Buffy, Rwanda, and the Kingdom of Elsia

Xander zeppo

One of the best episodes of Buffy shows Xander having his own crazy adventure while in the background the other Scoobies battle to save the world from being destroyed by a hideous monster. We catch glimpses of their battle throughout the episode. They’re all crying and yelling at each other. At the end Buffy tells Giles he did one of the bravest things she had ever seen (but we never learn what he did).

It reminded me very much of the weekend in 2007 when our cult had to unite and battle the demonic spirit that was over Southwestern: all the feelings that come to the surface when you’re fighting an enemy that only a few people are able to see.

And then I got to thinking about… something I thought a lot about in the aftermath of that weekend: the scary things I used to see in my bedroom that weren’t normally there. Traveling out of my body was an experience very much like that of Frodo when he put on the Ring. He went into another realm and could see things no one else could. And basically, when the group started, we were all doing that.

And then I read a story about how Rwanda’s Christians are coping with the aftermath of genocide by turning to Pentecostalism. It provides them a framework for understanding the supernatural evil that was unleashed on their country in 1994. This article in Foreign Policy magazine tells the story of a young woman named Rebecca whose family was offered sanctuary in a Catholic church. It turned out to be a trap, and her parents were killed.

And then this happened:

 

Two years later, having found a home with a foster family, Rebecca made friends with a girl of her own age named Alice. One day, Alice led her into a cemetery, and there, as Rebecca tells it, the ground opened up, revealing a flight of stairs that led down into the realm of Satan. “It was a place where there was always twilight,” says Rebecca. “It was a world of bad spirits. They put an evil spirit into my body and then they sent it back out into the world.” For the next five years, she says, her body wandered the land, causing ill wherever it could. “I had the power of causing accidents on Earth. The demons gave me that power.”

It took her five years to fight her way back. She suffered terribly, she says. But one day she encountered a group of Pentecostal Christians who prayed for her release from the powers that plagued her. With their help she finally found release, and “accepted Jesus as my king.” At age 17, she converted from her ancestral Catholicism to the Pentecostal Church, a move that finally brought her “inner peace.”

 

So when I think about The Children, and invisible realms that are super-imposed on this one, and mysterious invisible objects, and the Air Loom Gang, and my own made-up kingdom of Elsia, I can see a mythology emerging. Inevitably, I think the story will have to be about four or five kids who have, or think they have, unusual powers, and who are at war with unseen forces that no one else sees. And they belong to a society of people who have these gifts. And this society believes the end of the world is imminent. And it provides a place for the kids to learn and grow up and fall in love when they’re not saving the world. And the world itself seems to be going to pieces around them, with living houses and nightmare clouds and whatnot, strange disturbances in nature. And as the series goes on they begin to question the nature of their mission, especially as friends die and the “enemy” becomes not just invisible creatures but real people. And they begin to wonder whether they really are doing the right thing, and whether they’ve been misled, and whether the world is really ending.

Thirty Days of Poems: The Fiddler of Abilene (Day 5)

lrg_fiddle-on-lap There are tales they tell in Texas that’d make your blood run cold

 Tales of vagabonds and outlaw men with a burning lust for gold

 But of all those men with all their sins the worst there’s ever been

 Was a man in white who showed up one night in the town of Abilene.

 

            For Fernando McGraw of Statler Hall, it was the best day of his life

            He’d waited six years and now through tears he made Marie his wife

            Two hundred guests merrily processed behind the bride and groom

            With hurrying feet through the rain-filled street to Winchester’s Saloon. Continue reading

“One More Dawn, One More Day”: 3 Moments of Storytelling Brilliance

Frodo-Sam-image-frodo-and-sam-36084502-1920-800

A good story, whether in the form of a song, novel, TV series, or movie, should give the illusion that you’re experiencing something new and unprecedented. There’s a moment near the end of the story where the heroes find themselves in a unique situation facing extraordinary challenges, and the hair on the back of our necks stands on end because we know we’re witnessing the culmination of a series of choices, and if any of those choices had been different, this moment would never happened.

It’s thrilling. It gives us a rush because we know life is like that. There’s a grandeur that invests even the smallest moments because we have a dim appreciation of what it took to get here.

The following are three of my favorite storytelling moments across all media, moments where a protagonist revealed his or her true quality and the brilliance of the narrative mechanisms on display were like nothing I had seen before.
.

.
“I made a promise, Mr. Frodo”: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

With all the computer-effects wizardry and operatic spectacle of the later films, it can be easy to forget the promise of Peter Jackson’s first foray into Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The genius of the first movie (and, to a lesser extent, The Two Towers) is that they somehow married the scale of an epic fantasy story with the intimacy of a small character drama. This was never more apparent than in the under-stated denouement of Fellowship, in which human warrior Boromir dies protecting two Hobbits after nearly betraying Ring-bearer Frodo Baggins. Frodo makes his escape by boat, thinking to finish the journey alone. But his gardener Sam Gamgee has other plans, and it’s in showing how the two of them end up together that the films have one of their best moments.

 

The Death of Krishna: The Mahabharata (1989)

The ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata, the longest poem ever written (two million words in 17 volumes), has a cast so large and a story so convoluted it rivals the Lord of the Rings, featuring demons, gods, weird monsters, vengeful reincarnations, and a magical weapon with the destructive capacity to annihilate an entire planet. But the narrative thread holding the story together (and keeping it from buckling under its own weight) is the conflict between the Kauravas and Pandavas, two halves of one family who are determined to exterminate each other.

Hovering in the background of this out-of-control family quarrel is the mysterious figure of Krishna, who for much of the story seems to be just another member of the family (albeit one who is revered by all parties), but who reveals himself, in the poem’s most famous set piece, to be more than they had ever guessed. Naturally the question arises, “If you are a god, why can’t you stop this massacre?”

Peter Brooks’ five-hour 1989 film The Mahabharata plays up the more enigmatic aspects of Krishna’s character, suggesting that perhaps there’s a more sinister agenda behind his ostensible attempts at peace-making. But the film’s best moment comes at the end when Krishna, wounded and dying, reveals that he’s just as confused and vulnerable as anyone else in the story. A young boy asks him, “Krishna, tell me quickly: why all your tricks and your bad directions?” Krishna responds with his last words: “I fought against terrible powers, and I did what I could.”

 

“One Day More”: Les Miserables (the Musical)

Victor Hugo’s sprawling, relentlessly poetic 1,400 page novel Les Miserables, which tells the story of an 1832 student uprising in Paris, boasts some of the most brilliant character arcs in literature. (The culmination of the longstanding feud between Javert, the police inspector, and Jean Valjean, the criminal-turned-mayor whom he has hunted for twenty years, deserves its own place on this list).

The musical Les Miserables takes all this plot and condenses it into a lyrical and at times devastating two-and-a-half-hour saga of war, vengeance, grace, redemption, and romance. The entire last half of the story functions as a series of climaxes. And while the tear-inducing lament of Marius on re-visiting the barricades where his friends met their grisly end is probably the emotional high point of the play, in terms of sheer narrative power, praise is owed to the entire sequence where Marius, Cosette, Eponine, and their love triangle is introduced, and especially the song “One Day More,” which takes the emotional journeys of ALL the characters, crystallizes them into a few simple verses and chorus, and reveals that in spite of their many conflicts, our heroes (and villains) have far more in common than they would ever admit.

 

A Poet of the Margins

BreakingBadFelinaThe whole first half of this year I was so sure I wanted to write a “mundane,” realistic fantasy story about the boring lives of ordinary people.

 

But when I went out to dinner with Spencer last night, he said, “You, Boze, don’t have to write something realistic.”

 

And then today I was writing poetry as part of Teryn’s “Thirty Days of Poems.” And I started reading the lyrics to some of my favorite songs. And I realized there’s a thread running through a lot of them, and it may be the same thread that’s got me reading Flannery O’Connor and that made me fall so much in love with Breaking Bad.

 

Maybe the reason I loved that show so much wasn’t because it was gritty and realistic (a lot of critics said it wasn’t), but because it was all about people living on the margins. And maybe that appeals to me after all I’ve been through, as I begin to see more clearly the outline of the crucified God.

 

I wrote on Twitter, “I’m realizing that a lot of my favorite songs are about people on the margins, dreaming, fighting, desperate, struggling to get by.” And then quoted Walt Whitman: O you shunned persons, I do not shun you. I will be your poet.” And said, “Like Whitman, I want to be a poet of the forgotten and unsung.”

 

And I think that’s the kind of story I need to be writing, because that’s the kind of person I’m becoming. A person who sees life’s ragged edges. Who listens to the hurting, gets to know them, hears their stories. Who loves those who are trapped in desperate places.

 

Up until now, as Spencer pointed out, my story hasn’t really had a center. I think this is the center. These are the kinds of people I’m called to write about.

 

AIDS, Authoritarians, & the Demon-Possessed Man, Part 2: The Night I Stopped Hating

Tree-of-Life-ShadowIt’s not hard to see how an environment dominated by authoritarians can rapidly take on the contours of a nightmare.

For example, in a 1989 criminal case, psychology student Mary Wegman realized that some of her fellow jurists could not remember important pieces of evidence, invented evidence that did not even exist, and drew faulty conclusions from the evidence that everyone could agree on. (Subsequent tests indicated that each of these jurists scored highly on the RWA scale).

Imagine being the defendant in a trial in which certain jury members, perhaps because of the color of your skin, already presume your guilt and are literally incapable of seeing anything that might contradict it.

It sounds more like a situation out of Franz Kafka or The Twilight Zone, and yet it really happens.

In 1982 seven people died from taking poisoned Tylenol pills. Within two months 31 million bottles had been recalled. The New York Times covered the story over fifty times in the final three months of that year. The FDA immediately established new packaging guidelines and made product tampering a federal crime.

That same year the AIDS epidemic first burst into the national consciousness. Of the 771 people who had been infected, 614 had already died. Yet although this was ten times the number of Tylenol deaths, the New York Times ran only three stories.

The government largely ignored the problem until the end of the Reagan administration. Evangelical Gary Bauer, Reagan’s chief domestic policy advisor, blocked a report from the surgeon general on AIDS in the United States because he believed those who had AIDS deserved to die from it. Nor was this a fringe position. Jerry Falwell said, “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” Said White House communications director Pat Buchanan, “With 80,000 dead of AIDS, 3,000 more buried each month, our promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide.”

What the media, and the White House, and the general public largely seem to have missed is that actual people were actually dying of a devastating plague, and that a significant number of these cases had not resulted from gay sex. Yet the meme persisted. “People need to awaken to the reality that this so-called love story does not have a happy ending,” said a recent essay, almost gleefully, going on to claim (erroneously) that the average homosexual male has between 200 and 250 partners in his lifetime. AIDS was obviously a gay pandemic (no matter what “science” tells us), and no one who’s gay could possibly be a true Christian… so, largely ignored by the rest of the Christian community, nearly 450,000 Americans died within a twenty-year period.

Here they are, in their own words:

“We were secluded from the rest – sequestered from the rest of the world so it was like where we were living . . . it was war and everywhere else it was peacetime and they didn’t want to know, and that’s how we lived.”

“To be that threatened with extinction and to not lay down, but instead to stand up and fight back – the way we did it, the way we took care of ourselves and each other.  The goodness that we showed, the humanity that we showed the world is just mind-boggling, just incredible.”

index.phpYet AIDS victims and gays continued to be demonized. Just as the Jews were held responsible for the Black Death in 1348, the homosexual community was blamed for terrorist bombings, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, “and possibly a meteor.” Those who were suffering the most now had to contend with insane allegations about inflicting suffering on others.

The Moment I Realized That Other People Were Human

As one who was raised in a deeply religious and conservative environment, I was good at demonizing other people. Really good at it. In junior high I would gather in the courtyard every morning and give sermons on the dangers of gays, Catholics, and girls in short skirts, which won me a certain amount of popularity. Later in college, the end-times cult that I co-founded aligned itself with a nationally famous, far-right Evangelical ministry that said Jesus was going to return and physically kill thousands of people with his own hands. We were taught to beware the “gay agenda” and to view Christians in other denominations with suspicion. There’s a mass movement of young people doing works of justice, they told us, but because they don’t profess the name of Jesus, it’s a “false justice.”

As I absorbed these teachings my behavior changed radically, and so did that of the cult’s other members. I was belligerent and aggressive towards my gay and atheist friends. My thinking became compartmentalized and I was suddenly unable to have logical discussions. Yet the other cult members told me not to worry about it, said I was being “persecuted” for contradicting “the world’s” teachings. When a fellow student, who had been involved in peaceful demonstrations and interfaith dialogues, was accidentally run over, we celebrated his death as a sign of God’s wrath being poured out on campus.

But then when I moved to Kansas City and started getting punished constantly, something changed inside of me. Something deep and drastic.

It was a long process, but I think the pivotal moment happened one night as I listened to the community praying together from the floor of my bedroom, where I had been consigned following a series of truly disturbing events. Each night the group would gather in a circle and listen for two or three in minutes in silence to hear what “God” was saying. Then they would discuss what they had heard. On this particular evening a woman began the discussion by saying, “I feel like we’re being attacked. There are demons of control coming against us right now.”

The group prayed in silence for a moment longer. Then one girl said, “It’s Boze.” And another girl said, “I just heard the same thing.”

And they spent the next hour praying against me. As I sat there in my room listening to their prophecies about how God was going to “punish” me, at first I wondered what I could have possibly done to upset them. But then I realized: They’re wrong about me, and their prophecies are wrong, and the things they’re hearing from God are wrong. And I can prove it.

And gradually in those next weeks I quit being afraid of them. And though I wouldn’t have said it in so many words, I realized that I could never again single out any other group or person for shame and condemnation. I had been on the wrong end of that, one too many times now. I resolved to become an advocate for all who were trapped in nightmares.

 

What Frozen Taught Me About How to Read the Bible

Elsa          Frozen is one of those movies that stay with you. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I watched it again last week. Like most people I could empathize with Elsa’s longing to disappear into the mountains, away from friends and family, free of their rules and expectations, free to quit pretending, to be me. It’s a universal feeling, one that I think we’ve all felt.

 

            I love the second verse especially:

 

            It’s funny how some distance

            Makes everything seem small

            And the fears that once controlled me

            Can’t get to me at all

           

            It’s time to see what I can do

            To test the limits and break through

            No right, no wrong, no rules for me

            I’m free!

 

            There’s something so stirring about seeing a heroine growing in confidence, casting off the constraints that have bound her and soaring through wind and sky. Haven’t you ever felt that calling, that longing to forget what everyone else tells you you have to be and just be what you have to be?

 

            And yet I don’t for a moment think the writers fully endorse Elsa’s perspective. I got to wondering how they made Frozen and was surprised to learn that initially Elsa was supposed to be the villain. But when Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez sat down and started writing “Let It Go,” they began trying to imagine what it would be like to be her, to carry her emotional burdens: “this concept of letting out who she is, that she’s kept to herself for so long, and she’s alone and free, but then the sadness of the fact that the last moment is she’s alone. It’s not a perfect thing, but it’s powerful.”

 

            Elsa’s self-imposed isolation is hurtful to her sister and ruinous to the kingdom. The writers aren’t encouraging this, as is clear by the end of the movie. “Let It Go” comes at a place in the movie where the heroine is just beginning her emotional journey, hurt and confused but filled with a longing to transcend her meager surroundings and be confident and powerful. But to understand what the movie thinks about all this, we have to follow that emotional journey all the way to the end.

 

            It’s a precarious balance, but I think the writers got it mostly right. Because we could so easily say, “Elsa was wrong to feel that way!” But the truth is, while her feelings may not always be what we’d want them to be, what they “should”be, they’re a part of the human experience, and that’s beautiful.

 

            We have grace for Elsa because she’s so human. And I wish we could read the Bible in the same way we watch Frozen.

 

            So many people have tried to argue with me about the meaning of the Scriptures. You see, they don’t think I take the Bible seriously enough because I have reservations about some of the scarier passages in the Old Testament, the ones about killing children (Ps. 137:9) or stoning women who are raped (Deut. 22:23-25) or slaughtering whole nations. These are the ones they demand I believe in. “If you don’t believe the whole Word of God,” they insist, “you’re a false teacher!”

 

            And it raises some interesting questions, like: Why these passages? Why does no one ever demand a “literal reading” of, “Love your enemies,” or, “If you forgive others, you will be forgiven”? Why are you making, “Destroy all that they have, and do not spare them” the hill that you die on? What does that say about you?

 

            The truth is, like Frozen, the Bible has some very human elements. Human writers and human heroes expressed things that are often not appropriate. They did not always hear God correctly, and their image of God was not always accurate. Because the Bible is a story, and in order to grasp its full meaning you have to read it all the way to the end. There’s a twist at the end of the story, and the twist is Jesus.

 

            The Psalmist said, “Happy is the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”

 

            Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”

 

            Moses said, “You shall conquer them and utterly destroy them.”

 

            Jesus said, “Put away your sword.”

 

            David prayed, “Let there be none to extend mercy.”

 

            Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

 

            In the same way our knowledge of Hans, Anna’s fiancé, is dramatically altered by his self-revelation at the end of Frozen, the Israelites’ perception of God is dramatically altered by the self-revelation of Jesus.

 

           In the first case, the one we had trusted turned out to be a villain and deceiver.

 

           In the second, the one we had feared turned out to be gentle and good.

 

           And that’s really the message of the whole Bible: we thought God was like this; but all along, he was really like this.

 

           We thought God was proud and lofty. But he was meek and lowly.

 

           We thought he would execute vengeance. But he himself was executed.

 

           We thought he would take up the sword and kill. But he took up the cross and died.

 

          It’s the greatest of all surprises—a twist like no other.

 

            But we’ll never grasp what it means unless we read to the end. You can cut up the Bible into pieces and make it say whatever you want, just as you can take “Let It Go” out of Frozen and make a compelling argument for isolation and selfishness. But the true heart of the story is found in its closing scenes, in sacrifices made and love rekindled.

Story Structure in Harry Potter

Harry_Potter_wandI read this great series of articles on the Write like Rowling website.

 

It’s based on the concepts presented in Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering.

 

In the section on story structure, Brooks says that in order to be successful, a story needs to have each of these five pivots:

 

  1. The first plot point, when the hero receives her marching orders and sets out on her journey

 

  1. The first pinch point, when the hero is given a reminder of the nature and power of the antagonistic forces arrayed against her

 

  1. The mid-point, when a crucial piece of information is discovered

 

  1. The second pinch point, which again reminds the hero of the antagonistic forces

 

  1. and the second plot point, the final injection of new information into the story that gives the book a kind of forward momentum as it speeds towards the end.

 

Brooks even tells us at what percentage of the way through the book each of these pivots needs to make its appearance.

 

The first plot point occurs 25 percent of the way through the story;

 

the first pinch point occurs 3/8ths of the way through the story;

 

the midpoint occurs at the midpoint;

 

the second pinch point occurs 5/8ths of the way through the story;

 

and the second plot point occurs 75 percent of the way through the story.

 

Interestingly, in Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling lands four of these five pivots on the exact page they need to be on according to Brooks’ model of story structure (he excludes the prologue as not being part of the main plot). C. S. Plocher on the Write like Rowling website gives us a rundown:

 

Harry boards the Hogwarts Express on page 90 of the 259-page plot;

 

He gets his first glimpse of Snape (and, even more crucially, Quirrell’s turban) on page 126;

 

He realizes who has the Philosopher’s Stone at the end of chapter 9, exactly halfway through the book;

 

He catches Snape with a bloody leg 5/8ths of the way through the book.

 

The only exception is the final plot point (Harry realizing that Dumbledore has departed for London and the stone is going to be stolen), which is 25 pages later than it would normally be because Rowling is setting up a seven-volume fantasy series and has a lot of world-building to do. (Moreover, I would argue that the true second pinch point in the first novel is the scene with the unicorn in the Forbidden Forest).

 

So if I made it my goal to write a 300-page book:

 

the first plot point would occur on or around page 60;

 

the first pinch point would occur on page 113;

 

the mid-point would occur on page 150;

 

the second pinch point would occur on page 188;

 

and the final plot point would occur on page 225 (or perhaps a bit later in a story of this scope).

 

I have this crazy dream to write a novel according to a strict formula. In the past I always thought I could free-wheel it; but I’m realizing, I really love formulaic writing. It’s so structured. I love following the rules. I love learning the science and craft of storytelling.

 

What I’m Into (March 2014)

wk-nebraska1122-1It’s been a good month. An emotional month. I quit my job today to pursue my career as a writer. I’m probably going to spend the next month finishing my first book. I’ve been studying for the driver’s exam, because I somehow made it to 27 without knowing how to drive. I met Bishop N. T. Wright. I made some great relationships on Twitter and really challenged myself to use social media for all it’s worth.

 

I haven’t been watching a lot of movies because it’s Lent, but I did sneak in a few. These were some of my favorites:

 

Nebraska (2013)

A sad black-and-white movie about an old man with a drinking problem and his world-weary son, who are taking a trip to Nebraska to claim the million dollars the man thinks he’s won. Lovely and powerful and haunting.

 

Breathless (1959)

          The first film in the French New Wave movement, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was a breath of fresh air. The cinematography, encompassing the picturesque sweep of Paris streets and the idleness of a pair of lovers casually chatting, is breath-taking.

 

True Detective (2014)

          The entire first season, from start to finish. A great fix for anyone who’s still suffering from the end of Breaking Bad. The writing and directing is electrifying, and at times genius. Woody Harrelson is effective as a blustery Louisiana detective, while Matthew McConaughey creates a character for the ages.

 

NOAH (2014)

          No, it wasn’t made by evil alien space lizards with the intention of destroying “traditional Christianity.” Ignore all the bizarre controversy surrounding this movie and go see it for yourself. It’s worth it. Trust me.

 

*         *         *

 

It’s been a much better month in terms of books, because I HAVE A KINDLE NOW AND I CAN READ ALL THE TIME!

 

This month I read, or began reading:

 

Story Engineering: Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction by Larry Brooks

– The Mahabharata (a modern adaptation in two volumes) by Ramesh Menon

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters,by Christopher Vogler (haha, can you tell that I’m writing a book?)

Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, by Peter Ackroyd

Jesus & the Victory of God, by N. T. Wright

Girl At the End of the World, by Elizabeth Esther

 

Excluding Elizabeth’s book, which I’ve already written about at length, my favorite of these was the Mahabharata. It’s an ancient story of family and war and sex and betrayal, gods and goddesses and demons and monsters, that reads like a great Shakespearean tragedy. I’ll have more to say about this. I want to write a post about my eleven favorite stories ever, and this is definitely one of them.

 

*           *           *

 

Music that I’ve been falling in love with? The Silver Seas, Elbow, The Handsome Family, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Alessi’s Ark, Club 8, Elizabeth & the Catapult

 

Songs? Here’s a sampling:

 

“Alaska” (The Silver Seas)

“Far from Any Road” (The Handsome Family—True Detective theme song!)

“The Bottomless Hole” (The Handsome Family)

“Julian, Darling” (Elizabeth & the Catapult)

“Karaoke Star” (The Silver Seas)

“The Water” (Johnny Flynn ft. Laura Marling)

“New York Morning” (Elbow)

“John Lennon” (Felix)

“Song of Joy” (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds)

What about you? What have you fallen in love with this month?

Why You Should Stop Freaking Out about “NOAH”

Here’s what’s fascinating about all the controversy surrounding the NOAH movie:

In Jewish tradition, Noah is *not* considered one of the heroes of the faith. The Scriptures tell us that he was “righteous in his generation.” It’s a measure of how bad the world had gotten that Noah was the best of the lot.

When God revealed to Noah that he was going to destroy the whole earth in a flood, Noah showed no compassion for his fellow human beings. His only concern was to save himself and his own family.

He’s not a role model of our faith.

You know who is a role model? Someone like Abraham. Who when God said he was going to destroy Sodom, raised his voice in protest and said, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” A man who flagrantly questioned the decisions of the Lord, who challenged his idea of justice.

A man like Moses who, when God offered to wipe out the whole Israelite line and make him the father of a great nation, begged him with tears to spare the people.

The word “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” Abraham and Moses are Jewish heroes because they loved others, listened to the voice of reason, and fought with God. That ought to make them Christian heroes, too.

Girl At the End of the World: A Review

Girl-at-the-End-of-the-World2-624x469“The most detrimental aspect of my childhood was our preoccupation with End of the World theology.”
— Elizabeth Esther

*        *         *

 

Elizabeth Esther’s new memoir, Girl At the End of the World (Convergent, 2014) is an important book. But it’s also a hard book.

Hard for anyone still recovering from the trauma of being trapped in a fundamentalist cult.

For anyone who has lost loved ones to a twisted ideology masquerading as the one true religion.

For anyone who has ever tried to convince her fellow believers that yes, Christians can be sadistic and abusive and scary and cultish, only to be met with confusion and anger.

* * *

Near the beginning, Elizabeth likens her youth in a Christian end-times cult known as The Assembly to the experience of growing up in a mob family. “Except instead of killing people if they stopped cooperating, we just excommunicated them from our training homes. Religious fervor was all I knew, so my holy mob family felt normal.”

A mob family. I’d never thought about it, but that really is what it feels like.

Just as a thought experiment, I sometimes like to imagine how a cult member would react when shown a movie about a group of people doing the exact same horrible things that are being done in his group. Nine times out of ten I think the comparison would fly over his head, because the movie is about the evil World while the cult is about loving Jesus.

Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone in Goodfellas being as cruel to their family as Elizabeth’s family is to her in the course of this book.

Yes, fundamentalism really does erase people. And when it finds a perceptive, artistic, and free-spirited young woman with a passion for truth, beauty, and justice, a woman like Elizabeth Esther, it erases them harder. It can’t allow them to be themselves, because who they are is dangerous.

It’s true, no one was murdered in Elizabeth’s community, but in a way it doesn’t even matter. When you’re in a cult, everything you are is invalidated.

Your body. The women in her community are strictly policed to ensure that not a hint of curves is ever seen through their clothing. “Better to wear a shapeless sack,” she writes, “than risk clothing that suggests any shape whatsoever.”

Your gender and sexuality. In The Assembly, women have no say in how their own lives are directed. A woman belongs to her dad until she gets married, at which point she belongs to her husband.

Your faith. All forms of Christianity other than the kind practiced by The Assembly are viewed as illegitimate. Elizabeth’s dad sneers at the idea of “good Christians” in other denominations, calling them Pharisees. Anyone who begins to explore other traditions of faith is expelled from the community.

Your talents and passions. Elizabeth’s dad is unable to attend her swim meets because he’s too preoccupied with “issues of Eternal Significance.”

Your dreams for your life. For me the saddest moment in the whole book is when her parents force her to give up her dream job on the high school newspaper staff, effectively destroying her chances of going to a private college. Why? Because she’s not spending enough time doing chores around the house. You see, writing and getting an education and being fulfilled as a human aren’t nearly as important as “doing the Lord’s will.”

This is what it looks like when people are erased.

Yet the group continues to congratulate itself on its holiness. No one listens to secular music. No one drinks alcohol.

As the story winds on, as the catalogue of horrors and abuses grows ever longer, I begin to wonder what any of this has to do with being a Christian.

Take away the superficial religious trappings, and this becomes the story of a sick, twisted system where people were controlled and their personalities quenched of all light, all passion.

I begin to suspect that this is all it ever was: a predatory structure for the enslavement of other human beings. That’s its purpose, the thing it was designed to do.

And people submitted to it without question because they thought it was Jesus.

* * *

In an interview with my friend Teryn at the back of the book, Elizabeth elaborates on her eventual decision to become Catholic. Teryn asks her, “Do you see the Catholic Church as less abusive than Protestantism? . . . Do you feel safer now that you’re Catholic?”

Elizabeth says, “I’m glad I wasn’t the one who said that, because I attract enough controversy as it is! But yes, that is a great insight and I absolutely agree. In fact, this was a huge reason why I joined the Catholic Church. I felt absolutely safe there.”

And no wonder. For the first time in her life, she’s in a spiritual environment where the voice of God isn’t being mediated by some renowned pastor; where she can read the Bible on her own without the interpreting voices of authoritarian fundamentalism; where she can seek the wisdom and solace of Mother Mary without fear of rebuke.

This book affected me on a profound level. I read it in a single day, and for days afterwards I felt sick.

You see, I was in a group similar to Elizabeth’s, a group that was going to pray in the End Times and battle the forces of darkness. My best friend was allegedly murdered by the leader of our cult, a man we all trusted and revered as a spiritual leader. For five years he had been the primary authority interpreting the Scriptures for us. We were sincerely convinced that when we opened the Bible, we were seeing the “plain meaning of Scripture.” He had so colored our perceptions that we read his ideas back into the Bible and thought they were the words of God.

And so when Elizabeth says, “I’m going to the Catholic Church because I don’t know where else to find a way to God that feels safe,” I get that. More than anything else, I think that’s the reason I became Catholic.

Because the Church is a place where the voices of writers and artists and intellectuals and, yes, women, are welcomed and not stifled.

Because Jesus offers himself to us in the Eucharist and I can’t think of a more beautiful demonstration of love than to give us his physical presence.

Because for the first time in my life I’m in a place where mystery and mysticism and beauty and questions are encouraged and accepted. Where I am accepted, for who I am.

Because the beautiful crucified God, the God on a cross, the weak, suffering Messiah, gazes down at me from the crucifix at the front of the church, and I know that the mechanisms of power and control that enslaved me for years are brought to nothing in the presence of the God who became powerless.

And I’m so grateful to Elizabeth for putting words to that, for taking us on her journey out of the darkness of toxic religion and into the light of a faith that is warm and welcoming and stable and biblical and traditional and safe.

This is a brave book. Not an easy book to finish, but it’s worth it, because the hope at the end is brighter than the blackness of darkness that scarred her youth.

It’s a necessary book.

For anyone suffering under the shackles of dangerous Christianity.

For anyone who has a friend who’s enslaved and doesn’t know what to do about it.

For anyone who’s ever fled from a cult into the safe, warm arms of Catholicism.

A harrowing, disturbing, tremendously sad, yet ultimately redemptive book, illuminating, timely, and prophetic. The kind of book the Church needs to read, now more than ever. A true godsend.