International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 6, 2015, 102-105.The Children of God: There Is Life After the Cult
By Faye Thomas, MDiv
Reviewed by Cynthia Kunsman
Houston, TX: Strategic Book Publishing and Rights. 2013. ISBN-10: 1608605280; ISBN-13: 978-1608605286 (paperback), $16.99 ($15.29, Amazon.com). 258 pages.
Faye Thomas offers us a glimpse into the stages of recruitment into the Children of God (CoG) and the difficulties that she faced during her recovery process. However, not unlike the misconception many Evangelical Christians hold, the author seems to presume that a mature Christian orthopraxy and sound doctrine make one impervious to cultic influence.
I found the author to be an endearing character in the well-written narrative, which depicts the all-too-familiar experience within a high-demand group. (A rudimentary knowledge of Spanish will help the reader because the author uses simple phrases that are not translated directly in the text. These phrases add character to the work, but they can be distracting to those who are unfamiliar with the language. I didn’t locate the appendix, which included translations of the Spanish phrases in the text, until after I had finished the book.)
Along with stressing the often-denied message that all young people share a vulnerability to cults, the author chronicles her transition back into mainstream life and a return to her religious roots. She also notes that recovery, which she processed primarily from a religious standpoint, proved to be a more difficult process for her than surviving within the cult itself. The book chronicles the potential pitfalls when one is searching for a healthy belief system after having exited a thought-reform group. One of those pitfalls can include one’s lack of objectivity regarding the spiritually abusive nature of new spiritual transitions and interests.
Faye Thomas provides us with a window into her world as a college student in the late 1970s as a business major who receives a scholarship to complete her junior year in Spain. Schiller International University’s small Madrid campus offers American students the benefit of solidifying their Spanish language skills via immersion in the culture. In August of 1977, the 20-year-old embarks upon a host of immediate challenges common to relocating in a foreign country, including the unanticipated reaction of the nationals to her appearance. She finds herself alone as an African American; and the Africans whom she does encounter in Madrid come from cultures and belief systems that are often equally foreign to her.
While visiting a cafe that is featuring a group of singers, she encounters a handsome, English-speaking, CoG missionary named Daniel. Her eager new friend quickly develops into her love interest; and when she is pressured to make a quick decision, she accepts his invitation to join him at the “Paris colony” for the Christmas holiday. Although disappointed when he returns to Spain just after she arrives in Paris, she decides to enjoy the opportunity of the visit. Within a few days, she acquiesces to 2 years of full-time service in the CoG and abandons her scholarship. Daniel had suggested to her early in their relationship that her stress was not a normal response to so many life changes, but was rather a spiritual sign that God was calling her to join the group. She also considered that joining would advance their personal relationship.
Her colony gives her the new name of Joy as she completes her indoctrination period in Paris. When finally permitted to visit Daniel’s colony in Madrid, she finds him to be distant and observes him courting another potential convert. Upon her return to France, an African member named Eli consoles Joy with earnest romantic interests, which grow into a marriage proposal. When Eli asks her to elope to marry, which would require leaving the group, the devoted Joy stands on her convictions to remain faithful to leader Moses David. She continues to follow the Mo Letters, the infallible writings of the group’s prophet that dictate imperatives for members worldwide, because she believes that she will eventually be “overtaken” by God’s joy for her perseverance.
Joy moves from colony to colony in both Europe and Latin America during her 2 years with the CoG. The group enlists her to establish a new colony in Geneva that is solely devoted to Flirty Fishing (abbreviated FFing)—the sexual seduction of potential converts as a recruitment technique. Her moral discomfort with FFing grows from discussions with Eli in Paris into a theme that carries throughout her experience in the group. She notes the cognitive dissonance arising from the conflict of the Mo Letters with her prior religious training, observes the marital strife that FFing causes for several married couples, and soon is unfit for FFing when she becomes pregnant. She delivers a healthy son in July of 1979 and eventually finds a reasonably good living situation for herself as a single mother within a colony in Curacao.
As the end of her 2-year commitment to the CoG approaches, Faye/Joy’s sister locates her after the untimely death of their brother. Her family had already been searching for her, fearful that she may have died in 1978 during the tragedy at Jim Jones’s compound in Guyana. A potential recruit, who declines joining the cult, secretly helps her set up a private post-office box to maintain family contact. Concurrent with another death in the author’s family in the United States, the tone and content of the Mo Letters become increasingly surreal to her. When the letters start discussing the benefits of the sexual fondling of children by adults and of homosexuality, she decides to leave.
Along with the help of Eli, the former member of the colony in France who had once proposed to Joy, her sister plans her escape. In the middle of the night on the planned date in May 1980, she collects her babe and the plane ticket that her sister had sent to her Curacao post-office box. Within hours, the 22-year old sits with her 10-month-old child on her lap in a plane bound for Chicago.
Eli and another former member who becomes her roommate help her reclaim her critical-thinking skills as together they examine the false teachings of the CoG. As also is true of the narrative of her CoG experience, which documents the all-too-common elements of life in a high-demand group, the author chronicles the painful process of starting over and the deep grief that accompanies it. She recounts the collateral damage that both her cult experience and her recovery process inflict on her relationships as she builds her new life.
I found the reception and care extended to the author by loved ones and her religious community to be very encouraging. (Evangelical Christians can revictimize former members because of the negative stigma of cults, but the author found much support.) She eventually completes a BA degree in business management and earns an MDiv degree at Wesley Theological Seminary. Reverend Faye Thomas now pastors both Church on the Hill, which she established in Washington, DC, and her urban outreach parachurch organization called the National Network of Christian Men and Women. Late chapters in the book detail the projects and the political and social goals of her parachurch endeavors.
Midway through the memoir portion of the book (soon after she is separated from Eli), the author includes a chapter entitled The Struggle Within, in which she explains why she believes she remained in the group. As a reviewer who shares a religious background that is quite similar to the author’s, I quickly recognized the concepts and theology of the Word of Faith (WoF) movement that she cites in this chapter. WoF deviates from core, theological Christian orthodoxy and focuses on positive confession as a means of achieving perfect, divine health. Pentecostalism, which is generally accepted as within the pale of Christian orthodoxy, grew out of late-19th-century revivalism as something of a theological innovation or renewal movement among Evangelical Christians. Pentacostalism is notably recognized by its practice of speaking in foreign tongues. Today, the movement also often is associated with prosperity teachings that promise adherents monetary wealth.
At first, I didn’t find the WoF authors quoted in this interim chapter to be all that unusual, considering the author’s precult traditions and culture. Intimately familiar with the sources and with some experience with the urban church culture in the DC area, I was comfortable with the nature of the specific quotes because they were applicable and positive. The author couched her involvement in the CoG in Christian terms that associated thought reform with her own error—a willful choice of carnality, fueled by confirmation bias: “Since the flesh is always at enmity with God, the cult is a door to release sin and the lust of the flesh” (p. 109). With its position at the book’s midpoint, I considered that this section likely noted a chronological record of the author’s own thought processes at the time, long before she exited the group.
I believe that both the author’s use of and reliance on the writings of the charismatic leaders of the WoF movement for guidance out of CoG, and her current theological stance point to her unwitting grooming and preparation by one movement for the appeal of and manipulation within another. Her return to language of her precult and early church experience likely provided comfort, but it could be interpreted as an example of the long-term influence of all high-demand groups and the greater difficulty in leaving them compared to the difficulty in remaining a member.
I identify personally with this very experience because I prepared to walk away from a 4-year Shepherding/Discipleship experience in the Baltimore/Washington corridor. I relied heavily upon WoF sources for confidence to exit. Empathizing with the author, I found that the painful process of confronting the short experience of obvious abuse in a group known to my exit counselor came far more easily than my later, deliberate choice to dig deeper into the more insidious spiritual abuse within WoF theology. The latter heralded a profoundly personal existential crisis. I then looked inside the abyss of my own personal deficiencies that made me particularly vulnerable to manipulation. Seventeen years after my exit, I still find myself peeling away layers of the experience as a part of my ongoing personal and spiritual growth. The author bravely begins this difficult process and notes aspects of it in this chronological, interim chapter in the memoir section.
Having concluded the personal-history portion of the book in a similar approach to that which Deborah Davis employed in her contributions to seminal writing about the CoG (1984), the author then expounds upon her thesis that her youth and spiritual immaturity as a Christian made her vulnerable to cultic influence. Quoting Enroth and Melton’s Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails (1985), she applies several of their concepts in her conclusion. Ultimately, however, her thesis favors a spiritualized “demand for purity” view without a critical discussion of thought reform itself.
In a section focused on and entitled the Lure of Cults, the author explains the factors that cults exploit with young adults for the purpose of recruitment and retention. She notes that a desire for greater self-awareness, promised by the cult, results in the paradoxical relinquishing of one’s individuality to the cult. In addition to the appeal of “dropping out” of society and the “freedom of sexual expression” allegedly afforded by the CoG, she cites the pressure of shared financial responsibility borne by all members as a potent retention tool (pp. 174–180). The author quotes Enroth’s claim that 90% of recruits leave within 2 years (Enroth, 1985, p. 54) and identifies this with her own 2-year experience. She attributes to a spiritual cause Enroth’s observation that Christians often rejoin other destructive cults after they exit Bible-based cults; the cause she offers is rejection of Christ’s Lordship, which is then compounded by the lack of Christian resources for former cultists. For the Christian, “the unadulterated Word of God,” in concert with the support of family and friends, provide the best solace after one exits a group.
Evangelical readers may find disappointment in the author’s continued praise of additional WoF ministries and individuals as helpful and healthy resources for Christians in recovery. Her list of cited authors includes Ken Hagin, the Copelands, Fred Price, and Francis McNutt, among others. She also documents the ministry commission that she received through a personal prophecy from Cindy Jacobs (p. 207), a particularly controversial individual who is noted for the spiritual “deliverance”/exorcisms she conducts (Cindy Jacobs, 2003). The author describes her further investment in WoF in the early 1990s through her development of coursework in the theology of the Pentecostal movement, spiritual gifts, and healing ministry—principles that she advances in the church for which she now serves as pastor. From a thought-reform perspective, the author has unfortunately escaped a very devastating cult to heavily invest herself in a different belief system that is considered within Christian, countercult apologetics circles to be theologically aberrant, albeit less destructive (McConnell, 1988; Positive Confession, 2012; Tillin, 1999).
Although she cites ideologues from the E. W. Kenyon school of WoF, the author does not acknowledge the influence of theosophy and New Thought Christianity on the movement (McConnell, 1988). Most Pentecostals and Charismatics know nothing of Phineas P. Quimby, a late-19th-century philosopher trained in the European-style of mesmerism, who explored medical applications of hypnosis as a modality for healing (Quimby, 2008). Quimby’s notable student, Mary Baker Eddy, sought his help for a host of somatic illnesses. Eddy adopted many of his ideas and incorporated them into her tradition of Christian Science—a charge she staunchly denied, despite the concurrence of her work with Quimby’s writings published posthumously (Eddy, 1912, Quimby 2008). E. W. Kenyon found much merit in Eddy’s Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures, and then essentially sanitized and supplemented it to conform to Evangelical Fundamentalist doctrinal standards (Barron, 1987; Kenyon, 1969; McConnell, 1988).
Although I find so many elements of this memoir to be an inspiring and insightful chronicle of recruitment into, devoted service within, and exit from a high-demand group, I attribute it as an unfinished saga. The author’s detailed and sometimes tedious account of personal recovery demonstrates well the stages of recovery from cultic involvement, but her embrace of WoF theology suggests that she has not yet fully stepped into true freedom from thought reform and the magical thinking of the Kenyon school of faith healing. Although I don’t believe that her experience can be recommended to Evangelicals who are emerging from thought-reform programs, it unfortunately is not at all uncommon within Evangelical circles. It serves as an account of cult-hopping into a less damaging but familiar theological system. Perhaps the author, who overcame so much adversity, cultivated a meaningful life, and forged so many opportunities to help others, will one day tire of the demands of WoF. I hope to one day review another book by her that documents the completion of her saga and reflects full liberation from high-demand systems.
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International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 6, 2015