Perhaps, like me, some of you remember hearing a mellifluous radio preacher named Herbert W. Armstrong -- and later his excitable son, Garner Ted Armstrong -- advocating the odd theology and end-times predictions of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG).
What I most remember about them was that their followers worshiped on Saturdays, not Sundays, and they thought the Second Coming of Christ could not and would not occur until they had preached the gospel to pretty much everybody in the whole world. In other words, the Second Coming's timing depended on human effort. Hmmmm.
I raise all this today to tell you about an intriguing, if amateurish, book that just crossed my desk: The People of the Sign, by Wade Fransson, a former WCG minister.
This is another of those books written by insiders who have left a faith community. But in this case the author isn't interested so much in blasting his former church (though he does some of that). That may be because Fransson, by the end of the book, still hasn't figured out where he belongs theologically. All he knows is that the WCG isn't for him, though he still admires some things about it and is grateful for the help it gave him.
Fransson's story is painful to read -- and not just because he badly needs an editor for such routine matters as punctuation and the proper uses of who and whom. Rather, it's mostly because he has lived an extraordinarily scattered life in a profoundly dysfunctional family, by his account of it.
A brief summary from page 71: "It dawned on me that with extended absences from my father, the failed relationship of my parents, years in a foreign country (Sweden) with my aunt and uncle, my mother's alcoholism, the temporary orphanage and the death of my mother when I was sixteen, I was a spiritual orphan."
And yet on the next page he writes this: "As bad as my life had been, and though it might not seem to be the case, the training I had received from the WCG had protected me from falling completely into the destructive, amoral whirlpool that I had been flirting with throughout my rebellious teen years."
Fransson eventually does identify what goes so wrong in so many faith communities that believe they are the "one true church." As he writes of the WCG, "Like the Soviet Union, we had constructed a closed city, a fortress on a hill, unassailable by the outside world, based on internal logic and interpretation, much of which was self-referential."
Can we all say, "Amen"?
Eventually the Armstrongs were gone from the WCG and others in that church began to explore the possibility that they were on the wrong theological track. This finally resulted in countless splinter groups being formed as the WCG almost disintegrated. But a core of the WCG reformers finally formed what today is known as Grace Communion International, and it has become, quite remarkably, a traditional evangelical Christian church.
I particularly call your attention to CGI's own account of its history. It's fascinating, and Fransson writes about some of that from the inside. You might wish to compare that account to this Wikipedia account of the WCG. And then to this website of the so-called Restored Church of God, which bills itself as continuing to be true to Herbert W. Armstrong's original vision and doctrine.
In the end, all of this should be a lesson in the dangers of unchallenged theological exclusivism. All religions, of course, make exclusivist claims. It's how you can tell one faith from another. But when those claims create an insular system in which questions are unwelcome, the ingredients are there for deep trouble.
Fransson's book, whatever its flaws, reminds us of that lesson.
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SYRIA THROUGH THE EYES OF FAITH
Wondering what the U.S. should do in Syria? Three Christian perspectives are offered in this helpful piece from Religion News Service. Maybe one of them speaks for you. None speaks fully for me though I tend to identify most closely to the third voice. Similarly, The National Catholic Reporter has done this piece about what moral theologians are saying about Syria.
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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it click here.