There’s a woman who lives in southern California whom I encountered when I lived there. She’s about my age. She grew up in a home where love for Jesus was professed. She has five kids whose ages are pretty similar to mine. She writes a blog. And until ten years ago, she was completely controlled and dominated by the “Christian cult” in which she was raised. (She calls it a cult “because we operated like one. Cults aren’t so much about beliefs as they are about methods and behavior. According to cult researchers, it is the emotional seizing of people’s trust, thoughts and choices that identifies a cult.”)
The woman is Elizabeth Esther. Her book arrived by Amazon Prime a week ago, and I was through it in four days. It’s called Girl At the End of the World, and it’s an intense, sad, and somewhat horrifying – if the truth be told – read. But it’s an important one too.
The byline of the book is “My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of a Faith with a Future.” And it’s the “fundamentalism” part that’s caused me to return to Elizabeth Esther’s blog time and time again. It’s what prompted me to buy the book too.
Elizabeth’s story is extreme. Her grandfather started an overly strict Protestant denomination in the 1970′s, and it grew to become very intense and basically tyrannical. My guess is that few who happen to be reading here have a story quite like this, though they may have. The most eye-opening thing for me in reading Elizabeth’s posts has been the comments section. She has dozens, probably hundreds, of commenters who provide their input on certain facets of Elizabeth’s story that they did share. A “circle-the-wagons,” isolating theology made anyone outside the faith seem very foreign, even scary. Stringent corporal punishment enduring through to teen years. Strict requirements to uphold a purity standard so high that they felt shame and grief when they finally lost their virginity… on their wedding night, to their husband. A dominating mindset that any conversation with a non-Christian necessarily required an effort to talk about Jesus, whether that topic was relevant or not. The commenters’ stories echo so much in Elizabeth’s own that ultimately, I find them telling their own story. A broader one that’s enormously important to Christian life, more globally.
Because these are suffocating, life-draining elements that don’t belong in a Jesus-following life. They just don’t. And it’s the robust illustration that Elizabeth offers of how these elements, and a rigidity of thinking that goes with them, can take over a system and a community that makes the book so worthwhile. It shows how awful religion is, reminding us that it’s only Jesus himself and the life of grace He provides that are good.
When I first encountered Elizabeth’s blog I was wrestling with questions of how much control we Christian parents should seek to exert over our young children as part of a God-centered upbringing. I mean yes, we needed to prioritize and train them in obedience – that much I knew. But what did this look like, and how thoroughgoing was this effort supposed to be? And how should we be responding to wrong actions and ungodly emotions when they arose? I was one who started down some paths that were unfruitful before I was able to see how negative they could become.
See, Elizabeth’s parents had – or at least started out with – loving, God-focused intentions as they parented their daughter. They thought they were loving her well. Yet their practices over years were beyond stifling… And ultimately they were, by her own account, brutalizing. PTSD and lifelong anxiety are the result for her. The fact that her parents saw their sins and have have actively sought her forgiveness – and the fact that God has granted Elizabeth both ongoing faith in His goodness and the ability to forgive them – are the silver lining.
That and the fact that through all this, Elizabeth has embraced her ministry to tell her story, extend comfort to others like her, and keep talking about the goodness and sufficiency of God through even this. God bless her for it.
Originally published in May, 2014