Category Archives: Stephen’s Blog

Thoughts on Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter

A recent press account tells us that the Ark Encounter project in Kentucky in the US is in trouble. The Ark Encounter allows visitors to walk round a huge replica of Noah’s vessel which has been built according to the measurements recorded in the Bible (Genesis 6). Believing the literal veracity of the Biblical account, the Encounter tries to imagine the scenario of how thousands of animals were housed and fed by Noah and his family. The founder of the project, Ken Ham, has produced for the people of Kentucky what, for this writer, is a huge monument for the absurdity of literalistic readings of the Bible. Ken Ham, like millions of Christians around the world, has bought into the idea that one of the ways in which the Bible is true is that every apparent historical or scientific statement is to be understood literally. This must always be preferred over any modern interpretations. As I pointed out in one of my earliest blog pieces, there are in fact in Genesis two separate accounts of the building of the Ark. In the first in Genesis 6 one pair of every kind of animal is taken aboard. In the second account in the first verses of Genesis 7 there are seven pairs of the available animals placed in the Ark. Only in the case of the ’unclean’ species is a single pair allowed on board.

Returning to Ken Ham’s project, we find that people are just not turning up in sufficient numbers to help pay for the $100 million project. Perhaps it is also because the vast swathe of the Christian population in Kentucky fails to feel Ham’s enthusiasm for ‘proving’ a Biblical narrative as being literal history. If anything, the Ark replica helps to make the story in the Bible even less believable as literal fact. How could one man, assisted by his three sons build anything as massive as the vessel recorded in Genesis? That is before we think about the gathering together of the necessary materials for the project.

The Ark Encounter project is a vivid reminder that many Christians on both sides of the Atlantic want us to believe every narrative or story in Scripture is historical fact. Conservative interpreters seem to be wedded to the idea that it is essential to read the stories of Noah, Job and Jonah as accurate history. There is the belief that because God is the supposed author of all Scripture, there is no other way to understand these narratives.

Although we today are used to making a sharp distinction between fiction and history whether in the Bible or elsewhere, this way of thinking simply did not exist before the 18th-century. The birth of the scientific method and historical analysis allowed scholars to distinguish between fact and probable fiction. Most historical works of the earlier period were an amalgam of legend, myth and fact. It is only today that we have the tools to separate them out. Even to use the expression ‘literal truth’ made no sense in a pre-Enlightenment age. It is noteworthy that today many Christians are so reluctant to use these modern critical tools of analysis on the text of Scripture. While they are prepared to apply the modern (and post-modern) tools of analysis in every other area of life, when it comes to Scripture, Christian leaders insist that we think and interpret in a pre-modern way. In the case of the Noah story, that involves us pretending that six verses of Genesis 7 do not exist.

Behind this insistence on reading every narrative passage as literally true is a method called ‘common sense philosophy’. This takes the view that every individual of reasonable intelligence can interpret language and determine its meaning by the application of common sense. Thus, one does not have to possess a sophisticated education to penetrate the meaning of the Bible. It is laid open to the understanding of all, including the common man. There is a second principle at work in this understanding of Scripture. This is known as propositional theology. This builds on the idea that the chosen method of God to reveal himself is through the words of Scripture. So, the Biblical text is all that is necessary for salvation. By applying ‘common sense’ the individual Christian can through diligent reading of the Bible text discover what God wants him to do with his life and his faith.

These two philosophical undergirding principles are, as we might expect, fraught with problems. The first problem is that the Bible does not in fact easily surrender its meanings to a casual reader. In practice, it requires the help of a Christian teacher to reveal its meaning to the ordinary Christian disciple who attends church. We do of course find a massive number of interpretations which vary according to the personality and training of each individual minister. The second problem is perhaps more serious. If God’s will and purpose are contained in written words and ideas, this will suggest that each Christian engages with God primarily through the use of his or her intellect. The part of us that deals with the content of words and concepts is the thinking mind. Is this really the only part of us that God wishes to engage with? Surely God meets us through all our senses, our emotions, feelings and longings.

It is instructive to compare the apparent compulsion to take all the stories of the Old Testament as being literal history (and never as story!) with the way Jesus extensively used stories in his teaching. When I hear a story, I respond to the emotion, the humour and the possible message within it. Something rather different is happening when I listen to a narrative which is supposed to be accurate history. I will also be puzzled and possibly even irritated when I am expected to overlook any inconsistencies or contradictions. If I were ever to visit the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, I know that I would feel completely overwhelmed by a sense of distaste and even anger at the stupidity of the project. $100 million has been spent on a building which tries to convince visitor that the words of Genesis 6 are literally true. Such a pretence has been maintained by ignoring the obvious discrepancies in the story revealed in the first verses of Genesis 7.

A reading of Scripture which insists that any narrative or story has to be read as straight history is sometimes a massive betrayal of proper interpretation. The God that I meet in the Old and the New Testaments speaks to me through story, poetry as well as through myths and history. I had the privilege of studying the Bible for itself and never had to use the lens of a conservative ‘pre-modern’ Bible teacher. I hope I can read it with a clearer vision. No one placed on me the burden of the doctrine that says only in the Bible do we discern the will of God. My use of the Bible is thus outside any dogmatic straitjacket and I am freed to use all the sources of history and tradition that are given to us. I am also fortunate to have some knowledge of the original Biblical languages. The Bible is I believe a far richer document when it is read against this background of the culture, the history and the experience of the people who met God in so many different ways. It is their words to describe that encounter that we have today. The uncovering of their experience is a never-ending project.

Further reflections from the Bordeaux Conference 2017

A few years ago, I wrote a paper for the cultic conference on the apparent ease with which individuals could be switched into atypical thinking and acting after an apparent ‘conversion’ experience. This conversion may have little to do with anything religious. It can be said to occur in any situation when an individual opts suddenly to see and experience the world in a new way. ‘Conversion’ is a massive topic and I do not propose to say much on this occasion. In itself it may be good or bad, depending what one is converted to. The effect on the people around suggests that they normally see the results of this change. When they believe the effects to be in some way negative they are likely to describe the sudden change as a kind of ‘brainwashing’. It is as though some sort of internal trigger has been pulled. There is a dramatic shift; a start of a new pattern of thinking has come into being within the affected person.

Needless to say, this kind of sudden change to a political or religious cult was being discussed by the attendees at our gathering in Bordeaux. Many had experienced such a dramatic change themselves or seen it in a close relative. Those who spoke about this change either in conversation or in one of the presentations were clear on one point. The mind that has at some point surrendered to a new ideology does not easily subsequently ‘snap out of it’. Even after an escape from the coercive group for whatever reason, the tramlines and habits of cult thinking remain. There is no spring mechanism that rapidly brings the mind back to an old position of easy relaxed communication with relatives and former friends. The cult ways of thinking and understanding go very deep and full release will come only after a number of years, if ever.

In my paper that I presented three years ago I referred to a famous social psychological experiment when twenty or so students were paid to act out a role play. Some were required to be prisoners and others to be prison guards. The experiment turned into something horrifyingly realistic as all the students took to their roles with a degree of terrifying intensity. After six days the experiment was terminated when the girl friend of the experimenter, Philip Zimbardo, could see that the whole experiment was descending into a kind of madness of cruelty and abject suffering.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has provoked much discussion since it was done. Ethical considerations would make it impossible to repeat the experiment so we have to rely on the reports that have been handed down to us. The experiment was done in a cellar, so all the participants were unable to ‘touch base’ with their normal lives. The role-play became their only reality for six days. Human beings, even well-adjusted ones, easily adapt their understanding of what is going on around them to be the norm that is to be followed. In one presentation I heard, the point was forcibly made that isolation from the past or from daily normality quickly affects an individual. The case of Patty Hearst, the heiress who became a bank robber after being kidnapped, was also raised. One way of reading her story is to say that she was simply adapting to her environment as a way of surviving. In her case she was eventually able to re-enter her old life of upper middle-class privilege after a spell in prison.

All the cults and indeed the more extreme religious groups that we study are successful at the task of isolating people from their pasts – family, friends etc. Most people, when they are cut off from old sources of information, quickly start to trust the new information that is on offer. The brain craves consistency and if one is hearing a consistent repeated message there may be less resistance to receiving it than we might think. One of the new facts of twenty first century society is to discover how much the press interacts with many people’s thinking. I am tempted to suggest that in some cases, certain newspapers are creating quasi-political cults in the way that they bombard their readers with slanted and biased information. Both the left-wing and the right-wing newspapers are guilty of this. Perhaps a good test of whether we are being brain-washed by a particular newspaper is to ask ourselves how much we find ourselves questioning the editorial slant. Do we rather fall into the trap of being the kind of reader that wants to see in print all our prejudices set out?

The final more serious point is the one that suggests that brains and opinions are easily manipulated – more than we would like to admit. It is then hardly surprising that extreme religious groups, who may work with a largely vulnerable clientele, are able to shift the thinking and emotions of their audience. That may be far from contributing to their benefit. How do we find a wholesome life-enhancing version of the Good News? So often the presentation from coercive cults and religious groups is thoroughly Bad News. It seems to contain the message that no one is ‘saved’ unless they constantly wallow in guilt and fear. At the same time they have to surrender their ability to enjoy life to follow a narrow legalistic set of moral instructions. Cult and some charismatic leaders have a vested interest in controlling the lives of their followers so that it cannot easily ever be good news. My hope in the fact that it is possible to read the account of Jesus in a way that does make it good news for all of us. I shall keep on explaining this and try to wean my readers away from what they may have had throughout their lives – a message of fear and damnation.

Written on the Kings Cross to Newcastle train. Apologies for any grammatical errors

Notes from Bordeaux

It is proving more difficult than I expected to make a space of time in this conference to write a blog post. The programme for this Annual Conference for the International Cultic Studies Association is packed tight. I am starting to write this at 3 in the morning at my lodgings (AIRBNB) which are situated some 15 minutes on foot from the conference centre.

This Conference is one occasion in the year when I find a live audience with which to discuss issues of power abuse, partly because most of the attendees have been its victims. The stories that individuals tell have more frequently involved stories about churches whether mainstream or fringe. When I started attending these conferences four years ago in Trieste, the majority of stories seemed to concern actual cults like Scientology, Moonies and Jehovah’s Witnesses. This year Christian groups of various kinds seem to dominate the scene including some that I have never heard of.

Within the world of cult studies there has always been a debate as to whether these groups cause actual harm to their members. Some would like to claim that the suffering of ex-members is exaggerated and that they are telling ‘atrocity tales’ to justify their messed up lives. The suffering they experience is only indirectly linked to what the cult has done to them. The position of the conference is to stand firm against this ‘cult-apologist’ claim. Cults and their leaders do cause considerable damage to many of their followers and the fact that the damage is truly apparent only after they leave does not mitigate the horror of what has happened in many cases. Few people walk away from high demand religious groups without experiencing extensive emotional and spiritual damage.

This year the particular area of damage that I have noticed in the conversations I have had, as well as in the talks is the damage to relationships. One of the legacies of successfully breaking away from a mind-controlling group is to discover that all or most of your blood relationships have been destroyed. This is not because the relative has necessarily stayed behind in the group. It may be a legacy, in the case of a parent, of a child realising that their nurture in the group has deprived them of a normal childhood. The only way they can express their anger is to turn their backs on the parent who has betrayed them. This is an horrific scenario. Healing a single individual whose mind, emotions and social skills have been damaged is one thing. It is quite another to carry all the relatives, parents and children along with you in the radical process of change. So I am meeting people all the time who have made the journey from ‘darkness to light’ but have had to suffer chronic abandonment along the way.

I expect I will have further reflections about Bordeaux but thought that in view of the strange time of night I am writing this to leave my piece at this point. My first presentation on healing was well received and I make my other presentation on the Cathars on Saturday. Meanwhile I am receiving encouragement for the tasks that I am engaged in which is to explore, analyse and interpret the use and abuse of power in the Church. The Cardinal Pell story will need unravelling at some point. I am hoping that one or two members of this Conference will be joining our small band of readers. To them I give a warm welcome

An Abuse of Faith -Bishop Ball revisited

Readers of this blog will not be surprised that I feel compelled to comment on the recent Gibb Report on the crimes of Bishop Peter Ball and the way the church responded. It is less easy for me to write this post as I am en route between home and the ICSA Conference in Bordeaux. This event begins next Wednesday and no doubt I will be reporting on some of what will take place there.

On Thursday when the report by Dame Moira Gibb appeared via the Thinking Anglicans website, I quickly read the entire document. It showed me once again how relevant is our continuing discussion on the issue of power within the church. From my perspective, the facts around Ball’s crimes are now so well known that they need not be further rehearsed. For 20 plus years Ball used his authority as a priest and bishop alongside his personal charisma to take advantage of young men, sexually and emotionally. This personal and institutional power allowed him to indulge in one of the worst types of abuse – sexual abuse.

The shocking parts of the report have been already rehearsed by others. The blindness of the wider Church to the seriousness of, firstly, the rumours, and later the admissions of serious crimes by the Bishop is extraordinary. The former Archbishop, George Carey, has come in for particular censure. He withheld from the police six letters from victims which were received after the Ball’s Caution in 1993. These letters were written either by victims or their parents and were independent of each other. If the police had received them they might have been able to establish a clearer pattern of behaviour by the Bishop. The Archbishop’s response reflected, as we have seen in the Catholic Church, an obsessive defensiveness on behalf of the institution at the expense of affected individuals. There were in 1993 people around who would have been able to advise the Archbishop as to how serious the offences were which Ball had admitted. From the perspective of this blog, George Carey also was showing a complete blindness to the way the dynamics of power were at work in the church. Sexual abuse by a person in authority in the church is likely to have devastating consequences. The power given to church officials, bishops and clergy, is considerable and sensitivity to ways it can be abused should be part of the awareness of everyone. Clearly it was not. Although sex is at the heart of this episode, almost as important is the way that power has been used or misused in the subsequent blanking out of victims. This has been going on since Ball’s Caution in 1993 and reminds us of Joe’s story told last year. It would be possible to write an annotated version of the Report by Dame Gibbs to highlight the numerous examples of power mismanagement revealed in the Report. Each represented an attempt by the church to control bad news. Clearly almost no one from the top down seems to have had an understanding of the different power dynamics that were in play in this tragic episode.

The second shocking part of the story is the way that Ball, assisted it seems by his brother Michael, had no insight into the appalling nature of his actions. It is also hard to believe that the former Diocesan Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, had no knowledge of the rumours about Bishop Ball’s behaviour when Bishop of Lewes. The late Bishop Eric has been previously criticised in an Archbishop’s Visitation to his diocese for the lax moral culture in parts of the Chichester diocese. Under his watch a number of clergy were to practise child abuse, and several of them are serving prison sentences for their crimes. Any level of collusion in the crime of another person is a serious matter. It would appear, according to the Gibb Report that a number of senior clergy stand accused of this failure. Michael Ball, a Bishop of Truro and twin brother to Peter, lobbied for several years to allow Ball to regain a Permission to Officiate. This lobbying was effective and Archbishop Carey is criticised by the Report for giving into the pressure. Ball continued to take confirmations and visit schools right up till 2011. In short no one at the top of the Church of England was prepared to state categorically that, after his Caution and admission of criminal acts, Ball was unfit to be with young people. In subtle ways power was used against the Archbishop himself to overturn a clear case for inhibiting one of his senior clergy. Also, the apparent failure of Bishop Peter to express any remorse, according to the report, is a remarkable fact within the whole sorry saga.

What do I take from reading this report? Apart from being reminded how the church seems to care more about its institutional reputation than individual people, I realise how little insight there is about power operating within the church institution. Power exists in many forms in the church. A danger which is potentially acute arises when charismatic power is combined with institutional power. This was the situation for Ball and there was in him enormous scope for destructive behaviour. This blog has at its aim to be sensitive to all expressions of power in the church. We have identified the power of an infallible Bible. There is also the power of charisma, the power of institutional authority and the power assumed by the male of the species over the female. Within a church all the strands can come together. They are at best untidy but sometimes they form a potentially abusive combination. The people who are best able to tell us how power is operating are not the holders of this power. We need to listen to those who feel bullied, controlled and generally manipulated by the people who use power in the ways we have named above. When we have this fuller insight into the way that church and power coexist, then we may be able to begin to rebuild the institution. We want a church which is life-affirming, encouraging and empowering for all. That sort of church is sadly still a long way off. Reports like the Gibb Report show relatively little insight into the power dynamics in our church on the part of leaders even in the year 2017.

Whither Holy Trinity Brompton? Letter to Church Times

Sir, — The letter from Judith and David Paston (26 May) about St Thomas’s, Norwich, (an HTB plant) raises numerous issues for those of us who are concerned about the weakening of traditional Anglicanism. Clearly, Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), and its offshoots are here to stay as part of the Anglican scene. But there are various grounds for unease, and I want to look at one aspect.

The HTB phenomenon is in urgent need of some detailed research to establish its true effectiveness. While we know that there are numerous “successful” churches in university cities applying the HTB formula, we lack proper information about what happens to the individual members when they move beyond their twenties into career and family responsibilities.

Only one study exists, as far as I know, on the topic of post-student Charismatic religion. The research to accompany the study is New Zealand-based and was written up in the book, A Churchless Faith.

Alan Jamieson, the author, tracks a group of young people who moved beyond their experience of what we might describe as high-octane religious observance similar to HTB. It makes sombre reading. Though a small survey, it suggests that Charismatic worship and faith does not often translate well into the decade of the thirties.

We are told that the Church Commissioners are investing in the HTB brand on the grounds of the success of these congregations. Caution should be in order. Are we investing in a style of church life that appeals to one age-group but is of less relevance to the same individuals as they enter their middle years?

My suspicion is that the average length of membership of a church by members of HTB style congregations is far less than a decade. If this is true, and only proper research can refute my hunch, then we may be expending resources on something ephemeral. Meanwhile, this current effort to promote these plants may help to undermine and weaken the wider Anglican tradition in this country for ever.

We seem to be losing sight of the importance of ministry and pastoral effectiveness in favour of “mission”. People continue to need the help of the Church in the way in which they negotiate crisis, illness, and death. A preoccupation with financial and attendance statistics seems to shift attention away from the core Anglican business of pastoral care.
STEPHEN PARSONS

This letter appeared in the Church Times last Friday (16th June). I am reproducing the letter as it may interest my readers. They have hitherto been prepared to put up with my prejudices and rants on a variety of topics. One more will do no harm.

The issue that I raise is not whether Holy Trinity Brompton and its offshoots are a good thing. I feel that the jury are still assessing whether Alpha, the teaching course which is the tangible product of this significant church in London, is successfully helping people to find faith. My real grounds for questioning HTB are to do with the use of statistics to evaluate this church. Present methods of assessing church strength are to count how many people attend a church on a particular Sunday. A more important question that I feel should be asked is how many people stay the course as Christians over a significant length of time within an HTB environment. I am asking for a ‘longitudinal’ study. We should take a group of Christians and follow them through the years and see whether the enthusiasm of the twenties for HTB is carried into later adult life.

The book by Alan Jamieson, referred to in the letter, makes some interesting observations. Although he does not talk about the faithful who do remain in ‘high-octane’ churches into their thirties, the implication he makes is that these churches are in fact losing many of their more reflective and intelligent members. Among them are individuals who have served these church as leaders, group enablers and teachers. There is no question but that there was originally a high level of commitment in the first place among the people he studies. What seems to happen is that a highly gifted group of Christians mature beyond the charismatic/Pentecostal style in which they became Christian. Jamieson’s description of the process of maturing is taken largely from the writing of James Fowler. Fowler has written about six stages of faith that may occur in individuals between birth and old age. His model seems to have stood the test of time. At the beginning there is an innocent style of faith which then moves into a stage marked by literalism. This is followed by faith which is uncritical but tribal in nature. One writer compares this stage to the perspective of a fish in a tank. There is only the one perspective to be drawn on as the fish cannot leap out of the tank to view it from the outside.

The final three Fowler stages of faith represent a withdrawal from uncritical acceptance of what one has been taught. Many, if not most Christians, never reach these later stages. The ‘critic’ in the fourth stage is able to handle new perspectives and debates as well scrutinise leadership in their church for example. The later stages involve such things as the ability to cope with mystery and paradox in matters of faith. These sorts of insights will often make them highly disturbing to those who are holding on to a more child-type approach to their faith.

There is of course a lot more which could be said about Fowler and his ideas, but they are beyond this short comment. What can be said is that Fowler gives us a model through which to understand the longitudinal changes that will normally occur in our lives and in particular the way we appropriate the Christian faith. If some of us are exploring and travelling, who among the rest of us have the right to challenge the process or declare it invalid? I ask the reader to ask him or herself to look to see how attitudes of faith have changed over a lifetime. My question for HTB is whether they have built in to their system the ability to handle these later Fowler stages which may be adopted by the Christian members. Perhaps they secretly would prefer these searchers to jump overboard when the ship is perceived to be an uncomfortable or restrictive environment. Our blog is aware of one particular reason to jump overboard for many – namely the experience of abusive power!

Trump and thought reform

In the early 50s the American public was greatly disturbed by film of their own soldiers in Chinese captivity speaking anti-American rhetoric. These individuals had been somehow psychologically manipulated so that they had lost touch with their old identity. They were apparently fully under control of their Chinese captors. Much ink has been spilt since those days about the process by which an individual could be coerced to change beliefs and personality. The popular expression was ‘brainwashing’. This expression, however, proved so hard to define that it ceased to be used in academic or legal circles. More common now is the notion of mind control or thought reform. The latter term is the one used by the author Robert Lifton. Lifton wrote an important book in 1961 called, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. This showed how it was possible to manipulate an individual so that he would think and speak in a way that was out of character and contrary to a previous personality.

I was reminded of Lifton’s work on thought reform techniques when I watched the adulation being handed out to President Trump by each member of his Cabinet in a recent newscast -Trump’s ‘lovefest’. A further historical memory took me back to the Soviet show trials in Russia in the 1930s. The condemned individuals who were about to be executed for counter-revolutionary activity, were shown to be publicly venerating Stalin. As Trump’s Cabinet members spoke their words of flattery and obsequiousness, one felt almost nauseous at this Soviet-type manipulation. One hopes that at least some of the humiliated Cabinet members were aware of the historical parallels. Trump himself with his weak grasp of current affairs or history would have been totally unaware of the way that he is leading his country to become in certain respects to be more and more like North Korea.

I have already written a piece on Trump as a cult leader who is apparently firmly in the grip of a narcissistic disorder. I want to return to this theme because once more we see in the behaviour of his government certain aspects of the functioning of an extremist religious group. Robert Lifton described eight characteristics of a ‘totalist’ group, whether political or religious. One of these eight which we have looked at in the last blog, was the manipulation of language. When language only connects you with people who are in your group, you find yourself effectively in a social prison because you are cut off from the wider world. I do not propose to go through the other eight characteristics of a Lifton’s totalist group, but to summarise, there are two main features. Totalist groups, which we would describe as cult-like, involve the subservience of each member, emotionally and psychologically, to a leader. The exact nature of this relationship for both parties is complex but we can say that each side has something to gain from the relationship. In the second place the group possesses an ambiance or culture which simultaneously draws members together while isolating them from the world beyond. Both physical and psychological barriers are erected to stop the flow of information from the rest of the world. It is not hard to observe this cult-like environment in the appalling spectacle of the current Trump Cabinet.

Each of the members of Trump’s Cabinet has obtained a level of influence, prestige and power by being given some responsibility for government. Most of them have been chosen for their ability to amass enormous sums of money in their working life. The Republican agenda is also offering them the opportunity to become even more wealthy. But the price they have paid for this elevation is to drink the Kool Aid of believing (or pretending to believe) the conspiracy theories, the fake news and the outright lies which have pushed their leader into his present position of power. Like cult followers they have become strangers to any real dialogue with the truth. They are certainly no longer thinking in a way that connects with wider reality. They do not (yet) realise that each of them has utterly humiliated themselves both professionally and personally by hitching their wagon to such a corrupt individual as President Trump. Like members of a cult they have been corrupted by the process which Lifton describes as thought reform. They probably for the moment really believed the nonsense that they uttered when the camera went round the cabinet room asking for their opinions about Trump’s presidency. The problem is that Trump also believes the false narrative that his government is putting out to the world.

A few years back we witnessed dramatic public scenes of grief when the North Korean leader died. We naturally asked ourselves whether this emotion was faked or not. I would suggest that the cult personality was so ingrained in the population that the weeping masses could be said genuinely feel their demonstrations of sorrow. The one main difference between North Korea and the United States today is that there are still many strong democratic institutions alive to challenge the narrative of alternative facts and fake news. These institutions particularly represent the educated and informed population. They will not disappear. Through newspapers and humour, the cult culture of Trump and his followers is constantly being challenged. While for the time being the Trump Cabinet members can offer their false and deluded perspective on what is going on to the world, in the longer term, truth must prevail.

There is a clear reason for this blog to be concerned about thought reform in political life. We see the devastating effect of such mind control within religious institutions. People are shown not only to be misled by such manipulation but they are often traumatised by it for a long time. Many of the influential people in America associated with Trump will take many years to recover from what is effectively cultic contamination. Others, including Trump himself, may never recover from the lies and falsifications that have absorbed into their personalities as the price of obtaining power. When power is obtained through a massive manipulation of truth, then that power becomes something corrupt and permanently damaging to the soul.

Words and the power to control

This post is not going to be about the recent general election in the UK. Although with my political interests I have been drawn into the recent saga of President Trump and James Comey, I find that I have little to say about the strange state of UK political life at present. No one can deny that UK politics have become intensely dramatic over the past two or three days. My blog theme today does however touch on politics. I want to talk about the way that words are sometimes manipulated by politicians and church leaders to trap people into distinct tramlines of thought. Words are here being used, not to describe something, but to draw people into a belief system through a technique we might describe as propaganda.

A week or two back I wrote about the way that English language does not always have a word to describe every idea or experience. Today I am speaking about words which have had their meanings subtly altered to suit a speaker’s agenda. This is part of a process through which an individual can be taught to think in a defined way, one that will play into the hands of an authoritarian or coercive group. This might be political or religious in nature.

To start with an example of what I am talking about. Christian groups sometimes want to describe their experience of being criticised. These criticisms may well be valid ones. But rather than address the fact of the criticism and what it might be telling them about the way that they appear to outsiders (or insiders), some Christians are quick to speak of ‘persecution’. Persecution is an emotive word and it can be used to push aside quite legitimate questioning directed at an authoritarian group or individual. The word in short may not describe what is in fact going on. The criticised group may then deploy another emotive word to describe the legitimate questioning; they may talk about the ‘enemy’. From what starts as a probing to find the truth relating to an organisation we move to something that is portrayed as the onslaught of a godless, even satanic enemy. The choice of words being used by the criticised group has ramped up the tension and completely transformed the way the members perceive what is going on. This deliberate misuse of English words and their normal meanings has changed the perceptions of those involved. It is very hard, if not impossible, to have normal communication with a group which distorts words in this way.

Another word that might be used against the enemies of a political party or closed religious group is the word ‘slander’. It is easy to use this word slander as a way of trying to fend off any sort of negative criticism. Slander is to tell information about an individual that is not true. What the defensive group is calling slander may simply be negative but true information about the group which the leaders do not want to face up to or examine.

Religious and political groups are very good at using words in a subtly different way from the rest of society. Once this in-house jargon has taken root, it is a short step from cutting members off from all communication with the wider society. A culture is developed where words have an in-house meaning which no one outside can share. Experiences that are local to the group also isolate group members. The way that words referring to Christian experience are given special local meanings also help this process of isolation from the rest of society.

Many churches and cults attract the young. The reason for this is not hard to find. Young people are entering the vulnerable and unknown experience of adulthood. This makes them open to the possibility of being sucked into family type relationships which help to heal the trauma of leaving home. At the same time the young person is probably also developing critical thinking which asks questions. These contrasting aspects of youth do not fit well together in cultic churches. Leaders have to do what it takes to dampen down any intellectual independence that is emerging. Questions and doubt are a recast as a form of resistance against God. The leader will quote Scripture where it speaks of insubordination and rebellion against God. The natural process of intellectual maturing will be presented in various ways as sinful or lacking in faith. This closed society of cultic churches has taken the process of growing up and made it through the manipulation of words something full of guilt and sin, requiring total obedience to a leader.

Another word which is often misused in closed Christian groups is the word ‘commitment’. The idea of commitment to God becomes subtly changed when used by a leader. It comes to mean abject obedience to the minister. The word ‘selfish’ is also altered so that it means doing anything that is not approved of by the rest of the group. Words in short can be used to control members by ensuring that all behaviour is tightly controlled. Any independent thinking is quietly quashed by an appeal to unity with a quote about being of the same mind and spirit.

The use of words through which to control church members is something that takes a long time to recover from. Even after an individual leaves a group, they will continue to translate words in their minds according to their old cultic meanings. ‘Humility’ means degradation. A word like ‘discipleship’ also may provoke a trigger effect, reminding the former member of a memory of subjection to a power-hungry leader. Whenever ‘submission’ or ‘submit’ are brought up, there may be an instant recollection of a cruel coercive control by another Christian.

Words are powerful things. When they are used as tools of subjection and control to suit an authoritarian culture, they can cause enormous damage. I have frequently written about the meanings of words. For myself I believe that words should be used to point to a variety of possible meanings. They should never over-define or limit themselves to a single interpretation. It will never be a pointless task to question how words are being used by ourselves and the people we talk to.

London Bridge & religious violence

Shocked by the events around London Bridge on Saturday night, I have been reflecting on the nature of violence. More precisely I have been thinking about violence inspired by a religious creed. What is violence? The World Health Organisation speaks about the ‘intentional use of physical force or power which has the result of injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation’. Clearly violence involves malevolence towards an individual, a desire that they should be deprived of one of the marks of what we describe as human flourishing. There is no doubt that the jihadists were attempting to destroy through violence in the name of their religion. Do Christians ever use violence for their religious purposes?

Two issues have been concerning me in the past few weeks. One is the investigation of the Cathar sect in mediaeval France for the talk I am giving in Bordeaux at the end of the month. The other is a correspondence with two readers of this blog concerning their experience of shunning by church authorities. I have had therefore reason to look back to see what I had said about shunning and ostracism in a church context. I was in particular struck by something I said in my talk in Stockholm preserved by You-tube. I described shunning as a kind of soul murder. Thus, by implication, it involves non-physical violence. I also there expressed the opinion that in some ways it is better to be punched on the nose than to be shut out by an individual or a group. The person who is punched at least has established the fact that he exists in the mind of the person who is assaulting him. An individual who is shut out or shunned by another person, is not even accorded the right to exist.

Eric Bonetti, and I hope sometime in the near future, Helen from Australia, are giving us two perspectives on their personal experiences of church shunning. I would like here to indicate my belief that church shunning is in fact an example of religiously inspired violence. It does not of course involve taking someone’s life. But along a notional spectrum of violent acts against the individual it should be rated worse than an assault involving the fists. When we speculate about the motivation for shunning we find something deeply evil at work. The person who initiates the shunning is always in a position of power. Officially a shunning is initiated to preserve order and discipline in the church. At another level there is fear, cruelty and vindictiveness which are the shadow opposites of Christian love.

The religious inspired violence shown in London on Saturday night was of course quite different from the violence that we have suggested is taking place in religious shunning. The three individuals shot dead by the police have yet to be identified. No doubt we will discover, in all probability, that they were seduced into the violence of ISIS to compensate for feelings of inadequacy or failure. For them violence perpetrated against total strangers was an outlet to vent a deep frustration and anger. Those who directed them knew how to manipulate them by the careful use of religious texts and slogans. Extremists of all kinds will always claim that violent conflict is endemic in society and we must play our part in overthrowing the status quo.

Although I have suggested that the violence portrayed in London last Saturday was quite different from the violence of church leaders who advocate shunning, I have hinted at a common factor. It seems that any act of violence is made possible by a perverse human enjoyment of cruelty. The normal healthy human response to another person who is weaker that we are, is to have feelings of empathy and pity. When such empathy is absent, it is most likely the result of an environment, particularly during childhood, where it was not taught or practised. The individual brought up in such a setting may grow to be incapable of this human feeling. They may instead enjoy only the shadow opposite of empathy and love, which is to gratify a lust for cruelty and a desire to inflict pain on others. The bully, the terrorist and the one who shuts out other people through shunning all share this tendency to enjoy cruelty. When empathy fails, the capacity to enjoy cruelty is likely swiftly to take its place.

Violence in this sense of acting cruelly towards others is sadly endemic in the human condition. Tragically it is also found everywhere in the great religions. From Catholic Inquisitors burning Cathar heretics in the 13th century to Muslims shooting total strangers in the 21st century, we have many examples of religiously inspired violence which involve actual murder. We also find religiously inspired violence in the casual cruelty of church leaders who seek to control their members by the threats of exclusion and shunning. We need to identify within our religious institutions every example of violence towards others, even when it is disguised as godly discipline. Once again, we come back to the fundamental nature of power as it operates in our churches. Even though the existence of power in all these institutions is a necessary component for their proper functioning, we need to become ever more sensitised to the way it is being exercised. Is this power wielded with sensitivity and care, or do we find in its exercise the signs of its shadow, gratification and cruelty? In registering our legitimate sense of horror at the activities of Muslim terrorists, let us also take the trouble to be alert to the violence and cruelty that lurks within our own religious institutions.

The Paterson saga -medicine and abuse of power

From time to time a story in the newspaper sounds as if it has something in common with an abusive church of the kind that we often meet in this blog. Today’s newspaper account is not about violence in the home or even the coercive control which people are beginning to recognise as being part of some relationships. It is rather about the devastating effect of a trusted surgeon who physically maimed and wounded women unnecessarily over several years. His behaviour and apparent motivations appear to be worse than any cultic or religious leader. This cancer surgeon, Dr Ian Paterson, has just been sentenced to 15 years for carrying out operations on women without medical justification. The press reports speculate that these unnecessary operations to private and NHS patients were a means of boosting his income. Money may have been a factor but, by noting parallels with the behaviour of cult leaders, I would surmise that Dr Paterson’s motivation was as much about the gratification and enjoyment of power over other human beings.

Various words were used to describe the behaviour of Dr Paterson by the judge who sentenced him. The surgeon was described as possessing arrogance which left him feeling untouchable. He was also able to exercise power by playing on the deepest fears of the women that he operated on. The numbers of his victims are not known precisely but they may add up to nearly a thousand. Ten of his patients had victim statements read out in court. The words they used sounded very much like we might expect as coming from cult survivors. ‘Loss of trust in medical professionals’, ‘feeling violated and vulnerable’, ‘loss of confidence’ are some of the words used by these women. Another spoke of the operations as being ‘truly chilling, cruel behaviour… beyond dark’. All this suffering was endured over a decade to allow one man to gratify an evil need for self-importance through abusing his power.
In the attempts to explain why the crimes went unchecked for so long, we also had a glimpse of the dynamics of collusion that exists within the medical profession. Doctors at consultant level do not seem to be answerable to anyone except their internal professional conscience. Also, a fierce independence among senior doctors allows the abusive minority to misuse their position. People want to trust themselves to experts but, on these rare occasions, they are badly let down. One word that was used to describe Dr Patterson was his charm. Charm is one of those words that implies an outward appearance which may or may not be genuine. Is it a sign of altruistic, benevolent and caring behaviour? Or is it by contrast, the socially acquired polish of an utter scoundrel?

How many of the words used to describe Dr Patterson’s behaviour and the experience of his victims have we heard in the context of religious and spiritual abuse? Fear and vulnerability are felt not just by individuals who may have cancer, but also by any who enter church for the first time. The vulnerable look to people of authority and expertise to ease their fears. If the person in charge is a charlatan then it is not difficult for unequal power dynamic within the relationship to be exploited. A religious leader is often in the same role as a doctor caring for vulnerable patients. He or she may use their skills to relieve fears; alternatively, the presenting vulnerability may be exploited to serve some dark purpose. Gratification through misusing power is a temptation faced by all Christian leaders. The possibility of giving way to such a temptation is especially acute among those who run independent (and unaccountable) institutions.

The victims of Dr Patterson’s malign attentions were also openly critical of the way that he was not challenged by his fellow professionals. It seems that many colleagues knew what was going on but they said nothing. This is the claim of Diane Greene one of his victims. She said: ‘These co-conspirators in the medical profession also need to face justice. They let this happen – they saw it happen – we need to find out why they said nothing.’ The same collusive and protective behaviour seems to happen also in the church. One of the most disturbing aspects of the Peniel Church saga is the way that the neighbouring churches did little to challenge the abusive tyranny of Michael Reid. Every one of them had direct knowledge of what was going on as Peniel members were leaving in quite large numbers and joining other congregations in the area. The Brentwood and District Evangelical Fellowship did eventually suspend Reid’s church from membership. But it was permitted to re-join the group with great alacrity after Reid was sacked. None of the local ministers wanted to do anything on behalf of those who had been abused and treated badly. None of them suggested that the history of the church needed to be re-visited and apology made to Reid’s victims. All the abuses were swept under the carpet and the single individual, Reid, was conveniently blamed for everything that had gone wrong.

When an individual in the church or the medical profession is permitted to run amok, to damage and hurt individuals by gratifying their lust for power, there is always an institution which has colluded in this terrible evil. The imprisonment of this doctor in this case may well help the institution to engage in some self-examination. We would hope that the profession will take seriously the way that narcissism, excessive privilege and hubristic attitudes grow and flourish within their ranks. When those lessons are learned then perhaps other institutions, even the church, may come out clearly always to condemn power abuse and the exploitation of the fears and vulnerabilities of the weak. Let us hope so.

When words crack and break

The events in Manchester last Monday made us realise, if we did not already know it, that words to express our current feelings sometimes do not exist. We also recognise that when somebody commits a heinous action, which is a kind of blasphemy against the whole of humanity, there are no words adequate to describe what is going on. It is somewhat limp to use the word ‘fanatic’ or ‘extremist’ when the desired aim, to destroy the lives of innocent children, is so utterly deplorable. The English language breaks down in its ability to describe accurately the combination of utter ruthlessness and an appalling devotion to a nihilistic ideology. We need several sentences to bring together all the elements of fanaticism and hate which undergird the Manchester event.

One of the disturbing elements about the horror from last Monday, is the way that it was somewhere associated in the mind of the attacker with the principles of religion. For him, Allah demanded that cruelty and death should be shown to the most innocent in our society. There was also the fact that through the action, he was going to cause his own death. Thus we have a twisted understanding of religious martyrdom. Does any religion ever put us in the situation where we could contemplate killing others as well as ourselves for some higher cause?

Sadly, the history of Christianity gives us several examples where Christians have killed others in the name of their faith. Although my main presentation at the conference on cults in Bordeaux in a month’s time is on the topic of healing, I am also speaking about the Cathar sect for an historical thread. This heretical group flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly in an area of southern France known as the Languedoc. The group was destroyed by the ruthless work of the Inquisition by around 1320. They completed the work of Crusaders who had captured citadels and slaughtered the inhabitants without mercy. The Inquisitors themselves did not hesitate to use the punishment of burning against those who would not recant their beliefs. Hundreds of men and women, called Perfects, perished in this way. Once more we are faced with something utterly appalling. A religion of love expresses its beliefs in dreadful acts of cruelty. The minds of the early Inquisitors had similar sentiments to the Manchester suicide bomber. Can religious truth ever demand such behaviour from its followers?

At the beginning of this piece I asked the question whether words exist to describe the horror of fanatical hatred which seeks to destroy innocent lives. I found myself also wondering if there is a word to describe what I believe to be the attitude needed to counter such appalling extremism. We speak about liberal attitudes to respond to fanaticism and ruthless conservatism. We need a new word to convey the moderate, peace-loving and rational approach which many of us believe to be at the heart of Jesus’ message. Such an approach is required, not only to offer moderates of all religions a better understanding of the alternatives to extremism, but also an effective weapon against these forces. Religious extremism comes in many forms, from the desire to kill in the name of truth to a hubristic defiance of a complete denomination and its leaders, such as we have seen in the recent Jesmond consecration.

Is it possible to hold on to truth without being marked by hubris and conceit? All Christians claim to follow truth but they do this in very different ways. The extremist claim to truth will brook no alternatives. It will express its utter hostility to other truth claims, whether liberal approaches to Scripture or the emancipation of women in Muslim societies. The moderate approach to truth claims comes in a different garb. This seems to have three facets. To summarise these, the moderate will first temper his/her understanding of truth with a sense of its provisional quality. Secondly the moderate will accept that whatever s/he claims to be true may possibly be mistaken. Third and finally, moderate truth claims will be made in an attitude of humility rather than one of arrogance or aggression.

The first of these moderate ways of approaching religious truth is made inevitable by the provisional nature of words. Words have changed their meaning even in a generation, so why should we entrust all religious truth to the fickle unstable medium of words? To say that truth remains the same while the ways of articulating it will change is not a retreat from conviction. It is merely a common-sense way of recognising that we and our language are in a constant state of flux. Religious truth must open itself to possible verbal changes in the future.

The second principle is that we hold on to our truth while being aware that we could in fact be wrong in our claims. I think it was Oliver Cromwell who made the plea to a Puritan fellow member of the English Parliament. ‘ I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, consider that you may be mistaken.’ Being open to the possibility of error is never going to considered a strong position to be in. Even though it may be considered a wishy-washy kind of faith, the opposite, claiming infallibility for our truth, is potentially dangerous and may involve violence towards those who disagree with us.

The third principle, which binds the first two together, is that we hold on to our truth and our beliefs with the quality we call humility. Humility never seeks to destroy, pressurise or in any way bully another person. In other words, we hold on to our truth without any desire to impose it on another person. We certainly do not use methods of force or powerful persuasion. So much evangelism comes over as an exercise in hard sell. A recipient is made to feel that they are the target of professional sales techniques. They are invited to receive a product – not to share a new vision to help them live to the full and make the most of the rest of their lives.

There is no word in the English language at present available to describe this approach to the Christian faith. The moderate approach to truth, the humble sharing of the good news of God does not have its own word. Some of the words we would want to use, like love, have been partly devalued by overuse. Moderate evangelism, the path that seeks to share depth, silence and beauty is seldom discussed or articulated. Still less is evangelism as a new way of caring for other people given words. A moderate way, one that which gives individuals space to think about and explore the meaning of life and death within the context of the Christian faith, is needed. The words liberal, inclusive and broad church fail to describe this approach. I am left to ponder what words I could use. Perhaps my readers could help me?