Current events have overtaken "Inside a Cult," a National Geographic Channel special on the Lord Our Righteousness Church, a northeastern New Mexico apocalyptic Christian cult numbering some 50 to 70 people. Its leader, Michael Travesser (born Wayne Bent), the self-proclaimed re-embodiment of Jesus Christ, was arrested Tuesday morning by state police and charged with three counts of criminal sexual contact, a week after three minors -- all are seen in the documentary -- were removed from the compound.
The film, adapted from "End of a World Cult," a documentary that ran last year on Britain's Channel 4, is as even-handed as it could be, given the subject. (The church feels good enough about its treatment to have announced both documentaries on its website.) The cult members are given their say and treated along with their original British interviewers with delicate curiosity and something like highly skeptical respect.
These are balanced by interviews with American cult experts who indicate why this might not be the healthiest way to live, putting into context the 66-year-old Travesser's mystical pronouncements, his followers' practices and their power relationships, especially as regards sex. (Among the men, only Travesser has any, but always at the command of God.) There are references to Waco's Branch Davidians, Jim Jones' People's Temple and the Heaven's Gate group -- the best-known American cults, for their spectacular bad ends. Those churches have a particular relevance to the Lord Our Righteousness Church, since at the time of this filming the predicted end of the world -- and some vaguely defined transformation meant for Travesser himself -- was near, scheduled for Halloween night, 2007. There is some will-they-won't-they-kill-themselves suspense built into the film's narrative. The end of the world did not come to pass, I probably do not need to tell you, nor did the end of the church: Cult members merely recalibrated their expectations.
It is never suggested that Travesser does not believe everything he tells his flock or the cameras, only that he has created a situation in which that belief might be allowed to continue uncontradicted and unchecked, and all power accrues to him, even as he construes the whole thing as a painful and a terrible sacrifice. His aspect is quiet and apparently reasonable. There is not much fire and brimstone about him -- perhaps it has mostly been burned away -- and the compound seems like a pretty and a peaceful enough place. "I was educated in your world," he tells his interviewers. "I know very well how empty it is, and it goes nowhere; all you got is your DVD movies, going to the cinema, waging wars, um, paying your debts. That's all you have." His world, as he frames it, is all God and angels.
The rejection of transitory and earthly for the eternal and spiritual has, of course, a long-standing and widespread appeal; most religions are rooted in it. Still, harder than Travesser to understand are the people who have decided that alone out of the world's billions he has the right line to God, and they have dissolved their families to follow him. (Travesser slept with the wife of his own son, who runs the compound's security -- "God came down on Michael and forced him to consummate with Christiana. I was astonished, and so was Michael.")
A few acolytes have that odd eye-glint we associate with cultists; younger members giggle a lot when questioned, as if over a shared secret. The girl called "Healed," one of the minors recently removed from the cult -- after having once been removed and made her way back -- says, "My mom told me once she thought I was brainwashed, and I thought, yeah, I am brainwashed! Michael has washed my brain of all my own corrupt thoughts!" Esther and Danielle, who in 2006 laid naked on Travesser's bed -- at their own inspiration, they at least believe -- recall the incident as though it were both a kind of spiritual pop-star encounter and the most normal thing in the world.
"MDs are with naked people," Travesser says. "An MD is far more likely to think of sex when he's doing something to a woman in her private parts than I am."
Do you know what state law is, he is asked, as regards laying down naked with minors.
"No," he answers. Possibly he does now.
'Inside a Cult'
Where: National Geographic Channel
When: 10 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)