A Short List of Secular Religions

“. . . a priesthood defending its faith. . .”

Tucker Carlson’s comment on the media hysteria following President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords

 

  1. Climate Change, Global Warming, Environmentalism, Gaia
  2. Reproductive Rights (abortion), Women’s Rights, Goddess Worship
  3. Science ~ as in “settled science” — or everyone who disagrees with my “science” is a moron ~ No, true science is about skepticism, empiricism, a relentless search for the truth — and not “settled” dogma
  4. Diet: Clean Eating, Gluten Free, Militant Veganism, GMO bashing
  5.  Tolerance ~ All Religions equally good paths to God ~ believing everything and thereby believing nothing ~ No Judgementalism
  6. Free Speech ~ First Amendment Worship ~ The right to say or write anything any time, anywhere ~ except perhaps anything that happens to offend the faculty and tender minds at Snowflake U.
  7. Gun Worship ~ Surely the Second Amendment is found somewhere in Holy Scripture — and its high priesthood the NRA

 

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Old Fart

I’m not sure how the noun fart became conflated with the adjective old.  Maybe because the elderly expel a lot of gasses. Who knows? Maybe “Old School” would be a better term to describe my retrograde persona.

Anyway, of late, I’ve been asking myself a lot if I’ve officially entered old-farthood. I’ve never gracefully accepted the fact that I am old, and I used to be rather prideful on having younger attitudes and seeing myself as being more open to change than most of my peers. And I think I look younger than my age — but I suspect many of my peers have that same delusion.

In any event, I’m starting to become increasingly aware of a brittleness in my personality and a resistance to changes that seem inevitable. I associate these traits with being an old fart, a curmudgeon, an Andy Rooney cartoon character. This resistance to change hit me square in the forehead a couple weeks ago over my growing unhappiness with changes at the church I’ve attended for the past 25-years.

Northland, A Church Distributed has always engaged in a fair amount of self-congratulatory banter. However, Northland had so many positives that an occasional foray into “pride” was easily enough borne. But two weekends ago the sum of the message was about how wonderful our youth programs are/were/will be.  It was given by one of the younger pastors who has been affiliated with the youth program.

However, the sermon was supposed to be about one of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”

A few weeks prior I was very pleased that the team of pastors headed by Pastor Matt had chosen to give expositional sermons on the eight Beatitudes found in the gospel of Matthew at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ signature statement on ethics and behavior. It is one of the two or three most important passages in all of the New Testament.

I think the young pastor who gave the message did briefly reference what was supposed to be the text. I think his point was that we should show our hunger and thirst for righteousness by acts of charity toward the less fortunate. Anyway, this same Sunday also happened to be Pentecost Sunday — at one time a major church event.  It was never mentioned.  Pentecost celebrated the imparting of the Holy Spirit to the Church 50-days after the Resurrection. And in the Hebrew Bible Pentecost was the celebration of the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Both incredibly significant events never mentioned by the young pastor. In some sense he was ignoring church tradition and history to continue a focus on the “social gospel” started by Pastor Joel over a decade ago.

But hey, why preach about hungering and thirsting for righteousness when you can spend 15-min giving your church’s social programs and youth ministry an extended attaboy.

The other change which bothered me almost as much was the apparent direction in Northland’s worship team.  The past couple years I’ve been feeling progressively bothered by the over-produced graphics and light show accompanying the contemporary music that the worship team favors over more traditional sacred music. I find the lyrics generally banal and repetitive — words sans memorable melody. I wrote a recent blog about what I call “ecclesitainment.”

Most of the old worship team has either left or been let go and the net result is that the new worship team is much younger. This week the church sent out an email featuring the young lady who is the principle female vocalist. I’d noted her presence on stage several months ago. Tattoos were prominent on one arm. No big deal, I’ve even thought about getting a tattoo myself. She appears to be at the most 25 and the text noted that she had grown up in a Northland family. However, her close up pic revealed something which I could not see from where I usually sit in the back of the sanctuary. This rather pretty blond girl had a nose ring — one through the septum like I associate with a lead for a cow or bull.

That really bothered me. Other than tiny studs or rings in the ear I associate piercings with something terribly pagan. I believe it’s forbidden in the O.T. book of Leviticus. All she needed was Ubangi ear lobe stretchers and my head would have completely exploded. I suppose because I’m an old fart. Anyway, someone who vaguely knows her said she is a really nice girl and that she had been helpful in mentoring their teenage daughter. So maybe I’ll get used to her and not be so judgmental about the nose ring.

But I don’t want to. Probably because I’m an old fart.

Political Rant

Not only that: I voted for Trump and would again. Not because I think Trump is so wonderful but mostly because the “progressives” now running the Democrat Party (of which I’m still a registered member) have moved so far to the left that a country run by them I would no longer recognize. It would not be the country I grew up in — and it is not the Democrat party of Harry Truman or even JFK.  Slick Willie kind of started the slide back in the early 1990s and it was enhanced by Obama and would have gotten immeasurably worse under Hillary — or heaven forbid, Bernie.

Obamacare, specifically kids staying on their parents insurance to the age of 26, bothers me tremendously. It’s further infantilizing a generation content to live in their parent’s basement into their 30s.  There is a meme circulating on Facebook that kind of sums it all up. In the top part of the pic it shows a group of contemporary college age folks protesting some perceived outrage and in the lower half of the pic is a photo of young men about to exit a landing craft on D-Day. Young men in 1944 facing almost certain death so snowflakes in 2018 could protest nonsense about safe spaces.

I’d always prided myself on having a somewhat broad comfort zone — but I guess not any more. I say build that wall and keep those moochers out — and not only that, “GET OFF OF MY LAWN!”

Sorry, I’m an old fart.

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How Tweet It Is

Or how one becomes a pariah without even trying.

I do not do Twitter or any social media beyond Facebook  — and I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of my participation on Fb.  Some days I can hardly stand the rancor, the sanctimony and the inane reposts of those on my feed. Well, the fault is not with my friends, it’s in the algorithm. . . So you are all off the hook.

Yes, I have an immediate need for the world to know what I’m thinking at any given moment.  My immense ego dictates that I have an obligation to my fans.  BUT. . . I know me well enough to know that me on twitter would be like giving a loaded and cocked Luger, 9mm in the chamber, to an infant.

On four or five occasions I’ve have posted or reposted stuff that came back to haunt me.  It was me being extremely grumpy in the morning or reposting fake news without checking the story out, etc.

I hate to apologize or admit that I’m wrong but in some cases I’ve had to do that. I guess God’s purpose of humility was being served. Consequently, any more I hardly ever post political or terribly controversial stuff. I would either be preaching to the choir or pissing people off.  Nevertheless, there are days I yearn to piss people off  — to share my self-righteous anger by infecting someone else with it. But I fight that tendency. I have to be accountable to the other men in my Celebrate Recovery anger group. So, I try to post spiritual, humorous or informational stuff. I look at my participation on Fb as a sort of ministry.

Anyway, Roseanne stuck her foot in it big time a couple days ago. She even apologized for her nasty tweet about Valerie Jarrett. . . and this a.m. I read she’s blaming her nasty remark on Ambien.

Don’t you just love the word “repugnant.” Anyway, the uber-libs got on their high horse and Roseanne’s popular show got cancelled. However, various conservative pundits pointed out that equally nasty remarks are made nightly about Trump or his family by guests on the late night talk shows and no one loses their job. It barely causes a ripple in the mainstream press. In any event Roseanne’s gaffe took the focus off Schneiderman, Weinstein and the other hashtag metoo folks for a moment.

I suppose Twitter serves some good purpose. But its not readily apparent to me what that is. All I ever hear is about some athlete, politician or celebrity getting in hot water about a tweet. However, it does amuse me how effectively Trump uses it as a weapon. He really understands it’s power.

Anyway, LeBron James is the best basketball player ever but I have no need to know what he thinks about anything. . . ever.

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Ecclesitainment Ennui

Okay, so maybe I made up a word — a neologism. It popped into my head the other day while I was driving and thinking about what contemporary church has more and more become. However,  the term ecclesitainment may have been coined by someone prior and just floated to the surface in my unconscious ocean of detritus.

Can you imagine?

Of course, many have heard of infotainment. I think that’s what conspiracy theorist turned spiritual guru Glenn Beck calls his shtick. But ecclesitainment or religitainment is what we find at your average nondenominational wannabe megachurch — a storefront sanctuary with a hip name like “Ignite” or “Real Life” or “Discovery.”  No more prosaic St. John’s or St. Luke’s or heaven forbid a name with “Grace” or “Emmaus” in its moniker.

For the past 25-years I’ve attended Northland, A Church Distributed. It’s in Longwood, one of the northern suburbs of Orlando. It was once just Northland Community Church but over a decade ago Pastor Joel Hunter added the “A Church Distributed” coda. He said it reflected Northland’s mission in the world — but it was also a clever type of branding.  However Northland, more than most any other evangelical megachurch, does give its resources away and so it tends to validate its name. Northland’s generous outreach into the local community and greater world have made a difference in many lives. Of that I am convinced.

And For the first 15 years that I attended Northland I was in love with our church’s music. I imagined that our worship team of a dozen or more very talented vocalists and musicians would surely win the battle of the megachurch bands.  And I naively thought that music was worship.

However, as I became a more seasoned Christian I came to accept something which both Pastor Joel and Rick Warren advocated — that is, that true worship is a lifestyle. And so quite obviously worship is far more than standing in a sanctuary with hands raised swaying to the music. One of my favorite Rick Warren quotes: “Bringing pleasure to God is called worship.” In other words, echoing another Warren quote, “It’s not about you.”

Then around seven years ago I discovered home church — sometimes called organic church or simple church. At the time I was searching for something to counterbalance a staleness I was beginning to feel at Northland. There was something about it’s casualness and often lack of a “holy” focus that was pushing me in another direction. It culminated in a circus themed “worship” with acrobats dangling on ropes coming down from the ceiling of the sanctuary, and I thought, “These people have completely lost their minds.”

That is not to say that the church had changed that much — Northland had often done innovative things that “stretched” its congregants. What had changed was me, and so for about two years I concurrently attended St. Andrew’s Chapel, Dr. R.C. Sproul’s iteration of high church with its traditional liturgy driven services. I went to St. Andrew’s in the morning and Northland in the evening and for a while all was good.

Then around the same time via a friend I discovered home church and I thought I’d attend once just out of curiosity.  However, I was immediately captured. The paradigm in a home-based church is for participation in creating worship by all of its 10 to 20 or so members. It’s biblical mandate is found in I Cor. 14:26 when Paul writes: “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

In other words it’s very participatory by all of its members. It is kind of the antithesis of an ordained clergy giving a prepared 20-min sermon and a well-rehearsed worship team or choir performing in front of an often fairly passive congregation/audience.

So, for most of the past seven years I’ve been attending a home church plus Northland. Even though I find the home church experience more real, more spiritual and more satisfying I continue to attend Northland for the teaching — and for fellowship with my friends who still attend there. The men who preach at Northland, pastors Matt and Vernon (and Pastor Joel previously) are all good teachers and communicators and their professional exegesis supplements what I learn at home church from talented Spirit-filled laymen.

What I appreciate less and less is the show presented by the worship team. It has become for me a marathon of ennui — an ordeal of increasing boredom.  I have nothing against contemporary Christian music. I love many inspired contemporary songs like Mercy Me’s I Can Only Imagine or Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons or Redeemed by Big Daddy Weave — but it feels like Northland’s current worship team more and more favor songs with no memorable content, lyrics or melody — and an awful lot of it seems repetitive and hackneyed — and whiney is not an acceptable substitute for sublime and inspired.

However, I get it. They are marketing to and for the young. And the worship team has gotten progressively younger. Only a couple of them might recognize Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor or Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing — two of my faves. Marketing to the young: That’s all well and good. I suppose they see that as the future of the church, but Northland still has plenty of old fogies and they’re the ones who attend every week and pay the bills.

In a recent service a few verses from the book of Lamentations formed part of the text, and I thought what a great lead-in for one of my favorite old hymns Great Is Thy Faithfulness. In one of the very first services I attended at Northland back in 1993, those same verses from Lamentations 3:22-24 were a prelude for that great traditional hymnIn 1993 it brought me to tears. But no, in 2018, the worship team chose some song with horribly repetitive  lyrics about demons fleeing before Jesus’ name. Anyway, while I’m standing there amidst the blazing amps and the superfluous light show I’m wanting to scream, “Enough!” — but I don’t because I do understand that many in the congregation are worshipping. It’s just less and less meaningful for me personally. For me, it’s ecclesitainment, and I’m overwhelmed by a growing sense of ennui.

But then, when you least expect it, the Holy Spirit shows up. This past weekend’s service was led by the children’s choir. Around 20 kiddoes in the age range of about 7 to 12 did a magnificent job — and I thought they could do this every week as far as I’m concerned. They sang This Is My Father’s World a hymn that’s over a century old and then they followed that up with the secular song What A Wonderful World made famous by Louis Armstrong.  They led us in the Lord’s Prayer in both Spanish and English. Overall, it was quite refreshing and for me a “holy” experience.

It was wonderful. However, I’m sure by next week we’ll be back to overproduced contemporary music with hackneyed lyrics — and I’ll go ho hum.

Another aspect of my ecclesitainment ennui are movies specifically marketed to Christians. Movies devoid of subtlety. Over the past decade the budgets and production values of Christian movies have steadily improved — but the plots and dialogue not so much. They still kind of hammer the audience with a message. I want to see movies so stunningly artistic that even the secular critics are impressed. Certainly Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ qualifies. Also, the Lee Strobel true quest The Case for Christ was impressive. A personal favorite of mine that didn’t get much acclaim was the quirky Little Boy — and the current Paul the Apostle of Christ was good enough to instill hope for more. I still haven’t seen the third God’s Not Dead film but I read enough in the reviews to put it well down my list of movies to see.  

Oh, and another irritant is what I call religiporn.  There are links to articles on my Facebook stream with clickbait titles like “Three Signs Christ’s Return is Near” or “Five Churches Experiencing Miracle Revival” or “The Megachurch Leader’s Deal with Satan” etc.  Pornography is what titillates and I’m weary of the marketing of “Christian” magazines and websites designed to titillate.

Actually, anything that smacks of “Christian” marketing is a turn-off.  I was always unnerved knowing that Pastor Joel read books about business models and marketing.

Anyway, the ennui, or perhaps acedia, of my current spiritual state brings me no joy in encounters with the generally wannabe hip plus heavily marketed contemporary nondenominational wannebe megachurch worship experience.  Per St Paul, what I once counted as gain I now count as loss.

But somehow I think that’s part of the Lord’s plan. I do not think the Lord approves of any form of idolatry — even church.

He leads us into progressively deeper waters and not everyone’s journey is the same.

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Blessings Restored Redux

“Blessings Restored” is the title I picked for a 12-step workbook I wrote on coping with mood disorders: Dysthymic Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Bipolar II, Major Depression and Cyclothymia.  It is loosely based on the format for a Celebrate Recovery step study. I changed several of the 12-steps as clinical depression and bipolar disorder are often the result of underlying biology as opposed to one’s intentional or addictive behavior.

I chose the title “Blessings Restored” because it echoes a book I published in 2005: The Unwelcome Blessing. The subtitle of The Unwelcome Blessing is “A Christian Therapist on Depression and Coping” — quite a mouthful, but you get the picture. I have not kept an accurate count but there are probably about 500 copies in circulation. Currently, it is only available from Amazon.com, my website: http://www.wellbless.com and the Northland Church bookstore. At one time it was in several other independent Christian bookstores that have since gone out of business.

Facebook has this app that reminds you of things you posted on this date in years past. A couple of days ago it reminded me that in March, 2014, I’d offered a class/support group using the workbook in my Longwood office.  I’d had six copies of the rough draft printed up at Office Depot. I mentioned the class several times on Facebook over the following month and I gave copies of the workbook to several people including the pastor at Northland in charge of counseling.

I got remarkably little feedback on the book and only three people expressed any interest in the class. Time passed and distracted by other things, I gradually lost interest in the project.

So anyway, here we are four years later and a copy of the workbook sits next to my printer where it has been for the past four years. I had spent about a year composing the workbook and when I finished the first draft in 2013 I felt that I’d done something fairly unique — and potentially important. To my knowledge, coping with a psychological problem like a mood disorder had never been addressed in a 12-step format.

The initial class/support group was to run 13 weeks. I was hopeful of using that first go to try out the format, get feedback and make modifications before I formally published it.

Anyway, nothing happened, and here I am four precious years later wondering: (1) Was God saying, “Not now, it’s not the right time” or (2)  “Forget it, it’s a bad idea!”

I hate the thought that I spent considerable time and energy on this project and then have done nothing to complete it. At my age my mental energy and focus isn’t what it was a decade ago and realistically I don’t have all that many years left. Now I realize that Moses spent 40 years in exile and didn’t really start his “ministry” until age 80, and I know God can do marvelous things but. . .

 

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I Can Only Imagine Paul the Apostle

Okay, so I conflated the titles of two current movies much like scripture was conflated in the Paul movie. These two films targeted the Christian audience for Easter 2018, and they succeeded to varying degrees.

I Can Only Imagine is a box office success. It’s a monster hit with 17-million in earnings the first weekend alone. However, its producers (and myself) hoped that it would be a crossover success too — the Christian movie that even the secular liked. I’m doubtful that happened. For one thing, the professional critics generally panned it, and I suspect not more than a few dozen skeptics left the theater interested in becoming Jesus-followers.

I was disappointed in I Can Only Imagine. It’s the powerful story of forgiveness and redemption behind a great crossover hit, poorly done. It’s not the worst Christian movie ever by far but as I watched it I found myself critiquing it as art. It had its moments as a compelling narrative but struck me as very uneven. My primary standard for cinema as art is the degree to which I’m absorbed into the story. That’s my criteria for worship as well — did I lose Carl and become worship. This film did not pull me out of me and into the story. I kept thinking things like why did they do this scene this way or why is Dennis Quaid overacting, or why does the chubby protagonist always have a three day growth of beard, etc.

Anyway, the audience loved it — as did all my believer friends. Maybe I’m being too critical of this rendition of the story behind the song. Its creator is Bart Millard, the lead vocalist with the Christian pop group Mercy Me. The movie tells the story of Millard’s (J. Michael Finley) relationship with his drunken abusive father (Dennis Quaid). But IMHO with better writing and directing it could have been the crossover blockbuster that I’d hoped for. That’s what The Passion of the Christ was. Some secular critics hated it but they couldn’t deny its power or its artistry.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the song. It was about a decade ago. I was at a gym and I Can Only Imagine was part of the piped in pop mix on some FM station:

“Surrounded by Your glory

                                                             what will my heart feel

will I dance for you Jesus

or in awe of You be still. . .”

I was blown away.

I found it to be such a compelling song that I’d hoped to have the same worshipful reaction to the movie. Then again, anymore I find a lot of the pop Christian music they do at my church to be no more than over-produced entertainment. But when I’m sitting there being critical many in the congregation are lost in worship — and that’s okay. That just speaks to my issues.  I am not disappointed that millions of believers are finding Imagine to be a worthwhile movie. I am glad that it is making a lot of money and I hope that leads to more Christian movies.

On the other hand I found Paul, the Apostle of Christ to be much more of an artistic success. It tells the story of Luke the Greek physician, and writer of the gospel and Acts, visiting Paul in a Roman prison in AD 67.  Paul is old and awaiting execution by Nero’s decree. Luke is there both to minister to Paul and also to record Paul’s story for other believers.

When Luke arrives in Rome a small band of dispirited, persecuted Jesus-followers led by Aquila and Priscilla are rescuing orphans and slaves off the streets while trying to decide whether to remain in Rome or escape to another city, perhaps one more Christian-friendly like Ephesus. They pray and pray and get no clear answer —that has the ring of authenticity

The other parallel narrative is the dramatic tension between Luke (Jim Caviezel), Paul (James Faulkner) and Mauritius (Olivier Martinez), the warden of the Mamertine prison in Rome. Mauritius is a worldly cynic, much like Pontius Pilate. He has a nagging wife and a terminally ill daughter who he loves dearly. And almost against his own instincts and worldly conditioning he’s curious and drawn to Paul.

As Paul, Faulkner has a haunted, tormented, world-weary demeanor — a man who’s fought the good fight and is ready to join Jesus in eternity.  Much of his story is told in flashbacks woven into the narrative he’s dictating to Luke. Many of Paul’s best scriptural  one-liners are conflated into the script. I imagine this will bother some folks who are obsessively picky about scriptural purity — but it didn’t bother me. How else could one contain the best Pauline doctrine from a dozen epistles into an hour and a half movie?

The film was shot on the island of Malta. The cinematography, music and production values are all above average. Martinez, Faulkner and Caviezel all do superb jobs. In spite of its positives, many secular critics found things to dislike about the film. That’s okay, that’s their job — even if it is somewhat of a mission of the prince of this world — to some degree one can gauge the movie’s power by the vehemence of its detractors.

 

 

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Cults, Power, The Rapture and Idols

I’ve just finished reading a beautifully written memoir In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott. It is about the author’s relationship with her larger than life father and his family’s participation in a religious cult: The Exclusive Brethren.  No surprise that it’s well written, as Stott teaches literature at the University of East Anglia in Britain.

The Exclusive Brethren are one of the two major sects that arose when the Plymouth Brethren split in 1848.  Her father, Roger Stott, was at one time a minister in the Brethren, as was his father before him. Today, the Exclusive Brethren number about 45,000 worldwide; they reside mostly in the UK, Australia, the United States and other English speaking countries.

Like most cults, the Exclusive Brethren of the 1950s and 60s had powerful, charismatic leaders ( James Taylor and JT Junior). They had a rigid adherence to dogma and practiced shunning for individuals and families who even minimally strayed from the doctrines promulgated by the father and son Taylors.

The Exclusive Brethren were enormously patriarchal. While women attended church meetings, they were not allowed to participate in the meetings. Women in the sect dressed beyond modest and home schooled their children long before it became popular. The Brethren tried as much as possible to live apart from a world they believed was controlled by Satan, and they believed that Christ’s return in the Rapture was imminent. Many worked in family and cult run businesses that were quite successful. They took care of each other and that made it doubly difficult to exit the cult.

They believed that scripture precluded them from even eating lunch with non-Brethren. As one can imagine, one onerous rule on top of another made for an increasingly strange, idiosyncratic lifestyle.

The Plymouth Brethren came into existence in the late 1820s.  One of their influential pastors was John Nelson Darby.  Darby’s name is not well known except by those deeply into Christian theology or church history– and yet his influence on contemporary Christian dogma is immense.

Contemporary beliefs about The Rapture is largely the result of Darby’s teaching. The Rapture of the Church — and the church being sanctified born-again believers — will occur just prior to the time of the Great Tribulation.  Jesus will be seen coming down from the clouds and all true believers will rise to meet him in the air (I Thess. 4:16-17 ). They will be taken from the earth and not have to endure the seven years of hell on earth that will precede the end of the age. The general public is familiar with Darby’s formulation of the Rapture due to the broad  influence of the Scofield Reference Bible and the Left Behind series of bestsellers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

Rebecca Stott was a young girl when her family parted ways with the Exclusive Brethren. The Exclusive Brethren splintered into several factions following a 1970 convention in Aberdeen, Scotland. Over the course of several days a very drunken JT Junior openly hit on the wives of other Brethren men and called some leading men of the sect names — “bastard” being one of them.  His behavior was so strange and uncouth, and yet his reputation so inflated, that many in the audience simply looked the other way. Some thought that he was testing their loyalty. Many tried to excuse or rationalize his behavior. The cognitive dissonance engendered by the strange scene caused some to say it just didn’t happen. Nevertheless, denying the sinful, deviant and often illegal behavior of a draconian leader is a depressingly common practice in Christian cults.

After the splintering of the Exclusive sect, Roger Stott the author’s father, became increasingly worldly. He was a brilliant man, widely read in Shakespeare, Yeats and T. S. Eliot — and deeply immersed in the brooding films of Ingmar Bergman. He pursued acting in a little theater group. He was also a compulsive gambler. He very clearly suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as bipolar disorder. As is typical of so many bipolars his spending habits were excessive and he eventually served a brief prison sentence for embezzlement.

The author vividly and poignantly describes her attempts to cope with the craziness of the cult via escapist fantasies as a child — and the subsequent shock of having to come out into the “real” world around age eight.  However, the book begins with her trying to help her dying father finish writing his memoirs and him trying to come to grips with how so many apparently good people remained immersed in the madness of the Exclusive Brethren. She comforted her father as his life ebbed away and attemptted to get some closure on their strained relationship. Like so many wounded children she sought acceptance and love from a parent who always remained a bit distant. Her story, her family’s and the cult is told in a series of extended flashbacks. It is beautifully written and at several points I found myself welling up.

It struck me as particularly sad that the obvious hypocrisy and madness of the cult caused her to turn away from Christianity and instead to place her faith in science.  She has written and lectured extensively about evolution and Darwin. I suspect the loss of faith happens to many who emerge from Christian cults.

In Stott’s recounting of the various Brethren sects and their innumerable spits over doctrine of no great importance I was struck by how much it resembled a history of Christianity itself with its endless heresies and schisms — and also how my own experience of the faith has been a microcosm of that endless ripping apart of Christ’s Body.

My early indoctrination was both as a Lutheran and a Roman Catholic and at various times as an adult I have attended Nazarene, Congregational and Presbyterian churches. I found my church “home” 25 years ago in the new paradigm for evangelicalism: the Nondenominational Urban Megachurch. Seven years ago, feeling progressively unsatisfied with the megachurch, I started also attending a small fellowship that met in homes. It seemed a wonderful change until the home church started splitting over doctrine — the pain of Christ’s greater Body being reflected in the microcosm.

Around the same time I started attending a 12-step para-church organization called Celebrate Recovery (CR).  A three hour CR meeting echoes a church service but unlike most churches the folks attending CR are far more transparent about their struggles and not as dogmatic in their theology.  Accepting Jesus as one’s savior and progressively drawing closer to him is the key. Healing and sobriety is merely a byproduct of that relationship. Theological details beyond that relationship are of secondary importance. Participation in CR for those struggling with “hurts, habits and hang-ups” offers folks much more in terms of relationship and support than most any individual church and certainly any denomination.

Today, I tend to identify myself as a Jesus-follower instead of a Christian.  My personal journey from church to church reflects the restlessness of contemporary Christianity.  However, in most every manifestation of believers I’ve observed the work of cultish dynamics — powerful, charismatic leaders, rigid adherence to dogma, top-down control and an attitude of scorn or fear to those with different beliefs.

I have written about cults and cultish behavior in my book Jesus v. satan: The Message of the Wilderness Temptations. One of the three temptations Jesus faced (Luke 4) was that of power and control, and control is what cults are all about. The leader imposes his paradigm of reality onto his followers using various methods of power and coercion. He usurps their reality and free will and imposes his own.

Jesus, however, after the 40 days in the wilderness rejects the offer of a shortcut to power and glory. He refuses to worship Satan.  Jesus quotes scripture: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'” He thoroughly rejects the idol of power and the devil’s offer of it.

The first couple of the Ten Commandments are about idolatry. Being first, presumably they are the in some sense the most important, and it is very evident that seeking power and control over others is an enormous idol for most people –the spectrum of control ranging from the angry outbursts of the “terrible twos” to the pettiness of a micromanaging spouse or boss, all the way to Hitler, Stalin or Mao.  Idolatry is an ever present temptation in the life of a believer — and perhaps the greatest of idols is that of power and control — the all-too-common sin to usurp another’s freedom.

Contemplating the inherent evil in cults and cultish behavior brings Jesus’s message of setting people free into sharp focus (John 8:36, Gal. 5:1).  The abundant life and the freedom Jesus promises is the polar opposite of the idolatry at the very heart of all cults. If not to the leader, there is likely a idolatrous belief in some idiosyncratic interpretation of scripture. In other words, the Lord revealed some truths to only them that left out the other 99% of Christians. But even beyond that, some folks plainly make an idol out of scripture. I find it terribly sad that they are more in love with their interpretation of the words than they are with the author — and as the wilderness temptations illustrate, Satan knows scripture quite well and is very capable of using it against mere humans.

One of the unifying beliefs of all the Brethren sects is of avoiding Satan’s worldly snares so as to be found worthy of being taken in the Pre-tribulation Rapture. Much of Darby’s Rapture doctrine is based on a few verses in I Thessalonians, and I pretty much bought into it too until I read eminent theologian N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope. Wright casts that passage into the context of the First Century. The intent of folks meeting Christ in the air was not Him taking them away but one of them welcoming Him back to earth. It was a custom of that era for people to greet an important emissary outside of the gates of a city and accompanying them in. In other words, Darby, Tim LaHaye and myriad other Bible expositors misinterpreted the passage and likely engaged in the wishful thinking that true believers will escape the horror of the Great Tribulation. Most mature believers experience of Christ is not that He will spare us from trials and tribulations but that He will accompany us thru them.

 

 

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