CC image courtesy of Flickr, Britt Reints.
Editorial note: The following is reprinted with permission from Micah J. Murray’s blog. It was originally published on January 29, 2016.
I’m in this stretch of my life called “deprogramming”.
It’s the part that comes after brainwashing, and after disillusionment, and after despair. Deprogramming is the long, difficult process of unlearning all the ways my mind was bent by bad religion, rearranging a hundred tangled wires criss-crossing my mind.
Today I came across another pile of bullshit from the cult leader whose teachings were part of my brainwashing for the first twenty years of my life.
So today we are going to deconstruct some bullshit, as we’ve done here once or twice before.
This might not be of particular interest to you, unless you were in the cult I was in (which, sadly, many of us were) or unless you have a morbid interest in dissecting us from a distance like a freakshow (which, sadly, is not an unlikely scenario.)
First, a moment of backstory: Bill Gothard, an old man who has never been married or had children, resigned a few years ago from the cult he built by telling other people how to be married and have children. His resignation came in the midst of a sexual harassment investigation which has recently become a sexual abuse lawsuit. Like any good cult leader, Gothard has not let the utter collapse of his empire or the dozens of serious allegations against him deter him from doing the Lord’s work. Instead, he has simply rebooted the franchise with yet another vaguely named religious undertaking: Life Purpose Power Teams. Though this new project prudently avoids using Gothard’s increasingly infamous name and face, it is saturated with his pseudo-inspirational buzzwords, bullshit spiritual performance checklists, bizarrely specific obsession with multiples of the number seven, and grandiose promises of guaranteed success.
It was from this new venture that today’s fresh hot pile of bullshit emerges, enlightening with a bit of wistful revisionist history.
(Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.)
At first, the premise seems benign (if somewhat optimistic, anachronistic, and irrelevant):
If everyone in America circa 1860 had followed the steps outlined in Gothard’s new Bullshit Magic Power Squad books (spoiler: reading and memorizing Bible verses, basically), everyone would have been prosperous and successful (including the slaves), the slave owners would have been nicer to the slaves, and God would have blessed everybody.
“Now hold up, Mr. Cynical Disillusioned Liberal Heretic,” you’re saying. “Why all the profanity? What’s wrong with suggesting that it’s a good idea to read the Bible and pray regularly?”
GOD’S BLESSING IS NOT CONTINGENT ON OUR RELIGIOUS PERFORMANCE
The underlying economy of Gothard’s Bullshit Magic Power Squad is that God’s economy is a simple machine powered by religious performance.
“If every believer had established the daily disciplines of getting a Rhema* in the morning and quoting it to God while going to sleep, God would have fulfilled his promise of giving them prosperity and success.”
*for the uninitiated, “Rhema” is Gothard’s fancy Greek word than means “a Bible verse taken out of context and arbitrarily appropriated for personal use like a magic fortune cookie quote”
Do you see what he’s selling here? Follow these simple steps, and you can manipulate God into giving you prosperity and success. That’s just not how it works.
GOD’S BLESSING CAN’T BE EASILY ASCERTAINED BASED ON CIRCUMSTANCES
The same idea is also used to imply that the position of the slaves could have been improved — not through the ending of systemic injustice or the repentance of white slave-owners — but by the slaves themselves following the same religious rituals:
If all the slaves would have been trained how to follow these same disciplines of finding and meditating on daily Rhemas, God would have also given them the same prosperity and success.
This raises a few questions for me.
Specifically, what the fuck sort of god have you constructed that’s sitting up there in heaven, looking down on humans made in his image, watching them suffering slavery and torture at the hands of their fellow humans, and this god is saying, “Well, I would totes give you prosperity and success, but it will be another century before a slick salesman with a bad combover from Chicago unlocks the magic formula to my blessing, so I guess you just have to suck it up and keep sweating it out in the cotton fields.”
THE CIVIL WAR WASN’T YOUR FAULT.
This is the most insidious part of Gothard’s if/then approach to religious discipline. Ultimately, his particular brand of spirituality doesn’t lead to further freedom and enlightenment, but to self-doubt, cynicism, and despair.
You see, any good cult is carefully engineered with layers of extra chainsto keep its adherents trapped inside.
I remember, from when I lived in the red-carpeted cult center in Indianapolis a decade ago. I remember thinking, “The system isn’t working for me. I’m following the rules. I’m checking the boxes. I’m doing all the religious shit. And I’m not happy. I’m not successful. I’m not free. I’m empty. I’m broken. I’m hurting.”
But the problem was never with the system. The system was infallible. Hell, it could have prevented the bloodiest conflict the United States had ever witnessed, if only they had known to follow these five easy steps. If only they’d had access to these special insights from Bill Gothard himself (a $100 value, now only $49 when you join a Bullshit Magic Power Squad!)
Don’t you see?
“My system could have prevented the Civil War” is more than just laughable hubris. It carries the implicit suggestion that if we had only tried harder, done more, and followed the rules better, we could have prevented our own civil wars.
We are left wandering the gutted fields of the war-torn South, surrounded by rotting corpses and smoldering homes and generations of racial injustice, and there standing like a smug Lorax in the middle of the devastation is Bill Gothard with his dyed hair and navy suit telling us that all of this could have been avoided if we’d just tried harder, done more, memorized a few more Bible verses, said a few more prayers, attended a few more conferences, made a few more impossible commitments.
We are left wandering our own war-torn battlefields, surrounded by collapsing marriages and dying faith and screaming anxiety and lingering depression — and all he has to offer to our broken hearts is literally a book full of fucking checklists and the arrogant suggestion that God would have blessed us if we had only tried harder, done more, been more.
Dear God, am a fucking good enough for you yet? Will I ever be good enough for you?
THERE IS NO BULLSHIT MAGIC FORMULA
Forget Mr. Gothard’s “5 Essential Steps to Guaranteed Success”. There are no formulas, there are no guarantees, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you something, or trying to steal your soul. Probably both.
Let me offer, as alternative, these five suggestions instead:
- Fuck that shit.
- Know that you are infinitely, unconditionally loved by the God of the universe.
- (skip this one)
- (skip this one too)
- (Seriously, why are you still here? You are free.)