“Trust God & Listen to Your Own Heart”: A Video Chat with Stephen Lovegrove

On Saturday night I participated in an hour-long video interview with Stephen Lovegrove, creator of #StephenSoulTalks. Stephen is an independently ordained minister, a Human Rights Campaign emerging leader, and the future pastor of Chrysalis, a church for everybody launching in Southern California in 2015. He’s passionate about giving people a platform to share their stories and advocating for human rights and social justice.

In this video we discussed my five years in an end-times cult, the unhealthy religious mindset that led me to be a part of one, and how I finally broke free through encountering the love and acceptance of God. Stephen called it the most powerful interview he’s ever done. You can watch the whole thing below.

AIDS, Authoritarians, & the Demon-Possessed Man, Part 1

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In the 1960s and ‘70s, Northern Ireland was a nation at war with itself. Loyalist Protestants, seeking integration into the United Kingdom, took up arms against the Catholic republican majority. There were car bombings, gun battles, and random acts of butchery. Demagogues like the Reverend Ian Paisley fueled the fires of resentment.

 

 The song There Were Roses by folk singer Tommy Sands tells the true story of a tragic thing that happened to him. Growing up in the townland of Ryan, his two best friends were Allan Bell, a Protestant, and Sean O’Malley, a Catholic. Allan loved to dance; Sean loved a girl named Agnes. Some nights they would stay up late playing music. When the noise of guns disturbed the tranquil peace of the countryside, they swore their faiths would never come between them. Continue reading

The Bible Was Clear on Slavery (But Not in the Way You Might Think)

postfull-see-a-free-screening-of-12-years-a-slave-fassy_sarah_detIf you had lived in the days before the Civil War when the battle for abolition was heating up, whose side would you have been on?

It’s important to remember that for thousands of churches, this conflict was a religious conflict – with God and the Bible “clearly” defending a person’s right to own slaves.

It was a serious moral issue: the idea that slaves should be freed was dangerously immoral.

“The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures,” said the Rev. Richard Furman in 1823.

“How this question can at all arise in the mind of any man . . . that is acquainted with the history of the Bible, is a phenomenon I cannot explain to myself,” said Rabbi Morris Raphal in 1861.

Verses like Ephesians 6:1-5 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2 were marshaled by the pro-slavery forces, who in most cases were decent, God-fearing Christians who sincerely believed they were following the “plain meaning of Scripture.” (The Southern Baptist Church was actually founded on the belief that slave-owning was biblical).

Slave owners had the stronger biblical argument. To accept the arguments of abolitionists, our ancestors had to look beyond the literal reading of the Bible to its overall message about love, justice, and compassion.

Would we have done the same thing? To really see the heart of Jesus in the Scriptures may require tremendous moral courage and a willingness to resist the enormous social pressures to believe what everyone else does. In the 1860s when your pastor and your entire congregation said abolition was “immoral,” in the 1960s when Martin Luther King was condemned as a heretic in pulpits across the country, would you have had the courage to defy the convictions of your own religious community in defense of justice and freedom? Would you have that courage today?

This is What Dangerous Religion Looks Like

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Last year I wrote a post listing the dynamics of dangerous religion. I’ve spent the last year slowly adding to the list as I tweet and write my books and talk to people about the things that really scare them about the churches they’ve come out of. Eventually the list grew so long that I had to divide it into sections, and I’ll probably keep expanding it as time goes on. Please share your own experiences in the comments, and together we can continue to expose all the wrong things in the hope of bringing freedom and justice. Continue reading

Thomas

PLWD09 The_Incredulity_of_St_Thomas_Caravaggio“Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”

 

The one who doubted:

that was what they called me.

No one remembered

the bravery I had shown

on the way to Bethany—

bravery or was it despair I felt

remembering the failed revolutions

the cousins murdered

Miriam straining to deliver

and dying or ere they were born,

our two sons.

 

The eddies of dust

over which our fathers walked

in ages past are trampled under

by the eagle’s talons

luxury sits grinning and contented

in the temple

making a mockery of Abraham

and Abraham’s God

The flower of youth perishes

on the hilltops of Judea

and hope is a luxury

for fools and charlatans.

 

Yet there was one who was not hopeless

Quiet and resolved

Upon his dark brow lingered a celestial light.

Though we had been abandoned by all

He had not abandoned us

And I was resolved not to forsake him

Even with the expectation of death encroaching

Death sadistic and perverse.

 

So call me not doubting

for it wasn’t my faith that forsook me

on that night in the garden

when they led him away

when they bound him to a fiery wheel

when the hounds of hell stood baying

round the tree where he hung suspended

where the crude lance entered

and his mother lay pierced at the root

 

no, it wasn’t my faith.

it was hope.

 

hope was enshrouded

and lain in a tomb

and a stone was laid over its mouth

and into the whale’s jaws

poured the blackness of darkness

and the mountains of the sea were silent.

And the serpent of death

glutted and imposing

stretched its victorious coils

round the sleeping world.

 

*           *           *

 

When they talk about me

ages hence

this is all they will remember:

the scorn on my face

when I heard they had raised him

when they said he had been sighted

walking towards Emmaus

breaking bread and disappearing

amid quiet laughter.

 

Buoyed with renewed expectation

they floated together

and I stood alone on the seashore

and the stars of twilight twinkled

as the shadows gathered round me.

 

And whenever the story is told

they’ll laugh at me for not believing

though if you had been there with us

you’d have had your questions

and they all gathered round him

and I lingered at the edges

feeling faint with confusion and sadness

as the smell of frankincense and spikenard

filled the warm spring air.

 

And when the commotion settled

and the twelve spread apart

there he was

and he motioned me forward

and it wasn’t a ghost nor a trance

he was just as alive as he had been

three days before

and I had no idea how to account for that

because I had known all along he was going to die

and the best I could have hoped for was to die alongside him.

 

But when I saw the wrists

where the wounds of betrayal burned dully

when I dipped my hand in the well

where the waters of life had poured out

when I brushed the skin of my arms

against the hair on the back of his neck

the embers of injustice blew away into nothing

and bitterness exhausted itself and was silent.

 

Years from now

when my desire is finally granted

when my blood seeps over the barbaric stones

of some desolate isle

and my body grows cold and rigid

pierced by the four lances

I’ll stretch my stiffening sinews

Breathe a final prayer

And when death comes gliding over the seas to meet me

like a ghostly mirage of one I loved long ago

I’ll follow it fearless and undaunted

through the primordial depths

where the monsters of chaos will battle

until one comes to free them

and the dust of the tomb is plundered

and the relics are gathered from the shrines

and the bones are called out of the blackness.

And I’ll gaze on myself

and on them

as we gazed on him that night

credulous but believing

not understanding but no longer doubting

and we’ll walk together, tranquil and quiet,

on the shore of the sun-rimmed sea.

_________________________________

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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.

Why I am Not the Antichrist

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In the two years since I left abusive fundamentalism I’ve been called some really interesting things – “son of the devil,” “deceitful teacher,” “enemy of all righteousness” etc.

And I took it in stride because I figure that’s the price you have to pay for speaking the truth.

But! Never until today has someone openly warned me that if I continue down my current path, I’ll be encouraging folks to get the mark of the Beast during the last days.

And I found this person’s reasoning fascinating and instructive. The reason he pegged me as a future worshiper of the Antichrist is because I believe in love, compassion, and helping the poor.

That’s not a cheeky re-contextualization. “This new world leader walks in love and cares for the poor and has made a peace treaty with Israel,” he imagines me saying. “Take the mark!”

The Antichrist, he adds, “will probably be a humanitarian type and people will love him.”

So I wanted to get this out on the table because this is exactly the kind of thing I’ve spent the last two years trying to warn people about.

If your eschatology teaches you that love, peace, and caring for the poor and needy are preparing the world for Satan, your eschatology is wrong.

If your eschatology leads you to cheer when there are wars and natural disasters, your eschatology is wrong.

If your eschatology inspires you to pray for violence and destruction rather than an end to armed conflicts, your eschatology is wrong.

And one more thing – to the extent that the Bible talks about a figure called “the Antichrist” appearing in the last days, it always, always refers to a deception that emerges within the Christian community. Not in Europe or liberal America or in some out-of-the-way place.

What is his deception? Simply this: that we can create a new and better world by taking up arms and cleansing the earth of unbelievers – meaning anyone who doesn’t embrace his twisted faith.

“The time will come when anyone who kills you,” said Jesus, “will think that he is doing God service” (John 16:2). The greatest threat, the greatest danger, the greatest deception in our world today, is not humanitarians wickedly pursuing an agenda of peace, love, and social justice, but zealous believers willing to commit bloodshed in the name of righteousness.

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.