Friday, September 10, 2010

Return of Balloon Boy, Terry Jones and the Religion of Conceit

Update: Apparently, Ariana Huffington at the Huffington Post made the Terry Jones/Balloon Boy comparison yesterday.  Despite being a regular reader of HuffPo I wasn’t aware of it. I put some effort into this piece, to find that Huffington stole my thunder makes me feel like I’m wasting your time with this. Apologies.



Remember Balloon Boy?

Sure you do.

His name was Falcon Heene and he was the son of a self involved lunatic.

The lunatic in question, Richard Heene, was an attention whore.  People who knew him called him a “shameless self-promoter who would do anything to advance his latest endeavor.”  He started out as a failed actor and then moved on to unfunny failed standup comic who eventually became an eccentric unfunny handyman who billed himself as an amateur scientist.  Somewhere along the line, he either watched one too many episodes of Battlestar Galactica or accepted a drink from L. Ron at the Xenu Bar and got it into his head that humanity had evolved from ancient space aliens whose saucers continued to visit the earth to this very day.  Heene chased storms and alien UFOs with roughly equal enthusiasm, and about equal success – and upon one occasion he damned near killed himself by riding a motorcycle into a tornado, which will give you some idea of this guy’s mental state.  He came up with an idea for a TV show called The Science Detectives, which sounds kind of cool until you realize that given Heene’s background it probably would have been about as scientific as Ghost Whisperer, but without the Jennifer Love Hewitt empty headed goodness. Needless to say, the studios passed, and Heene looked to be in danger of failure yet again.

He needed something more.

He needed something big.

He needed something that would grab headlines and get his name in front of studio executives.

There are those whose minds we say are held together with a few loose screws, Heene’s appears to have been lashed to his cranium with a couple of SpongeBob SquarePants Band-Aids.

In 2009 Richard Heene began construction of what he billed as the next step in transportation technology, a saucer shaped balloon made from cannibalized plastic tarps, string, duct tape, and tinfoil (Oh yes, it was inevitable we’d come across tinfoil in this story sooner or later). According to Heene, this testament to advanced next generation human-alien hybrid engineering was supposed to include a “high voltage timer” (UFOspeak for “flux capacitor”) which would allow the saucer to maneuver by periodically emitting “one million volts” (uh, sure, you go first, Duck Doger, I’ll watch from the bunker).

On October 15th, 2009, the Heenes launched their advanced alien technology craft, accidentally they claimed – and according to initial reports Richard gave to the press, it appeared his young son, Falcon, was onboard.  The silver balloon stayed aloft for hours and reached 7000 feet in attitude and flew for more than 50 miles – chased by news helicopters and rescue aircraft from the National Guard, the local FAA and military radar systems, and hundreds of folks on the ground including police and emergency services.  All were concerned for little Falcon’s welfare. Rescue crews put their own lives in danger in an effort to get close to the flimsy craft, praying for a chance to rescue the unfortunate and ironically named lad.  The story went national, then international, and very rapidly took on a life of its own. There were reports that  something, maybe poor Falcon himself, had fallen from the craft. Thousands searched the fields under the balloon’s path, hoping against hope that they wouldn’t find the kid’s crumpled body smashed into the ground like a dropped jar of strawberry jam.  Denver International Airport was shut down for a while, halting passenger and cargo service in one of the nation’s busiest transportation hubs and disrupting schedules nationwide.  The balloon stayed airborne long enough for a media storm to develop, for a circus of horror and rage and sympathy and human interest to arise, and for Richard Heene to promote his real agenda.

Eventually the balloon came to ground.

Of course, you all know what happened. It was all a lie, a hoax, a sick twisted publicity stunt designed to advance the agenda of a sick twisted narcissist who thought nothing of using people that had trusted him.  Little Falcon was never in danger, he was hidden safely away in the rafters of the Heenes’ garage. Richard Heene had staged the entire thing, used his own children, to garner attention for himself. It wasn’t the Balloon Boy who was on camera throughout the contrived ordeal, it was Richard Heene – finally starring in his own reality movie, emoting on the TV screen like the actor he’d always wanted to be.

But the stunt got away from him and it took on a life of its own and instead of controlling it, the situation took control of Richard Heene.

Eventually, in the end, Richard Heene was caught up in a web of his own bullshit.

In the end, it cost the public over two million dollars.

In the end, he and his wife went to jail for it.

In the end, those who trusted him, his children, his family, were the ones who had to pay for his selfishness and his self-involved nonsense.


But, in the end, the Balloon Boy stunt was a success.


Richard Heene, that obscure failure of a human being, got exactly what he wanted, attention, fame, recognition, and his own Wikipedia page.  There are those who admire him, admire him for fooling the world, if albeit only briefly.  They envy his fame and wonder how they could do something similar.  When he gets out of jail, don’t be surprised if Richard Heene manages to parley that into, well if not his own reality show at least a judgeship on Dancing with the Stars or maybe a shot on The Apprentice. Certainly there will be book deal and maybe a Lifetime Channel movie of the week.


Well thanks for that little trip down memory lane, Jim, but why do you mention it? I hear you ask in that curious and wide-eyed tone you use when you wonder what I’m going to do next.

Thanks for asking.

See, I was reminded of the Balloon Boy incident this last week as I watched a similar hysteria develop around yet another selfish and self-involved glory-hound, the right Reverend Terry Jones, God’s mutton-chopped prophet.

If you recall, I mentioned Jones and the Dove Outreach Center long before anybody else and I would have weighed in earlier on the current hoopla, but I was pretty sure “International Burn a Koran Day” was nothing more than a stunt staged by Jones to garner attention.

I wanted to see the balloon land before offering my own opinion.

And now it has.

Jones is the failed pastor of a tiny pitiful failing Pentecostal church.  He was booted out of his last church for being a controlling asshole, and the congregation of his current flock has been drifting away one by one for years.  The Dove Outreach Center is the kind of ingrown pocket charismatic tent-preacher insanity that you find only in the deep South.  Drive down the potholed and rutted back roads in the sweltering humidity of lower Alabama, the panhandle of Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and the peanut fields of Georgia and you’ll see these same little cracker box churches everywhere. A dilapidated building of warped boards, covered in peeling paint and crawling ivy.  A couple of double-wides pushed together, and moldering in the sun.  They’ve got names like Jesus is Lord Primitive Baptist Church or Praise the Lord Pentecostal Assembly of God (Some assembly required.  Why doesn’t God come pre-assembled? Are batteries included? I wonder about these things, religion makes my head hurt).  They have congregations of ten or twenty or maybe even thirty uneducated ignorant rednecks, mostly composed of members of the preacher’s family and neighbors and one or two denizens of the local trailer park. Out front are signs with dire apocalyptic bible passages warning passersby of God’s hatred for gays, Muslims, Atheists, Catholics, liberals, dirty Mexicans, and Barack Obama. Inside, well, inside you’ll sing pious hosannas and listen to sermons taken solely from the books of Leviticus and Revelations and, if you’re really lucky, you can watch your kids handle poisonous snakes and roll around on the floor spouting gibberish for Jesus. These churches are full of fear, fear of God, fear of Jesus, fear of Satan, fear of evil spirits and fallen angels and dark skinned minorities, fear of the End Times, fear of Commies and liberals and queers and Yankees and the government. 

Terry Jones isn’t anything unusual, rather he’s one of hundreds, thousands, of controlling narcissistic holier-than-thou assholes who preach fire and brimstone-laced end times bullshit from their little card table pulpits every single Sunday, rain or shine. The city of Gainesville has condemned the Dove Outreach Center, but there are a hundred Churches just exactly like it within an hour’s drive, with signs of hatred and fear out front, and pews full of xenophobia and intolerance inside facing a pulpit that preaches that not just a holy book, but everything these people don’t approve of, will be burned, gays, liberals, non-believers and people who don’t believe in the right God or don’t believe in the right God in the right way – the difference is that instead of doing the burning themselves, these days, they preach that God will do it. The method may be different, but the message is exactly the same. They don’t try to hide it, instead they are proud of their hatred and fear and intolerance. They put it right on that signboard out front.

And that, of course, is the problem.

There are too many of them. And they are all the same. These preachers. These churches. These so-called Christians.

Just like Richard Heene, they crave attention, they crave control, they crave fame – but their voices are lost in a sea of other similar noise.

To stand out, they need a gimmick.

Heene launched a balloon.  Jones, he’s been looking for a hit for a couple of years now.  A while back, he hit on Islam.  Last year he got himself some minor notoriety with his “Islam is of the Devil” garbage, and that gave him the idea for something bigger. 

But now it’s gotten away from him.

And just like Richard Heene, Jones is trapped in a web of his own bullshit.

See, he claims God speaks to him.  God told him to burn the Islamic Quran. 

This is a dodge, of course, just like it always is with religious leaders. Hey, hey it’s not me telling you to have sex with me, oh no, it’s God’s will!  Hey, it’s not me telling you to invade the Middle East and take back the holy land, oh hell no, that’s God’s idea. It wasn’t my idea for you to give me money, no no, that’s all God. It’s not me deciding to burn Islam’s holy book, God commanded it. Last night. In a dream. After I drank a couple shots of Wild Turkey and counted the take. Swear to Jesus, it’s true!

Terry Jones is hoist on his own petard. He can’t back down, because it’s not his decision – it’s God’s. See?

Here’s the funny part, by his own admission Terry Jones doesn’t know anything about Islam.  He doesn’t know a single Muslim. Up until a day ago, he’d never ever spoken to a Muslim and had no interest in doing so. In fact, what he said was,

“I don’t know any [Muslims] personally. I have not attended any interfaith discussions and I think such discussions are part of our problem.”

The implications are obvious, Terry Jones doesn’t believe a damned thing he’s saying, he’s just using Islam as a target of opportunity.  And people started to notice.  At first he was pleased, because it was exactly what he wanted, notoriety, fame, attention, power – hell, he even had the President of the United States asking him pretty please not to do it – it was better than he’d ever imagined. Until it blew up in his face. Suddenly, he was endangering Americans with his bullshit.  Suddenly he was not just an enemy of the ungodly heathens, but to Christians as well.  He wasn’t a hero or a simple shepherd, he was a goddamned villain

But he couldn’t back down, could he? Not if God had commanded the book burning  - not to mention that once he vows not to burn the Quran, all that attention and power will just go away like it never was, leaving Terry Jones once again the failed inconsequential pastor of a slowly dying flyspeck of a shithole chapel in the middle of nowhere and nothing more.

Faced with the bleak prospect of disgrace, of yet another disgrace, of becoming irrelevant, Terry Jones did what sad miserable creatures of his ilk always do, he moved the goal posts.

Suddenly, somehow, he made it all about the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.

The mosque, an Islamic community center actually, in New York never had a damned thing to do with Jones’ declared intention to burn the Quran before. He never said, hey, I’m going to piss on Muslims everywhere unless they agree to move that mosque. But, the Mosque is Jones’ ticket out. By making the mosque’s location a condition of categorically halting his Divinely directed book burning, Jones intends to become a hero – the man who forced Islam off of sacred ground (even though it really isn’t on so-called sacred ground at all, it’s between bars and strip clubs on a shitty litter strewn street two blocks away, but that’s just quibbling).  He intends to make Imam Reisel Rauf the bad guy here.  If Jones goes ahead with the Quran burning – and all the violent consequences that will no doubt result from it – then it will be all Imam Rauf’s fault.

It’s popular to hate Muslims in America nowadays.  Islam is the bogeyman of our times.  It is a measure of the current climate of intolerance and hatred in American today, that Terry Jones just might get away with it.

A couple of additional thoughts:

- If Rauf were to move his community center, then it will be the Muslims who will have demonstrated a willingness to compromise in the interest of peace and community and the Christians who have demonstrated intolerance and fear and hatred and terrorism and a willingness to spread their faith by force and threat.  How ironic that, and what a telling comment on Christianity in America.

- Jones wants to negotiate with Imam Rauf. Beg pardon? Is not, according to Jones, Islam of the Devil? Logically then (if logic is a term that can be applied here, even tongue in cheek), would not the good Reverend be negotiating with Satan?  His congregation was pissed at him for being a control freak, how are they going to feel when they find out their church struck a deal with the devil? It’s going to be hell on the membership drive. I’m just saying.

- Jones first claimed that a deal had already been struck.  The Imam’s spokesman immediately denied such, and in fact said that Rauf had not even been contacted by Jones. Somebody is lying here. Turns out it’s the Christian. The statement was an obvious attempt by Jones to manipulate public perception and make Imam Rauf and Muslims the bad guys in this sordid mess.  I’m curious as to why this specific act was not immediately condemned by Christians. Christians, I might note, who have been specifically admonished not to “bear false witness” against their neighbors in both the Ten Commandments and by Jesus himself.  I believe this was exactly the type of situation that particular Commandment was referring to. Hmmm, maybe we ought to allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in the court house if we ever get around to trying Terry Jones for endangering the public and inciting a riot. No? What, have you no poetry in your soul?

- Protests have broken out among Muslims the world over. Jones has received, and continues to receive, death threats and threats of violence.  One suspects this attention only stokes his ego and serves to reinforce his view of Islam.  Jones wears body armor and carries a pistol for protection wherever he goes – ironically, this gives Reverend Jones something in common with abortion providers, who out of fear of Christians just like Terry Jones, often go armed and armored themselves. Hell of a thing to live in fear, isn’t it, little man?

- Of course, Christians the nation over have condemned Terry Jones, including the President of the United States, members of Congress, and senior military commanders. Sure they have.  And every time I write something about Christianity, I receive email admonishing me not to condemn all of Christianity because of ten or twenty extremists.  I got a number of letters after I wrote the Tea Party piece linked to above.  This amuses me.  Why? Because it reminds me of the biblical admonishment about a certain eye, mote, and beam.  Don’t condemn an entire religion because of a few extremists? What a novel idea. Perhaps certain Christians should heed their own advice, especially tomorrow.

- I have long heard calls for Muslims to police their own.  I think there is some merit to this. When an Iranian Ayatollah issues a fatwa to jihad, I think it imperative that Islamic Imams the world over issue their own missives directing Muslims not to follow such a directive and declaring murder, martyrdom, and suicide unIslamic.  But I hold Christians to the exact same standard.  And it takes more than words.  Though Jones has declared that his book burning will not go forward “for now,” he hasn’t ruled out that he won’t go do it at a later date.  Watch the hoopla die down, watch Jones fade from the headlines – and see if he doesn’t bring the idea back up.  Christians need to take this for action.  How? Simple, you have only to surround Dove Outreach Center en mass and block all access to the media with your bodies.  Sing hymns, hold hands, and prevent any image of this idiotic act from reaching the airwaves – or be complicit in the consequences. Churches often send their own off to witness and to missionary work and to attend prayer rallies, instead send them to Gainesville and do something that actually makes a real difference.  You can pray about saving lives, those lives that will be lost should this despicable event go forward, or you can actually save those lives. What’s it going to be?

Richard Heene was a grandstanding ass of a human being, Terry Jones is no better, worse actually as his selfish and self serving actions will put Americans into harm’s way.  Just as Richard Heene succeeded in his real goal, so too has Terry Jones – no matter how this ends, Terry Jones is now world famous.

It will be most ironic, if this sad silly little man, this windbag full of hatred and hot air, brings the rest of us, Christians and Muslims and Jews, believers and non-believers, Americans, brings us all closer together as a nation.

Even if it is only in condemnation of something so un-American as the burning of a book.

That would be the ultimate irony indeed.


  1. Though apparently Terry Jones has backed off his threatened burning of the Qur'an, the Fred Phelps clan stands ready to take up the banner.

    I'm planning to actually spend some time tomorrow READING the Qur'an. I've read the Bible (both parts) and I figure it's about time I extend the same courtesy to the Qur'an. So far, I've just read the introduction, but it's pretty interesting.

  2. But I hold Christians to the exact same standard.

    As you should. And many of us Christians do condemn this type of behavior when it happens. Sadly, too many of us don't.

    Ironically, from what I gather (and you know the web, so I can't fully verify the truth of this) he's lost about half his congregation over this.

  3. HuffPo's website is too busy for my tastes and while I have a crush on Ariana Huffington, HuffPo's tolerance for pseudoscience puts me off--so I hardly ever read HuffPo. Furthermore, Jim, your piece here was excellent.

    Ergo, my time was not wasted in the least.

  4. I'm with Eric on this one...some of us out here in electron-land simply haven't got the time to read every damned site out there. We opt for consistent quality and a certain 'laser focus' when reading our intertubes. You'll have to man up and accept that your Blog is a primary destination for some of us sad little shut-ins who are curious about your nation's wacky political life (and the occasional picture of a shopkat).

    Oh sorry...I've reached my monthly quota of sucking up...more praise to follow.

  5. Also...it cannot be made clear enough how much of an asshat this guy is.

  6. HE JUST ARRIVED AT LAGUARDIA AIRPORT AND EVERY NEWS STATION WAS THERE AND NOBODY COULD GET A WORD OUT OF HIM (GASP, GASP -- let me catch my breath), and, uh, yeah. What a sad little shit who nobody would give a shit about if only the news would cover...news?

    P.S. if he does manage to actually meet with Imam Rauf, I can guarantee nothing will come of it. The Imam is not such a silly twit.

  7. Yeah, from what I've seen, Imam Rauf is a class act

  8. Wasn't a waste of time for me, either, as I hadn't seen the HuffPo article yet. I'm sure her take wasn't nearly as funny or as sharp, either.

    Missesse- A very young massage therapist in training.

  9. I'm with Grondzilla. I find US politics overwhelming so I ready your op/ed for the low down:) Not a waste of time.

    I read somewhere that a lot of the problem is media coverage (Dispatches from the Culture War?) and someone immediately jumped to denying media coverage. Does everything have to be a zero end game?

  10. "...Christians need to take this for action. How? Simple, you have only to surround Dove Outreach Center en mass and block all access to the media with your bodies...."

    Is it worth continuing this sorry situation in the daily and ongoing news cycles? From your comments I suspect both the media and Reverend might enjoy keeping this sad story active on the national/international stage. Koran (let alone book) burnings have been openly repudiated. Regardless of culture or religion, there always seems to be a minority (proverbial 10%???) who don’t get the message. Since this situation has become a non-event (at least for now) might it be more Christian to let this pastor and his church return to the obscurity from which they unfortunately emerged?
    As children of Abraham we can learn much by reading and gaining understanding through each other’s Torah, Bible, and Koran. Might it be better for Christians (and non-Christians alike) to open common understanding instead of celebrating our mutual ignorance?
    Yesterday, I remembered and raiseed a glass to Bob, Rosa, Sandra and all of our subsequent lost patriots. While I must forgive, I will never forget.

  11. In related news, my family found itself on the ABC news tonight for about a picosecond as they did a story on our church. We invited some Moslems over for a blessing of the Koran during the church service.

    Wasn't my idea, but I was happy to participate.


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