Monday, November 9, 2015

Life Among the Zealots

I mentioned in my previous post that I had been a member of a cult, and someone said they would like to hear more about it. So, at least one person might enjoy this; sorry about the rest of you.

From the age of 16 to 22, I was a member of a cult. By all definitions, it was a fairly pedestrian cult. We didn’t retreat to the hills with our Bibles and guns, we didn’t erect altars to the Sacred Rutabaga, and we didn’t even go on pilgrimages to see the Holy Cow in farmer Jones’ field, the one with the markings that—if you squinted and looked sideways—sorta resembled Jesus. But we were an insular group, convinced of our righteousness and suspicious of outsiders, lapping up the Word of God as translated for us by our Leader. So, in my view, it was a cult.

I ended up there for several reasons, mostly because I was a teenager with a head full of mush. Also, there was a nation-wide revival happening during the late 1970s and our area, like many others, became caught up in it. And so I went to a meeting in the barn/church where this group congregated. They seemed like nice people, they offered direction and meaning. So I signed on.

It wasn’t bad at first. I credit it with keeping me out of trouble during my teenage years, because Trouble and I were really bonding at that time. I, and my new friends, sang songs, we prayed, we were baptized by immersion, and we clapped our hands a lot. In general, it was good fun.

But then, as always happens when one person finds themselves in control of a devoted group of Acolytes, we were gradually transformed into mindless zombies who were not allowed to think for themselves. We were told what we could do, where we could go, how we could dress, who we could associate with, what music we could listen to and what books we could read*. If there is one thing this experience taught me it is that religion—any religion—is, at its heart, all about control.

I was not allowed to write, because fiction is a lie and lying is a sin. Everything I had written up to that point was burned—my stories, my journals, my poems—along with my Simon and Garfunkel records. I did this willingly, because that’s what you do when you are in a cult; you obey without question. Opinions are not encouraged.

Smart man, that Voltaire.
We were fundamentalist Christians, believing the Bible to be the literal Word of God. The world was created in seven days, dinosaurs were a hoax, evolution was blasphemy and modern innovations—such as scanning your groceries at the supermarket—were the work of the Beast. We were also charismatic, believing that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were still viable today. We spoke in tongues, we cast out demons, we laid hands on the sick (whether we healed them or not is up to speculation).

But we were also teenagers, with the same frustrations, insecurities, hopes, dreads and passions of normal teenagers. That was the one thing our Leader couldn’t cast out of us, and it really irked him.

Yeah, this was me. We were a boring cult...
...we never go to do any really cool cult things, like this.
There were, naturally, rules for relationships, tweaked over the years in a never ending quest to tighten the screw. As you might expect, fornication was a no no, but so was wanking. (Talk about some frustrating years!) We were not allowed to date non-Christians, a rule that not only made sense but was totally unnecessary; who on earth would want to date us?

Fortunately, there was plenty of Christian date-fodder around, especially as groups like ours were springing up faster than Starbuck franchises all over the place. But not all of them were charismatic, so scratch those people off the list. Then we weren’t allowed to date anyone who wasn't “growing at our spiritual rate,” which was nebulous enough to pretty much rule out anyone.

Soon, this barn/church was our whole world. Saturday night was Core Group night, where the ultra-faithful got together to whip ourselves into a pious frenzy (think of it as spiritual masturbation), Sunday we had a morning service and an evening service, Monday night was Bible study, Tuesday night was…well, you get the idea.

It was by no means dark and sinister, however; we weren’t locked in prayer cells and beaten with rosebushes or anything like that, we were simply controlled. And at a time when young people are eager to explore the boundaries of their lives, this can pinch around the edges. We were encouraged to grass each other up (US translation: rat each other out) if we saw a brother or sister doing something suspect. This could result in a group confrontation at one of our many meetings, or a private counseling session with the Leader, which was basically him giving us a bollocking (US translation: telling us off).

There were bright moments, too, though. We had several outreach programs, we ran weekend retreats for church youth groups and we travelled to other churches to speak about our work. We also made sporadic attempts at knocking on people’s doors and asking the startled occupants if they wanted us to tell them about Jesus. You can imagine the success rate.

I heard this a lot.
Then two things happened right around the same time: the Leader’s daughter and I became quite keen on one another, and at a meeting of the faithful, we theorized on ways to take our holiness to the Next Level.

But first, the daughter. I was in my early twenties now, I was part of The Committee, I went on the speaking engagements, I produced the newsletter, I taught at the retreats. I was trusted—relied on—to do all these things, but when I asked the Leader for permission to date his daughter, he told me “No.”


It didn’t end there, naturally. We began seeing each other on the sly, which was the only logical outcome in a situation like that.

Now, back to the meeting. It is stated in the Bible that anyone who becomes a Christian and then turns away is doing a Very Bad Thing. It is called Apostasy, and you don’t just go to hell for it, you go to double-dog hell, the furthest, deepest, darkest corner of hell’s sub-basement. Ergo, our Leader theorized, if you saw someone in danger of committing apostasy, it would be better for you to kill their body and send their soul to heaven instead of allowing them to go to hell. The group—young, white and middle class—all nodded their heads in agreement while the final, shredded remnants of my free thought screamed, “they’re talking about murder!”

I hear you've been thinking of leaving our little Group...
And then—also the only logical outcome in situation like that—the Leader found out about his daughter and me and I was summarily kicked out of the church, with the words, “don’t come near me, my church or my daughter again!” ringing in my ears.

I found that strange. Didn’t Jesus teach us to turn the other cheek? He had another daughter. You’d think, instead of booting me out, he would have offered her, as well.

But that was not to be. I was shunned, just like the Amish. And, as with the Amish, it is not a pleasant thing. The church, the people in it, my girlfriend, they were my whole world. I was cast adrift with no friends, no direction and no purpose; it's a terrible state to be in, and can cause people to do some horrifically desperate and stupid things. I was no different; I got married.

Yeah, that was kinda how it was, except I wasn't wearing a dress.
Eventually, I got better. I remembered that I had aspirations. I began to write again. I started performing—singing on the folk circuit and doing some stand-up comedy. Gradually, I became the person I was meant to be, though not the person my wife (a nice woman who did not deserve to be saddled with me) had thought she had married.

It has been years—decades—since I have thought about that time. I rarely bring it up, unless I am asked to tell something about myself that not a lot of people know about.

So now you do.

* One of the books we were forbidden to read was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, simply because it had the word “witch” in the title, thus denying us one of the great Christian allegorical tales and proving that zealots are not only narrow-minded, but stupid, as well.


12 comments:

  1. I must admit I thought about you and your former cult, Mike, when I heard about the cult reported here: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/10/14/us/new-york-church-assault-case/

    It's quite close to where you lived, I think?

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    1. Yes, that is close to where I used to live. They are everywhere...

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  2. I appreciate your sharing that with us, Mike. I grew up in the '70s in No. California where a number of cults took hold, unfortunately. A dear friend of mine is a 'survivor' of one such group. Much of what you wrote echoed his experiences.

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    1. You're welcome. It was interesting revisiting that particular wing of my memory mansion. I expect, unless you were in a particularly extreme cult, they are all basically the same. Well, they are the same--they are all about control, it's only their methods that differ.

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  3. Now the cultists are really enthused about the Rapture. I guess the insiders get some special privileges while the rest of us are screwed. Elitism is pretty heady stuff for the needy and nerdy.

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    1. Oh, the Rapture; don't get me started. I didn't go into it because the post was already running long, but we lived, ate and breathed the Rapture. It was central to our doctrine. And, yeah, the Rapture was for US, the rest of you were screwed.

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  4. My husband was in a cult as well, though not quite as innocuous as yours. He was moonie. It was about control, but even more about money. Money and power for those at the top. I don't think he would disagree with anything you said. (You just said it with much more humour). It's always so interesting to get a peek into someone's story. Thanks, Michael.

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    1. Yeah, Moonies were really big for a while. Glad to hear your husband got out.

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  5. Where were your parents at this point?

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  6. Crikey, thank heavens you got out of there. But I bet there were lots of young people who didn't get out, and have suffered ever since.

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    1. Some of my friends from back then are still involved, but as far as I know, none of them have killed anybody.

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