"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Shadow Mountain Community Church is a massive ministry nestled in the rugged hills of suburban San Diego, and it is not an evil place. It is built on good, earnest hard work, by people who’ve spent their entire lives trying to be polite. I grew up in its clutches. I made friends with its members, volunteered with youth pastors, took roles in religious stage productions, and worshiped a god I believed in. In fact, I still did all that stuff even when I was pretending to worship a god I no longer believed in. It’s hard staying ecclesiastic when you have access to an unfiltered Internet. My parents also found doubt around my junior year of high school. It was never properly announced; we all just started sleeping in on Sunday. I was happy. I wanted to watch football.
The church is founded on ideas that can be absolutely poisonous to a young person’s faith. Anti-gay, antiabortion. My mom wanted to start a Bible study for women who work, only to find the idea covered in theological red tape. I got into a blow-up over the “Yes on 8” sign the church wanted to put in our front yard. It all made me a very angry teenager, which I suppose is the only way to go through those years. But now, a 21-year-old college student in Austin, Texas, it seems a bit silly to me. It’s a Republican Christian church. Conservative ideology is in its blood.
Still, there’s one thing on the Shadow Mountain payroll that I’ve always found especially bizarre in its arch-conservative sprawl. It’s called the Creation Museum, in Santee, Calif. There are a few Creation Museums dotting the American landscape, and they’re all famously obtuse, which makes them something of an urban legend around the community. And Shadow Mountain’s Creation Museum is no exception; its theories are on the outskirts of even the most Christ-centric ideas, which might be why I’ve never been able to get it out of my head. I don’t feel against it, or above it, so much as I wanted to understand it. Maybe that’s why I felt compelled to return. To take a “pilgrimage,” of sorts, to my weirdest roots.
The first time I went to the Creation Museum I was 11. I don’t remember too much, but a surprisingly young curator informed our group that aliens don’t exist, which bummed me out. He also said that dinosaurs roamed the land with humans, which made me excited, because it offered some legitimacy to a long-standing fantasy of riding a T.Rex like a horse. My dad was there, and afterward he told me I shouldn’t believe a thing I just saw.
My father was a Christian, but he was never a creationist; it’s an important distinction we often fail to make. Creationism is the belief that the history and nature of the world can be inferred from the Bible. One of its most maligned theories is that the world is only 10,000 years old. They calculated this by adding all the ages of everyone in the Bible, which must be incredibly embarrassing for most mainstream Christians.
Ten years after that first visit, I’m rumbling down the highway on a Saturday afternoon with my father. He agreed to go with me out of solidarity, tradition and a common curiosity. These days, I’m not religious. I have a hard time believing anyone who claims to have all the answers. I believe there’s something spiritual about the universe’s ability to create and sustain life, but that might just be a buffer between my irreligious self and the looming inevitability of death. I disagree with almost all the stances taken by the customary Christian right, but I refuse to demean, cut down or marginalize Christians, and I think that’s why I’m here. There are pages and pages of sneering left-wing assaults pounding the people represented by this museum into a hateful, one-dimensional hole, and that’s not who I want to be. It disgusts me how willing people are to obliterate any humanity and dignity the creationists might have. There must be some resonance in these theories, right? I wanted to be curious about them, to love them despite it all. I figured they probably didn’t get that too often from a liberal, vegetarian-ish college kid.
My dad is more scornful than I am, as might be expected from a man who spent a majority of his life dedicated to a religion he now feels is a total scam. To him, the Creation Museum is a landmark of wasted time. My father moved to Southern California from England, and is still married happily to my Midwestern mom. He and my mother raised me in a church; we’d host Bible studies and lock arms for evangelical journeys. Four hours of church, every Sunday. They were good, powerful, fiery Christians, and that made religion the most important thing in my life. I was the kid witnessing from the bottom of my heart to my respectful but completely uninterested preteen classmates. It wasn’t until high school when I inched toward self-awareness – Googling my way through eons of wisdom, upending my old beliefs — and took my parents with me. At least, that’s what I’ve always suspected. My father has never confirmed it. I only knew that whereas we once fought bitterly, he began to side with me on church issues. Pro-gay, pro-choice, pro-culture.
We pull into the parking lot of a sterile white building with a plastic green T.Rex looming over the front door. Just the way I remember it. I’m anxious as I walk inside, like someone is going to recognize me as a double agent. No, just an old woman, gospel music, and a stack of pastries for the visitors. I browse the small selection of books and DVDs – all the usual pseudo-scientific silliness, biblical proofs of the Ice Age and Grand Canyon. My dad scoffs at a book claiming the Neanderthals are scientific myth. He’s already incredulous.
I wonder if my dad’s faith was permanently jaded after his mother died, and his father slipped into irreversible dementia. It’s a story as old as time: bad things happening to good people. My granddad is still alive, technically. He’s in a nursing home somewhere in England. He can’t speak, or eat, and he can’t recognize or remember any of the people who shaped his life. His final years are a cruel and empty space. “He’s like a forgotten human. It’s hard to even remember he’s still in existence,” my mom has said. Death is peaceful compared to this terror, this unnatural limbo. It’s made my dad so angry I’m not sure he’ll ever find peace with it. And in the light of such senseless suffering, the blind, unblinking comfort of the Creation Museum can almost seem malicious. “Everything is planned!” the whole place seemed to be shouting. “Everything is going to be all right!” What a joke.
We don’t talk to anyone as we slip into the first room, an introduction to creation theory. The 45-minute walking tour isn’t so much a museum experience as an elaborate rebuttal to evolutionary science. These people feel threatened by Darwin, whose theories mean total destruction to their fiercely held way of life. And so the creationists literally ask us to place science and logic aside. One panel lists all the beliefs that will lead to downfall, and liberalism and Fascism sit right next to Shinto and Hinduism. A few steps later, we’re in a room covered in galaxies and stars, and we read about how the moon, because of its ability to eclipse the sun, obviously points to an intelligent, heavenly design. My dad is particularly attracted to a passage that tries to explain the speed of light. Since creationism suggests that the world is only 10,000 years old, it follows that we’d only be able to see stars 10,000 light-years away, which, if you know anything about our space program, is radically problematic. However, the Creation Museum brushes away this problem, suggesting that God created light that was “already on its way” to Earth. The look on my dad’s face seems to be saying, “You cannot be serious right now.”
I consider myself a pragmatist, but there’s a time in my life where I would have been totally accepting of an explanation so far-fetched. There’s something powerful in surrendering your life and your will to the limitless possibilities of an almighty creator without any hint of reservation. I even think there’s something worthy about it. I think of the Aztecs ripping the heart out of a prisoner to make sure the sun would rise. It might be primitive, but it’s also noble. Of course, it’s one thing to give leeway to ancient creeds and customs, but another to grant respect for people who soldier on in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, literally only inches away from their fingertips. When do you stop respecting people for their blind faith and start resenting them for it?
Later we’re in a room explaining that Noah’s flood caused the Grand Canyon, and that carbon dating is a flawed, inconsistent process. The placards contain so much certainty: “DO NOT use the depth of which a fossil is found to determine its age, DO NOT use the stage of evolution of a fossil to determine its age, DO use the Word of God to determine a fossil’s age.”
Strangely, I’m not angered by any of this, maybe because it seems so harmless to me. Or maybe because I know the people who’ve chosen this devout premise as their philosophy, and they seem harmless: youth pastors who would buy me dinner, church members who sacrificed their time to make sure I was feeling good about myself. I think about the sleep-away church camps and the bonds forged there. I think about all the love, and I don’t find any hate.
People focus on the silly anti-science hypotheses of the Creation Museum, and those are certainly preposterous, but there’s also beauty in the beliefs. I know it’s not plausible, but finding faith in some of the random logic of the universe — the eclipses, the perfectly pristine nature of our world, how DNA can seem like a computer code sent down from the heavens — can be a wonderful enterprise. Creationists believe we live in a one-race world, all descendents of Adam and Noah. There’s no black, white and brown, there’s just skin – all acceptable and all deserving of our love. Even if the creationists are wrong about that, I’d still rather think about race that way.
In all the easy satires of their belief system, nobody ever mentions their views on race. It’s always left out of the conversation, as if we’re afraid to admit in some ways, and in some places, they have very human ideas. Does it threaten us? Does it ruin our categories? Are we afraid to believe that, maybe, the creationists might be like us?
But then I hit something in the museum that honestly enrages me. It’s odd that of all the parts that could have infuriated me, this is what does it. But everyone has their breaking point, and as we walk through the hallway leading back to the building’s vestibule, I find mine: pictures and short biographies of Nietzsche, Marx and Darwin with his associates. The descriptions of these figures are full of egregious, inflammatory rhetoric, but what really wrecks me is under Marx. “Some say he became a Satanist in college.”
Really? They’re using a chain-mail rumor to undermine any useful ideas that might have emerged from Communism? I’ve never even identified with Marxism, but I’m incensed by this. After trying so hard to be understanding, I find myself gobsmacked by the arrogance of this place. To tar some of the great thinkers of our time with the brushstroke of devil worship? Why, because they’re different? What baseless propaganda, what a banal disgrace.
The first thing you read upon entering the museum is a reminder to keep an open mind, a suggestion that you should consider all of the place’s science without bias. I had tried, but I could no longer pretend. They’re the ones who are closing themselves off from the world, and I refuse to shut my mind. This isn’t an invitation to explore other belief systems; it’s thought control.
As we drive back to our suburban home, I feel 16 again. Angry, insulted, intellectually disregarded. And then I feel depressed, because I don’t want to be the angry progressive. There are far too many of those in our world.
My dad and I chat about the museum, and while I’m expecting vitriol, we end up laughing and having a good time. We rehash the pseudo-science for a bit, but we quickly grow bored of the topic. The Creation Museum is behind us now. Why let it consume any more of our energy? We stop for a mediocre burrito as the sun sets over the hills. By the time I get home to see the rest of my family, I’m the most optimistic person in the world.
Luke Winkie is a freelance writer and journalism/history student at the University of Texas. He currently contributes to Vice, Noisey, Paste and LA Weekly, and has a weird affinity for great generals, hypothetical technology and the 2006 Padres.More Luke Winkie.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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