliminated.

Tawfiq Nasrallah, the story’s writer, does also provide a brief recap of the 1979 “siege of Mecca,” when several hundred armed followers of Juhayman al-Utabyi, threatened Saudi rule. But Nasrallah gets several facts wrong. al-Utabyi did not claim to be the Mahdi; rather, he claimed that his brother-in-law, Muhammad al-Qahtani, was. The Mahdist militants did not take over the Kaabah compound, but the Grand Mosque. And he neglects to mention that the “special forces” who eventually ended the occupation were in fact French.

Strategically, this article fails to note that between 1979 and 2021 there were a number of other attempted Mahdist usurpations in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There were several in 2011, also in Mecca; and at least one in Madina. In fact, there may have been as many as nine such disturbances, if not more. (See my book Ten Years Captivation with the Mahdis’ Camps, pp. 169-174).

Mahdism is not just, or even primarily, a phenomenon of (Twelver) Shiism. As I’ve been writing about since 2001 (starting with my doctoral dissertation on topic that year), most Mahdist jihads across space and time have been Sunni ones. The fact that staunchly Sunni Saudi Arabia sees such phenomena should demonstrate that.

By the way: the title of this post is a take-off on a great episode from one of my favorite kids’ shows, The Penguins of Madagascar.

Finally, here’s a good five-volume Arabic source on Mahdism, which covers both Sunni and Shii sources:

Mawsuah al-Mahdi, Encyclopedia of the Mahdi (Beirut: Manshurat al-Fajr, 2005). Thinking chimp not included.

Those Who Do Not Learn History Should… Watch “The Time Tunnel”

I’m old enough to remember The Time Tunnel, which ran for one season, 1966-67, on ABC. It’s currently re-airing on MeTV, and this past Saturday night I caught an episode I’d never seen (or at least didn’t remember): #29 (the penultimate one), entitled “Raiders from Outer Space.” The stock 1960s bug-eyed aliens are not actually the most memorable aspect, however; it’s that they invaded Earth in the 1880s, and set up their main base–complete with death rays intended to obliterate London, the capital of our most powerful empire–in Sudan!

This allows the show’s time-traveling protagonists, Drs. Anthony Newman and Douglas Phillips, opportunities not just to fight aliens but the Sudanese Mahdists, and our heroes wind up in besieged Khartoum. Battle footage from the 1955 film Storm Over the Nile is mixed with shots of Tony and Doug helping the Brits fend off the Mahdi’s minions.

Yes, I was watching this at 408 AM. Don’t ask…. And the siege was 1884-85, not 1883.
That appears to be the Ottoman flag over Khartoum’s main gate.
The Mahdist flag–which is quite accurate.
Beware Mahdists bearing artillery.
Don’t fire till you see the whites of their jalabiyas! Doctors’ orders!
Doug is always sporting a tie–even when fighting off an inexplicably white Sudanese Mahdist.

Sure, this episode had British officers with American accents, melanin-deprived Sudanese, and alien invaders almost as stupid as those ones in Signs (who were allergic to water, yet tried to take over a planet 70% comprised of the stuff–while naked). But it was great fun. At least for academics who have studied Mahdist Sudan.

And The Time Tunnel, for all of its 1960s-era cheesiness, did at least assume a historically literate audience. Its 30 episodes included ones dealing with the War of 1812, the Trojan War, the Reign of Terror, Kipling’s Afghanistan, the Magna Carta, the Israelite siege of Jericho, Cortes in Mexico, the First Barbary War, Kublai Khan, Arthur’s Merlin, and of course Khartoum. Could a TV show like that even make it past the pitch stage today? I doubt it.

Now I feel an urge to rewatch Chuck Heston take on the Mahdi….

White Supremacist Threats, Real and Imagined

Last week (May 3-7, 2021), I once again played maven on two topics: President Biden’s claim that “white supremacist terrorism” is the greatest such threat to America; and the danger posed to American and the world by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s weaponized belief in the Twelfth Imam of Shiism.

On May 4 my article “White Supremacists Our Most Dangerous Threat? A Whiter Shade of Tall Tale” ran over at The Stream. (Yes, that title includes my lame attempt at a Procol Harum reference.) On May 7 my interview covering the 12th Imam and Iran on “Expedition Truth” radio posted. (Due to some technical glitches, I don’t come on till about 10″ into the show.)

Insofar as Iranians are white–and they most certainly are–then a claimant to the mantle of the putative 12th Imam al-Mahdi, should he ever shake loose the occultation coil, would pose a true threat to America and the entire world’s population of Christians, Jews and all non-Shii Muslims. But even sans his presence the IRI, as the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, one also seeking nuclear weapons, represents a far greater danger to America than Trump supporters–even ones that broke into Nancy Pelosi’s office. Beware folks sporting turbans far more than those in MAGA hats–or even buffalo-horn headgear.

Listen to my interview, and read my article; then decide for yourself which white supremacist threat is real, and which is imagined.

Jamkaran Mosque, Qom, Iran–from my trip there, 2008.

Great Power Competition, Real and Imagined

A few weeks ago Norwich University was kind enough to publish, on its “Voices on Peace and War” blog, my piece “Grand Strategy Ottoman: Providing Valuable COIN Lessons to America.” (Special thanks to LTC Yangmo Ku, PhD, for arranging this.) Therein I draw upon my latest book, The COIN of the Islamic Realm: Insurgencies & the Ottoman Empire, 1416-1916, for examples of how the Turkish empire waged counter-insurgency in its domains while also often navigating Great Power competition with, for example, the Safavid and, later, British empires.

In a similar vein, although admittedly more speculatively, about this time last year I published an article entitled “How Middle-earth Can Help Us Deal with the Middle Kingdom.” In it I looked at the grand strategy of the leaders of the West in The Lord of the Rings in terms of how they eventually defeated Sauron’s bid for conquest of Middle-earth–and whether that provides any guidance as to how the West should deal with the rising power of Communist China.

We can probably learn more from the Ottoman Empire than from Gondor–but why not take a look at both?

Ertugrul Cavalry Regiment (from Asakir-i Mansure-i Muhammidiye, Wikipedia, public domain).

Even Worse Than The Real Thing

March 29 is the (alleged) birthday of Muhammad b. Hasan “al-Mahdi,” the twelfth and final Imam of Twelver Shiism [which I write sans correct transliteration, because such causes my text here in WordPress to change font size]. He is said to have been born 870 AD/256 AH. These Imams are believed by this sect–which comprises a majority in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Azerbaijan, as well as minority pockets elsewhere–to be the rightful and Allah-ordained leaders of Islam, as descendants of Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali. After the death of the eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari (probably poisoned by the Sunni Abbasid Caliph), his son Muhammad at the age of four or five allegedly disappeared from human sight but stayed in contact with his followers for the next 37 years. In 941 AD he then went radio silent, and will not be heard from again until Allah sends him forth from this mystical occultation to lead the world–by conversion and conquest–to (Shiite) Islam.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Mehr News Agency last week ran a long story about the “Hidden Imam,” entitled “Mankind in Need of a Savior.” Since this coincided with our Western Christian Holy Week, I thought it a worthy topic of discussion.

Interior of Jamkaran Mosque, Qom, Iran–from my trip there in 2008.

Both Sunnis (the majority branch of the religion) and Shiis believe in the Mahdi, the “divinely-guided one” whom Allah will send to make the entire world Muslim. This will be done with a little help from his friend, the non-crucified and thus non-resurrected Jesus, who will have returned and revealed he was a Muslim all along. The only real difference is that the Sunnis believe he’s not yet been here and thus will emerge onto the stage of history, eventually being acknowledged, while the Shiis, as noted, think he will be the returning-from-hiddenness Muhammad, son of Hasan al-Askari. The Mahdi will combat the forces of evil (both human–particularly Christian states–and supernatural, notably the Dajjal, or “deceiver”/antichrist), take over the world in tandem with Jesus, enforce Islamic norms and laws, and eventually die. While the Iranians, and indeed many other Muslims (to include Sunnis), refer to the Mahdi as “savior,” he’s much more of a religious warlord. Any “salvation” he engenders is entirely in the military and political realm, not the spiritual or personal one.

Besides this martial element, the biggest problem with the Twelfth Imam is his total lack of historicity. There are no sources, outside an extremely small coterie of Twelver Shiis true believing ones, corroborating that Hasan al-Askari even had a son. And of course only a member of the sect could buy the story that a five year old boy would be put on ice for over a millennium. As a historian and, yes, a Christian, I think Ockham’s Razor points to the eleventh Imam dying sans progeny, with the mythology of his son being created to keep this sect of Islam alive. And in this the fiction succeeded all too well. But even if the Shii Twelfth Imam were historically verifiable–what difference would it make? He has no truly salvific power in his lifetime, and is long since dead and gone, just like all the other Imams. Or Muhammad himself, for that matter. Dead desert warlords, at best; deluded false prophets, at worst.

Contrast Muhammad, or his epigone the Mahdi (Sunni or Twelver), with the true Savior of Mankind–Jesus Christ. We know He existed, historically, for not just pious Christian sources (the Gospels, Epistles and early Fathers) but antagonistic pagan or Jewish Romans (Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus) attest to His historicity. Furthermore, He died on the Cross to expiate our sins; and His Resurrection not only proved Him right, but allows us to align our lives with His and, ultimately, to achieve eternal life. Can the Twelfth Imam do that?

No.

Yes, Iranian news outlets are entirely correct that mankind is in need of a savior. But it’s not the Mahdi. It’s the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, Crucified and Resurrected. May all Iranians, and indeed all peoples, come to that saving knowledge before it’s too late.

What Does Christ Have To Do with Muhammad?

A number of conservative and Christian outlets (such as this one) are very concerned that a prominent Church of Sweden theologian claims that “Christians can view Muhammad as a prophet.” Jakob Wirén, in To Make Room for the Other?, advises Christians to view the founder of Islam as analogous to an Old Testament prophet. (I cannot find any information about this book other than second-hand; and all the links in the afore-cited article go to Swedish sources. However, Wirén’s 2017 book Hope and Otherness: Christian Eschatology and Interreligious Hospitality seems to cover the same topic. Perhaps his new one is a more popular version this work.) Wirén is a systematic theologian at Lund University and an advisor to the Archbishop of Uppsala.

First, the Lutheran Church of Sweden is (in)famous for its extreme theological liberalism. It not only ordains women, but blesses homosexual “marriages” and ordains practicing homosexuals. That might have something to do with its membership going from 95% of Sweden’s population in 1972 to 56% in 2019–and many of those are not even practicing, or believing, Christians.

Second, this attempt to mainstream Muhammad into Christianity goes back many years, and is not new with Swedish apostates. The French Catholic scholar of Islam, Louis Massignon (d. 1962), was perhaps the 20th century’s leading proponent of such. His ideas greatly influenced the Vatican II documents such as Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate which, among other things, declared that Islam was a fellow “Abrahamic faith” and that it contained genuine, if imperfect, revelation from God. In more recent years Catholic theologian Hans Küng has argued that “if we acknowledge Muhammad as a post-Christian prophet, then to be consistent we shall also have to admit…that…his message is not simply Muhammad’s word, but God’s word” (Christianity and the World Religions, 1986, p. 31). He also contends that “perhaps…it is only dogmatic prejudice when we recognize Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, as prophets, but not Muhammad” (p. 26).

Muhammad (on camel) and Jesus (on donkey), from Muslim World Today.

Perhaps it’s because I’m trained as a historian, not a systematic theologian–but I cannot find a logical way to acknowledge the prophecy of a man whose utterances, enshrined in the Quran, deny the Trinity, condemn the Incarnation, and claim the crucifixion is a lie. Yes, I’m sure Massignon and Küng and Wirén meant well–but so what? This “can’t we all just get along?” approach still amounts to telling people what their itching ears want to hear. Either Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth and the life“–as He said about Himself–or He’s not. Muhammad taught otherwise, and granting Islam’s founder authoritative status in the Church reeks of antichrist.

I just recently finished a slim bio of the Ethiopian Christian martyr Reverend Gudina Tumsa, killed by the Communist regime there in 1979. Tumsa was the head of the Ethiopian Evangelical Chuch Mekane Yesus (EECMY) before his untimely murder. He had studied in the US and traveled to South Africa, where he met Anglican Bishop (then) Desmond Tutu. While Gudina agreed with Tutu on the horror and ungodliness of apartheid, he parted ways with him on the ecumenical movement. Reverend Gudina believed that salvation is NOT possible outside of Christianity and that the primary task of the Church is to evangelize the world. “His concept of ecumenism was based on the authority of Scripture” (Urga, p. 46).

African Christianity in general is growing by leaps and bounds. Even a decade ago 1/4 of the world’s Christians lived in Africa–the percentage here in 2021 is undoubtedly higher. Five of the world’s ten largest Lutheran bodies are found in Africa or Asia. The Ethiopian church is the world’s largest, followed by the one in Tanzania. Also in the top ten are Lutheran churches in Indonesia, India and Madagascar. One might well speculate that Africans’ adherence to orthodox Christianity has something to do with this. The EECMY, for example, broke with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) back in 2013 over its support for abortion and homosexuality. Now the Ethiopian Lutherans are affiliated with my own denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod–which so far still takes I Corinthians 6:9, 10 seriously. And refuses to heed the Quran.

Bring Me the Head, of Anyone Who Insults the Peaceful Quran, on a Platter!

Although I have not blogged since December 2020, rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. I’ve just been busier than a one-armed suicide bomber. I taught a month-long intensive, online world history course over Christmas. And I’ve published seven articles over at The Stream in the interim. Then spring term began. But enough excuses! Once more unto the blogging breach!

And what better topic than an ideological, and legal, spat over the Quran? According to The Indian Express (March 14, 2021), “PIL by Shia board’s former chief on Quran draws massive backlash.” One Wasim Rizvi filed Public Interest Litigation (akin to a class action suit, it seems) “seeking the removal of 26 verses from the Quran that he alleged promote terrorism and jihad.” The reaction was swift–and brutal. Sunni and Shia clerics in Uttar Pradesh condemned Rizvi for “insulting the Quran” and “hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims.” The General Secretary of the Indian Ulama’s Assembly slammed him as a “Yazidi.” Not to be outdone, the head of an Islamic Welfare Association, Hasnain Jaffrey, literally put a bounty of 20,000 on Rizvi’s head. “Whoever will bring the head of Wasim Rizvi, I will reward them” with 20,000 Indian rupees. Refusing to totally lose his head, a Kashmiri BJP (ruling Hindu nationalist party) politician merely filed a criminal complaint against Rizvi for “spreading hatred.” This FIR (FIrst Information Report) states that “the Quran teaches us peace, not violence” and that “any kind of blasphemous act against the Holy Quran is intolerable to humanity in general and Muslims in particular.” Yet another BJP pol called on the Indian government to “act quickly against Rizvi and arrest him for….hurting the religious sentiments of billions of Muslims across the globe,” adding that “Rizvi’s remarks are unacceptable and…Quran teaches love, brotherhood and peace, not violence.”

Ali bin Abu Taleb beheading Nasr bin al-Hareth in the presence of Mohammed and his companions

Observations:

  1. Mr. Rizvi is a brave and honest man. I will pray for him. I have long said that Shia (yes, even the Twelver brand) Islam is potentially more flexible and moderate than the majority Sunni version, because Shias are allowed to read the Quran in non-literal ways. If they can survive, that is. And the holy book of the world’s second-largest religion needs cleansing of its archaic exhortations to violence; doing so with the hadiths (Muhammad’s alleged sayings) is necessary but insufficient to defang that religion. But Rizvi is too optimistic, for there are actually some 164 jihad verses in the Quran. Still, Rizvi was willing to acknowledge the problem.
  2. Muslims constantly assert that Islam is the one, true religion. (Fair enough–we Christians make the same argument about our faith.) But many Muslims (and some non-Muslims) go much further, contending that Islam is tougher, more masculine than other religions–particularly that milksop, “loser” one whose founder was crucified. So the irony is thick enough to cut with a scimitar when Muslims prove so laughably thin-skinned and, well, downright wimpy. They get their feelings hurt–at least according to their leaders–by the very suggestion that parts of their holy book promote violence. And I’ve never understood how an inanimate collection of writings can be “insulted.” Have you ever heard of “insulting the Bible?” I think not. Seriously, Muslims: grow up and, as one of my old military buddies used to say, “grow a pair.”
  3. Remember: Allah, in the Quran, teaches “love, brotherhood and peace, not violence.” And since Wasim Rizvi implied otherwise–off with his head!
  4. Finally, I leave you with this Tweet from the Muslim World League. See if you can square it with this fracas among Indian Muslims:

Behold the White Rider!

Advent began on November 29, for those of us in Western liturgical churches. It’s the first of four Sundays before Christmas, as my Baptist/Evangelical followers might not know (I was a Southern Baptist for 23 years, so I can poke fun at them). But theologically Advent (from the Latin for “coming, arrival”) points not just to Jesus’ incarnational birth–it also looks to the Second Coming, when, as all three (Western) “ecumenical Creeds” state, “He will return to judge the living and the dead.” That is why the Gospel reading for this past Sunday was Mark 13:24-37, wherein Jesus said:

24 “But in those days, following that distress,

“‘the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

Christ makes three major points in this passage: 1) celestial disruptions will accompany His return, so even CNN won’t be able to miss it 2) less overt signs indicating His return is nigh will appear, but no one knows the exact time and date 3) be ready for it!

The White Rider of Revelation 6:2 (from Wikipedia, public domain).

The Orthodox Study Bible (p. 1351) has several interesting and helpful glosses on Christ’s words here. “This generation refers to all believers at all times (i.e., the generation of the Church), and not merely those alive at the time of Christ. Christ’s prophecy is that the Church will continue to thrive until His return, regardless of how desperate things may sometimes appear.” Also, “[t]hough Jesus declares that the Son does not know the day of His own return, St. John Chrysostom [who else?!] teaches that this is not to be understood literally, but as a figure of speech. The meaning is simply that Christ will not reveal the exact day to anyone, and that believers should not be so brazen as to inquire of Him.”

I am reminded, as well of the scene from the original Ghostbusters in which Dr. Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd) and Winston Zeddimore (Ernie Hudson) are riding in the Ghostbustermobile and discussing the book of Revelation (although Ray quotes Revelation 6:12 but calls it 7:12). Besides that, can you imagine a modern movie (Ghostbusters came out in 1984, recall) that explicitly mentions Jesus–and approvingly?

Winston: “Ray, do you believe in God?”

Ray: “Never met him.”

Winston: “Well, I do–and I love Jesus’ style!”

Finally, since I revisited St. John’s final book of the Bible for this post, I’d really like to draw parallels between Gandalf as the “White Rider” of The Return of the King and the rider on a white horse in Revelation 6:2 “And I looked, and behold! a white horse. He who sat on it has a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.” But that would be a stretch. Per the excellent (and lengthy) study of Revelation by Dr. Louis Brighton of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (pp. 75ff), the white rider of 6:2 resembles Jesus Christ on a white horse of chapter 19–but the former merely claims the divine right to conquer and does not actually possess it. However, the OSB also points out (p. 1723) in a note on 6:2 that this white rider “probably represents liberators of the oppressed people of God.” In that sense, one is reminded of Gandalf helping lead the beleaguered peoples of Middle-earth to fend off Sauron’s conquest. This is probably a better analog for Tolkien’s White Wizard than the returned Jesus Christ of the latter parts of Revelation. Gandalf, recall, was merely an angel (a Maia), not actually divine. And although he was sent back from death after the battle with the Balrog, his role was not that of Judge; nor did Gandalf defeat Sauron by his own power, as Christ will Satan when He returns.

Bram Stoker and Terrorism

Previously, on Occidental Jihadist [imagine TV narrator voice], I discussed the character Abraham Van Helsing in the novel and play Dracula. Let’s go once more to the vampires’ well, this time to examine a striking line that shows up in both Bram Stoker’s book and Steven Dietz’s stage adaptation. The former has this phrase, uttered by Dr. John Seward in regards to his sanitarium inmate Renfield: “a strong man with homicidal and religious mania might at once be dangerous. The combination is a dreadful one” (p. 87). The latter condenses Seward’s observation to “homicidal mania and religious fervor would be a dangerous combination” (p. 20).

With my academic and work background, when I first saw that line during rehearsals for the stage play I assumed that Dietz, writing in 1995, had inserted it as a comment on Islamic terrorism–which in its modern incarnation was quite active in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1983 Hizbullah Shi`i suicide bombers, with Iranian assistance, blew up two buildings housing American and French military personnel, killing 307 in total. In 1993, Sunni terrorists under the direction of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad set off bombs under the World Trade Center, attempting to bring at least one of the towers down. They failed, but killed seven people and injured hundreds. These are but the most notable of Islamic terrorist/insurgent activities prior to 1995.

Then I dug out Stoker’s novel and, as noted, found a very similar quotation. But in his time, religious terrorism of any kind was virtually unknown. He was writing right in the middle of what historians of terrorism call the Anarchist phase, which lasted from the 1880s to the 1920s. Violent anarchists were active mainly in Europe (especially Italy, Spain and France), although one did assassinate US President William McKinley in 1901. They truly embodied what Alfred told Bruce Wayne (regarding the Joker) in The Dark Knight: “some men just want to watch the world burn.” They hated all political structures, and hoped to bring them all down. But if anything Anarchists were irreligious–indeed, even anti-religion, as many of them were Marxists.

Most likely, however, Bram Stoker was taking a jab at the Crusades. The 19th century had seen the the enormous popularity of Brit Sir Walter Scott’s novels such as The Talisman, The Betrothed, Ivanhoe and Count Robert of Paris, which “painted a picture of Crusaders who were brave and glamorous, but also vainglorious, avaricious, childish, and boorish…. The worst of them were the brothers of the military orders, who may have been courageous and disciplined but were also arrogant, privileged, corrupt, voluptuous, and unprincipled” (Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam, p. 65). Crusader-bashing was a favorite approach of Enlightenment writers, and this carried on well into the 19th century–both in Europe and in the Middle East, as Riley-Smith unpacks in his informative but slim volume.

But in the 21st century, with the Crusaders long since turned to dust like Dracula, 77% of transnational terrorist groups wage jihad in the name of Allah. So it’s clear where dangerous homicidal and religious mania resides today–and it’s not in Christianity. In this regard, Stoker has proved all-too-prescient.

When the Good Guy Doesn’t Suck

Over Halloween I was privileged to play Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in the Steven Dietz stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, put on by the River Arts District Playhouse in Rome, Georgia. Nerd that I am, I did quite a bit of background reading on the character. And before stowing all that resource material in my study, why not share what I learned?

Van Helsing about to unleash a crucifix of whoop-vampire!

Forget the action figure portrayal by Hugh Jackman in the 2004 Van Helsing movie. The protagonist of the novel, as well as most 20th century films and movies, was a scholarly professor and doctor who checkmated the nefarious Count with knowledge, faith and leadership–although he didn’t hesitate to lop off heads, if need be (as he did with Dracula’s three evil vixens).

Van Helsing was both a man of Christian faith and a scientist. His friend and former student, Dr. John Seward, calls him “the most advanced scientist of your day,” and “a philosopher and a metaphysician” who “knows more about obscure diseases than anyone in the world.” Unlike anyone else in the novel or play–all Church of England, or Protestant of some kind–VH is Catholic, and deploys distinctly Catholic weapons against vampires: consecrated bread (wafers) and a crucifix, in particular. He also quotes Scripture quite a bit–mostly Psalm 62 (when confronting Dracula), although a bit of 1 John 1 in the conclusion. In his “sermon” to Seward, Jonathon Harker and Mina Murray, VH calls them to “a steadfast belief in science” as well as “a fierce reliance on faith.” As a Missouri Synod Lutheran, I mused early on that an indeterminate “faith” avails little or nothing; I also noted that not once in the stage play is Jesus Christ mentioned, although the crucifix stops vampire Lucy, and even Dracula himself, dead in their tracks (pun intended). Perhaps Steven Dietz, who adapted the play from Stoker’s novel in 1995, didn’t wish to appear too Christian. Still, the play leaves it clear, although not as much as the novel, that Abraham Van Helsing is a staunch Catholic Christian and that that faith is at least half of what enables him to lead the defeat of Dracula and his minions.

Count Dracula, is of course, the main attraction of the novel and the play. Evil always steals the show. But the excellent actor who played Dracula in our production confided to me, backstage one night, that the play should probably be entitled Van Helsing; not only does the Dutch doctor drive the action (see Garcia, “Van Helsing as the Moral Driver in Stoker’s Dracula“), but he speaks directly to the audience several times, explaining what is going on. VH serves a role similar to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: he has more knowledge than anyone else, but doles it out sparingly so as to protect others; he forms the “fellowship” which defeats the primary evil character; while kindly, he also possesses something of a short fuse; and, as mentioned, he sometimes acts as narrator. Indeed, Van Helsing’s “semi-deified role” is that which “carves the moral and religious reasoning that moves the plot forward.” He is “the anti-thesis to Count Dracula” (all quotes from Garcia)–although one might just as logically maintain that it is Dracula who is the anti-thesis to Van Helsing, since the former is evil while the latter is good (albeit exasperating).

Along with the aforementioned description, Seward also refers to Van Helsing as not just friend but as “master.” This is symmetrical to the relationship between the pathetic Renfield and Dracula. The mad Renfield has been bewitched by Dracula and yearns for his coming to England, although just how this happened is never explained in the novel or the play. Renfield several times asserts that “my Master is coming,” and of course eventually invites him into the sanitarium where he is locked up–only to have his “savior” kill him. Contrast this with the Van Helsing/Seward relationship, in which the former saves the latter (from the vampire Lucy), as well as from Dracula, and eventually helps him achieve his personal and professional independence, if you will–as well as comforts him after the death of his dear Lucy.

Van Helsing proves an enduring figure of interest to folks enamored of the horror genre, as shown not only by his many epigones on the screen (both large and small), but by the publication of fiction books about his life both before and after the events of Dracula. In 2004 Allen C. Kupper published The Journal of Professor Abraham Van Helsing, which purports to tell how VH became a vampire hunter. The same year The Many Faces of Van Helsing came out, edited by Jeanne Cavelos and consisting of 21 short stories about the domineering Dutchman, both pre- and post-settling the Count’s hash. Cavelos’ “Introduction” is particularly insightful. Van Helsing represents order to Dracula’s chaos (in this respect, he is thus Batman to the Joker–if the latter literally drank the blood of his victims). “As Holmes is to Moriarity, as ego is to id, Van Helsing is to Dracula” (p. xii). She points out, rather brilliantly in my opinion, that Van Helsing is the archetype for Carl Kolchak of one of my favorite shows from the 1970s, Kolchak: The Night Stalker; and that Van Helsing’s faith-based and scientific sides were split into Mulder and Scully of The X-Files (p. xiii).

Finally, playing Van Helsing and studying him reminded me of the Aldous Huxley novel The Devils of Loudon, which I read many years ago. The book is about the (alleged) mass demonic possession of nuns at a French monastery in the 17th century. Huxley points out that “no man can concentrate his attention upon evil, or even upon the idea of evil, and remain unaffected. To be more against the devil than for God is exceedingly dangerous.” Crusading against that which we hate, rather than defending and promoting that which we love, has become all too common in the modern world. Abraham Van Helsing reminds us that we need both sides of that coin.

But that it wouldn’t hurt to carry a crucifix, as well.