Sagebrush: Faith, Cults, Doubt

I don’t know if I’ve said this before, but I have something of a mixed response to people talking about the problems of religion. Things about how churches hate gay people or whatever. On the one hand they’re obviously important stories to tell, because churches and religions have problems and it’s worth being open and honest about what they are and how we can make things better. At the same time, I’m also aware that there isn’t a lot of mainstream stuff with anything positive to say about religion. There are a lot of films and games about evil cults, abusive priests, and homophobic evangelical parents, and then basically nothing else. Actually – here’s a weird point of reference – you ever watch Charles Cornell? He does fun little musical accompaniments to videos of people doing weird stuff – he had a good run with Kenneth Copeland, the American televangelist, for example. And in the comments for one of these videos, you know, there are Christians apologising for Kenneth being such a fucking bitch, and Charles popped in and said this:

“One of the reasons I love highlighting people like this is because, you’re 100% right, it’s SO not representative of Christians and religious people in general.”

And – I mean, I like Charles Cornell, and his videos are great, but that’s a line Christians hear a lot. We’re just talking about the bad ones to show how they aren’t representative of the good ones, who we will coincidentally never really talk about in any direct or extended manner. Similarly, when John Oliver did his look at churches and tax evasion, he opened by saying that many churches “do great work: feeding the hungry, clothing the poor. But this is not a story about them.” Again: I don’t have any problem with people calling out shitty televangelists, and it’s nice that Oliver at least pays lip service to the idea that not all religious people are bad. But in terms of the distribution of attention, if we can call it that, there seems to be a very heavy bias towards stories about awful believers. I think that bias causes problems. I think in many places, faith is cast as the exclusive domain and signifier of terrible people rather than as an element that cuts across multiple competing groups. That is, we’ve all seen stories about homophobic Christians, but how many of us have seen stories about gay Christians? It’s almost startling to realise that queer Christians exist, specifically because Christianity has become this virtually uninterrupted symbol of homophobia. Instead of being treated as contested, fluctuating ground, as a point of intersection and conflict between different groups, Christianity is reduced to one group’s banner, in effect assuming the outcome of a battle that is still being fought. Anyway, let’s talk about the suicide cult in Sagebrush.

Sagebrush is a 2018 game about exploring the empty ranch of a religious cult. The cult is all dead via mass suicide, and you’re poking around and piecing things together. For the bulk of the game, to be honest, I wasn’t that impressed. It felt like a combination of a dozen different cult tropes that you’ve already seen. The developer’s website says that the game was based on extensive research into real cults, which makes sense – it feels stitched together from the highlight reel of other stories. There’s a charismatic leader with a divine revelation, lots of manual labour, an emphasis on punishment, suffering, and the sinfulness of the outside world, guns and a loose militia to defend the compound, sexual abuse, FBI investigators, and eventually a group suicide event, where they lock themselves in the chapel, drink sleepy medicine, and burn the chapel down around them. You learn about the plot through diary entries and the detritus scattered around the compound, and for the most part I don’t really have anything to say about it. I actually wasn’t planning on writing anything about this game – it didn’t have anything that I felt particularly compelled by. But then I hit the ending.

For most of the game, it’s almost like a carnival ride through the cult, showing all these horrific things in a narrative that essentially amounts to ‘wow, cults are bad’. What’s special about the end sequence is that it moves away from the atrocity slideshow and focuses on the psychology of Lilian, the main character – on why she fell in with the cult, and how the behaviour that led her there also impacts the rest of her life. For example, we learn that Lilian wasn’t able to find work after university, and went backpacking around Europe for a year instead. In one of her memories, work is thematically linked with religion, suggesting something about why Lilian wasn’t able to find work, and also why she wasn’t able to commit to the cult and to her own death. This particular memory shows her chatting with a guy in a bar, Tim. She explains that she went off backpacking, and Tim says:

“I jumped into work straight after school. Working seventy, what, eighty hours? You know how it is. You’re expected to devote everything to it. It’s like a religion. Took me a while to see how messed up it was.”

Tim has in a sense moved through an equal and opposite arc to Lilian. Where she dedicated herself to a cult, Tim dedicated himself to his job. Similar expectations were placed on both of them – to devote themselves to their different masters, to commit their entire lives, all of their available time. They both came to realize that their situations were unhealthy, and both stepped back and created a more appropriate level of commitment. In Lilian’s case, she didn’t die in a fire, and presumably Tim has found a healthier work/life balance as well.

So on the one hand it’s good that both of these people were able to step back from unhealthy environments. On the other hand, it’s implied that Lilian’s fear of commitment is part of what got her into that mess in the first place. She initially wasn’t able to find work, which left her aimless and vulnerable. It meant she could be recruited at a bus stop by a friendly female cultist, who “told me she could tell I had a hole in my life.” The cult fills that hole, for a while, but it also eventually triggers her doubts and fear of commitment. When the cultists all go to kill themselves, Lilian can’t muster that level of investment, and hides in the steel bunker attached to the rear of the chapel. Upon returning to the ruined chapel and exploring it again, Lilian imagines a series of journals that accuse her of cowardice and fear of commitment:

“Your doubt had eaten away at you. You didn’t join them in their glorious death. But in your doubt, neither did you save them.”

Doubt is healthy, as it stopped her going to the extreme of killing herself, but it can also be unhealthy, as when it stops her making important decisions. Maybe if she was more decisive, she might have tried to save people – or she might have just found a normal-ass job in the first place instead of loafing around and getting sucked into a cult. There’s such a thing as too much commitment, but there’s also such a thing as not enough. Lilian and Tim explore both ends of that spectrum, ultimately finding a healthy middle ground. And, in the midst of that struggle to find a healthy medium between doubt and commitment, religion serves as the ground of engagement – as essentially the canvas across which the struggle takes place – rather than being the ultimate source of the problem.

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