Paradise Lost in Waco

John Milton, in the opening stanza of Paradise Lost, presents his readers with a lofty goal—his desire to try and “justify the ways of God to men.” In the limited series Waco, premiering this month on the Paramount Channel, the task becomes even more difficult, given that the central character in this drama, David Koresh, is a deeply flawed, self-appointed demigod in cowboy boots, and the battle is joined not in some starry nebula in Orion’s sword but on a dusty plain in Texas.

At the time, the true shock for many of us was the realization that the spiritual DNA for the Branch Davidians mutated from as unlikely a source as our own brand of evangelical Protestantism. We had been taught that Seventh-day Adventists were intended to be a peculiar people. But not that peculiar.

I remember vividly sitting in the youth chapel at my home church in Long Beach, my first weekend home from college. The worship leader, having spotted a distinguished gentleman camped near the back, started to introduce him but before he could, the man, with booming radio voice, announced he was simply visiting from the local chapter of the Shepherd’s Rod. As it turned out, the visitor was none other than H.M.S. Richards, Jr., the beloved speaker of The Voice of Prophecy, who enjoyed joking about such things.

I remember being struck at the time by the notion that within my church there apparently existed a kind of Adventist “deep state,” with certain shadowy groups like the Shepherd’s Rod, groups whose ideology, fueled by the prophetic visions of men like Victor Houteff,sowed the seeds for what would become the Branch Davidians.

Historically, depictions of Seventh-day Adventists in the mainstream media have been rare and generally unflattering. Sybil, a 1976 two-part movie for television starring Joanne Woodward and Sally Field, chronicled the story of Shirley Ardel Mason who was afflicted with multiple personality disorder, thought to be a coping mechanism for her bizarre and cruel upbringing at the hands of her Adventist mother. Although revisionists have tended to throw a little shade on some of Mason’s claims, the theme of fanatical Adventist parents (or grandparents) doing emotional and psychological damage to their children, as in the case of celebrated African American writer Richard Wright, has stubbornly persisted.

In recent years, others have fared much better, with Dr. Ben Carson and Desmond T. Doss each receiving heroic treatment in high profile films, which brings us back around to the tragedy that was Waco.

To many, the very name evokes memories of the standoff between government FBI and ATF agents and self-proclaimed messiah David Koresh and his followers at their Mount Carmel compound. As one might expect, the storyline of Waco, which is based on written accounts and interviews with survivors, gets most of its traction from civil and constitutional issues. In the first two episodes, Adventism is barely mentioned, and when it is, it is used for its “mainstream-ness,” to argue that Koresh and some of his followers had traditional evangelical roots, an irony that shouldn’t be lost. How can these people be dangerous cultists, when they started out as Seventh-day Adventists?

Waco early on establishes the battle lines between the government agents, fresh off the botched operation at Ruby Ridge and the Branch Dividians, living quietly below the radar and supporting themselves with firearm and camo vest sales at gun shows, not to mention honky-tonk gigs by a Koresh-fronted local cover band. But, within these groups, there are also subgroups, each with their own story arcs.

The FBI and ATF, more than eager to assign blame for Ruby Ridge, vie for redemption and seize on the compound at Mount Carmel as a fortuitous venue. Koresh, while trying to hold together his flock, faces his own fractious elements, especially among the women, several of whom he has taken as wives.

One of the ground rules for membership in the family is that the men take a vow of celibacy, while Koresh, as the self-proclaimed anointed one, asserts his right to be sole progenitor for the group. This, he tells the others, came to him in a vision. It would seem the ability to receive visions, however self-serving, is sine qua non for effective leadership, and what separates true leaders from the hoi polloi. Here’s Koresh, receiving a vision from the Almighty instructing him to claim the young women as sexual acolytes, while my recurring visions of grandeur usually involved playing short stop behind Sandy Koufax as he pitched his perfect game against the Cubs.

As Koresh, Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) bears a reasonable resemblance to the real person, even down to his Barney Fife kind of delivery, molasses-thick with a Texas drawl. Unlike George C. Scott’s portrayal of Patton with a gruff bark, markedly dissimilar from the real General’s somewhat pitched voice, Kitsch sounds remarkably like Koresh. Even so, it’s the ambiguous shaping of Koresh’s character, not the delivery, which seems most problematic in Waco, at least through episode two.

Cult leaders throughout history have succeeded in bending others to their will with an uncanny ability to null out the logical resistance of their would-be followers by a Pied Piper kind of charisma. That charisma can take many forms, from the far-flung fantasies of L. Ron Hubbard’s thetans and SPs to the paranoid victim bonding of Jim Jones to the crack-pot gleam in Charles Manson’s eyes; what develops is near-mystical and pathologically co-dependent relationship between leader and supplicant. By contrast, David Koresh, at least as portrayed, is someone who seems, for lack of a better description, just cloyingly earnest. A kind of Ned Flanders with a mullet.

It falls to those players around him to fill the narrative real estate with superheated arguments about freedom and tyranny, and, as a result, the writing often staggers under the weight of its own didacticism. Take Steve Schneider (Paul Sparks), who when his wife announces she is pregnant with Koresh’s child, responds with a kind of philosophical 12-step response: “If your wife had a chance to marry the Lamb of God,” he wonders aloud, “who am I to hold her back?” Later, when one of the members cautions Koresh about cozying up to Jacob, the ATF agent spying on the compound from across the road, his warning seems oddly prosaic: “David, your heart is in the right place, but you’re opening us up to a whole lot of trouble.” Nuanced foreshadowing it is not.

It’s Koresh, himself, who offers up his own succinct take on Jacob’s genuine question about human suffering. When Jacob questions the reason for his mother’s dementia, Koresh looks deeply into his eyes, searching for just the right pearl of truth to justify the ways of God to man. “It’s a toughie,” he finally offers, as if describing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.

On its production merits, Waco is beautifully shot, with impressive production values, made possible in this era of versatile camera platforms and drones. The casting is generally adequate, given what often seems like surprisingly shallow characters. The Feds are angry and aggressive and stubborn. Even Gary Noesmer (Michael Shannon), the FBI negotiator who serves as kind of a moral compass for the government, can only respond with stilted speeches about government overreach when he’s not grinding off the sharp edges of his conscience with Jack Daniels.

Those few moments in the first two episodes that actually manage to gain some sort of emotional footing occur when dialogue mercifully gives way to poignant silence. When the young initiate David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin) is pressed into marrying one of Koresh’s wives to provide some legal cover and, on his wedding night, sees his new bride whisked away to Koresh’s bed with what amounts to a “thank you for your service” nod from the leader, the true nature of the enterprise is painfully laid bare. It has been said that there is no suitable language to express the deepest of human longings. The look on Thibodeau’s face, held in close-up, as yearning grudgingly gives way to realization, is truly heartbreaking.

So, how does one attempt to justify the ways of God to man? Or, in the case of David Koresh, how does one begin to try and explain those forces necessary to empower a man to draw together a band of people, people willing to lay down their lives and the lives of their young children based solely on his private vision? Unfortunately, the first two episodes fail to shed much light. In the end, I suspect the answer lies less in the gifts of the anointed one and more in the needs of those willing to follow.

This review was written by Donald Davenport for Spectrum. He is a screenwriter, novelist, and La Sierra University graduate.

Image: Paramount Network

Further Reading: New TV Series Premieres for 25th Anniversary of the Waco Tragedy, January 24, 2018 We Didn't Start the Fire but the Tinder was Ours, January 31, 2018

If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Some reasons for this tragedy are traced back to Adam & Eve.

The GOD wannabe attitude and gullibility.

99% of Christianity=deceived by preachers on the 10 commandments validity…
and many if not most Adventists are deceived by SS teachers and/or ministers on soteriology.

Clues as to the latter are shown by how idealistic/victorious quotes of EG White are met with hostility.

The denomination is plagued with fanatics (Rom 10:2)

This is what Jesus knew would happen…
"For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect."
Matt 24:24

It would be somewhat helpful if pastors/SS teachers would give listeners some coping tools on this topic.

A presentation on Kohlberg’s stages of morality, the 4 basic needs of people (affection, acceptance ,appreciation, achievement), herd mentality, the basic propensities inherited from Adam & Eve…(God wannabe, guilt shifting, gamble, gullible, greedy) FOMO-Fear of missing out.

Too much sensational or shallow religious lingo is warping SDA members…promoting fanaticism.

How pathetic does it have to get?

Prior to the Waco conflagration, I met the physician brother of one of the women who went
to join the group. They both came from aTraditional Adventist up bringing.
It was interesting that the doctor brother could NOT understand why his sister would join
that type of group.
We do have to understand that the group was composed of SDA from a number of states.
A group not known to each other prior to joining.

I got the SENSE that it is the PURITY, the PERFECT that the 28 PROMOTE, and Ellen PROMOTES that causes these groups to form.
Shepherd’s Rod, Davidians, Koreshites. ---- ALL of these came out of SDAism BECAUSE
they were Seventh day Adventists who were BEYOND the run-of-the-mill Seventh-day Adventist. AND IF you JOINED their group, you would be on your way to PURITY, to PERFECT which THEY saw the 28 PROMOTING, and they could and would QUOTE ELLEN to back up their position.

Then there was the Brothers in Australia. Ellen was part of their instruction.
When I was in boarding school in about '59 we had a guest speaker that came around and
Promoted the Cleansing of The Sanctuary. And HIS TAKE on it was the Brain – the conscious,
the unconscious. One was the Holy Place, the Other was the Most Holy Place. And CLEANSING our Brains of Sin was the cleansing of the Sanctuary [Christ through the Holy Spirit dwells in us, and so cleansed – again PURITY, PERFECTION]. I cannot recall his name or how he got invited. But he never returned, as many other guest speakers were requested to return.

Isn’t this exactly like the SDA church in relation to the rest of Christianity? SDA’s are not run of the mill Christians…they are special. They have special revelation beyond what the Bible says. They have the truth. And this can all be quoted from the prophet that proves these claims.

Since Ellen/SDA’ism says that there will be more light, of course some SDA’s are going to be following this teaching, unfortunately. False teaching begets more false teaching.


The Books Daniel and Revelation were given to us for our encouragement In Christnot some self appointed prophet. Let us have more Christ said or did not 19th or 20 th centrury self appointed con.

1 Like

An irony that shouldn’t be lost.

An irony that shouldn’t be lost.

An irony that shouldn’t be lost.


Let’s put it right out there…SDAism has cultish tendencies built into its DNA. The denomination was built out of a private vision that reinterpreted failed prophecy. Private vision that could never be objectively verified. It rallied around a self understanding of its own uniqueness and aspirations of human perfectabilty that were propounded by its own prophet and her visions. It was driven by her personal charisma and the charisma of her husband.

For members to not head in that direction spiritually requires some level of cognitive dissonance, an ignoring of swaths of her writings, and the traditional theology of the denomination. If swallowed whole, it may not logically lead to Koresh and the Branch Davidians, but it does lead to real theological aberrations, and distortions of healthy faith and spirituality. I’ve seen it enough times.




I’ve finished watching 3 of the episodes thus far plus all the outtakes and interviews with survivors on the Paramount website. It’s pretty hard to watch, but very effective at portraying the characters in a heartbreaking fashion. Misguided kids, probably low self-esteem, coupled with a very charismatic predator. I found a story in one of the local papers that was an interview with a survivor, a former wife. She and her daughter (by Koresh) left the cult in time to escape the final stand.

I like the show a bit better than Mr. Davenport does in the review, but I’ve followed the story fairly closely as the siege went on day by day. At the time I was almost relieved the feds had decided to end it. I wasn’t aware of the actual origin of the Branch Davidians and how Koresh forcibly overtook it after the originator of the cult and David came to loggerheads as to which one was the real Messiah. The story as portrayed thus far has me on the edge of the couch watching. My heart is saying, give up, give up! while my mind is begging the story to end differently.

Hindsight and further actions by the ATF have changed my mind about the feds in this incident. The more power we give to the federal government, the greater the chance of history repeating itself.A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything that you have." (from someone somewhere but not Thomas Jefferson). I do look forward to seeing if any of the side segments mention Koresh’s involvement as a SS teacher at the Diamond Head church.