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.

 

God Will Not Become a Monster to Defeat the Monsters

the-deposition-1507You know what really disturbs me? The fact that seemingly every time I try to talk about the meaning of the crucifixion to my Christian friends, someone will begin singing:

“♪ He’s not a baby in a manger anymore;
He’s not a broken man on a cross!” ♪

Really? Do you know what you’re saying?

My problem is not with the song (or with the writer, whom I know & respect), but with the way people are mis-using it. Continue reading

Why the Bible Is No Longer My Final Authority

Chained BibleWe have to find a new way of reading the Bible.

I’m talking about the practice of dividing it up into chapters and verses, finding the ones we like, and using them to defend our beliefs.

Do this often enough and you won’t even notice the hundreds of verses that seem to contradict those beliefs. Arguments devolve into scriptural slugfests in which both parties hurl their chosen verses at one another while insisting that the other team’s verses don’t really count.

For example, a lot of us grew up believing that there wasn’t a single speck of goodness inside of us. We were shown verses about how the heart is desperately wicked and our righteousness is filthy rags. But how many of us knew that we were made in the image of God, that Jesus declared some people to be “good” (Mt. 5:45; Jn. 1:47), or that Noah, Josiah, Job, Enoch, and Cornelius, who were not Christians, were considered righteous?

The problem with reading the Bible this way is that over time it can make us blind to much of what’s actually written in the Bible. A Christian could be led to obsess over the six verses on homosexuality while literally not even being able to see the over 2,000 verses on how to treat the poor. How many times have you heard those six verses quoted? What about the other 2,000?

The other problem with reading the Bible this way is that it makes us susceptible to unscrupulous leaders who can easily twist the Scriptures to their own advantage.

A famous political theorist, Erik Voegelin, wrote a study on the violent Puritan revolution in England, which he considers a classic example of brainwashing. Puritan leaders would introduce an idea they wanted implemented. Their followers would then read this idea *back* into the Bible, regardless of whether or not it was really there. Once they became convinced it was “biblical,” there was no use convincing them otherwise. (If you tried to argue with them, they would say only *they* could read the Scriptures correctly, by virtue of being the chosen people.)

The reality is that “proof-texting” verses in this way seems designed to allow spiritual leaders to control and manipulate. There’s evidence that this “traditional” method of reading the Bible was invented by slave owners before the Civil War who used the Bible to justify owning slaves. The Bible has also been used to defend polygamy, murder, racism, and genocide, by people just like us who thought they were being *totally* biblical.

More recently, when it was revealed that leaders of Bob Jones University had been silencing and harassing rape victims, the faculty kept quoting Matthew 18 to shame those who spoke out. According to them, conveniently, the “biblical model” is to meet with the leaders in private. But you won’t find BJU leaders quoting 1 Timothy 5:20, where Paul says to rebuke a sinful leader “in the presence of all,” or the other places in the New Testament where an apostle is openly rebuked (Acts 11, Galatians 2).

Proof-texting verses makes the Bible into a Rorschach test onto which we can project our own opinions and then berate anyone who disagrees for being “unbiblical.” Taken to its extreme, it can create an “alternate Bible” saying whatever the reader wants it to say, and nothing in the world can convince him otherwise—not commentaries, not pastors, not even the *actual* words of the Bible. This alternate Bible can easily reinforce a person’s own prejudice and hatred, leading him ever further away from the Christian religion into a hell of his own making.

How Reading C. S. Lewis Changed My Mind About Hell

FrankcoronationI’ve been thinking about the dangerous group I was once a part of and trying to understand how so many innocent Christian people could be tricked into following a predator.

And the truth is, we were pre-disposed to trust him because of the spiritual culture we were raised in.

Growing up, I was taught to make a clear distinction between people of the world and other believers. A Christian was someone who believed in Jesus, prayed, read his Bible, didn’t drink or smoke or sleep around. It was easy to tell when you met a true believer. You could *trust* those people.

But you couldn’t trust unbelievers. They were all depraved and damned and on their way to hell.

And of course, I thought this was all scriptural. Because once I got an idea in my head, I could find it throughout the Bible.

*          *          *

But everything began to change for me when I read the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Last Battle, a character who had served the evil god Tash his entire life is welcomed by Aslan into the new Narnia. To his own surprise, he realizes that he had really been pursuing Aslan this whole time, although he didn’t know it.

“If any man do a cruelty in my name,” says the Great Lion, “then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.” And, “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

And it makes me wonder. Because the Bible doesn’t actually have a lot to say about people being saved on the basis of their “profession of faith.”

But it has an awful lot to say about how we treat the poor, showing mercy to others, forgiving our enemies, resisting injustice, standing up for the abused and oppressed.

Jesus says that the ones who do these things are the true sons and daughters of his father.

But in our churches, we don’t evaluate people based on the quality of their love. We evaluate them based on whether they conform to our idea of what a Christian should look like. Do they have all the “correct” beliefs? Do they listen to Christian radio? In short, do they look like us?

And the sad truth is that this way of evaluating people makes the church painfully vulnerable to predators and abusers like Tyler who can so easily adopt the language and rhythms of the Evangelical culture. Anyone who speaks against them becomes an “outsider” and carries a taint of distrust.

We should never allow tribalism to replace our moral judgment. There are *bad* people who profess the name of Jesus and *good* people who don’t. Rather than judging everyone based on the group they belong to, get to know them. There are atheists who are nearer to the kingdom of God than many Christians because what they’ve really rejected is a false Jesus. There are undoubtedly thousands of zealous, radical, “Bible-believing” Christians who are creating a hell for themselves by the god they worship, a proud god, a god who despises learning and beauty and exalts violence and hatred.

On the day we stand at the judgment, there will be some surprises. I suppose where we all end up is measured by what we loved truly, even if we didn’t know its name.

10 Verses That Scandalize Many Christians (Until They Learn They’re in the Bible)

Jesus at S Sophia Apr 00 ARAs Christians, we all read the Bible with selective lenses. Some folks are willing to admit it, and some folks aren’t. One of the reasons it’s so important not to keep yourself trapped in a bubble is because you don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that the way your group reads the Scriptures is the only way it’s meant to be read. Otherwise you might end up not even being aware of the existence of a number of tantalizing passages:

1. “We are God’s Offspring” (Acts 17:29)

 But really, the entirety of Paul’s speech on Mars Hill. The apostle off-handedly quotes a line from a great pagan writer to tell the Athenians that they’re all children of God. He says, “God is not far from each one of us” (v. 27). He says, “In him we live and move and have our being.”

Many teachers try to get around this passage by saying it’s an example of how Paul tried to be “cultural” and “humanistic”—and how he failed miserably.

2. The Fast that God Chooses (Isaiah 58)

“Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?”

The contemporary American church, having invented a gospel of saving souls from hell, is scandalized by the idea that the Bible might have more to say about this life than the next one. Yet there are countless passages in both Old and New Testaments where God is more concerned about how people treat one another. Fighting for justice is kind of a big thing for him.

3. “Everyone Who Loves is Born of God and Knows God” (1 John 4:7)

You could throw in most of the first letter of John here. But the winner is arguably this passage, where John says that, well, everyone who loves is born of God. Beware of saying this in church unless you make it clear that you’re quoting the Bible.

4. “All Those Who Use the Sword Will Die by the Sword” (Matthew 26:52)

Spoken by Jesus to his disciples on the night of his arrest, this statement epitomizes his ethic of compassion and non-violence even in the face of imminent death. Yet it’s rare to hear these words quoted in many of our contemporary churches where this is the preferred image of Jesus:

5. Paul Wishes That People Would Castrate Themselves (Galatians 5:12), Is Racist (Titus 2:12)

Am I putting words in Paul’s mouth? No, it’s right there in the text:

“I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves.”

I’ve seen King James-only defenders cite this as an example of how all the modern translations are demonic because they quote this verse accurately.

Paul also employs his extensive knowledge of pagan writings to make racist remarks about the Cretans in Titus 2. Oddly, I haven’t heard many people complain about this.

6. Paul Urges the Colossians Not to be Obsessed with Angels, Visions, and Burdensome Regulations (Colossians 2:16-23)

The problem with a lot of the longer passages on this list is that if you read them to someone who’s living in contradiction to the message of the verses, they’re not even likely to hear what you’re reading. I once read this passage from Colossians (and the one below, from Matthew) to a group of people who were obsessed with angels, visions, and making up lists of things they weren’t allowed to do. I thought it might have some effect, but when I finished reading, it was like I hadn’t even spoken. Bizarre.

7. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25)

This is a fun one. Jesus tells his disciples a story of how he’s going to judge the nations when he returns. He’ll sit on his throne and divide the nations before him “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”: the sheep on the right hand and the goats on the left.

The sheep ultimately go into eternal glory because they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned. The goats are thrown into eternal fire, “prepared for the devil and his angels” because they neglected to do these things.

Notice anything strange? Yes, those are all works. These people are judged solely on the basis of their works. As Keith Green so succinctly put it in an old song, “The only difference between the sheep and the goats, according to the Scriptures, is what they did—and didn’t—do!

What’s more, many of the sheep didn’t know they were sheep. Many of the goats didn’t know they were goats.

There are going to be some surprises.

8. “Those Who Eat My Flesh and Drink My Blood Have Eternal Life” (John 6:54)

As Peter Kreeft points out, this is one of the very few images in the Scriptures that literalists don’t interpret literally. I knew it was there, but pretty much ignored it until I decided to become Catholic.

9. Ezekiel 23:20

Don’t read this verse to your kids. Don’t read it in church. You will be thrown out.

10. Love is the Fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13, Galatians 5)

Trying to sum up the message of Jesus in a single sentence might be a fool’s errand, but Paul takes a good crack at it near the end of his letter to the Romans:

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).

Jesus all but stated that this was the core of his message when asked to name the two greatest commandments. Without hesitation, he said, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:36-40). He expanded on this idea in the story of the prodigal son and the story of the good Samaritan, one showing the super-abundant generosity of God’s love towards us, the other modeling how we should love others, regardless of their race, religion, tribe, or ethnicity.

You might even say the most shocking and offensive aspect of Jesus’ message was this, that he taught us not just to love those who love us, but to embrace all humans as brothers and sisters. As Paul says in Galatians: “In Christ neither circumcision nor un-circumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Faith, hope, and love. We love to make things more complicated than they have to be, but Jesus, Paul, John, and the other writers of the Bible are there to remind us—these are the things that matter. Do these, and the rest will take care of themselves.

The Scariest Thing about My Abuser

tree_of_life_universe_1-650x333Each of the three counselors was smiling and cordial as they sat facing me in a room the size of a small office.

“Bobby, we’re here today because you had the courage to come forward and say you wanted this,” said Brandon*, a tall young man with dark eyes and a buzz cut. “That’s a huge step. But in order for this to work, you have to talk to us. We can’t just read your mind, we actually have to know what’s going on in there so we can pray into it.”

Tuesday evening. It was my first official counseling session with Prisoners of Hope, an unlicensed Charismatic ministry offering spiritual deliverance to those who have been involved in sex trafficking and similar abusive environments. Continue reading