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When we think of the Heaven’s Gate cult, if we think of it at all, we likely remember the matching Nike shoes, the soft-spoken crazy-eyed leader, or the hokey website. In popular culture, Heaven’s Gate is a joke, fodder for a sketch on SNL. For most of us, their memory has no more significance than a bit of weird trivia.

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults, a four-part docu-series from HBO Max, attempts to get past the punchline that Heaven’s Gate has become and considers its members as individuals. In the first episode we are told that cults tend to become popular during times of social unrest. They attract intelligent people. Considering these facts we have to ask ourselves, in these desperate times, to what are desperate, intelligent people attracted to? Where are they most convinced they will find hope?

In the 1970s, nurse Bonnie Nettles convinced Marshall Applewhite that they were aliens in human bodies. Applewhite, who had considered a career in Christian ministry, blended Nettles’ belief in aliens and UFOs with his religious inclinations, and they soon built a small following. At first the two leaders called themselves Bo and Peep (because they had a flock of “sheep”). Nettles and Applewhite eventually settled on Ti and Do, respectively, after the song in their favorite movie, The Sound of Music.

While members were discouraged from keeping in contact with their families (a rule that Nettles, who sent monthly letters to her daughter, quietly ignored until her death from cancer in 1985), they were allowed to leave at any time. Two former members, Frank Lyford and another known only as Sawyer, are interviewed here. Lyford still has a speech impediment from the psychological abuse he suffered, and Sawyer still holds to many of Ti and Do’s teachings. Family members, including Bonnie Nettles’ daughter, speak candidly about their sense of loss.

While the similarities to Christianity are brought up several times, and various religious scholars and cult experts are interviewed, no Christian leaders or clergy are invited to the discussion. The result is not that Heaven’s Gate is antagonistic toward believers. Instead, much like what happened within the cult itself, there’s a lot of talk about Christianity without any true understanding of its core beliefs.

In 1 John 4 we are told “not to believe every spirit,” but to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” I don’t recall hearing what the cult believed about Jesus, but given that their prophet said they were leaving on a spaceship riding behind a comet, I doubt their beliefs passed the test of confessing that Jesus came in the flesh from God.

After spending three hours learning about the members of the cult, seeing the 1997 news footage from inside that California home isn’t funny. It’s nauseating. For whatever Heaven’s Gate might lack in presentation, the tragic consequences of the cult’s broken beliefs can still serve as a cautionary tale for today. (HBO Max)

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