At the podium of the world’s greatest deliberative body stood the QAnon Shaman. A bare-chested man wearing red, white, and blue warpaint on his face and a bonnet made of raccoon fur and Viking horns on his head, he considers himself a “Self-Initiated Shaman, Energetic Healer, Ordained Minister” and a “metaphysical warrior, a compassionate healer, and a servant of the Divine Creator God.” He had invaded the U.S. Capitol building to raise awareness about the global cabal of Satan-worshiping cannibalistic pedophiles—like Tom Hanks and Pope Francis—who extract adrenochrome, a drug reputed to have psychedelic and life-extending benefits, from the blood of innocent children. These pedophiles can only be stopped by President Trump, whose second term will inaugurate the Ascension, the Great Awakening, the Rapture.

For a few brief moments on Wednesday, January 6, the QAnon Shaman became the face of America in 2021.

QAnon Shaman (aka Jake Angeli) has also become the representative figure for the motley group of insurrectionists—traitors, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, domestic terrorists—who clashed with police, injuring 56 officers and killing one. While few were as colorful as Angeli, each tried to stand out in their own way. Many waved their banners (Trump flags, Confederate flags, “Jesus 2020” banners) or brandished their totems (nooses, antisemitic T-shirts, white-supremacist tattoos, Holy Bibles) to signal their allegiance to their subtribe.

But what does it all mean? What are we to make of such images? Why did they attack the seat of our government?

In order to understand the insurrection, we must view it not as a unique historical event but as the latest, dangerous manifestation of what can be considered a fantasy ideology.

Acting Out a Fantasy

The term “fantasy ideology” was coined almost two decades ago by Lee Harris in one of the most important, though largely unheralded, essays of the 21st century. As Harris explains, a fantasy ideology is the use of political and ideological symbols and tropes not for political purposes, but entirely for the benefit of furthering a specific personal or collective fantasy.

“It is, to be frank, something like ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ carried out not with the trappings of medieval romances—old castles and maidens in distress—but entirely in terms of ideological symbols and emblems,” says Harris. “The difference between them is that one is an innocent pastime while the other has proven to be one of the most terrible scourges to afflict the human race.”

Such is the power of ideology that angels and men would choose a hellish fantasy over living in God’s reality.

An examination of some of the most pernicious ideologies throughout recent history—Marxism, Chinese Communism, National Socialism, Italian fascism—shows that the bulk of its adherents have little to gain politically. But the ideologies do, as Harris notes, provide the opportunity to have a bit part in the great play of history.

Harris shares a story of his first encounter with fantasy ideology. It’s worth quoting at length because of the parallels with recent events:

My first encounter with this particular kind of fantasy occurred when I was in college in the late sixties. A friend of mine and I got into a heated argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of anti-war protest. To me the point of such protest was simple—to turn people against the war. Hence anything that was counterproductive to this purpose was politically irresponsible and should be severely censured. My friend thought otherwise; in fact, he was planning to join what by all accounts was to be a massively disruptive demonstration in Washington, and which in fact became one.

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason—because it was, in his words, good for his soul.

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy—a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view—for that would still have been a political objective. Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability. Thus, when he lay down in front of hapless commuters on the bridges over the Potomac, he had no interest in changing the minds of these commuters, no concern over whether they became angry at the protesters or not. They were there merely as props, as so many supernumeraries in his private psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.

It was not your garden-variety fantasy of life as a sexual athlete or a racecar driver, but in it, he nonetheless made himself out as a hero—a hero of the revolutionary struggle.

Inflaming the Fantasists

When I first saw images and videos of the insurrection, I assumed it was as a foolishly inept coup—a sudden, violent, illegal seizure of power from a government. But watching the follow-up interviews with those who participated, it became clear they had no other agenda than acting out a fantasy in which they could be an alt-right hero.

And no one had stepped up to stop them.

As Harris says, “Fortunately, the fantasizing individual is normally surrounded by other individuals who are not fantasizing or, at the very least, who are not fantasizing in the same way, and this fact puts some limit on how far most of us allow our fantasy world to intrude on the precinct of reality.” But what happens when the fantasizing individual is surrounded by those willing to fuel the delusion for the sake of pageviews, ad revenue, or future votes?

What happens when government officials in Congress and the White House promote lies that inflame the fantasists? What happens when people who write bestselling biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer not only lie about election fraud but claim, “I’d be happy to die in this fight. This is a fight for everything. God is with us.”

Answer: Dead and wounded Americans in our Capitol building.

The question we must ask now is what are we, as church members and church leaders, going to do about those in our care who are stricken by this particular fantasy ideology?

The Original Fantasy Ideology

The first, absolutely essential step is to address it within our congregations. For too long many Christian leaders have remained silent, fearing the repercussions of calling out those who are obsessed with political fantasies that are leading them away from Jesus.

If our church members were promoting Wiccanism or Satanism on their social-media accounts, we wouldn’t merely shrug and say, “Not my problem.” Why then do when turn a blind eye to satanic movements like QAnon and alt-right paganism that are infiltrating our churches? We have a duty to God and our fellow believers to attempt to deliver them, our churches, and our country from this evil.

The question we must ask now is what are we, as church members and church leaders, going to do about those in our care who are stricken by this particular fantasy ideology?

We must do everything within our power. But the second step is to be realistic about what we can achieve. Changing the conditions of an individual’s or group’s perception of reality is no simple task. We may be unable to free them from their demonic fantasies because many do not want to be free.

In the movie Downfall, based on eyewitness accounts during the final days of World War II, Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels and his wife are given the opportunity to have their six young children flee to safety. Magda Goebbels, however, refuses to allow them to leave. Instead, as her kids sleep, she inserts a cyanide capsule into each child’s mouth and presses their jaws until the capsule breaks. When explaining why she wouldn’t allow her kids to escape, Mrs. Goebbels says, “I can’t bear to think of them growing up in a world without National Socialism.”

There are many Americans—including many in our own churches—who would not want to live in a world without QAnon or Christian nationalism or other ideologies that give their life purpose and meaning. Indeed, even if we defeat this particular American brand of fantasy ideology, it will only be a matter of time before another takes its place. This is merely a manifestation of the first, longest, most brutal, and most enduring war in the history of the universe: the war that began with a rebellion in heaven.

Satan’s war against God is the ultimate and archetypal example of a fantasy ideology. On a rational level, it makes no sense and raises the question of why such a pointless venture would have begun in the first place. After all, as every child in Sunday school can attest, the Devil and his demons cannot win against their Creator. So why fight at all?

The reason is because Satan, in a sentiment that would later be echoed by Magda Goebbels, could not live in a universe that did not conform to his fantasy. “Better to reign in hell,” Satan says in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “than serve in heav’n.” Such is the power of ideology that angels and men would choose a hellish fantasy over living in God’s reality.

Spoiler Alert: The Gospel Wins

Ironically, it’s in the example of the first ideological fantasist that we find our reason for hope. For Christians, the eschatological vision is clear: in the end, Satan loses and peace reigns on the earth. The battles will surely continue, as they have throughout history. And the ideology of the traitorous insurrectionists will eventually be defeated, joining such ideological evils as communism, fascism, and Nazism.

As we destroy these powers, though, new ideologies will spring forth like the tentacles of the hydra to take their place in the hearts of men. But no matter how long it takes, how long the historical play continues, or how many actors take the stage, the last act has already been written. We can take comfort, for we know what comes after the final curtain falls. No matter what fantasy ideologies may arise, the gospel is the ultimate fantasy that triumphs in the end. And it just happens to be true.