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

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

The Devil’s Theology: Seven Lies from Hell

Nazgul[ Crossposted from No Longer Quivering, a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor’s Network ]

The pastor begins Bible study with a short prayer and immediately dives into his notes. I can sense the eagerness in his voice. The Lord is really going to speak to us through this message, he says. “When I started writing out what I wanted to say, it was like the Spirit just downloaded the information into my brain. I was the one holding the pen, but God was the one writing.” Continue reading

“O Shunn’d Persons, I Will Be Your Poet”

O431px-Joan_of_arc_burning_at_stakene of the many things I appreciate about Whitman is that he is the poet of the earth, of the senses, of all loves. Despiser of bad religion, lover of beauty, friend of the shunned and oppressed.

In that he reminds me of Jesus. Continue reading

Dwarves in the Stable: The Prison of Closed-Heartedness

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Been really struggling lately with some friends who are trying to save me.

This year for me has been all about coming into my identity. As a writer, as a thinker, as a sacramental Christian. But I’ve found there are some people I can’t be me around because they don’t approve of those things.

These friends (yes, there’s more than one) have decided that the best way to reach me is to comment on my Facebook posts. They want me to know they’re worried about me. They think I’m enjoying the pleasures of the world too much. I’m reading a lot of writers like Tolkien and Chesterton who “don’t have a biblical worldview.”

And I’ve tried to engage them in conversation. But it didn’t help. Continue reading