Tag: Doubt

Boze Herrington’s Heartbreaking Story in The Atlantic

This morning I read a stunning piece by Boze Herrington in The Atlantic. Titled “The Seven Signs You’re In a Cult“, it’s a first person account of religious life grown inward, paranoid, and exclusionary. The power of the piece comes from Boze’s initial excitement with being part of this small group who devoted such time to prayer and then seeing that wane as he becomes increasingly concerned with emotional and spiritual abuse going on in the group (prompted by its leader, Tyler). The story opens with the news of the death of Tyler’s wife Bethany (initially claimed as suicide but now investigated as murder).

Reading the piece, I was immediately reminded of Jon Krakauer’s excellent yet unsettling Under the Banner of Heaven. Krakauer’s book tells of how two brothers, members of a fundamentalist polygamous Mormon group, acted to kill the wife and child of one of them. Even though it’s been years since I read Banner, there were striking parallels to Boze’s story: a tight knit group suspicious of outsiders, special revelations, the prioritization of right belief over all else, and rationalization in light of the cause.

Clearly, the International House of  Prayer (IHOP) isn’t responsible for Tyler’s system of control any more than it is of Bethany’s death. People make choices. And yet in reading Boze’s story I couldn’t help but focus on the systemic issues that indirectly contributed to the situation.

For example, Boze mentions that he was “profoundly impacted by IHOP’s teachings“. I’ve noticed lately how the word “teaching” is used in evangelical circles as somehow distinct from the Gospel (a story last week in Christianity Today referenced a lapsed pastor’s “teachings” being taken down from the webpage). When these theological perspectives or sermon series are elevated, they have an added in-group power that suggests an inside track on “what is really going on“.

Tyler’s “revelations” and “discernment” give him unique control over the rest of the group. They became dependent upon his role and he seemed to relish the control. They seem extreme at times (the anti-intellectualism was particularly problematic while at a university) and Boze and others admit to having serious doubts although it wasn’t safe to share them.

Tyler’s vision of the world and the task he saw before him was shaped in part by a somewhat dystopic vision expressed by IHOP leadership. That is not to say that they intended anyone to take things to extremes, but the manichean understanding of warfare lays a framework. When one is working to save the remnant of “God’s final people“, it can lead to some slippery ethical stances.

To be fair, IHOP had provide some good instruction on what to look for in a cult group.

1. Opposing critical thinking

2. Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving

3. Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture

4. Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders

5. Dishonoring the family unit

6. Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)

7. Separation from the Church

As it happens, these are very similar to what sociologists like John Lofland discovered in the 1970s investigating conversion to cultic religious group (the Unification Church). The Lofland/Stark conversion model begins with an individual who is feeling personal tension, is seeking some kind of religious answer, who has a pivotal life event, develops extreme internal group ties, cuts off external ties, and has periods of intense interaction.

All of the Lofland/Stark elements show up in Boze’s story. His story is not unusual from anyone who is transplanted to a new location, struggles with meaning or identity, and is surrounded by a small group that provides meaning and worth. Doubt is suppressed, leadership is followed, poor choices are made.

Hawthorne CultThe picture on the left comes from a sociology of religion course I taught over 20 years ago while at Sterling College. I was trying to illustrate the natural growth of a religious group from its founding to successful institutionalization. I had suggested that it was my cult (my class) and we consider what happened each time we increased size from the founding group. We imagined growing from 12 to 24 to 48 to 96 to 198 to 396 and so on. Once we got beyond face to face interaction with the founders (somewhere around 100) we have to start building institutional structures of control: doctrinal orthodoxy, educational processes, ordination, and the like. When I came to class two days later, the whole class was dressed like this (I’m not sure why the hippie garb was necessary). My student Joel in the upper right did a remarkable impersonation in spite of being a few inches taller than me.

The message was that when support of “our group” becomes primary we wind up making a lot of sociological choices that open the door for bad behavior and rationalization of impropriety. This is part of last week’s fracas on the Leadership Journal piece. It’s part of extreme behaviors of near-shunning in other religious groups.

I want to be careful here. I’m not suggesting that IHOP was responsible for Tyler or that the church where the youth minister served encouraged him to abuse a girl in the youth group. But I am suggesting that the very culture and sociological dynamics make it possible for this kind of extreme behavior to occur. (The fact that IHOP taught about recognizing cultic movements may be partly a recognition of this.)

A healthy organization (religious, political, or educational) will recognize the potential for abuse and find ways of monitoring healthy behavior, of encouraging those who feel “something is wrong” to speak up, and to extend the benefit of the doubt to those who think “otherwise”.

Instead, the organization fostered the kind of dichotomous thinking and special dispensation that allows someone like Tyler to take advantage (even if he’s acting on what he thought were Godly motives). Boze puts it well:

It seems to me that our community was not exceptional, given the high-intensity spiritual environment we were part of. Tyler was not an isolated individual, but the product of a phenomenally twisted system….

But it is clear that when Bethany died, she was part of a community shrouded in fear and hatred, a community where those who spoke out were treated as though they didn’t exist. Their loves, desires, opinions, feelings, and whole personalities were invalidated, all in the name of God.

Communities full of fear, distrust, warfare will give rise to people like Tyler. Instead, a broader understanding of the diversity in the Body of Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit in our midst is what makes for healthy groups that put the Kingdom of God above their own interests.

 

No Doubt About It: The Problem with Civil Religion

I’ve been pondering the whole “War on Christmas” discussion for some time now. I haven’t been able to quite get my head around it. To my sociological brain, the whole idea of saying “Happy Holidays” came from two sources: 1) the mashing together of shopping seasons from September through February, and 2) a recognition that religious pluralism means that I can’t assume everybody is like me.

Holiday InnReason one reminded me of Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Fred Astaire owns an Inn that only opens for Holidays and does Broadway-type shows. It makes lousy business sense but it gave lots of excuses for song and dance numbers involving Fred, Bing, Marjorie Reynolds, and Virginia Dale. It predates White Christmas, but uses the same house and Bing sings The Song here first. (If you watch it, be forewarned, there’s a pretty offensive blackface number somehow celebrating Lincoln’s birthday).

But I still wonder why people would travel to this quaint Inn to see the song-and-dance. Why do we care so much about our holidays and what they’re called? Why do we privilege OUR holidays and minimize other people’s holidays? Why is Rosh Hashanah on my monthly calendar if it’s somebody else’s celebration?

See, a recognition of pluralism would mean that we’d acknowledge that there are other views alongside our own. We know that immigration from a variety of nations has increased our awareness of other celebrations. In fact, we can even interpret the rise in “religious nones” to be an expression of that very diversity.

Even before Megyn Kelley’s “terrible horrible no good very bad day” yesterday, there were forces pushing back against recognition of diversity. Monday, the Oklahoma legislature introduced a “Merry Christmas bill” that would allow schools to have Christmas parties and Christmas trees (as opposed to those dreaded Holiday events). They express the kind of sentiment Jon Stewart skewered last week: How can I enjoy my Christmas when I know that somewhere a little Jewish boy is not being forced to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?

There are plenty of similar stories. Also in Oklahoma, a private group paid to display the Ten Commandments in a public square. Looked like a neat end-run around establishment clause issues. Then a group of satanists said that they were going to have a private group put their own monument up. I learned last night that someone put up a Seinfeld Festivus pole in Florida (I guess that got Gretchen Carlson going). Today, a federal judge (who is a graduate of Pasadena Nazarene College and a conservative) ruled that the cross at the Mount Soledad cemetery has to come down. It’s bound to launch all kinds of rants about liberal justices destroying the Christian foundations of our society (which, according to James Dobson, is somehow related to Sandy Hook).

In the midst of my struggle to make sense of holidays and pluralism, a tweet by Rachel Held Evans gave me one of those “light bulb” moments of clarity. Responding to the whole “of course Santa and Jesus were white” discussion, Rachel’s tweet said that the critics were people “for whom civil religion has become an idol they force everyone to bow to.” It’s a great Daniel reference, but my realization was that all this stuff about “Merry Christmas” is less about “Keeping Christ in Christmas” as it is about protecting our national sterilized religion of exceptionalism, providence, and manifest destiny.

Robert Bellah introduced the idea of civil religion in the late 1960s, drawing attention to the ways in which national identity operated in ways similar to traditional religion but without much content. In fact, his original essay includes this famous quote by Eisenhower: Our nation makes no sense unless it’s based on a deeply held religious faith, and I don’t care what that is (emphasis mine). In that quote rests the heart of civil religion: a vague idea that cannot be examined because the minute we seriously interrogate it, it vanishes in a puff of smoke.

This is a major difference between Christian faith and civil religion. As we have proved in the church over and over and over again, we debate differences in theology, practice, polity, liturgy, baptism, creation, and biblical interpretation. We blog and write books and have conferences that support our position against the other guy (or girl). But on our best days, we are still aware of the concept of the Church as the Bride of Christ. We hold to our positions and the reasons for holding them but we operate from faith not from certainty.

That’s what allows me to have friends from a variety of theological traditions. We can see things differently and engage in our twitter fights and critique each other’s strategies or political positions, but at the end of the day we retain a commitment to the Invisible Church. Because we live by faith. As Frederick Buechner says, “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith”.

This comfort with doubt is what’s missing in civil religion. Because it exists at such a generalized level, it can’t be argued. We can’t find ways of parsing the different strands and still holding to commonality. The mythology of agreement (like a notion that Santa is white or that Jefferson was an evangelical) MUST be maintained because without the mythology we have nothing.

If we admit that these other holiday traditions are valuable or even that people can go through life and not celebrate ANY holidays, then what can we take for granted as a society? We’d be forced to confront our differences and learn from each other.

But those risks are too great, so the celebrants of civil religion (politicians, pundits, and some preachers) can’t allow anyone to stray from the party line. It’s not a belief system as such. Just an affirmation held together in brightly colored tissue paper.

When that paper tears, as it will like all the Christmas (or Hanukkah and Kwanza) wrapping, what then? Then, just maybe we in the Christian church can teach our  fellow citizens how to explore differences without abandoning faith. To show them that there is something deeper and richer and more real than what they’re trying to hold onto. That change isn’t scary when faith abides.

We don’t always get that right. But I think at the root of our faith, we understand that doubt isn’t a scary thing. It actually takes us to the places we needed to go.