I am a seminarian. I look my best under the florescent lights at the library. I think that church pews are comfortable. I am the ideal potluck dinner guest. It goes without saying that I do not fit in at motorcycle rallies.
God and my editor were both looking for a laugh, so I was sent on assignment to write a story about a group of motorcyclists riding cross country for charity. Along their route, they would stop at various biker rallies to raise funds and awareness for their charity. Knowing remarkably little about what I was getting into, I took the assignment. On Friday, I was in a seminary classroom learning about early church history; on Saturday, I was attending a biker rally as an embedded journalist, five states away from my beloved potlucks.
My education did not cease when I left the seminary classroom. At the rally, I learned many valuable life lessons. I learned the basics of leather jacket maintenance and why only sissies wear helmets. I learned that loud pipes save lives. The pragmatic lessons that my biker friends taught me were helpful, but my favorite lesson was a little more ethereal. Unwittingly, these bikers taught me how to be a modern-day Manichean.
My biker friends had little intention of teaching me about the third-century heresy of Manichaeism. They were entirely unaware that their beliefs were Manichean. They had never heard of Mani, the Persian founder of the religious sect of Manichaeism. To my dismay, they were indifferent when I told them about Saint Augustine’s dabbling in Mani’s teachings prior to his conversion (a solid conversation starter at the seminary).
Though half a globe and fifteen hundred years separated Mani from my biker friends, the similarities in their beliefs were uncanny. Everything that I had learned about Manichaeism at the seminary came alive and was riding a Harley with me across the country. During my week among the biker community, one question repeatedly hogged my brain’s gray matter: How did this subculture that knew nothing of Manichaeism end up creating an identical belief system?
The biker community is a deeply religious bunch. Like the Manicheans of the third century, the bikers that I stayed with were a very pious people. Patches or handlebars salvaged from a wreck possess special salvific powers. Rather than being kissed by the pope, these items had been kissed by the asphalt and were now relics. Tattoos of the deceased have a sort of sacramental presence, connecting the living to the dead.
One lady that I met had lost her right leg in a crash. At the time of the accident, she had a tattoo of her late grandmother on her arm. She was certain that her grandmother’s inked presence kept her from dying in the crash. Following her amputation, she got a tattoo of a fairy with a pink prosthetic leg to commemorate her recently lost leg. The spiritual presence of the one-legged fairy and her grandmother help her bear the earthly agony of rehabilitation. If you ask this one-legged Manichean, she will tell you that tattoos are gateways that permit the benevolence of the spiritual world to infiltrate the evils of the physical world.
Looking back on his nine years as a Manichean, Augustine wrote, “I concluded that there were two masses, both infinite, but the evil rather smaller, the good larger.” Dualism is a hallmark of both Manichaeism and the biker religion. My biker friends were not fully comfortable when I mentioned the personal God of Christianity; they preferred to speak in generalities about eternally warring forces of good and evil. They were riding for charity, on a mission to promote good and stomp out evil. Like all good Manicheans, my biker friends were certain that good would win out.
To be certain, there were times when the bikers would speak of the Trinity; however, even the Trinity was understood through the Manichean-Biker cosmos. When one of the bikers, a Vietnam veteran named Big Tow, found out that I was studying to be a pastor, he immediately asked me a theological question.
“I have talked to very religious people, and they say that they do not believe in Satan. I don’t get how you can not believe in Lucifer. With everything that is holy—God and Jesus—you have to have something that is evil to balance things out,” Big Tow said. I did not know where to begin my response.
Much like the original Manicheans, my biker friends salivated over a smorgasbord of religious outlooks. They appreciate parts of Christianity. They appreciate parts of Buddhism. They appreciate parts of Humanism. In this buffet of religious doctrines, I frequently heard the bikers utilize words like “Karma,” “Sin,” and “Nirvana” in the same sentence. It was refreshing to hear a flurry of religious words away from the seminary; still, my ears pinged when I heard “Karma” being used interchangeably for “Sin.” Like Mani, my friends accepted all faiths while maintaining that their Manichean-Biker faith was just a little more supreme.
My week with these Manichean motorcyclists left me confused. What would Mani have thought about this group of motorcyclists? Would my biker friends have fit in with the Manicheans of third-century Persia? How did this group of bikers become Manicheans without even knowing such a thing existed?
Perhaps the answer is in the common existence that Mani and motorcyclists share. Mani frequented the open road between Iraq and India. He spent some time in the pen. History deemed him a rebel. Somewhere between the open road and his death in jail, Mani became a rebel. Still, this realization hardly gets me closer to understanding why these motorcyclists have become accidental Manicheans.
Either way, I am certain of one thing. Were he alive today, Mani would definitely ride a Harley.
A. Trevor Sutton is a student at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis, Missouri. His essay “Modern Love: The Findings of a Sorority Chaplain” (Relief, Spring 2009) was recently recognized in Houghton Mifflin’s 2010 Best American Essays.