Did I Belong to a Cult? The Story (in Brief) of My Spiritual Journey (Or How I Survived Spiritual Abuse but Still Bear the Scars)
One of the subjects I touch on here frequently (and one of my reasons for having this blog) is “cults.” We don’t hear as much about the issue as some years ago—especially from the late 1970s through the 1990s. That was the era when “cults” became a favorite topic in the media due to mass suicides and deaths in fringe religious movements and communes. Many of us remember well: Jim Jones and the “Jonestown” (People’s Temple) massacre in Guyana and David Koresh and the tragic ending to the government’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas in 1993. But there were other, similar events less well remembered by most people. Several esoteric and apocalyptic religious sects committed mass suicides or bombings, etc. Because of these violent events, the word “cult” came widely to be associated almost exclusively with dangerous religious groups—dangerous to members’ and possibly others’ physical well-being. In a smaller group of people “brainwashing” was the watchword for identifying “cults.” Any religious group believed to practice “mind control” on its members was considered by many sociologists and psychologists a “cult.”
Due to the “cult hysteria” of the 1980s and 1990s many people became paranoid about unusual, “non-mainstream” religious groups—calling on the government to investigate them for no other reason than their non-mainstream status. An entire industry of “cult watchers” and “cult apologists” arose with the first group labeling almost every group they didn’t like a cult and the latter group (mostly religion scholars) defending the rights of non-mainstream religious groups. I participated somewhat in both while refraining from “buying into” either group’s driving ideology. To me, it seemed, the anti-cult fundamentalist “cult watchers” seemed to use the word “cult” too loosely—often labeling religious groups cults simply because they held one non-traditional, perhaps unorthodox belief. Some secular anti-cultists tended, in my opinion, to treat any religious indoctrination as “brainwashing.” At the same time, the groups of religion scholars I associated with, the “cult apologists,” tended to defend groups I considered fraudulent, only about enriching their founders and leaders. Many of them seemed to me extremely naïve about the abusive tendencies in some of the “new religious movements” they defended.
My own involvement in research and teaching about “cults” and “alternative religious movements” began as a child. My uncle belonged to a religious group my parents and others called a cult. He would not talk with anyone in the family about his group’s beliefs. Eventually I learned that the group, although quite large, eschews publicity and even refuses to call itself anything other than “The Truth.” Ex-members and critics (including my parents and other family members) called my uncle’s house church movement “Two-By-Twos.” They don’t use that label. I also had a cousin who joined the Baha’i World Faith and during college I worked with and became close friends with another Baha’i. Many Christian anti-cultists called the Baha’i Faith a cult. I attended some of their meetings to try to understand for myself whether they deserved such a pejorative label or whether they counted as a true world religion. And I read their own books as well as books critical of them.
While in high school I began reading books about “marginal,” “non-mainstream” American religions by then-famous religion scholar Marcus Bach, founder of the University of Iowa’s School of Religion. I found my own religious form of life, Pentecostalism, included in some of his books. I knew from school friends and relatives that my church was considered a “cult” by many people. I will never forget the Sunday night, after our worship service ended, and as we existed the front doors of our church, a group of neighborhood teenagers had gathered across the street, on the sidewalk directly in front of our church, mimicking what they thought of us—laying hands on each other and falling down, shrieking and yelling in false religious ecstasy, etc. Right then I knew why other people called us “holy rollers.”
But our little Pentecostal denomination (we preferred to call ourselves a “movement” and our form of life and belief “Full Gospel”) was a full charter member of the National Association of Evangelicals—along with a very diverse group of about fifty other generally conservative Protestant churches. We were enthusiastic about both Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. We certainly did not think of ourselves as a “cult” even if some others in our mainly Catholic and Lutheran cultural context (“religious ecology”) did. We were trinitarian (unlike those “Oneness Pentecostals”), believed in all the orthodox doctrines of historic Protestant Christianity, and participated in trans-denominational parachurch organizations and endeavors such as Youth for Christ and Evangelism Explosion. However, we also knew that some evangelical parachurch organizations such as Child Evangelism Fellowship (then, in the 1950s and 1960s) would not allow us or any Pentecostals to participate in their works. We thought they, other evangelicals especially, simply didn’t understand us. And to a large extent I think that was the case. Many of them held us at “arms’ length” mainly because of our admittedly strange doctrine that speaking in tongues is necessary for the fullness of the Holy Spirit in one’s life (“baptism of the Spirit”).
We Pentecostals thought “mainline Protestants” and Catholics were at best “nominal Christians” and at worst totally false, fake, “Christians”—mission fields for us and other evangelicals. Like many fundamentalists (we didn’t consider ourselves that) we looked at the secular and mainline religious “world” as “the world”—fallen, evil, corrupt, going to hell in a handbasket. We expected the “rapture” at any moment and that only truly “born again Christians” would be lifted up to meet the Lord Jesus Christ “in the air.” (I attended the world premier of the fundamentalist film “Thief in the Night” and it portrayed exactly what we believed.)
I often describe the church I grew up in as “urban Amish”—much to my students’ amusement. We drove cars (but eschewed expensive ones) and had electricity (but not air conditioning). We thought luxury was a sin (“conspicuous consumption”) as was make up and jewelry. Women in our church did not go to salons; men wore their hair short and rarely, if ever, grew facial hair. Women did not wear “men’s clothes”—which meant pants. Even boys didn’t wear shorts. At religious camp boys and girls, men and women, could not swim together (“mixed bathing”). Dancing of all kinds (except “in the Spirit”) was forbidden—even at school in gym classes which always had a unit on square dancing. We sat out. There was no question of going to “prom;” our church held an alternative “graduation banquet.” In typical fashion I did not darken the door of a movie theater, even to watch a “Billy Graham film,” until I was nineteen and even then half expected God’s lightening to strike me! Television was a matter of tension; church families that had televisions were expected to monitor it very carefully. I never saw the typical Sunday evening television movies such as “The Wizard of Oz” until I was grown up. We spent most of Sunday at church or (in the afternoon between church services) at church members’ homes for “Sunday dinner” and prayer and discussion of the morning sermon.
I knew we were not alone in many of these ways of life. One whole branch of my large, extended family (I had sixty-five first cousins when all were alive) was Christian Reformed and, in terms of lifestyle, they were very similar to us. Our one main difference had to do with the doctrine of predestination. But they, too, lived unlike their non-Reformed neighbors and much like us. Another group of family members belonged to the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and they, too, were like us in terms of lifestyle—extremely conservative and totally centered around home and church with much Bible reading and memorizing, “family devotions,” avoiding “worldly pleasures,” and “worldly fashions.”
I look back on all that now with some degree of fondness. I don’t think it hurt me to grow up that way. Many temptations faced by my “non-Christian” friends never faced me or were easily avoided. Church was exciting; neither my brother nor I, as children or teenagers, ever went to church reluctantly. All our friends were there; the church was our extended family. The worship services were enthusiastic, lively, never boring. But, then, going to church (many times a week) was never a question. I had to drop out of Cub Scouts when our pack moved its weekly meeting to one of the nights when our church had “Prayer Meeting.” All-in-all, for the most part, I don’t regret growing up in that particular religious form of life. I had wonderful, life-changing experiences in that context. Some of them I count as supernatural. I have no doubt at all that I was supernaturally healed of rheumatic fever when I was ten. To this day there is no sign of heart damage from it (and I was extremely sick with severe heart symptoms and stayed in the hospital much of a summer—before the elders of our church finally laid hands on me, anointed me with oil, and prayed for my healing.) I experienced conversion, water baptism (publically, outside, in front of many onlookers), speaking in tongues (which never really did anything for me spiritually), holy laughter (an expression of extreme joy in God’s powerful presence) and even falling down (“slain in the Spirit”), hitting my head on a church pew and feeling nothing and having no bruise or lump from it.
By the time I was a senior in high school I was as passionate, fervent, even slightly fanatical, as any seventeen year old evangelical Christian could be. I was deeply involved in Youth for Christ. Taught Sunday School to younger children in church. Read my Bible and voluntarily participated in our denomination’s “Bible quizzing” contests and “Music with a Purpose” program (singing in a trio that went all the way to “National Convention”). I loved gospel music (and still do), carried my Bible to school, witnessed to my friends and teachers, and loved God with all my heart. I had a sudden and very dramatic “call to ministry” and set my face toward Bible college against my high school teachers’ and counselors’ strong advice. (I got very good grades in high school, read fervently and wrote very good essays, etc. My teachers wanted me to go to a local liberal arts college if not state university.)
Before continuing, I need to “step back” a moment and explain something most people having read to here would not guess. My father, also my pastor, was an avid reader of novels—something most people in our church and home did not know about. He kept a pile of novels of all kinds in his bedroom and spent hours reading them at home—something he never mentioned around “church people.” They were good, clean novels. I remember some of his favorites were by popular authors of the mid-twentieth century: Zane Grey, Harold Bell Wright, even Leon Uris and James Michener! He encouraged me and my brother to read also. By eighth grade I was devouring novels such as The Count of Monte Cristo, Gone with the Wind, and The Fires of Spring—an early Michener novel. By high school I graduated to Hawaii and The Source and other historical novels. In school I loved literature and history classes above all and also participated in “drama club”—having parts in plays like John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benet and Antigone by Anouilh. I devoured both the assigned novels in literature classes and asked my teachers for recommendations of similar books. Even though we (my brother and I) were not allowed to own or read “comic books” (except “Classics Illustrated”!) my father, especially, encouraged me to read whatever novels, biographies and history books I wanted to. Reading made me a critical thinker. My high school teachers contributed to that as well. They encouraged me to ask absolutely anything and I did.
Church was a different matter. As much as I loved it because of its warmth and enthusiasm and the love between people that I felt there, I knew better than to talk about my novels or my intellectual pursuits. Our church, like our denomination in general, like Pentecostalism then, was extremely anti-intellectual. There was a Baptist seminary in our small city and our church people always referred to it as “cemetery.” That and the Baptist college (to say nothing of the Lutheran college!) were where “faith went to die.” I do not think anyone in our church graduated from college or university; some may have attended Bible institutes or even technical schools after high school—to learn a trade. But “liberal arts” and “theological education” were anathema—except to my father who quietly encouraged higher education and even secretly took some courses at a liberal arts university nearby. Almost no one in our denomination—including leading pastors, evangelists, executives and even Bible college teachers ever went to seminary or graduate school. One Bible college teacher had dared to earn a graduate degree in theology, but he then left evangelical Christianity behind (so the story went) and that is “what always happens” when you go to seminary or university—especially to study theology. Our little denomination thrived on anti-intellectualism even as I was beginning to thrive on reading novels, biographies and books of world geography and history.
Throughout high school I was a quintessential religious “good boy.” I didn’t smoke, drink, dance, go to movies, or have any kind of sex—even with my girlfriend with whom I “went steady” for a year. We kissed but never “petted.” I knew for sure God would strike me dead if we “went too far” and I loved God (and my dad!) too much to betray him that way. And I saw no conflict between the life of the mind, reading “secular literature,” thinking critically about the world, being knowledgeable about the arts and sciences and politics and world events, and being a passionate, devoted, even “Spirit filled” evangelical Christian—even if my church did.
Then came Bible college and my firsthand experience of being caught in a cult. To be continued….