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.|
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.|
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.|
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!”
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 hear you've been thinking of leaving our little Group...|
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.|
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.