A Jonestown Trilogy: A Review

(Garrett Martin is a graduate of the University of California at San Diego and currently works at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He can be reached at gmartin@ucsd.edu. The trilogy was published in 2020, and is the subject of an article by its author, Jeff Hood.)

The Slaughter of God: Theologies from Jonestown. By Jeff Hood. Wipf and Stock, 2018.242 pages. $43.00 hardcover; ebook available.

Systematic Theology/Shit: Revelations from Jonestown. By Jeff Hood. Independently published, 2020. 120 pages. $6.00 softcover; ebook available.

Five Visions of Jim Jones/Jonestown. By Jeff Hood. Independently published, 2020. 78 pages. $6.00 softcover; ebook available.

Jeff Hood’s Jonestown trilogy is best described as haunting. Using a variety of styles and approaches, the Baptist minister and radical activist offers theological reflections on Jim Jones and the Jonestown tragedy. The three books adopt a form that is raw, unpolished and  provocative. Scholars may find themselves disappointed by the paucity of clear analysis, but analysis is not what Hood intends. Drawing from personal accounts, dream sequences, imaginative perspectives, and streams of consciousness, the minister presents a spiritual challenge to both Jones, his public image, and the reader. For fleeting moments, you may find yourself immersed in the chaos of sitting in a Peoples Temple pew. Suspend expectations, savor discomfort, and enjoy these strange little books.

I begin this review with the second book of the trilogy, Systematic Theology/Shit, which opens with a personal account. A young Jeff Hood seems helplessly trapped in a nightmare starring Jim Jones as a kind of Freddy Kruger stand-in. Hood the writer captures the demonic coldness of Jones with clarity. But he also contests the popular view of Jones by providing dramatic empathy. Indeed, the greatest strength of this theological work is its ability to humanize Jones. Hood reminds the audience that, “no one is born evil,” and offers us the perspective of Jones’ mother, Lynetta, holding him as a baby.

Hood then shifts his focus to Jonestown proper. The reality of Jonestown today is that many people continue to blame the victims, as if there were something irredeemable about having one’s faith betrayed. The author asks the reader to consider the idealism of community members and inserts affecting scenes of love and cooperation. But Jones’ paranoia returns as the reader is swept up into the chaotic crescendo of Jonestown.

There is much to appreciate about Systematic Theology/Shit. Hood uses rhetorical questions to make his theological points. For example: “The people of Jonestown were children of God. Can we finally treat them as such?” Those moments of authoritative clarity, however, are brief respites from the general cacophony. But the work is written to convey the experience of Jonestown. Unfortunately, the smattering of typos and overly-creative liberties undermine that experience.

Five Visions of Jim Jones/Jonestown, the final and shortest work of the trilogy, is a bite-sized theology that blends more personal stories with a kind of laconic, minimalist poetry. Five Visions begins by drawing parallels between faith healers—those that Hood has witnessed, television evangelists, and Jim Jones—and suggests that faith healing is a subjective practice with perhaps psychosomatic outcomes. He contends that these healings are not necessarily fake, since reality is individually constructed. If someone believes they are healed, are they not healed, at least in that moment? The examination of faith healing bolsters the trilogy’s overall challenge to popular assumptions. “Though things spiraled horrifically out of control,” Hood writes, “I don’t think there is any question that people were healed in a variety of ways through Jones’ ministry.” While the Baptist pastor does not deny the “evil” of Jim Jones, he contextualizes Jones as a minster who provided a genuine spiritual service to his congregation—at least some of the time. Five Visions blurs the moral lines that most people draw in relation to Jonestown. The book takes a wrenching turn in its final two sections, however, careening between poetry and hymnal. It hangs onto to its lucidity by a thread.

The Slaughter of God is the first and most comprehensive work of the trilogy, despite its narrow scope. This book reinterprets the final recording made in Jonestown, FBI Audiotape Q042, dubbed “the Jonestown death tape,” The tape catalogues the group’s final hours. Slaughter of God stands out from the other two works for several reasons. It does little to humanize Jones, choosing instead to highlight the malevolence of his actions. He is identified in this book as a “prolific oppressor” (162), “an abusive parent” (173), and possibly an “Anti-Christ” (28). Furthermore, Slaughter of God lacks the poetic interpretations of the other books. Instead, Hood writes this theology as an intimate dialogue with the final recording of Jonestown, offering direct challenges to Jim Jones. This conversational style enables the author to develop his theological insights. Within the trilogy, this book is the most grounded in prose and thus the most approachable.

Hood’s trilogy is not the best entry point for would-be Jonestown scholars. But for those with a strong foothold in this rocky area, the books present a refreshing supplement to standard analyses. This is not a theological journey for the faint of heart, but neither is the Jonestown saga in general. Jeff Hood’s unsentimental Jonestown reflections are uncomfortable, awkward, and abrasive while at the same time inspiring and adroit. A complex work that confounds and surprises readers, it is undoubtedly a meaningful contribution to theological conversations surrounding Jonestown.

A final note: Jeff Hood has also published a 10-volume collection of the sermons of Jim Jones as part of his theological project about Jonestown. Rather than dismiss Jones as simply “other” or “insane” or “evil,” Hood listens to what he says and takes him seriously. He asks readers to do the same.