“Love & Death in the House of Prayer” (a Rolling Stone Expose)

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[ Cross posted on No Longer Quivering, a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor’s Network ]

Hello, everyone. I’m back from a month-long blogging break.

The big story of the day is this investigative piece by Jeff Tietz for Rolling Stone Magazine about the cult I was in and the loss of my best friend. He does an excellent job of explaining how the group formed and how it all went wrong, and paints a beautiful picture of Bethany as she was known to those who truly loved her.

Today I wrote this meditation on her death and the grand illusions that led the two of us to such a dangerous place. Tonight I wanted to share it. Here it is:

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” Bethany was both. Creatively gifted and unceasingly generous, she nourished me and so many other lost souls with her warmth, wisdom, and practicality.

We got into a fight shortly after we met because I viewed myself as the hero of some epic fantasy adventure. “Don’t make reality out to be a book, dear fellow,” she warned me, with a professorial air. “Books merely reflect life; they do not determine it. They have only power to show us in fresh ways what reality looks like.”

At the time I was furious, of course. How could she not know that we were both at the center of a great drama?

But over the next five years I saw a whole group of friends get pulled into a whirlpool of self-heroic narcissism. I witnessed at close quarters the devastating consequences of thinking that we can defy the natural laws of age and death. We were going to do what so many Christians before us had failed to do, because we were truly special. Bullets would bounce off of us; the devil would flee at our approach. A new world was about to begin, bathed in the glorious light of a cosmic revolution.

But in the midst of the hell that our leader created around us, amid the endless punishments and end-times training sessions, I remembered the words that Bethany had spoken six years earlier. And I realized that she had been right: I wasn’t a hero. I wasn’t special. I was just me. We, all of us, we had created this elaborate role-playing fantasy to escape the suffocating boredom of suburban life.

I got out. I left the group and learned how to be ordinary. And I truly believe that, given enough time, Bethany would have gotten out, too. I’m so sorry that the opportunity was stolen from her. I wish I could tell her how much her words and spirit have affected me, how I wish I had listened to her years before. All I can do now is to live in honor of her memory and hope that in time others will appreciate the astonishing legacy of her life and come to understand how it was cut so short.

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The Secret of Good Fantasy is to Write Honestly

ainePhoto Credit: Aine McVey

One of my goals for this year is to journal every day, which means I’ll probably be doing a lot more free-writing.

            I spent most of my Christmas break rewriting the first chapter of my book, just because I wanted to have a truly stunning first chapter. I finished it yesterday and sent it to three different people, seeking their opinions. It may need some revisions, but for the most part I actually really like it.

Some strange things happened as I was writing it. A few paragraphs into the chapter I realized that the only way forward was to talk about the fantasy stories I was dreaming up at around the time the novel begins. (Because the two main characters in these fantasies were fictional versions of me and *Rebecca, the fantasizing provides a commentary on the very real situations I’m describing).

Previously I had always been afraid to bring my imagination into the story because I felt it would alienate readers. (And also, I think, because *Timothy and Rebecca tried to tell me that my fantasies were evil and anti-social. Only in the last year have I begun rejecting the shame they spoke over me and embracing my calling as a storyteller).

What I found, though, was that being open about how much I used to fantasize actually made the story more realistic and grounded. Because the narrator is constantly explaining how he expects things to play out, watching them unfold in a much less dramatic way than he was anticipating creates a sense of realism. For example, there’s one moment in the first chapter where Rebecca has just finished giving a long speech about how reality is not a book, and I want so much to shake her hand and thank her for saying that, but I don’t. Instead, she goes into her room and shuts the door.

In earlier drafts of the novel, I would have been tempted to try and turn that into a big scene. But somehow, because it’s NOT a big scene (no matter how much I, the narrator, want it to be), it has more of an impact.

What surprised me even more is that, as the chapter was winding down, I found myself becoming obsessed with the most boring, minute, mundane aspects of the story. Reading back over it, my favorite moments are the dozens of small and apparently insignificant details, like the way Rebecca walks through the Cove with her hands in her back pockets, or how I say, “Hey,” and she doesn’t immediately respond, or how when we finish praying together I’m suddenly depressed because I’m afraid she’s going to admire me when all I wanted to do was to help her.

And yet the two BIG paragraphs that at first I was most excited about, the most poetic and “important” paragraphs in the chapter, fill me with an unsuppressed nausea. They don’t feel “real” to me in the way the smaller passages do.

And perhaps it’s just emblematic of a bigger change going on in my life. Because I grew up on Peter Jackson’s brilliant, amazing Lord of the Rings films, because those were my reality, I thought life would be full of grand gestures and vivid, emotional flourishes. I tried to shape reality to fit my preconceptions.

But over the last few months I’ve started to realize that reality is what it is, that there IS a real battle between good and evil but it takes place at the level of our mundane interactions. People have to eat and shower and do laundry and comb their hair and get their oil changed, pack their lunch in the morning and go to work each day. And for the most part we stand around looking bored and clueless, and there’s a lot of dead air in our conversations, and we accidentally talk over each other, and sometimes we don’t say what we mean to say and have to repeat ourselves, and we all spend twelve hours a day on Facebook and Twitter, and sometimes terrible things happen to people who didn’t deserve it, and that’s how life is, even if it’s not how it should be. But somehow God is gracious and we get to be heroes anyway.

And maybe in real life, being a hero is better than how it is in the movies, better and worse, because instead of battling sorcerers and Balrogs you have to fight REAL monsters, and that takes even more courage. I think I could stand up to a dragon; but after what I’ve been through in the last four or five years, no mythical creature will ever be quite as scary again. I’ve seen the face of true evil, and I think that smile will haunt my nightmares for a long time to come.

And I’m not giving up my love for fantasy, but as I get older the stories that continue to enchant me are the true ones: either those, like the novels of Tolkien, that radiate elemental truths about the nature of reality, or those like Harry Potter that take into account how people actually talk and think and feel and behave, so that I feel like I’m reading a real story about real people. Lousy case-of-the-week dramas, cheap end-times thrillers, and overblown Hollywood epics no longer interest me because they seem to be operating on an exaggerated and romantic notion of how the world should be rather than how the world is, and when I’m watching a movie the last thing I want to feel is concern for the writers, wondering whether they’ve ever had a real experience, whether they know anything about what life is like.

In the first chapter of my book I describe how Rebecca implored me to come out of my books and really experience reality instead of just reading about it. She taught me so much about how to live life, how to feel feelings, how to interact with real people. And to the extent that I didn’t figure out how to do that while she was living, I had to learn it in the aftermath of her death when every remaining illusion I had was shattered and I had to face the bitterness of mortality. She seemed to be fading into a fantasy more and more during our last years together, but because of her encouragement and example I was able to find my way back to reality. And I think I’ve “inherited” some of the pragmatism and realism she was always trying to pour into me (without a lot of success). That’s how I intend to live my life now. And when I finally sit down and write my fantasy novels, they’ll be weird and creative and surprising, of course, because I don’t think I can help being weird, but I want them to be true more than anything else, alive with the complexity and brokenness of ordinary life. And I think now they will be.

Sometimes Church is the Problem

church_steepleIn May 2011 I requested a meeting with a church leader about the terrible time I had been having.

I hadn’t eaten, really, in three weeks. I could barely sleep. Some nights I would just sit in my room and cry and cry as I thought about my life, about the kind of man I was, someone whose anger and hatred had left him alone and completely friendless. I cared about ideas more than I cared about people; and I realized I was heading towards the same miserable end as my hero, Charles Dickens, who had been so consumed by ambition that he couldn’t even see his own son trying to get his attention as he sat at his desk writing on the last day of his life.

But God in His mercy was trying to reach me. He had punished me for my selfishness. I read aloud the passage in Deuteronomy where He curses the Israelites who walk in disobedience. “The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind; you shall grope about at noon as blind people grope in darkness, but you shall be unable to find your way; and you shall be continually abused and robbed, without anyone to help.”

“It’s great that you have that much clarity,” said *Mr. O’Connell. “But what have you done exactly?”

And I told him about my abusiveness and anger towards the people in my life who were trying to help me, how I refused to listen, how I was always turning the conversation around on them to make it look like they were the bad guys, and how it finally reached the point where, seven months earlier, the community I lived in had decided to shun me until I could learn how to treat people…

“Hold on,” said Mr. O’Connell, and he gave me a very serious expression. “Are you being punished?”

“No, it isn’t punishment,” I said sadly. “They’re trying to help me.”

*           *           *

Samantha Field had a great post on her blog today about how church can be a dangerous environment, how our theological systems protect abusers by telling their victims that everyone is equally horrible in God’s eyes because all sins are equally deserving of punishment, and haven’t we all done things that are wrong, and haven’t we all done things that have hurt others?

So everyone becomes a victim, and everyone becomes an abuser, and whatever defenses the abused might have had are stripped from them in the name of religion.

And it got me to thinking. There’s an uphill battle that so many abuse victims face, just being able to recognize that they’re being abused, let alone being equipped to resist it.

And this battle is made dramatically more difficult by a cultural environment that encourages people to think of themselves abusively, that rewards virtues like submission and obedience but discourages courage, emotional engagement, and critical thinking.

For example, I eventually realized that the community in which I was living was a dangerous cult; and that our leader was using me as a warning to the rest of the group about the dangers of questioning his authority. But clarity only came because I was willing to swim against the flow of Evangelical teaching, to think outside of the acceptable paradigms and “heart attitudes” that are supposed to characterize a true believer.

I’ve heard prominent small group leaders say you should never complain when you’re mistreated, because no matter what was done to you, it’s better than what you deserve. What you deserve is hell. So you should be grateful for what you’re getting, even if you don’t like it.

Grateful.

When I’m being ignored by everyone else in my house, when people throughout the country are told that I’m dangerous, when I’m told, “You’re being isolated until you get better” but not given any idea what this is supposed to look like or how long it will last, when I’m just sitting in my room waiting in permanent suspension… I should just accept that, because I deserve worse.

My friend who was driven to her death? She deserved to be honored and protected; to be treated with kindness; to be loved. Where I stop taking your religion seriously is when it tries to tell me she deserved what she ended up getting.

So yes, I’m angry about this.

I’m angry that, as one of my friends pointed out recently, our community was able to fly under the radar because we belonged to a larger community that’s also psychologically compromised, docile and submissive, predisposed to a certain ideology and resistant to anything that might challenge the accepted worldview.

I’m angry that real abuses are swept under the rug by people who have lost their capacity to recognize evil. Imagine if Harry and Hermione confronted a member of the Hogwarts faculty with their suspicions about another professor, only to be told, “There’s no need to worry; everyone is evil.” Within the world of the story, we would consider that sadistic. And yet real people facing real monsters are told this every day by pastors, counselors, and teachers.

I’m angry that young people are not given the training they need to resist evil. They’re so busy “battling demons” in the spirit realm that they’re left totally unequipped to deal with real monsters.

I’m angry that a place that should shelter and protect us is often the place where we’re most vulnerable.

I’m angry that the leaders who should have been helping us have left us easy prey for any wolf that passes.

This is not right. This is not just. This is not what Jesus wanted.

Song Friday: “There Were Roses”

Continuing with our Celtic theme for this week, today I would like to share one of my favorite songs, “There Were Roses” by the Irish activist and balladeer Tommy Sands.

The song is a true story based on events in Tommy’s own life. He grew up during a time of civil war in Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. But one of his best friends (Allen Bell) was a Protestant, and another (Sean O’Malley) was a Catholic. The three friends vowed that the conflict would never get in the way of their friendship.

But then one night Allen was murdered. Enraged, the Protestant loyalists went looking for a Catholic to murder in retaliation. They ended up killing Sean, and Tommy was left friendless and devastated.

But in the midst of his grief, he wrote this song. This is the more famous version by Moloney, O’Connell, and Keane. It will break your heart.

Fourteen Questions About Heaven (Peter Kreeft)

angels&saints123Ran across this GREAT article by Catholic professor and writer Peter Kreeft answering fourteen of the most commonly asked questions about life in heaven, including:

Can the dead see us?

Is there music in heaven?

Are there animals?

How are we never bored?

I had to restrain myself from tweeting the whole essay, but here’s an excerpt. He’s answering the question of whether we’ll know everything in heaven, and comes to the conclusion that though we’ll know much more than we know on earth, it will be our joy to be as children as forever in the glory of our own smallness:

 

Even if there is no curtain in Heaven, even if our consciousness there dashes against no wall or limit, still we remain like the tiny figures in a Chinese landscape: small subjects in an enormously larger objective world. Even if we then escape from the tiny hut in which we are now imprisoned and through whose smudged windows or chinks in whose walls we now must look – even if we wander freely in the country of light – we are in the light, not the light in us. Our first and last wisdom in Heaven is Socratic, just as it is on earth: to know how little we know. If there is no end of the need for humility in the moral order (the saint is the one humble enough not to think he is a saint), the same is true of the intellectual order (the wise man is the one humble enough to know he has no wisdom). It all depends on the standard of judgment: by earthly standards most of us are moderately saintly and moderately wise; by Heavenly standards all of us, even in Heaven, are children. And by the standard of the infinite, inexhaustible perfection of God, we remain children forever. Happy children, fulfilled children, but children.

Read the whole thing here. 

“Into the Darkness They Go, the Wise & the Lovely”

Falling-Leaves-Wallpapers-3Learning how to grieve has been a strange experience. I have so many questions. Where do people go when they die? Do they sleep until the last judgment? Will we all wake at the same time?

Can she see us? Is she close to us? These are things I still don’t know. Continue reading