Stockholm 2015

I am writing this post very laboriously with one finger at Stockhom airport as I want to assure followers of the blog that I am still alive!

Some follwers of the blog will know that I have been attending the annual conference of ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association) at Stockholm. It has been a kaleidoscope of conversations,talks and seminars with around 200 people from different parts of the world. The typical attendee (not me) is someone who has encoutered a high-demand group and is now in the process of recovery through training as a counsellor, organising political activity or writing. As a clergyman merely interested in the issue of extreme groups, I have been in a minority at the conference. I have become aware of how much suffering most of the people at the conference have had to go through before arriving at the therapeutic place of attending a conference of this kind.

One of the highlight moments of the formal part ofthe conference presentations was a seminar on forgiveness. Three women each spoke of their understanding of the meaning of fogiveness in the context of their individual stories of recovery. The atmosphere was,as you would imagine, taut with emotion and everyone in the room was full of tears by the end. That seminar perhaps typified what ICSA is all about, providing space for people to grieve and mourn the loss of time and relationships that their involvemnt in high demand groups had caused them. So many people were speaking about forced alienation from family members which escape from the extreme groups had caused them.

The other part the conference was the study side. This was where my own reflections came in. I was addressing the issue as to what social psychologists have recently had to say on the topic of shunning or ostracism. I was noting that the scholars had not really taken into account the extensive amount of material that cultic studies has revealed. My ‘section’was alongside the well-known cult expert Steve Hassan so my presentation was boosted by his ‘fans’. A video was made of the talk which may appear on his website. I will provide link if and when it appears.

As for the future I met up with a remarkable English couple Marc and Cora,both survivors of the Witnesses. They have an active ministry to the shunned of JWs and their work of producing Youtube videos enables them to contact people all over the world. Through them I have come to see that former Witnesses may find material on thig helpful to their recovery. I shall certainly be keeping in touch with them and their networks in the future. ICSA is meeting in impossibly hot Dallas in 2016.

I come away from Stockholm with a sense that my studying, writing and interest in the topics of this blog are still important and relevant to the Chritian church and the wider spiritual landscape for the timebeing. I shall be referring back to the topics of the conference as time goes by, particularly the main theme, the suffering of children in cults. The noisy crowded setting of airport does not make deep refection very easy.

Hope to get back to my normal rhythm quite soon. I also hope that my conference adventures might help to extend our readership a little more.

12 comments

  1. EnglishAthena

    There’s been a few posts recently that should fill you with optimism. You are doing some good here. Long may it continue.

  2. Chris Pitts

    The continuation of various cults and demonstrative groups presents a very human problem.
    Religious liberty, freedom of speech has to be weighed up against fanaticism and its consequences.
    It is possible to have a cult operating inside one of the established churches. Stephen has noted this complicated issue.
    When we take the Christian faith back to its first century roots I note,
    1) It did not have a hierarchy that had celebrity status with the media.
    2) It did not have a music industry with all the ambition incentives of the secular world. ‘Christian’ radio I could go on, and on.
    And so for me these days the question is how do we perceive orthodoxy?

    I would like to move the debate on to what has been normalized as being โ€˜Christianโ€™?
    I think the reason that so many people join cults is housed in the question, where do we look for orthodoxy?

    Chris Pitts

    • David Pennant

      Chris, yes to your enquiry about orthodoxy. Good on you.
      To me, this issue is best expressed in the words, how can I follow Jesus? I look for the answer in the gospels first and foremost, but also in the rest of the New Testament, which was written about him by those who knew him, and also in the Old Testament, because Jesus had such a high regard for it.
      When I was younger, I also used to read a lot of so-called Christian books, but nowadays I don’t because such writings are human opinions, which may be very good ones, but I prefer to get the material from the source documents on the Bible rather than have them mediated second hand.
      I am suspicious of the sheer number of talks and sermons in church circles, as I suspect that there are people out there who rely on preachers for their spiritual food rather than reading the bible text for themselves. That practice is where cults come from, in my opinion, when they arise.

  3. EnglishAthena

    The difficulty, David, is sometimes understanding the Bible. I absolutely agree that reading the Bible is important, vital, even. But I read it with a commentary, and notes. And I don’t always agree with the person who has written those notes, but it stimulates the mind, and I think that’s healthy. Much of the Bible is straightforward enough. But what about the Psalm about dashing out your enemies’ children’s brains against a stone? What about the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, is that an ok story? Or Adam and Eve. Surely if you think it’s literally true, firstly, your faith is going to be vulnerable to the ample proof that evolution exists, and secondly, you miss what seems to me to be the greater truth that it is a theological treatise on that eternal question, “Where does evil come from?” I find it really reassuring, comforting even, to think that those ancient theologians worried about the same questions that we do. And Job. If it’s true, it’s a terrible story. At the end, Job has a new family, so that’s all right then. All those deaths don’t matter? But if you take it as Greek dialogue, it makes much better sense. Between them, Job, his wife and his friends go through all the things people think and say when dreadful things happen. Which, again, I find very comforting. And it ends with Job having a vision of God, because he never lost faith. It’s marvellous stuff. But how do you, well not you particularly, people, find out all these finer points without reading and listening to those who have researched the material?

    • David Pennant

      English Athena,
      thanks. Yes, point taken. I suppose in practice I have looked at lots of commentaries over time. When I was at university, I used to read the Bible along with a commentary every day after lunch for thirty minutes. One suggestion made to me then was to look at several different commentaries on a passage, as that can give you perspective, and help you form your own view.
      Psalm 137 doesn’t encourage us to batter children: I read it as an outpouring of intense grief. It must have been awful to see your own children treated in that way. Genesis 22 is most extraordinary. I hope I never get tested in that way (Lead us not into temptation!). And yes, it is very odd that God appears to be asking Abraham to do child sacrifice, which is repeatedly ruled out elsewhere in the OT. Job is a strange but wonderful book as well.
      I enjoy wrestling with such matters.
      Did you know that Genesis one contains the best science you will ever come across? I will explain if you ask me nicely . . .

            • David Pennant

              Okay – here goes.
              Some people think the account of creation in seven days in Genesis chapter one is so unscientific that it is grounds for dispensing with the whole Bible. I disagree.
              On closer examination, it turns out that the only difficulty with the passage from a scientific point of view is the use of the word day, implying a 24 hour period. I grasped this when I once attended a lecture by Sir Fred Hoyle in which he described what an observer standing on the earth would have seen since the earth’s formation. At first, the cloud cover would have been dense and continuous, and the rain so intense that there was water everywhere, above and below. However light from the sun would have seeped down, growing and lessening each day. Gradually the rain would have become less intense, and the water would have gathered into oceans. Water was now seen to be above and below, as it were. Vegetation followed as land emerged. In time, there would have come a glorious moment when the clouds parted sufficiently for a ray of sunlight to reach the surface of the earth for the first time and it first stopped raining! The heavenly bodies would become increasingly visible to our observer as the cloud cover lessened. Living creatures came to be. Humanity arrived later.
              It occurred to me during the lecture that Sir Fred’s outline fitted with the order of events given in Genesis chapter one. I don’t think he mentioned that, or that it was in his mind. And I doubt that it was in the writer’s mind either, come to that! It’s a most remarkable passage.
              So what are we to make of the seven periods of one day in the text?
              I understand them as being figurative. I suspect the author did too, as the sun only comes to be on day 4, whereas he has talked about days from day one, and you can’t have a day if there is no sun. So anyone who wants to rubbish this passage needs first to convince me that even the author believed that these events all happened in twenty-four periods.
              I suspect the main concern of the passage is to point out the value of resting on the seventh day, which is a strong OT theme. Even God took a day’s rest after six days’ labour!
              Now to the science.
              One of the tests of a scientific theory is how long it lasts before it is overturned. Newtonian physics lasted 300 years for example – impressive. Then Einstein rejigged things. How long will his be the final word?
              Genesis chapter one tells us that the creation of light, or electro-magnetic radiation as physicists call it, predates the sun. This is what we hold today. The words Let there be light are as good a description of the big bang as we are likely to find.
              I like to imagine all the scoffers who for centuries made fun – “Look at this claim, that light predated the sun. How daft can you get!” etc. The believers in Scripture would have had troubled brows, no doubt, attempting to stand up to this barrage. Now the boot is on the other foot. You would be hard pressed today to find a scientist who does not believe that light predated our sun. Show me a scientific theory today which lasts for three millennia without modification and I will be impressed. In the meantime, I see no need to apologise for Genesis chapter one from a scientific viewpoint. Its proposal has stood the test of time.

              • EnglishAthena

                Ah, yes. The fact that the creation is in the right order. I always thought that was interesting. And a human-centred story would perhaps have begun with the creation of humanity! I remember being told that it wasn’t a “how to” guide, and that the action all takes place off stage. “WHEN God created the heaven and the Earth”. I love the opening sentences as poetry. You have to pause. “The Earth was without form (pause) and void. And the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the waters.” Magic.

              • haikusinenomine

                hiya! I’m good, thanks. I’m doing a healing retreat, and only surface sometimes. ๐Ÿ™‚

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