A Religion That Grew From a Lot of Brew

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

On the South Pacific island of Tanna, beneath a volcano that rumbles and smokes, a guy wearing a fake U.S. Army uniform raises an American flag. Then 40 barefoot men march past, carrying fake rifles made of bamboo, their brown chests decorated with red paint spelling out "USA."

Later, a group of men slinging fake chainsaws sing a homemade hymn: "We've come from America to cut down all the trees so we can build factories."

This isn't a protest or a piece of performance art. It's a religious ceremony held every year on Feb. 15 -- John Frum Day, the high holy day of a South Pacific religion that worships a messiah who is, as Paul Raffaele writes in a wonderfully weird story in the February issue of Smithsonian, "an American god no sober man has ever seen."

Raffaele traveled to the nation of Vanuatu -- formerly known as New Hebrides -- to check out the John Frum religion, one of the last of the famous "cargo cults" that sprang up in the South Pacific in World War II. He tells a story so bizarre that it reads like a Kurt Vonnegut novel.

For centuries, the natives on these isolated islands were farmers and fishermen who created a culture based on polygamy, ritual dancing and the drinking of kava, a powerfully intoxicating beverage made from the roots of a plant. Around 1900, Raffaele writes, Christian missionaries, mostly Scottish Presbyterians, banned polygamy, dancing and kava drinking, which made life on the islands a lot less fun.

One night in the late 1930s, a group of dissatisfied native men gathered in secret and drank large quantities of kava, hoping to receive a message from the spirit world. And they did: An ethereal white-clad white man named John Frum appeared to them, urging that they throw away their money, stop attending Christian churches and return to their ancient ways.

Inspired by this vision, the men threw their money into the sea and held huge feasts to honor John Frum and recruit converts. The colonial authorities were alarmed, and sent the cult's leaders to prison in 1941, but still the Frum religion spread.

Lo and behold, a year later, legions of men dressed in white appeared in the islands. They belonged to the U.S. Navy. They came aboard giant ships and inside huge metal birds and brought wonderful things, including chocolate, cigarettes and Coca-Cola. Many islanders concluded that their prayers to John Frum had been answered.

A few years later, World War II ended and the Americans went home. Since then, John Frum devotees have been drinking kava and praying for Frum to come back and bring more of his wonderful American cargo.

Raffaele arrived in Tanna last February and within hours he was out in the jungle, drinking kava with some Frum worshippers. The stuff tasted "like muddy water," he writes, but it got him very stoned. After his third coconut shell full of kava, his guide carted him back to Raffaele's beach hut.

"By the seaside at my hut," Raffaele writes, "I dance unsteadily to the rhythm of the waves as I try to pluck the shimmering moon from the sky and kiss it."

The next day, Raffaele met a holy man named Chief Isaac, who took him to Yasur, the volcano in which John Frum is said to live when he's not back home in America. Chief Isaac invited Raffaele into the cult's headquarters and showed him the church relics -- an American flag, a carved American eagle and some imitation U.S. Navy uniforms. The chief was very friendly until Raffaele mentioned another Frum priest named Prophet Fred.

"He's a devil," Chief Isaac snarled.

It turns out that Prophet Fred heads an apostate John Frum group that split from Chief Isaac's church. The two Frum sects have been known to fight pitched battles, just like Catholics and Protestants and Sunnis and Shiites. Ain't religion grand?

Raffaele asked the chief what kind of cargo he hopes John Frum will bring to Tanna if he returns.

"A 25-horsepower outboard motor for the village boat," the chief replied. "Then we can catch much fish . . ."

Hey, chief, let's make a deal: I'll trade you an outboard motor for a big barrel of kava. Man, I haven't kissed the moon since I was back in college.

"John promised you much cargo more than 60 years ago and none has come," Raffaele said to Chief Isaac. "Why do you still believe in him?"

Chief Isaac smiled and uttered an irrefutable answer: "You Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return to earth," he said, "and you haven't given up hope."

Dr. Z Gets an F

Thinking about betting on Sunday's Super Bowl? Here's a tip from a renowned expert, Paul Zimmerman, aka Dr. Z, Sports Illustrated's veteran pigskin prognosticator:

Put your money on the Carolina Panthers. They're going to beat the Indianapolis Colts, 31-27.

Hold it. Wait a minute. This just in: The Panthers and the Colts won't be playing in the Super Bowl. Instead, the Pittsburgh Steelers will face the Seattle Seahawks. Which is why the folks at SI are hoping you have forgotten Dr. Z's predictions in the magazine's Sept. 5, 2005 "NFL Preview" issue, the one with the cover line reading "That's right! The Panthers will go all the way."

But we at the Magazine Reader never forget. Well, actually we did forget about SI's predictions. But then somebody walked past our palatial offices and accidentally bumped into the huge mountain known as the Magazine Reader Archives and Recycling Pile, causing an avalanche of magazines that nearly buried the entire staff. As we dug out, we found many interesting antiques, including a half-eaten liverwurst-and-Swiss sandwich and a copy of SI's National Football League preview issue.

The sandwich had some fuzzy green stuff on it and it tasted kinda funny, so we threw it out. But we kept the SI issue, which proved that Dr. Z's predictions were approximately as accurate as what you'd get if you blindfolded a chimpanzee and had him throw darts at a list of NFL teams.

Take our beloved Redskins: Dr. Z predicted that they'd finish last in the National Football Conference East, with a 4-12 record. Actually, the Skins finished second with a 10-6 record, right behind the New York Giants, who were 11-5, despite Dr. Z's prediction that they'd end up 5-11. The Z man said the Philadelphia Eagles would win the division with a 10-6 record. Actually they came in last at 6-10.

Dr. Z also predicted that the Baltimore Ravens would win the American Football Conference North with a 11-5 record. Actually, they finished 6-10.

He predicted that the Chicago Bears would finish dead last in the NFC North with a 3-13 record. Actually, they won the division with an 11-5 record.

And on and on. It just goes to show you that it's hard to predict the future. I prefer predicting the past. Take my word for it, folks, the United States will beat Japan in World War II.

Dr. Z could not be reached for comment yesterday. His colleagues at SI said they couldn't find him. Perhaps he was hiding from his bookie. But in last week's edition, he issued his official prediction for the Super Bowl: "Pittsburgh 27, Seattle 21."

Let the bettor beware.

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