Dear ____, Love Sara.

Dear Blog,

I’m so sorry. Between homeschooling, writing a new novel, and — you know — living, I haven’t had much time for blogging.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Other Novelists,

I don’t understand how you can say, “I’m working on a new novel, and here’s my first chapter!” Everything I write is in a state of flux until its final edit. I mean, I just changed the main character’s name and her bike’s name. Just not ready to share anything yet.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear AOL Instant Messenger,

I read recently that you have officially passed away. My friends and I don’t use you anymore, but we mourned your passing. You were the social savior for all of us cult kids in the 90s. I’m not even sure I would have gotten married without AIM access to keep in touch with DJ.

I will wave a sad farewell as that little door-closing sound makes it final slam.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Other Novelists,

It’s going to be an excellent story when I’m done. A friendly white girl learns how racial injustice in the not-too-distant past still affects our lives today. So far I have two love interests, a narcissistic grandmother, and at least three Jane Austen references. Ha, I see you baring your teeth in jealousy. That’s right. It’s going to be good.

The bike’s new name is Imogene, by the way.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Enya,

I found out that you released an album as recently as 2015. You were my guilty indulgence in the 90s, along with AIM. I was supposed to be listening to “godly” music, defined by our Revered Leader as any music that emphasized beats 1 and 3 in the rhythm line. (I didn’t make that up.) But you usually didn’t have a driving rhythm line, so I could justify listening to you — despite fears that you were spewing New Age spiritism all over my fragile Christian soul. Thank you for giving me some relief from choral hymns and harp music.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Misguided Readers,

What do you mean, does my  main character run a cute little shop and interact with colorful characters? Do you really expect me to write cute little bumbling romantic scenes? Do you even need a final piece of folksy feminine wisdom to wrap everything up? Oh horrors, I’m not the women’s fiction you’re looking for.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Grammar Nerd,

Okay, yes, I know. The second sentence of this post should begin with “among,” not “between,” because I listed more than two reasons. Thank you for your contribution. Nerd.

Love, Sara.

Untwisting Scripture: A book for you

Yield your rights.

Don’t become bitter.

Don’t take up an offense on behalf of someone else.

If these phrases kicked you in the gut… do I have a book for you!

If, however, you nodded along, knowing they are true Biblical principles… well, then, I definitely have a book for you.

Untwisting Scriptures by Rebecca Davis takes a few “Christian” teachings that have been used to confuse and silence abuse victims for many years, and shows how they’re not even valid Biblical concepts. The book grew out of blog posts that Davis wrote as she learned more about people — mostly women — held captive by abusive theology.

Her tone is quiet and straightforward; she doesn’t indulge in snark or personal attacks. She doesn’t have to. All she has to do contrast actual Biblical context with actual teachings, such as this quote from the once-vaunted Bill Gothard from his 1984 Basic Seminar:

“Just because you are alive, you probably believe you have the right to be accepted as an individual, to express opinions, to earn and spend a living, to control your personal belongings, and to make decisions. You expect others to respect your rights.”

Spoiler: Gothard and the others quoted in this book don’t think you have a valid argument. Also spoiler: many of the people who teach these things either protect abusers, or are abusers themselves. Not a coincidence.

In this small book, Davis untwists a lot of strands. From the difference between human rights and human desires (looking at you, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth) to the fact that the Western church doesn’t know how to deal with grief and therefore labels it “sinful,” to the fact that we are supposed to take up the causes of the weak and abused and oppressed—there’s a lot to take in.

(And it’s not her fault that the chart on Page 59 made me want to fling the book away from myself in self-defense. I saw so many charts and graphs in my Bill Gothard days that they just look menacing to me, like the king snake that’s colored like a coral snake.)

Davis made one layout decision, based on early feedback, that vastly improves the reading experience. She set off the false teachings in gray boxes. It’s easy to identify the quotes she’s disproving… or, as she suggests, easy to skip over them entirely if you just don’t want to read the words. Even I, years away from that bondage, still felt the weight as I skimmed those twisty teachings.

I will say that this book targets a specific subculture. Those of us who sat under the teachings of Gothard, Bob Jones University, Nancy (Leigh) DeMoss Wolgemuth, and their ilk will recognize the phrases and terminology. Those outside of this small circle won’t find them as immediately recognizable. But these ideas permeate American evangelicalism. It’s a good bet you’ve encountered the teachings even if you don’t know the names and the terms.

Untwisting Scriptures came out in 2016, not even a year after I released The Fellowship. I mention the timeline because that’s why I didn’t pursue the book when I first encountered it. I was weary after years of struggling through twisted Scriptures. I thought, “So glad somebody is addressing these problems. I’ve already dealt with them. Time to move on.”

When Davis and I connected this summer over our books, I had “moved on” enough to come back to these concepts with renewed passion. So many others are still hurt and grieving. They need to hear a voice that untwists the bonds and gives freedom.

Rebecca Davis’ book is a voice like that. Check it out.

Red Flag Corp

red-flag-2-1444642-1280x960Sometimes a cult-like group is subtle and hard to pinpoint. But other times a group is obliging enough wave blazing red flags in choreographed formation. I found one such group recently.

Now, I have absolutely no connection with Weigh Down, Gwen Shamblin, or Remnant Fellowship. I never participated in any of it; I hardly even had heard of it. (Gwen is not pleased with me, I can tell.) A friend pointed me to the site, and I’m just reporting on what I see here. Which appears to be a group that’s practically screaming “Cult!” Or maybe it’s just “Raging narcissist who would like to be a cult leader.” Either way, it’s very instructive.

Let’s take a tour of these red flags, how about?

One person in the spotlight. If you read the site, it sure does have a lot to say about Gwen Shamblin. She seems to really like posting quotes that other men have said about her. Some of the prose is so glowing that you can just imagine Gwen brushing away a tear and saying, “That is so touching. It’s so good of me to say that about me.” Seriously, I bet she’s very nice in person. No, I mean it. People don’t become cult leaders without having very strong personal magnetism.

The Bible like you’ve never heard it before! “It is noteworthy that although the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of Weigh Down participants had been church-goers for years, not one reported having ever heard these Biblically-based teachings from their home church.” Yeah, it’s noteworthy, all right. The Bible is centuries old and has been studied threadbare. If somebody finds something in it that nobody else has, then you can safely assume you’re hearing more imagination than Godly inspiration.

Promises of Paradise. The site is packed with sweeping claims of how Remnant Fellowship has dramatically broken addictions, saved marriages, and brought families together, all by the “power of God.” In real life, all these areas are an ongoing struggle and don’t always turn out the way we want them to. But a cult promises one-time-and-done miracles to broken and hurting people.

Obedience. The wording can vary, but within the culture of a cult-like group, two pillars support the entire community: authority and obedience. Members must recognize who is in authority, and then obey without question.

“Obedience—obedience—it’s beautiful. Do you want to remain in this love? It’s just like a child who stays by your side and communes with you by obedience and by following what you’re saying.  You have a beautiful relationship, but the one who turns and disobeys does not.  To have a relationship and to have answered prayers is to remain in the vine.  God gives His will to those who are going to obey it.  Why give it to those who are not going to obey it?  It tires you out to tell people or employees or children to do something and you know that they’re just going to stare at you while you speak, but they never do what you say.  Likewise, God gives His will, His beautiful and perfect will and desires, to those who will put it into practice.”

Note that this is cast in terms of obeying God’s will. But where do you learn God’s actual, real will? That would be the person who teaches what “the majority of hundreds of thousands” never heard before.

Blame shifting. Cults never can live up to their promises, but don’t worry, they’ve got that taken care of. When you’ve given them your money and your soul, and “God” doesn’t come through with that miraculous change, they tell you it’s your fault:

“Can you not figure out how to lose weight yet? Then it’s because you’ve not purposed in your heart to do it.  So purpose in your heart to obey what He tells you to do, and then He will show you the way out of your desires that have ensnared you.  Do you really want out of the trap of your own desires? Then obey what He tells you to do. Put it into practice…”

As an entirely subjective red flag, these pictures of doll-like beautiful children with perfectly curled hair put me on edge — particularly as they’re the grandchildren of the great exalted founder. Don’t you want children this sweet and well-behaved? Then get yourself to Remnant Fellowship and prepare to obey.

I consider Remnant Fellowship to be a pretty blatant example of what to avoid. However, anytime you run across a church, a study, or even a pyramid-shaped “business” that promises great results “if you just…”, look for the red flags and consider them seriously. Life is hard, and despite their grand promises to the contrary, cults make it even harder.

The Bible Bait-and-Switch

lures-537661_1280There’s a certain class of Bible teaching that is mostly about verbs.

Pray this prayer so God will bless you.

Follow these steps so God will protect you.

Hear and obey so God will listen to you.

The teachers in this camp claim to know the hidden ways of God, and they want to teach you to access these exclusive treasures. They usually have some kind of gimmick—a certain prayer, certain steps, a certain way to read your Bible. Then they bait-and-switch ideas to make you think that they’re teaching what God says when it’s really just what they’re selling.

I recently came across someone who sounds a whole lot like a “verbing” teacher. Now, I don’t know anything about Bob Sorge except his titles on Amazon and the Kindle sample of his book Secrets of the Secret Place. So I have no axe to grind or hatchet to bury in his head. I’m bringing him up because all it took was two chapters for me to recognize:

  1. The verb
  2. The gimmick
  3. The bait-and-switch

His verb is to Pray. (He also adds “hear” and “obey” later.) By “pray” he means to sit in quietness and solitude, reading Scripture, and listening for God to speak. Is that bad? No! I think it’s a very good practice to learn to sit in silence—one I’m not good at myself. The Verb is usually a good thing to do, and pray definitely qualifies.

However, he’s got to have a gimmick to sell his special knowledge of God’s hidden ways. Like any good Verbing teacher, he frames it with a Bible verse. I’ve parsed it out below:

Sorge (from his book Secrets of the Secret Place):
“But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:6).

…When Jesus taught on prayer, He gave primary emphasis to the secret place. In fact, the first thing He taught concerning prayer was the primacy of the secret place. In the verses following, He would teach us how to pray, but first He teaches where to pray.

My comment:
This verse, in context, is actually emphasizing the right attitude of prayer. Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t make a big public display of our prayers to show how holy we are, but to pray privately to God alone, without seeking the admiration of others.

Sorge:
Jesus affirmed this truth twice in the same chapter. He says it the second time in Matthew 6:18, “‘So that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.’” Jesus says it twice for emphasis, so we know this word is absolutely certain.

My comment:
The key word here is fasting. Same point as the verse about praying. Don’t make a big holy display of yourself. Carry out your devotion to God quietly, seeking to please only him.

These verses have nothing to do with where your body is, but where your heart is.

Sorge:
Our Father is in the secret place! Furthermore, Jesus gives us the key to finding this secret place. If you’re wondering what you must do to place yourself in the secret place, Jesus made it clear. To get there, all you have to do is shut your door! When you enter your room, and shut your door, you are in the presence of your Father. Instantaneously!

My comment:
Hard to argue with that, but I’m also in his presence in the kitchen, at the mall, or stuck on I-81 in road construction. Finding God by going into a room and shutting a door… that, folks, is Sorge’s Gimmick.

Sorge:
It matters not how you feel. Regardless of your soul’s climate at that moment, you know with absolute confidence you have stepped into the chamber of your Father in heaven. The secret place is your portal to the throne, the place where you taste of heaven itself. Receive this word and you have gained one of the greatest secrets to intimacy with God.

My commentary:
And there you go! If you Verb, by way of his Gimmick, you gain a secret way to God.

They always have Scripture to back up their points, of course. Here’s the Bait-and-Switch where he leads you in with Scripture, and leads you right on out on his own hobbyhorse:

Sorge:
Cornelius was a devout Gentile who committed himself to the secret place of prayer.

My commentary:
The “secret place of prayer” wording is the author’s assertion, not actually taken from the Bible.

Sorge:
[Cornelius’] piety is described in the Book of Acts as fourfold: he gave regularly to the poor; he lived a holy lifestyle; he practiced fasting; and he adhered to the secret place of prayer.

My commentary:
I looked up this verse, Acts 10:2, and this is what it says: “He was a godly man, deeply reverent, as was his entire household. He gave generously to charity and was a man of prayer.”

It doesn’t say a “secret place of prayer.” Although I’m all for paraphrasing to keep things moving, this particular paraphrase is a seemingly innocuous, but very important, addition.

Sorge:
It was because of those four pursuits that God filled Cornelius and his household with the Holy Spirit and made them the firstfruits of all Gentile believers.

My commentary:
That’s the bait…

Sorge:
It’s as though God said, “Cornelius, because of your passionate conviction for the secret place, your life is the kind of example that I can reproduce in the nations.”

My commentary:
… and switch. He’s shifted from Cornelius and his four pursuits to a “passionate conviction for the secret life.”

Sorge:
…By making Cornelius the catalyst for the redemption of the nations, God was giving a powerful endorsement to Cornelius’s priority of cultivating a hidden life with God. The eruption of fruitfulness from his life must have caught even him off guard!

My commentary:
I feel like applauding. “Yay! That was so clever!” He so easily slipped in the idea that Cornelius was blessed by something that the author made up. Not only that, but God endorses it.

And he goes on to base the rest of his book (presumably, from the title) not on anything in the Bible, but on this idea of his about a “secret life with God.” Ideally, his audience doesn’t catch the shift, so they follow along thinking it’s all right there in the Bible. Even if they take the time to look it up, Sorge has taught them to equate “a man of prayer” with “a passionate conviction for the secret place.”

If this is how he justifies the very core of his teaching, then I’m extremely skeptical of what else he has to say. Anything he says about “hearing God’s word” now makes me suspicious, because what he claims is God’s word is actually his own. Anything he says about “obedience to God’s word” is a blazing red flag now, because if he can mold Scripture to fit his own ideas like that, then what does he think we ought to be “obeying”?

Following a teacher like this leads at best to disappointment, and at worst to bondage.

Pay attention to people who promise you a new way to access God. Watch for the Verb, the Gimmick, and the Bait-and-Switch. If you see it, then get up and leave the room. And shut the door behind you.

A Review: “Gave Me a Deeper Understanding”

Gretchen Louise at Kindred Grace has posted a review of The Fellowship. 

Different people notice different aspects of the story. Some have remarked on how easy it was to get to know the characters. Some recognize specific teachings or experiences. Some love the often-irreverent humor, and a lot of people held out hope that it wasn’t really lost. (What wasn’t? Hm, looks like you should read the story.)

What Gretchen highlights is the fact that “the familiar” is a very strong force. It’s often easier to stay in a bad but familiar situation than risk a new, possibly better, one.

But I think what stood out to me most in The Fellowship is how comfortable the familiar could become. As much as Bekah loved the taste of freedom, the rules that had bound her for so long were so very compelling… At the same time, I was given a much deeper understanding into the mindset of those who are unwilling to leave unhealthy and even dangerous situations.

Read the entire review here, and linger to browse her beautiful site.

Bleeding Praise

They opened a Bible and
Drew out a gleaming
Metal sheath, polished silver
Studded with rubies.
They said it was good.

They said the beautiful sheath
Enclosed treasure to
Carry deep inside my heart –
God’s gift for God’s child.
I stretched out my hand.

They unclasped a silver lock.
The sheath broke apart
Revealing a slender smooth
Steel blade, thin and sharp.
I accepted it.

I took the chilled metal blade
Which did not warm to
My touch, and they showed me just
How I must hold it.
Poised over my heart.

Together, we drove it in.
Easily, it pierced
My chest. The handle snapped off,
The blade disappeared
Deep within my heart.

They looked at the bright red blood
Welling from my heart,
Smearing and staining my skin.
Blood is life, they said—
God’s abundant life.

They reproached me for my tears,
Said I must be strong,
Said my heart was rebellious
Said it was Your gift.
I must love the pain.

I loved the pain, rejoicing
In abundant life.
My bleeding and wounded heart
Sang praises to You
In grief and despair.

I cherished the deep-set blade
Having forgotten
That it was not part of me.
Not remembering
That they put it there.

You came near to me and saw
That I was dying,
Slowly, while gasping praises
As each new heartbeat
Tore wider the wound.

You whispered in my anguish,
Said the sharp steel blade
Was not a treasure of Yours.
Pain stopped up my ears
I couldn’t hear You.

You slid Your fingers into
My agonized heart.
Then I knew You were with me.
Fear and pain burned me.
I begged You to leave.

Peace, be still, is all You said.
You drew out the blade.
It was pitted, slimy, dark.
My torn heart closed up.
I cried soft, warm tears.

Quietly You embraced me,
Stanched the bright red blood
With Your own bloodstained fingers
Said You don’t love pain.
But You love to heal.

You washed my skin and my clothes
And bound up my heart.
You shattered the ugly blade,
Asked for no praises.
Told me to just breathe.

Abigail, A Dangerous Woman

The Bible doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to exposing dangerous women. The first one who comes to your mind, just like mine, is Abigail.

Lest you think we’re talking about two different Old Testament characters, I’ll give a rundown of her story. It’s found in 1 Samuel 25.

In the years before David became king of Israel, he was on the run from Saul–the current king–and building up his own following. They happened upon the fields of Nabal during shearing time. David sent ten men to Nabal saying, “Hey, we didn’t mess with your shepherds or steal any of your sheep or goats. So could you give me food for my men?”

It was a big request. But Nabal was a rich man. More to the point, he was still rich thanks to David’s honorable treatment of his property. Also, David’s men had weapons. Like any reasonable man, Nabal saw that it was to his advantage to pay up his part of the bargain.

Oh, wait. Nabal’s name means “fool.” He did not pay up. He insulted David and told him to get lost.

David got mad and began mobilizing his men for wholesale slaughter of every male in Nabal’s household.

(See, class? We sure do need for men to be in charge all the time because it always goes so much better that way.)

Abigail was Nabal’s wife. When a servant came to her in a panic, telling her what was going on, she swung into action. She gathered up food, freshened up, saddled a donkey, and went out to meet David herself. She apologized for her husband’s foolishness and begged him to spare the household.

David, hotheaded though he was, was actually a reasonable man, especially by ancient warlord standards. He agreed to call off the attack. In fact, he was relieved that Abigail had kept him from unnecessary bloodshed.

Abigail went back and told Nabal what she’d done. Nabal was furious. So absolutely, intensely furious that he had a stroke and then died.

So the household was saved, Nabal disposed of, and David took Abigail to be his wife. Which really was the best a woman could hope for in that time.

Okay, so I admit that at first glance, it actually looks like Abigail is the hero of this story. But one of the tricks of a patriarchal worldview is that it can use one or two details to twist the whole perspective into the proper shape.

To start with, you’ve got to keep the most important principle in mind at all time. That principle is: Authority. Every situation, even a story told for centuries around campfires, must be filtered through the grid of Authority.

Who was in authority in this story? Well, David, because he’d been anointed the next king of Israel. Who else had authority here? Nabal, the husband and owner of the property.

Who did not have the authority to make any decisions or take any action? Abigail. Because she was married, she was bound to obey her husband no matter what.

There are two telling details in the passage of Scripture. One, the servant came to Abigail behind Nabal’s back, and even said he was wicked and foolish. Abigail did not rebuke the servant for speaking against their authority. Two, Abigail made her plans and headed out to see David, but as the story notes, She did not tell her husband.

But… but… she spared every  male in the household! Including Nabal’s worthless hindquarters!

Yet you see what her rebellion–yes, she was rebellious–led to. Her husband died. David might feel like God had vindicated him, but Abigail had to live with the knowledge that her actions killed her own husband.

But… but… Abigail became David’s wife…

Pfft. She became one of his wives. Who wants that? (What woman had a choice back then? Hush, you’re cluttering up the narrative.) And she did have at least one son who should have become king after David, but we never hear anything about him. That’s the third devastating detail in this story: God punished Abigail by not letting her son become the next king.

I’m not exaggerating this interpretation. This is what I was taught as a student of Bill Gothard. He embroidered a lot of the details*, but there’s a long tradition among hardcore patriarchalists to demonize Abigail. She usurped her husband’s place and was the cause of his death.

Girls, do not grow up to be like Abigail!

You should instead hope to be like… well… how about you just don’t read ahead in your Bibles until we have time to explain how Ruth, Esther, Deborah, Jael, etc. are also cautionary tales. Here, instead we’ve rewritten history and also these stories with passive obedient heroines. We’ll get back to God’s Word when you’re ready to understand the truths hidden within it.

Good thing you’ve got men to illuminate it for you.

*Gothard claimed that if Abigail hadn’t intervened, then David would have had the guilt of unnecessary bloodshed on his conscience; years later, when he got Bathsheba pregnant, he wouldn’t have sent Uriah into battle to be killed because he’d already know how wrong that was. I didn’t make that up.

** I hope it’s clear that I’m not claiming all Christian men believe this way. But there’s a slice of Christianity that does. If you’ve never encountered teachings like this, you might not realize the enormous effort it takes to re-read the Bible in its own words, not the twisted interpretation we were given.

Speaking of College

Allison from Presentmindedly just read The Fellowship and commented with the perspective of an “outsider.” I asked if I could turn her comment into a post.

For a little background, Allison and I grew up in the same hometown–attended the same church, in fact–but our paths didn’t cross too much. Public schooled while I was homeschooled, she was a few years ahead of me: always determined, ambitious, and very kind to the younger girls. Recently I was thrilled when she said she was reading the novel, and as usual I find her perspective very valuable.

Her words are in bold, and I’ve added my own observations in plain text. I’m not commenting to disagree, but to discuss two sides of the question. It’s a sort of call-and-response post, I guess.

Allison:
I understand how young people told that they can’t attend college and having that option for their future totally removed from them would want to explore the option of going to college, and how women might see a need for college so that they have a way to support their families should their husbands pass away (or leave).

Sara:
In the Fellowship, Bekah knows that college is not an option if she wants to remain in good standing with the church. This aspect of the Fellowship reflects my own experience with IBLP, which discouraged both young women and young men from seeking higher education. (But it was especially forbidden for women.) A lot of heavily-controlled religious systems push the line of thought that college introduces young people to worldly ideas, which shipwrecks their faith. When it comes to questions about their future, these groups insist that God will provide whatever training is necessary to make a living as an adult.

Most of us spend our 30s scrambling to catch up, or living with the insecurity that one twist of fate could leave us unable to support ourselves and our families (again, especially women).

And we think, if only we’d been allowed to go to college…

Allison:
In my experience and observation, though, college is not necessarily an avenue for job training or even job preparation. I write this as a summa cum laude graduate of the Honors College at University of Southern Mississippi, with a degree in Environmental Biology and a minor in Chemistry.

All those A’s, all that studying, all those classes and labs, and all it really prepared me for was–wait for it–more school. I had no desire to go to grad school and wanted to be a missionary at that point, anyway. At Awards Day at the end of my senior year, my father asked (with slight disappointment), “You’ve never wanted to go to med school, have you?” Nope, never had. Got accepted to grad school but declined it because I went to Romania to serve for a year.

Many people I know graduated with degrees that, while perhaps fulfilling on personal levels, didn’t necessarily prepare them for a job. I had a delightful professor who once quoted somebody else (no idea who now) in one of our classes… “College is the babysitter for tomorrow’s workforce.” I took offense at the time, but I kind of get it now.

Sara:
Although it doesn’t come through strongly in my novel, I’m very disenchanted with the college system. I love the idea of alternative training and seeking knowledge outside the approved channels of learning. But that’s a harder road to walk, and most of us weren’t actually given the choice. We were forced to walk it… often by men who were actually interested in keeping their empires going.

It’s also easier to have the degree and say, “I didn’t need it,” than feel trapped by a life where you can’t seem move ahead without that degree.

Allison:
College did give me opportunities to grow personally and spiritually and to grow up. To discover more about myself, to learn more about how to think critically and to engage in the world. But it wasn’t particularly fun, and although I met great people, I don’t have lifelong close friends from college (and I had counted on that). It was honestly often lonely and lots of hard, hard work. So it provided opportunities for personal challenge and development.

Sara:
This right here is part of what many of us feel we missed out on–some much more extremely than I did.

My parents didn’t forbid college; we sure didn’t have a lot of extra money and I wasn’t gung-ho to go. They believed that the program we were in was a viable alternative (It looked very good on paper, as the saying goes.) So we all bought into the idea that traditional college wasn’t worth considering.

So all that growing, figuring out who we are, what we believe, thinking critically, and engaging in the world — that’s part of the “college experience” that we feel we were denied.

The truth is, of course, that you don’t need college for any of that. But in our subculture, the reason that college was discouraged or even denied to us was to keep us from developing, exploring, and engaging. So that’s how we think of it: if I had been allowed to choose higher education, I might have been allowed to grow.

Allison:
But what college did not give me was what I expected going in–-training, credentials, and an open door to a career of helping protect God’s green earth in some way. God used college in my life, certainly; but I don’t think of my degree as something to fall back on. And I’m not alone in that.

I suppose I’m just bringing this up because I sensed several times that there was a thought in the story [of The Fellowship] of college giving women (and men, too) abilities to provide for and support their families that they couldn’t get without a degree.

Sara:
This was my personal insecurity shining through. I’m entirely dependent on my husband’s ability to bring in income. I consider myself very well-educated; but I don’t have the degree and work experience for a decent job. We do have life insurance (again, possible because of DJ’s money, not mine); but still, if something happened to DJ, I’d be trying to find a minimum-wage job to support myself and my four children.

My dad died when I was three, and my stepdad died when I was twenty. I have no illusions that God keeps men alive just to support their families. For those who have read the novel, this situation is spelled out pretty clearly in the story.

Allison:
Certainly some degrees are necessary for certain jobs–social work, teaching school, physical therapy. But most degrees don’t carry with them an accompanying certification.

Because I’ve been to college, I think “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” But if I hadn’t been to college, I’d probably think, “I wonder what I missed.”

Sara:
I didn’t have enough room in the novel to explore college vs. alternative education. My point wasn’t that Everyone Should Go To College, but that the Fellowship limited and controlled the lives of its people by refusing to let them make their own way in life.

I posted Allison’s comment here as encouragement to those of us who have come out of a controlling system. College wouldn’t have eliminated our struggles, just given us a different set of problems. It’s tough living with the consequences of a choice we didn’t really get to make. But once we’re free from whatever “Fellowship” once controlled us, we really do have the freedom to make our own choices, learn from our own mistakes, and build our own lives.

A Reading List

So if you happen to be somebody who writes about spiritual abuse and recovery from legalism (just as a random category), you probably have a huge personal library of books on the subject, right?

Well, I guess so. If you’re not me.

I haven’t actually read piles of books on the topic. I seek out actual personal accounts. I also tend to find themes of self-empowerment, grace, and freedom in books that don’t have anything to do with cults.

But there are a few particular books that stayed with me and influenced how I wrote The Fellowship. You might enjoy the same elements I did.

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The Gift of Sarah Barker, Jane Yolen.
I discovered this book when I was a teenager. I don’t remember many specific details, just that it hit me deeply.

Set in the 1800s, it’s the story of a teenage girl, Sarah, whose mother brought them into a Shaker cult (not to be confused with the Quakers, a completely different sect). This sect taught that sexual love in any form was sinful—they didn’t even allow marriage. (Not surprisingly, the Shakers died out, although Aaron Copeland immortalized their catchy tune “Simple Gifts” in his Appalachian Spring.)

Sarah tries very hard to fit into the sect; but her imagination, her longing for a life beyond, and her attraction to one of the young men keep sabotaging her own efforts.

This book could have been a story of oppression and sexual darkness. But Yolen instead showed many warm moments in the community. It wasn’t all bad; I understood why Sarah doesn’t really want to leave until she has no real choice.

The book seems to be out of print now, which is a shame. It’s worth tracking down.

When Sparrows Fall, Meg Moseley
I don’t like Christian fiction in general. The genre tends to feature flat characters, trite storylines, and pre-packaged answers. Several years ago, I opened Sparrows expecting more of the same.

I was very happily disappointed.

This is the story of Miranda, a young widow with several children whose pastor has decreed that their church is relocating to another state. He pressures her to sell her property, give the money to the church, and move with the rest of the congregation. Miranda has spent her whole married life being a submissive woman, but she digs her heels in and won’t sell.

Then she suffers a bad fall. In the city a few hours away, her brother-in-law, Jack, gets a call saying that he’s been named guardian of the children while she recovers.

Jack shows up to do his duty by his half-brother’s family. He quickly gets drawn into the weird world of Miranda’s church. He challenges the church’s beliefs, goes out of his way to help her and her family (and oversteps the line a couple of memorable times), and eventually finds out the secret that keeps Miranda tied to her house and her life.

I fell in love with Jack, grieved and then cheered with Miranda as she rediscovers herself, and identified with much of the spiritual abuse. I finished the book with new inspiration. If this was Christian fiction, then I could write it. Specifically, I could write that story inside me that just kept eating at me.

The Devil Wears Prada,* by Lauren Weisberger
I happened upon this book, having heard nothing of it, and pretty much inhaled it. At the time, I wasn’t really sure why it drew me in and then stayed with me. I don’t care about the world of high fashion and I didn’t have grand ambitions to work for New York magazines. The main character — although about my age when I read it — lived such a different life from mine it was laughable. (She sleeps with her boyfriend before they’re married? She has her own apartment in the city? She wears pants and sexy clothes without worrying about modesty?)

Years later, I understood its appeal to me. The book shows how a well-meaning person can get trapped in a subculture where everyone obeys an all-powerful leader. And not just trapped, but voluntarily submitting to it–even while hating parts of it. It also showed the fallout among those she loved. Her choices came with a real price.

All that said, I remember this book as a pretty light read with some pretty funny spots.

Ella Enchanted*, Gail Carson Levine
This retelling of Cinderella is one of my all-time favorite books. Ella was “blessed” by a fairy with the gift of “obedience.” She must obey any order given to her. Obviously this presents small problems — anybody can boss her around — and very large problems — anybody can order her to kill, steal, and destroy. She keeps the curse a deep secret. But things get complicated when she befriends and then falls in love with Prince Charmont… and then her malicious stepsister finds out the secret. She has to cut off all contact with Char for his own protection, and then must find a way to break the curse.

This book plays into the cult theme with the idea that Ella must obey, but finds little ways to get around it just to retain her own self. It’s also got some of my favorite lines in it, like, “I’m afraid of heights. And it’s only gotten worse as I’ve gotten taller.”

Girl at the End of the World , Elizabeth Esther
Several years ago, I followed Elizabeth Esther’s blog. I knew she grew up in her grandfather’s cult. Compared to what she went through, my experience was Lite Spiritual Abuse with Low Sodium and No Added MSG.

I also knew she wrote a memoir of her experiences. But I was immersed in writing my own book, and besides, I knew hers would hurt to read.

I should have trusted the blogger I knew back then. Elizabeth writes honestly with a twist of snark that makes it all easier to take in. Her experiences were painful—I am still cringing before Grandma Betty’s ice-blue eyes that demanded complete broken submission about once a week. But Elizabeth also gives moments of beauty, like when she and her husband first connected under a sky of stars. She highlights a few bright, caring people who passed through her life and left a mark of grace on her.

Girl is quick read, except for the frequent necessary pauses to put down the book, dash outside, and breathe in a big gulp of fresh air. As I read it, I was struck by the parallels between her “Assembly” and my “Fellowship”—the fear, the control, the in-jokes, the tight community, and the secrecy.

**

These books helped me understand and process the world I came out of. After all, it doesn’t matter what the outward trappings are; if a system has one person in authority with no accountability, they all operate from a rotten core.

And here’s to recovery that involves good dialogue, a tight story, and no out-of-context Bible verses.

 

*Movie? What movie? I ignore movie versions of books I like.**

**Except The Help, which was well done. Hunger Games was all right, although I saw only the first one. I liked the first two Narnia movies, hated the third one. Divergent was a disaster. I saw all of the Harry Potter movies, but I won’t sit through them again. I watched all nine hours of The Lord of the Rings twice, and God says I don’t have to watch them again.

Are You a Failure? Y/N

The thing about cults and cult-like systems is that, for the most part, they’re really boring.

Most of the indoctrination takes place day by day, through sermons that carefully redefine Scripture, through lectures that reinforce the group’s beliefs, and through long, dull sessions of filling in blanks and regurgitating the right answers.

The question-and-answer exercises are very simplistic, and all designed to condition you to doubt yourself and feel like a failure. You learn to look to your leader for answers, and you’re afraid to leave the group because you know you’ll crash and burn on your own.

A friend from my own Fellowship* recently shared a snapshot of a worksheet we had to fill out as students in the early 90s. As 14 – 18 year olds, we were separated from our parents at weeks-long conferences, awakened early and kept up late, and bombarded all day with lectures and conditioned group responses. Somewhere in the middle of this exhausting, bewildering, and exhilarating experience, they dropped things like this in our laps:

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1. Do you get up early in the morning?

2. Do you get out of bed when you wake up?

3. Are you an “energy-giver” when you get up?

4. Do you decide the night before what to wear the next day?

5. Do you consistently honor a day of rest?

6. Do you make your bed as soon as you get up?

7. Do you have everything in its rightful place?

8. Do you keep your room neat?

9. Are you consistent in your daily Bible reading?

10. Do you have a regular prayer time?

11. Do you regularly memorize Scripture?

12. Do you always wash your hands before meals?

13. Do you practice proper etiquette?

14. Do you sit near the front during a meeting?

15. Do you stand up for your elders?

16. Do you take notes during messages?

17. Do you know how to detect the five types of fools?

18. Do your parents approve of all your friends?

19. Do you fulfill all the promises you make?

20. Do you put yourself to sleep with meditation on Scripture?

*

An outsider could glance over it and say, “Well, there are a lot of great ideas here. Except what does washing your hands have  to do with self-motivation? Just take what’s good and leave the rest.”

An insider knew much better than that.  “No” is not an acceptable answer to any of these questions. Notice that”Sometimes” isn’t even an option. We couldn’t take-and-leave. This wasn’t a mere list of ideas. This was a test, and we were set up to fail it.

Unless you’re educated in the culture that it comes from, you probably still miss how loaded some of these questions are. I could spend a dozen blog posts unpacking these questions.

For instance, “Do you get up early in the morning?” Early rising was a mark of Godliness; sleeping late was, therefore, sinful. The next question, “Do you get out of bed when you wake up?” reinforces the idea that staying in bed is a sign of slothfulness. And there was an entire booklet about the dangers of being slothful. So if you answered “no” to questions 1 & 2, you’re already spiritually defective.

Or how about #14? Sitting in the back of a meeting demonstrated apathy (a sin) or rebelliousness (a major sin).

In order to answer #17, you had to remember the extensivelesson on the Five Types of Fools; so that question actually covered an entirely separate session in itself.

Question #18 weighed about a ton. Your parents had the power of God’s disapproval in your life. If they didn’t like a friend of yours, no matter the reason, the only obedient course of action was to get rid of that friend. Also, “friend” here could stand for “friend of the opposite sex” — someone you liked despite the fact that God expected you to keep your emotions pure until He brought you the one you were to marry. It was a reminder that even your emotions were subject to God/your parents.

The entire list, by the way, is pretty easy to master if you happen to be someone exactly like the Venerated Leader who wrote it — a man who didn’t need much sleep, was an extrovert, found memorization easy, didn’t have any real friends, wore basically the same thing every day, and spent thirty years sexually harassing young women that he invited to work for him. Oh, wait, he forgot to add that item, didn’t he?

Twenty years later, when many of us saw the picture of this list, we felt that same oppression we’d lived under as teenagers. “No wonder,” we said. “No wonder I always felt like a failure. No wonder I worked myself into chronic fatigue. No wonder I broke down at age 20.” This list was just one of many others like it. This was how we knew to please God.

This was our spiritual life, one in which choosing your clothes the night before is just as important as keeping the Sabbath (one of the Ten Commandments). No room for mistakes or personality. Just keep your head down, obey, and pretend you aren’t the complete failure you know you are.

And for the record, I have no idea how washing your hands before every meal made it on this list. That’s stupid.

If you need me, I’ll be lying in bed in my comfortably cluttered room, with no memory of the five types of fools, and resting in the grace of God.

*Bill Gothard, IBLP/ATI