A Little Bit Culty
I got on a cult documentary kick recently. I’ll admit, I’ve always been a bit interested in cults. Why? Well, maybe because I was always a little bit curious/suspicious about some of my own group associations. Could I be in a cult myself and didn’t know it? I mean, no one really understands that they are IN a cult while they are IN it, right? — Anyway, my friend John is always posting on Facebook about the latest great cult doc and I was looking for something new to watch one night, so I thought I’d check one out.
First up: The HBO series, The Way Down: God, Greed, and the cult of Gwen Shamblin.
This one especially interested me because it was located here in my hometown. It’s the story of Remnant Fellowship, located in the Brentwood area of Nashville, TN - and it’s charismatic leader, Gwen Shamblin. It is truly heart breaking to hear the stories from people and their families who fell prey to Shamblin and her abusive ways. This type of cult bothers me the most because they masquerade as a church, instead of a cult. What is the difference between a church and a cult, you ask? I’ll get to that in a moment. But trust me, the people who are part of Remnant Fellowship honestly believe they are in a God-honoring church and not a cult. And yes, it’s still active today, even though Gwen and 6 other members of the Remnant staff were killed in a plane crash on May 29th, 2021.
Soon after watching that, my friend Scott recommended an intriguing podcast called A Little Bit Culty, hosted by married couple Sarah Edmondson and Nippy Ames. Sarah and Nippy were part of the NXIVM cult and their story is featured on the HBO documentary, The Vow
I remember hearing about this cult a few years ago because it made the news when actress Catherine Oxenberg was desperately trying to get her daughter, India out of that cult and started going public with her story. I remember thinking to myself, “How in the world does someone end up in a crazy cult like this?” NXVIM was far from a church. It appeared to be a multi-level marketing company, helping people with self-improvement - but it was really a cover for a disturbing sex cult. It was brain-washing at it’s finest. They were even branding these women — WTH?? These were beautiful, smart, successful people that got lured into this cult. Men and women, too brainwashed to see what was happening right under their noses. It was truly a horrific tale.
After spending one whole day binge-watching The Vow, I was even more curious to learn more about cults. Next up: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.
Wowza. These things were getting crazier and crazier! But I was starting to see a pattern. One very charismatic leader, promising that they can lead you to a better life if you just follow his/her rules. They convince their followers that they are the only one who has what they need/want, and that everyone else is to be mistrusted— especially if they tell you to question anything the leader is saying.
“Keep sweet, pray and obey” was next. Ewwwww… I mean, this one was incredibly disturbing.
This one is about Warren Jeffs and the FDLS cult he leads. Yes, even though he is serving life in prison for the rape of several under-age girls, he still has a very devoted following that he leads from prison. That just seems crazy to me. What kind of deep brainwashing has to happen for people to believe that a man who repeatedly rapes young girls (also marrying them to other men to be raped) is a godly leader who is the prophetic voice of God?
You might be thinking that you could never fall prey to a cult, but I beg to differ with you. After listening and learning about what a cult actually is, I think we are all very susceptible—and many people are actually in one and don’t realize it. Many cults masquerade as religious organizations, and some are more political or self-help. Even some MLM companies have cultish tendencies. So what IS a “cult”?
“A cult is a group or movement held together by a shared commitment to a charismatic leader or ideology. It has a belief system that has the answers to all of life's questions and offers a special solution to be gained only by following the leader's rules.”*
Most cult leaders dominate their following through psychological manipulation and other pressure tactics. It’s a subtle brainwashing that occurs. Many cults have extreme beliefs, but they don’t seem extreme to the group members after being in the cult for awhile. The members usually feel very special, like they are in an elite group that has answers the rest of the world doesn’t know about yet. They are so deep in this belief that even when shown indisputable facts that their leader isn’t telling the truth or trustworthy, they won’t believe you. Like the followers in the FDLS Cult—even though both Warren Jeffs and his father Rulon Jeffs were exposed as frauds, they still have devoted followers who believe they are the only way to “heaven”. It’s so very sad.
The truth is, there are probably thousands of groups across the world that could qualify as a “cult”. Some are harmless, but some are very dangerous. I believe the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6th are a cult. I’ve heard too many of them tell their stories and it all lines up. Some of them admit now that they went against what their good sense told them to do, but they were so caught up in what their leader (President Trump) told them they should do, they ignored their own feelings and warning signs. Others still refuse to admit that they did anything wrong. Cognitive dissonance has completely taken over. They believe the lies so deeply that they just can’t get back into reality. Here’s a recent article on “Trumpism” and how it has many of the signs of a cult - including the charismatic and manipulative leader: Is Trumpism A Cult? They make some very valid points.
If you are in a group right now who believes there is only one voice that you think speaks the truth to you—whether religious, political, cultural, environmental—I would beg you to re-think your allegiance. If you believe there is literally only one news channel that you can trust to give you the truth 100% of the time, you have fallen into cult-like thinking. If you believe there is only one pastor who preaches the truth, or only one religion that knows the heart of God, or only one political leader who can “save our country”—well, I’m sorry folks, but you might be in some trouble. It would be wise to take some time to question why you have allowed yourself to follow such a narrow or extreme view point. Is it because you desperately want to believe it to be true, so you refuse to question it? Is it because that narrow view makes life comfortable for you, even if it might be hurting others? Is it because questioning your beliefs might make others in the group ostracize you?
On a personal level, I’ve been looking back on some of the religious groups that I have been affiliated with in the past, and there were definitely warning signs that I was believing some things that were just not true. However, I believed them because the leaders of my churches told me to believe them and I did without question. When someone you love and admire tells you something is true, it’s easy to overlook warning signs that might be circling around that “truth”. When you feel loved and safe in a group, why would you question the authority figure that is bonding that group together? Why would you want to question what the group believes?
That brings me to a popular topic in many of my circles these days: Faith Deconstruction. I’ve posted about my own deconstruction journey quite a bit on my social media pages and I’ve had a lot of people question me about it. Some question because they are concerned that I might be “leaving the faith”. Others question me because they are also starting their own deconstruction and have genuine questions about it. So let me just clear up a couple of things about it all.
Deconstructing is not the same as De-converting. Most people start the process of deconstructing precisely because they don’t want to lose their faith.
Deconstructing isn’t something that we choose to do. No one wakes up one day and says, “Hey, I think I’ll tear down my entire faith belief system - just for fun!” For me, and for others I’ve talked to, it was a slow process but one they could no longer avoid and still continue to stay in Christianity. I believe it comes from learning to listen to the Holy Spirit’s voice inside you, guiding toward a healthier and closer relationship with God. You realize that in order to grow and mature in your faith, you must take a hard look at exactly what you believe and why you believe it. What is good and right and true will hold water as the BS gets tossed away.
Deconstructing isn’t an end to something - it’s a beginning. It leads toward the path of reconstructing. While the initial deconstruction is scary, the reconstruction part is a beautiful thing. I have found such freedom and peace in my new faith and relationship with Christ. It wasn’t easy, but so totally worth it.
One of the harmful things I was taught for years within the walls of my religion was that I couldn’t trust my own thoughts, emotions and feelings. I was told that I was a wretched human who had no way to process what was good or bad on my own. That is why I had to rely on the authority figures in my church to tell me how to live my life. Trusting my own gut was a bad idea…especially if what my gut told me didn’t line up with what my leaders were teaching me. Sound familiar?… maybe a little bit culty?
I have found that I actually can “trust my gut” about most matters, spiritual and otherwise. How do you think the Holy Spirit speaks to us? I believe the Holy Spirit guides us through our feelings and emotions… our intuition, our gut! When I started allowing myself to listen to the inner voice, everything changed — for the better. And the more I work on my relationship with God, and break apart dogma that had me chained for so long, the more I feel attuned to that inner voice. The Spirit within. When I listen and stay attuned, it doesn’t fail me. I’m learning to trust it as part of my deconstruction and it is so very freeing.
Friends, I beg you to do the work of digging for truth in the middle of whatever belief system you are in. Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc… Republican, Democrat, Libertarian etc… Liberal, Conservative… I honestly haven’t found any group that has 100% everything right. Please allow for there to be room for doubts and questions in all your groups. Questioning a belief system doesn’t mean you don’t love it. It actually means you love it enough to make sure it’s based in truth. Allow room for new ideas and growth. Allow room to listen to those that don’t agree and wrestle with those ideas a bit, just as we should be wrestling with scripture. There are many things that I believed for years that I now look back and feel embarrassed that I was so sure I was correct about, but I know differently now. However, rather than wallow in my embarrassment, I’m choosing to see it was just part of my journey. Part of my growth process. It helps me to look back and see how far I’ve come.
My deepest hope is that I continue to grow in a direction of love and inclusivity for all. To me, that is what the radical words of Paul were all about when he said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”** He was breaking down the walls of the political and cultural systems of his day and reminding us that we are all in this together. Stop looking at each other as enemies—but instead as friends, who see things differently now and then. Friends we can learn from. But we have to break out of our tribal mentalities to do that.
Can we do it? Can we break away from cult-like behaviors and learn to listen to our internal voices again? Can we learn to hear the Holy Spirit? I may never do it perfectly, but I’m getting better at hearing the Spirit in my own life. When I listen to that still, small voice, I’m always glad I did.
To answer the question I posed earlier, “What is the difference between a church and a cult?” - I would humbly suggest that the difference lies with the leader. Does your leader claim complete authority over you? Does your leader claim to speak as the voice of God? Does your leader tell you that he/she is the only one you can depend on to protect you and all that matters to you? Does your leader refuse to be held accountable by anyone else? Does your leader shut down anyone questioning his teachings? Does the leader paint those outside of your community as “evil”, “not to be trusted”, “wicked”? Are you discouraged from having doubts, questions or your own ideas and thoughts? Are you discouraged or even forbidden from having close relationships with anyone outside of your church community? If you say “yes” to any of those questions, I would suggest you might be in a cult. Run, I say. RUN.
One more thing: For those of you who are interested in doing some faith deconstructing, no matter where you are on your spiritual journey - my friend Stacey Byington Wynn has written a wonderful study journal that might be very helpful to you. It’s called: Deconstruction: Your Journey In Faith Stacey leads groups as they go through this journal together and her next one starts on August 24th. If you are interested in signing up for the group, or for more info about Stacey, her website is www.clarityunleased.com Stacey has been an invaluable voice in my world as I have navigated through my deconstruction and I know she would love to help guide you as well!
Just remember friends: Don’t be afraid to challenge your leaders, your belief systems, and your own ideas and thoughts. The good stuff will rise to the top. You won’t “lose your way” — you’ll find a better way. I promise. :-)
*from What Makes A Cult A Cult - The Tennessean
Thanks for reading The Way I See It! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.