Sects, Media, Religion: Thoughts on another post-Adventist cult


(system) #1

The Adventist blogosphere is buzzing with news about the Lord Our Righteousness cult.

On Stephen Eyer's Adventist Filmmaker site one of the cult members posted the following:

You folks might be interested in knowing about a former Seventh-Day Adventist minister named Wayne Bent, who has openly claimed that God told him that he is the second coming of Christ. In Dec. of 2007, the BBC broadcast a documentary that Firefly Productions made about him and his disciples, who refer to themselves as Strongcity. The National Geographic channel recently broadcast a re-production of the same documentary. Strongcity has responded with a documentary of their own. The day after their movie was posted on the internet, state authorities apprehended 3 minors from Strongcity.

Here's the cult's documentary: Tangential asides: Notice that the aesthetic - font style, music, and hair - parallels some forms of Adventist media. Also, cool Metalica cover for the soundtrack.

Pastor Trevan Osborn ponders:

I’ve often wondered what draws people to these cultic groups which unite around a leader who claims to be messianic. It just seems so strange to me but clearly there are a lot of groups out there that attract quite a following. Unfortunately, there have been several that have sprung from the Adventist church, most notably David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.

While we're not the only the only ones who have sects, this does raise some questions. Significantly, the emerging media landscape adds a twist as these cult members, like the FLDS, Lord Our Righteousness is using online tools to get their own message out. See http://strongcity.info

A Young Heart Inside a Cult writes:

My name is Liberty. I am 24 years old, and I am one of the seven virgins who was anointed by Father to carry out His purposes in pouring out the seven last plagues upon the earth. I would like to share with you the story of my own personal experience here in the land, and then how my heavenly Father chose me to be one of the seven messengers. . .

From National Geographic:

This is playing again on Wednesday, May 7 at 7:00 PM.

A week ago, ABC News reports that:

Three teenagers were removed [by state officials] from a New Mexico doomsday cult compound after allegations of sexual abuse surfaced. The teens — two girls and a boy — were removed Wednesday after allegations of inappropriate contact between minors and the church leader, Michael Travesser.

I have to say that I find these former Seventh-day-Adventist-now-cultist stories often overdrawn, in part because of the religion and sex fervor that surrounds them. The cult narrative (apocalypse, sex, messiah) is in part a creation of the post-60s media hype in which parents were scared that little Suzie would follow Charles Manson.

At a social level, many groups have cult-like traits and all cults are actual communities.

One of my favorite discussions of this phenomenon is Don DeLillo's Mao II (1991), in which he writes: "The future belongs to crowds."

Talking about his book, DeLillo said in the Times: "I didn't know it at the time, but these two pictures would represent the polar extremes of Mao II, the arch individualist and the mass mind, from the mind of the terrorist to the mind of the mass organization. In both cases, it's the death of the individual that has to be accomplished before their aims can be realized (emphasis supplied)."

Almost every major religion starts by a charismatic person and every religion's emphasis on rejecting the natural world and evil culture has led some members to extremes of belief and behavior.

St. Anthony and the Desert fathers? Tell me that they weren't a little crazy, yet they provided a strong witness against the corporate compromises of the Constantinian Church. This tradition laid the foundation for the Catholic orders which include most markers of cult behavior. In my graduate work, I study and party with Dominicans, Jesuits, Franciscans (Minor, Conv, and Cap). Men in robes, subsuming their individual wills to their provincials, "abstaining" (sometimes) from mainstream apatites, the line between order and cult can sometime appear thin. But I mention that similarity only because I'm around it. Little rural (and sometimes urban) Main Street-esque Adventist churches can be as stiflingly and some evangelical megachurches, with their super-charismatic pastors, emotionally-driven worship hours and emphasis on small social networks tap into the structures of meaning that create cults. Expanding on these issues, Monte Sahlin addresses three key questions.

I'm no expert, but the destructive traits of cults come less from Adventism than from larger social mores like familial bonds, lack of hermeneutical self-awareness and the tension between individualism and community.

However, it should be clear after watching about six minutes of the Strong City doc that it does raise some serious questions about how Christians mix European history and the book of Revelation. That Adventism has had a few messiahs pass in then out of our pews should drive even more awareness of contingency and humility into our use of scripture. The next time someone argues that Revelation pointed to 538 or 1798 they did need to think how they would prove it to Michael here.

From the Branch Davidians to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints to Lord Our Righteousness, it appears that, if nothing else, there is a lesson in the stories of the members. While exploitative sex and religion is wrong, often the conclusions and solutions of "the world" fails to actually provide the deeper meaning that these social networks create.

Furthermore, it seems that the wrong approach is for larger social groups to use their power to break up these sects. This clash of ideologies fits right into their apocalyptic teleology. Instead of pitting group vs. group, we should employ the real opposite force: individuality. By creating private meaning - self-fashioning - one sees the contingency of contexts and breaks the calm spell of extreme religio-group think. After all, beyond sex and media scrutiny, a real cross that humanity bares is negotiating human desire and power every day. "Not my will, but thine be done" may be one of the most dangerous phrases a human can utter.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/572