What makes something a cult?
My wife Megan came under fire because she’s reading a book called The Urantia Book, which has been classified as a “cult” by www.creationists.org. This discovery caused some distress among acquaintances, and I ended up writing much of this in response to their concerns. I’m skeptical myself about the legitimacy of The Urantia Book. I haven’t read the book — she shares bits with me– but I haven’t read it all.
Having grown up in a Christian communal church (commune) myself I am fairly sensitive to the use of the word “cult”. Up to age 12 I lived in a community which has been termed a cult by some people but was in fact a fairly healthy Christian church. The community, Plow Creek Fellowship (PCF), in Tiskilwa, Illinois, still exists today. Living together communally with most major property (land, houses, cars and cash) owned in common, PCF in the 1970’s and 80’s was modeled after the early church as described in Acts, Chapter 2. I say that it was a fairly healthy church, in spite of the fact that we later (circa 1993, 7 years after my family left) found out one of the elders had perpetrated sexual abuse of minors. On the other hand, I have several friends who were raised in a different Christian church community here in Indiana that was not healthy, and even now they will tell you it was a cult. For example, that group’s stance on faith healing didn’t allow people to go to the doctor at all, and so some children died of easily treatable illnesses, a very cult-ish practice to be sure, also illegal (which became their downfall, as I understand).
On Curiosity and the impact of reading: We all have books other than the Bible which have been significant in our growth as Christians. Any particular book which might be just that for one of us isn’t as impacting for another. It doesn’t have to be an overtly religious book like The Shack, but can also be a novel such as A Prayer for Owen Meany which can enhance our faith (I read a few pages of The Shack and got bored, but I highly recommend A Prayer for Owen Meany as a deeply spiritual and thoughtful novel, which is probably eighty times more complex and intricate than The Shack). I will always encourage anyone I know to read as much as they can, with curiosity. Really nothing much else fosters reading as well as curiosity does. You can’t make people read something if they’re not curious, or not read it if they are!
I figure the more often a book is banned, the more important it is to read it; one of my favorite books of all time is Huckleberry Finn. It’s been banned twice, and for exactly opposite reasons! At first they thought it was too friendly to blacks, later they decided it was racist against blacks. In fact, it’s an incredible piece of artwork which forces you to decide for yourself what you think about race and doesn’t dictate what you should think. Banning a book is a sure way to make it a bestseller.
In fact, one major defining factor of cults is that they limit what sort of things you can read, or where you get your information. I’ve been reading about the woman who took down the cult leaders, misogynists, child abusers, rapists, and polygamists at the FLDS compound a few years ago in Utah (The Witness Wore Red) and this is a key component to how the FLDS leaders controlled people: they clamped down on what information they get and what they read or saw on television, much, much more than mainstream (LDS) Mormons do. This is part of what the Jehovah’s Witnesses do also. I visited my in-law’s Jehovah’s Witness neighbors at Christmas for half an hour, while they were watching a movie produced by JWs and that’s pretty much all they’re allowed to watch and read, stuff produced in New York at the JW headquarters. So I will never tell anyone what they can and cannot or should and should not read. It’s much preferable to me to have people read what they want to read, and then have an open discussion with them about it. That’s a major factor in how you avoid becoming sucked into a cult. No secrecy, no double life, lots of curiosity and plenty of open forum for discussion. Megan’s decision to share with her family about what she’s reading, rather than lead what she calls a “double life” is brave, and in itself is a strong indication that she’s not in a cult! Most people sucked into a cult tend to cut off contact with their families, they don’t share openly and vulnerably the way she is.
What makes a cult a cult is not so much what they believe as how they are structured regarding access to information. The Christian Church, from Greek and Russian Orthodox to Catholicism to Southern Baptists to the Harrist Church of Western Africa to cell churches in South Korea to PCF, all have different iterations of Christianity, so many forms and beliefs that there are people who follow Jesus and interpret various Biblical passages in ways that are sometimes a polar opposite from each other, all of them claiming that they stand on the Word of God (and so they interpret Scripture in the same way that Huck Finn has been interpreted: in opposite ways at different times in history). This doesn’t mean the Word is wrong, but it does show how wrong people can be (including myself)! The key difference between churches and cults is not as much in what they do or don’t believe (though that does play a part, there are definitely heresies within cults) but in how tightly they control what information people can have. As far as interpretation goes, only the very best literature has multiple legitimate interpretations. The Bible is such a book, praise be to God! And so is Huck Finn and A Prayer for Owen Meany. My understanding is that Urantia is not such a book, not so much, which squelches my interest in reading it.
Let’s suppose you write a book stating that the moon is made of cheese. Some might enjoy your story and laugh it off, while others may believe you and come along for the ride. This latter group might even start sharing with others this wonderful discovery that the moon is made of cheese, and say that if we could only get there we could feed all of Africa for years and years, and so on, and that’s fine, no harm done, really… Unless you begin to tell people they’re not allowed to read books about the lunar landings where Neil Armstrong picked up some moon dust and he discovered that it wasn’t Kraft Mac N Cheese powder, or unless you begin raising money (sorry, I mean “tithes and love offerings”) for a lunar voyage to acquire this cheese (which you pocket so you can buy vacation homes and a private jet, of course)… as long as you don’t do those things, you don’t have a cult. You just have a goofy idea that’s incorrect according to other sources. Your theory or claim might be misinformed, or it might even be correct (Galileo comes to mind here when it comes to theories about planetary stuff which people thought were anti-Biblical, because the Bible clearly states in at least FIVE different books out of the 66 that the earth has four corners, borders or extremities and everyone knows a sphere has no corners) but your Moon Is Cheese theory is not blasphemy worth burning at the stake over. It’s just a silly book. Good luck, sell lots of copies! Especially when it gets banned! (One last comment here: if your book does sell lots of copies, obviously you got some money out of people, but you still don’t have a cult. If you convince them that the book itself is some sort of talisman that will protect them so long as they have one in every room, or build an entire temple out of them, so that they’ll buy multiple copies, then you might be leaning towards cult-like problems. But just selling a lot of copies of your book doesn’t make you a cult leader. It just makes you a rich celebrity and perhaps a thought leader, like Rush Limbaugh.)
I did read through creationists.org to see their critique of Urantia. Now here is an interesting question that creationists.org raises in their refutation of Urantia: that “the Bible is God’s only revealed truth to us.”
This is a common statement, but a tricky claim to deal with, because the statement comes with implications that raise a lot of questions. The first implication to consider about this statement is “therefore we should read no other books, or at least expect to get no revelation when reading other books.” But as I’ve established, we’ve all had other books which spoke to us in some way that was beneficial. (For example, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” made a huge impact on me just a few months before I met Megan.) Clearly other books have had some benefit, in the sense that God has revealed some of the truth of his love, mercy and justice to us through them. While we say that the Bible is God’s only revealed truth and we have a certain awareness of the correctness of this statement since the Bible includes the story of Jesus’ resurrection, yet we don’t act like it, because we read other books and we do get something out of it. It does not mean that we should canonize any of these other books, but that certainly happens informally. My brother likes “Culture of Honor” so much that he’s recommended it to me multiple times. He’s not canonizing Culture of Honor formally, but he sure seems to think it’s revealed something important for how his church leadership can build a desirable culture. Does Culture of Honor reveal a part of God’s truth to us? Most likely it does. Was Danny Silk writing while the Holy Spirit was dwelling with him? Probably so. Does Danny Silk think this book should be added to Scripture? I doubt it. Did Paul think we would canonize his letters? I’m not so sure he did! He may not have realized it! I think if he did, he might have taken more care to avoid sarcasm. When Paul discusses how all Scripture is “God-breathed and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, training” (2 Tim 3:16) was he referring to his own letter, the one he was writing at the moment, as well as the Torah? I suspect Paul only meant the Torah. So then where does that leave the entire New Testament? Or was Paul assuming his audience knew which books he meant? Does the New Testament get added to his statement retroactively? These are questions that the statement “the Bible is God’s only revealed truth to us” fails to really address. It’s simplistic.
A second implication is the idea that the Logos word of Scripture is all we need. The problem with this is that Jesus said what we need even more than daily bread is a “Rhema” word (spoken, uttered) from the mouth of God when he resisted Satan in the first temptation. In doing this he quoted Torah, of course, because that’s beneficial for reproof. Often times this passage in Matthew 4:4 is misunderstood to be a reminder to read the Bible every day, but that’s not what he’s saying at all. He’s saying our relationship with the Father should be such that we can ask him for daily bread in the form of a spoken word to our hearts. So there are some other ways that we get revelations. Jesus says that “my sheep know my voice” and so does not spend a lot of time explaining how we will know when we’ve heard a Rhema word uttered to our heart. He assumed we could hear it.
A third problem with the statement that the Bible is “God’s only revealed truth” is that it also gets tied to a particular interpretation. The bottom line is that this can lead to idolatry of an interpretation. Very dangerous.
I do see the admonishment in Galatians 1:6-10 as a significant reason to look into whether or not Urantia is “a gospel contrary to that which we preached” and I think that’s exactly why Megan is studying Scripture just as much as she is reading this Urantia book. Is it contrary? If so, “let that angel be accursed.” But if it is not contrary, then what is it? Jesus said it both ways: Whoever is not against us is for us (Mark 9:40) He who is not with me is against me (Matthew 12:30). The bottom line for Jesus here seems to be not so much how you interpret stuff, but who are you for? Which is known by fruit, not interpretation.
I was also curious about the link to ex-Mormons that creationists.org had, with a testimony of an ex-Mormon who (after leaving Mormonism) found a group of people studying Urantia. The person then encountered spirits who “visited me personally at my home and are very real” which were tested later by Christian friends and found to be demonic. Were these spirits coming because the person read the book? Or were they coming because the person was a ripe target for deception? I don’t know. It’s an interesting case study and a personal testimony that should give us good reason for caution.
If there are any books I would steer clear of completely, it would be things that invite people to openly invite demonic presence, like Satanic ritual books or whatever. There are a few things that are inherently unhealthy to even read. From the few passages Megan has read to me of Urantia, it does not sound like a book of Satanic rituals or invitation to the demonic. Strange, weird, goofy maybe, but not Satanic.
I wanted to address a second definition of the word “cult” which was presented to me. This definition has more to do with unorthodox teachings: the idea that Jesus is only God, or only Human, for example. I would like us to consider that if we’ve decided someone’s interpretation of Scriptures to be outside our broadest sense of Christianity, but they aren’t in some single-leader, hyper-controlled, brainwashing situation, let’s just call it a “different religion” instead of a cult. I found the usage of the term “cult” to be negative and hurtful. I’d rather have someone say “your wife has joined a different religion”(which I would debate) than to say she’s joined a cult.
For that matter, I believe there are cults springing out of other religious traditions too. ISIS is a cult springing out of Islam, for example.
I am happy to say that Megan’s interest in reading The Urantia Book doesn’t look like joining a cult to me. There is no single leader trying to get your money, no secrecy, no organization of any kind in fact, and as far as I have heard there are no unhealthy or un-Christian practices taught, recommended or required. Whether or not the book is prophetic, or hogwash, I can’t say because I haven’t read it for myself, but I do know that Megan’s intellectually a critical reader and mature enough in her faith to determine for herself whether or not something is helpful in her journey towards and with Christ. Of course anyone can be deceived. I do not want a cult-like environment in my family, so it pays to be cautious, have discussions about what we read, and make sure to have accountability with a local church. And Megan does those things. And she gets healthy push-back from our church community, too!
In the meantime, as she figures some of this out, I know that Megan is also praying to Jesus for angelic protection and trust that Jesus will give her that. I’m also aware that creationists.org is concerned about people who believe in ETs. I am curious what Creationists think the Nephilim were, if not ETs? I looked it up on Answers in Genesis and they think the Nephilim were human but they admit they don’t really know that — so much for giving me confident answers for the questions Genesis raises! They’re picking a theory out of many just like the rest of us have to do. Recent evidence, however, from things like crop circles in Europe, from what I can tell, look like evidence that there really are ETs. Should we be surprised that modern evidence might teach us things the Bible did not, even though the Bible is our Number One Go-To Resource as God’s Revelation? I mean, after all, we figured out later that the Hebrew’s flat earth concept wasn’t accurate. Incidentally, the Book of Enoch is, according to AiG, not a revelatory book, yet it is quoted in Jude. AiG says that this only really means that that little portion of Enoch is revelatory, but how could Enoch be a true prophet sometimes and a false one the rest of the time? Scripture regularly teaches that prophets are either true or false, Elijah and Elisha and the others regularly get in the faces of false prophets and even say things to false prophets like “in a year you will be dead”. The bigger point is that the writer of Jude (probably Jesus’ brother Jude) is aware of the Book of Enoch and not afraid to quote it; ancient theologians read everything they could get their hands on (which may have only amounted to a couple dozen books, I think the assumption was that if someone went to all that trouble to write it, and then copy it over and over by hand, to disseminate the book beyond one village, then it must be somehow significant). Even as recently as the time when Charles Dickens was writing, educated people believed they could read everything worth reading that was published within a given year. Now, no literature professor worth their salt would think that they could read all the literature considered “important” by the critics. It’s impossible to keep up. So. Should Enoch be canonized? Does Enoch really endorse the idea that ETs exist? Are ETs real? And if they are, what does it mean to us? These are all questions Megan gets curious about.
There are many outstanding questions. This is why curiosity continues to be valuable! Dangerous, risky at times, but valuable.
So before people decide that Megan has joined or fallen prey to a cult it pays to be informed about what makes a cult. She has not joined a cult, she’s simply found interest in a book. That is a huge difference. I, for one, am open to continuing to hear what she’s reading and how it’s positively impacting her faith in Jesus Christ.
I will continue to encourage her to read whatever she wants to read, as I will do with all our children. Megan is right, curiosity brings with it a certain risk. The bigger risk, in my mind, is in becoming disinterested in the various perspectives and worldviews available through reading broadly, or to begin to control which books people can read and which they can’t. That is very risky behavior indeed.
Thanks for reading. Make sure to visit the bookstore before you leave!