Dearest Rachel –
I mentioned that the story of my conversion is ridiculously unremarkable; in comparison, it seems like almost everyone I know at church has a turnaround moment in their life that is leagues more dramatic than mine. Even you, while brought up in the church so as to have a faith-based anchor in your life, spent time dealing with differences between yourself and your parents on this matter. Granted, you were the one more grounded in your faith than they were – it’s almost as if their efforts went horribly right, if you were to ask them back when they were of what they considered to be of sound mind – but the conflict was there nonetheless. I know that, from what Twofeathers would tell me, your parents were almost convinced that you (and indeed, our whole family) were part of some form of cult – after all, who makes the belief upon which they trust fate of their eternal soul the guiding force in their mortal life? Only fanatics do that.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that comparison; you might remember our Bible studies back in the day with John and Lana. They were (and to a certain extent, still are, although they haven’t been a part of our social circle since moving further northwest) peers and old friends of my parents; he was on the elder board – and an Awana leader – alongside my dad. They had taken us (and several other young people, if I recall correctly, but I can’t remember who, exactly – I think Kevin might have been there, but I won’t be held to that) on a mentoring project, and the weekly study was a part of that. One of the things he would mention in our discussions was that the beliefs of our ‘denomination’ (if you could even call it that) were not necessarily part of what constituted – or constitutes, present tense – ‘mainstream’ Christianity. Sure, we could point to fairly big-name churches and seminaries that we were in agreement with in terms of doctrine and all that in order to give a rough idea of where we stood, but none of them had specific denominational labels to identify them on sight. We weren’t Methodist (which we already knew from our college experience at Wesleyan), we weren’t Presbyterian, we weren’t Baptist (although they were reasonably close), we weren’t Lutheran (oh boy, could I vouch for that, even – especially – as a kid in elementary and middle school). We just were. And I think the lack of a label scares those who have one.
That, and the idea of being at all enthusiastic about your faith. Those from outside of the U.S. seem to think our entire country is like this, and they find it… disquieting.
Just to show how averse some of these countries can be about uncomfortable feelings, I’ve just been reading about a Finnish court case (or maybe two of them? I’m not sure if they’re being tried separately), wherein a bishop of the Lutheran church and a former member of Parliament are in the dock for hate speech, such as quoting Romans 1 in response to a Pride Week celebration. I don’t know the consequences are for being found guilty, but I understand that the prosecution can file an appeal if they aren’t, so… yeah.
But I’ve wandered a bit afield from my thesis here. The point is, there seems to a bit a large portion of the outside world that looks upon any faith – and more to the point, any measure of enthusiasm in practicing it – as cultlike, as though we’ve ‘drunk the Kool-Aid,’ to put it into modern parlance.
Which is kind of ironic, as the closest thing I had to a ‘turning point’ in my Christian walk had to do with the very event that spawned that particular phrase. Granted, the People’s Temple cult used cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid, a generic version of the popular kid’s drink, to off themselves and each other, as law enforcement was closing in on them. Well, when you assassinate a sitting congressman (the only one to ever die in the line of duty, as he was investigating the alleged kidnapping of several constituents from his district), that’s the sort of response you can expect.
At the time, I was unaware of the political beliefs behind the group – and to be fair, since very few of them were left after this incident, I still don’t understand much of it, but I do understand that it was much more politically-oriented than actually religious; yet another attempt to create the usual oxymoron that is a ‘Marxist utopia’ – but it stuck eleven-year-old me as a warning that I could just as easily be taken in by someone like Jim Jones myself, if I didn’t understand what I believed, and hold onto it. “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” the saying goes, and I took it upon myself to study comparative religions – as best as an eleven-year-old could – as a purely defensive move. God knows I didn’t wish to experience the bitter taste of Flavor-Aid.
But because of this, I find myself annoyed with people who casually slap the ‘cult’ label on a belief system, in a manner roughly akin to that of calling those they don’t agree with ‘Hitler.’
It trivializes the whole process, and proves how little they understand about cult behavior. For one thing, I was always encouraged in my research – asking questions was considered a good thing, even if it meant those in authority had to do some research of their own in order to answer me. It was a case of iron sharpening iron, as in Proverbs 27:17, where both sides learn in the process. That’s not the sort of thing that would be allowed in a cult.
Indeed, there are certain full-blown religions where it doesn’t seem to be allowed. Imagine, if you will, if the Pope had responded to his 95 Theses with a few answers, accompanied by a “let me get back to you about the rest of these,” since that’s a lot of questions to deal with at one time. A reasonable response like that (coupled with actually getting back to him on the rest of his questions) would quite possibly have pre-empted Martin Luther from kickstarting the Reformation, and might very well have ‘reformed’ the Catholic church from within, creating a win-win situation for all concerned (and avoiding ridiculous amounts of bloodshed in the centuries to come). Similarly, there are other religions – usually state religions, which could be any of the majors, frankly (and which is why our country eschewed having one) – where conversion is essentially treason, and punishable by death. And yes, so-called ‘Christians’ have been on both sides of this power dynamic, I know. It’s depressing to realize how many souls have been surrendered in the name of ‘patriotism.’ An immortal soul for the sake of one’s country (which will fall eventually, and no mistake) is always a bad bargain. Now that is cult-like behavior.
Of course, the thing that some on the outside find off-putting is the level of enthusiasm behind one’s faith. I wonder if it doesn’t bother some people that read these letters to you, and think I’ve long ago jumped off the deep end, given how much I talk about – and participate in – it. Well, considering it’s the one thing that guarantees that you’re actually in a better place – and that I’ll join you there someday soon (on a cosmic scale, to be sure), forever – why shouldn’t I be? Nothing on this earth will last forever like that, so nothing here is worth that kind of devotion; and yet, we think nothing of fanatical devotion to sports teams and pop stars and political leaders (yep, lots of ‘cults of personality’ going on here, don’tcha know). Whereas, when it comes to our eternal fate, it’s all rather, “meh, you do you, and I’ll do me. It’s all the same in the end.”
It’s crazy to think it, but the one time pop culture got it right was in an episode of Seinfeld that I vaguely remember. Granted, it was played for laughs, another example of “Elaine’s too neurotic to keep a man,” but when she dumped the guy (who was played by Patrick Warburton, if my memory serves me correctly, as a fairly devout, if inoffensive, evangelical Christian), she cited the fact that he never tried to convert her from Judaism. While acknowledging that she would have never acquiesced to his attempts (the reason he gave for not trying), she was offended that he didn’t care enough about her to try to save her soul, given his belief system. And the thing was, she was right; well, even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and again. We have to be like that, even though others see us as ladling out Kool-Aid.
Because, until you drink them, it’s hard to tell the antidote from the poison.