Stories of escape from what one-time adherents come to think of as a controlling, flawed and even dangerous religious community fascinate me.
Of course, religion that becomes toxic for one person can be viewed as a welcome gift for another. But when religion does turn toxic, it requires courage and determination to break away from it.
Those traits can be seen in two books by Richard E. Kelly -- Growing Up in Mama's Club, published in 2008, and The Ghosts from Mama's Club, just published this year. In these volumes (it helps to read them sequentially), Kelly describes growing up as a Jehovah's Witness, his ultimate rejection of that tradition and the terrible difficulties he experienced as a result of his decision to walk away from what he calls the Club.
This is not the lyrical prose of a professional writer. But it is compelling reading, nonetheless. It's at times astonishingly honest (including about an affair Kelly had and how he later worked successfully to restore his marriage -- to a JW member, who has since left The Club, too).
Kelly discovered as a youth that he had serious doubts about JW beliefs, but for many reasons, including trying to please his mother, a convert to the Club, he remained an active JW until he was 20.
All the while, however, he chafed under what he saw as rigid control of members' thoughts. As he writes in the first book, ". . .in the Club environment, thinking skills were often a liability."
Here's his explanation, again from the first book, of why things are like that in the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, another name for JWs: ". . .all decision making in the Club was done primarily by an inner circle of old men who were cranky, insensitive, and isolated from reality." Similarly, in the second book he writes that ". . .the Club is a high-control, dangerous cult, led by a group of old, delusional men."
Kelly had a successful business career in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area with what was known as the Clipper Belt Lacer Co., which now is part of Flexco. But even as he was devoting himself to his career, his home life was full of strain -- until one day in 1986 when he wife finally walked away from being a JW, too. Although at the time of publication of the second book, his mother was still alive and still an active JW, Kelly, his wife, their children and grandchildren are not JWs.
Today Kelly describes himself as a Christian, but with a few caveats. He's much closer to former Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who often drives fundamentalists crazy, than he is to someone like a Pat Robertson, who, well, often drives Spong nuts. The journey he took to get there was difficult, though it makes for fascinating reading.
(Speaking of Pat Robertson, he actually said something the other day I agreed with -- a dismissal of the silly idea that Earth is only a few thousand years old. I hardly knew how to react. Maybe Pat Robertson making sense is a sign of the coming apocalypse.)
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SOME THEOLOGICAL ROOTS OF OUR POLITICAL WOES
What does religion have to do with our national political gridlock? Quite a bit, says this CNN blogger, who may well be right. Good journalists today follow not only the money but also the faith to understand what's happening in the public square.
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P.S.: Are you part of a family struggling to help your children balance faith and sports? If so, you may be interested in attending an 8-week study at the Presbyterian Church of Stanley in suburban Kansas City beginning on Wednesday evening, Jan. 9. The group will be studying Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports, by Regan McMahon. For more details and to register, e-mail Brenda Mott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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ANOTHER P.S.: Is your Christian congregation sort of on the downward slide and in need of some renewal? Tell your pastor and other leaders about a week-long early April class I'll be co-teaching with my pastor on congregational renewal at beautiful Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico. For details and to register, click here and then pass along the link to others.
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A FINAL P.S.: The Onion (it's satire, folks) has a piece about the news that Pope Benedict XVI will start tweeting soon. It says he already has, and it's a picture of him with God on God's yacht. Uh-uh.