Review- Faubion, “The Shadows and Lights of Waco”


James Faubion, “The Shadows and Lights of Waco: Millenarianism Today” (2001) – I don’t 100% “get” what anthropology is, especially as distinct from sociology. But an anthropological approach to the Branch Davidians sounded pretty interesting. What can we learn about the broader human condition at the turn of the millennium from a group best known for doomsday prophecies, a charismatic lecher messiah, an armed standoff, and the conflagration of eighty of its members (many of them kids) at the hands of the federal government? I distinctly remember the Waco siege, seeing footage of the tanks and the fires on tv. It felt like part of a larger zeitgeist of fin de siecle madness, even to my child self. Clearly, there was a lot going on.

Anthropologist James Faubion found a pretty good source in the person of one Amo Paul Bishop Roden. She was the leader of one of the sects resulting in a confusing multipart schism within Branch Davidianism. Among other things, the BDs believe in prophets, not just as mouthpieces of the divine but as divinely-appointed (and arguably inheritable, through bloodlines) leadership. Amo Roden was one such claiming prophetic status and arguing — and sometimes getting in gunfights over — fine points of interpretation, ritual practice, and good old fashioned disputes over wills. Faubion never provides us with even a historical sketch of this stuff, but it’s clear that Roden both lost — much of the congregation went with charismatic con man David Koresh — and won — she did not go with Koresh and his followers to their fiery death. She mostly speaks in bible quotes, in a manner reminiscent of nothing so much as the Ascians from the “Book of the New Sun,” who speak solely in quotes from their Fearless Leader. What isn’t bible quotes is mostly sad personal anecdotes of a mundanely miserable life given meaning by a strange belief system.

So, there’s a good, if narrow, source (Faubion relates stories of trying to get other BDs to talk to him- all unsuccessful). And Faubion gives her room to talk- arguably, too much. He doesn’t interpret her words so much as place long chunks of her biblical ramblings in the middle of the text, and then theorize them- or, anyway, around them. There wasn’t much in the way of close reading. He has a lot more to say about various anthropological or critical theorists than about the actual Branch Davidians. At risk of being “that guy,” it was just gristly, unclear writing in much of those sections. I’m a humanities grad student, I can read dense stuff. I’ve grown to despise the anti-theoretical bent you see in history sometimes, as performatively ignorant (trust me, I’ve been that guy, it’s a performance) as theory can be performatively opaque. But… there’s a limit, and I’d say the limits is reached when the prose and emphasis on theory overwhelms the subject, and I think that happens here.

Faubion gestures towards some interesting points — mainly, the relationship between ethics, knowledge, and time that millenarianism does strange things with — but instead of really diving into that, we get an immense amount of theoretical bet-hedging. You wind up with a pretty dispiriting contrast- a woman who can only talk in biblical citations, and a man who can only write in clotted theory-speak. It’s a shame, because there’s an interesting story here and Faubion shows, when he can let himself write clearly (and isn’t getting cute about how weird he feels about potentially patronizing his subject), he’s capable of some insight. I’ll be curious to see how historians follow up the story of the Branch Davidians and millenarianism in the late twentieth century. ***

Review- Faubion, “The Shadows and Lights of Waco”

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