The Cult Peripheral
I am not the kind of person who seeks out spiritual enlightenment. As an introverted thinker I would rather contemplate theories and computer programs.
Yet I was in a cult for a brief while. No, I was not roped in through a recruitment program or “love bombing” or other sly but effective tactics that cults employ. A friend of mine, Joel, had been invited to “a new church” but did not want to go alone. Joel was experiencing a spiritual re-awakening at the time and wanted to enlighten others with his rather nice interpretation that the Golden Rule is paramount. "God wants us to be kind to one another.”
I provided a listening ear for my friend's frustration but was non-committal about the disposition of a higher power.
“Agnostic or not," Joel said, "you have to admit that if everyone would just ‘do unto others’ instead of being selfish, the world would be a better place."
Joel’s old church was less than enthusiastic about this minimalist doctrine—Cornerstone had seventy-odd years of their own tradition and were not about to revise it now—so he was willing to try this new Wednesday night Bible study group.
The group marketed itself as non-denominational. They didn’t even have a formal name. Joel figured they would be more receptive to his idea about the Golden Rule. However, he did not want to go alone to this new Bible study group and so he talked me, his only friend not already committed to a church, into coming along. However, he was without a familiar face most of the time anyway: as soon as we entered the big old house set back in a stand of huge cedars, we were told that the men and the women studied separately. The men stayed downstairs in the living room, while the women were relegated to the periphery of the spare room upstairs.
I followed them upstairs, feeling like a bottle of absinthe in a bed of tulips: I was in my grunge phase, wearing a man’s plaid shirt too big for me and smudged eyeliner. They held their ankle-length skirts up from underfoot as they climbed the staircase. The ceiling light in the spare bedroom revealed faces innocent of makeup. The walls had been painted so recently that the room still smelled of it, and of the resinous cedar trees outside because the window was open to let out the paint fumes. There were indentations in the carpet where a bed, a rocking chair and a dresser had been, but no furniture had been moved back in after the painting: instead there was a circle of folding chairs.
After the business of selecting chairs, none of the women in the group seemed to know what to do. No one introduced themselves. There was silence, then awkward small talk as each woman glanced at her neighbors to see what they were doing. The problem with relegation to the periphery was that no one wanted to take the position of leadership. A few of them talked about the men in their lives. The pastor’s daughter took this opportunity to inform us that one of the rules of this particular sect was that a woman has to get the approval of nearly all the men in her life (“Your father, brothers and grandfather, if there is one”) before marriage. She gave us a shiny smile. “So when I get married, I know he’ll be the one.”
A word: when I get bored, I say whatever comes into my head. It is a kind of game. If something interesting happens, I win. As a teenager at the zoo, my younger brother and I were told that there would be a raptor event, in which we’d get to see eagles and falcons. I murmured to my brother, “There is also a rapture event, in which all the animals ascend into heaven.” To me it was an amusing play on words but it struck him as really funny: our parents did not understand why he laughed so hard he snorted cola from his nose, especially since he had no breath to explain. I presented an expression of wide-eyed innocence to our parents.
The conversation had moved on. A few of the other women were talking about fireworks displays they had seen for Fourth of July. One woman said that in her town they’d let the big fireworks off from a hill just above the town. They exploded so low that roofs sometimes caught on fire.
I used my sneakers to push myself perfectly upright in my folding chair. “Back in my day,” I announced from my ancient age of twenty, “We only had black-and-white fireworks.”
Their heads swiveled toward me. Most of them nodded, their faces open, receptive. One woman, dark-haired, said carefully, “But… black fireworks… you couldn’t see them at night.”
“That’s why switched to colored ones,” I answered.
“Ohh. That’s right.”
I was stunned into silence. No, that’s not right, I wanted to say. You’re supposed to tell me I’m being a smartass and a joker. Ada.exe stopped working and had to shut down. There was no clock in the room, so it was difficult to tell how much time had passed until one of the men knocked at the door and told us to come downstairs.
As Joel and I milled around for after-study chit-chat, a male member of the church pulled me aside and informed me sotto voce that I should not say "such things" to the women because if they found that they’d believed a falsehood, that would damage their willingness to believe what was true. "It will damage credibility."
On our way back to the main street, as we passed beneath the resinous cedars, Joel said that he would not need me to provide support for Bible study next week. He would not be returning.
To Joel's disappointment, their convictions were already entrenched. He had been unable to find an audience for the simplicity of Golden Rule, and even if he had, it would be an empty victory: he'd found out that the men’s Bible study was peripheral to the main church. It was only led by the pastor’s son. “...Who, by the way, told me you and I could never come back or speak with its members again,” Joel sighed.
“I wonder why.”
“I must have come close to convincing some of them.”