It is my honor to introduce Grace Lyerly, an esteemed author, scholar and ex-cult member who has agreed to join us today in order to discuss her cult experiences. Her book about being raised fundamentalist and then joining a cult, Fundamentally Misguided, can be purchased at www.thezenofsouthpark.com, as can her other book, a scholarly look at similar phenomena. Please feel free to leave comments and ask questions as Grace has made it her life’s work to help inform others about the potential detrimental effects that fundamentalist teachings have on people and on providing support for those who have been through similar experiences as she. If you would like to read more by Grace, check out her blog which is called Fundamentally Misguided and available in my sidebar. Thank you for being with us, Grace.
What was the name of the cult you joined?
I still don’t feel at liberty to say the name of the group, but this was a house church that met for worship and Bible study on Tuesday evenings.
How old were you?
Barely out of high school; I had just started college when I began dating the guy who taught prophecy to the group and got them hyped up about Y2K being the beginning of the Tribulation period prophesied in Revelation.
Why did you join?
Fear. I was terrified of the end-times and unsure of my salvation. During my middle school years, my parents sent me to an ultra fundamentalist Christian school that showed us the four-part Thief in the Night film series from the 1970’s. This film series traumatized me. When my ex-boyfriend first explained to me how the Y2K bug could possibly set off the Tribulation period, it all made sense at the time.
What did the cult offer you that your life wasn’t giving you?
I was always very socially-awkward; a bit of a nerd. I had a very difficult time making friends; even at church, and this group made me feel accepted.
Did the cult fulfill its promises?
The group just kind of fizzled out on its own after Y2K did not happen.
How long were you in the cult and why did you leave?
There was not a specific time-frame; I held to this belief system strongly for about a year-and-a-half. (mid-1998-1999). I went with my ex-boyfriend to the Bible studies intermittently during that time.
What happened to the cult after you left?
It just fizzled out on its own.
Are you happier not being in the cult?
Yes! No question about it.
Do you still feel that certain things are missing in your life that the cult claimed it would have given you?
No! My cult involvement was driven by fear, and nothing else.
How many people were in the cult? Was it local, national?
No, it was a small house church that met for Bible study during the week. It was a very small home church. The members were either related in some way or lived close by.
Did the cult have a single leader? Was this person particularly charismatic?
Not exactly. There was my ex-boyfriend who taught prophecy and the couple that hosted the home church.
Were there any doctrines about end-times? If so, what?
Yes, this group was all about the end-times and Y2K. There would be no Rapture (unlike in the films), but everybody would have to suffer through the Tribulation. We had to be ready to resist the forces of the antichrist and the mark of the beast at all costs. Since I had seen the Thief in the Night films, I knew what would happen to me if I did have to suffer through the Tribulation. I also had serious doubts about my salvation (I was raised Southern Baptist), which made it even worse. Rapture or no Rapture, I thought I was doomed; there was no way out. I was thoroughly convinced I had committed the “unpardonable sin.” I felt just like Patty Myers in the film series.
Do you think that the people who began the cult did so out of conviction or to manipulate others?
I never once sensed that anyone in the group was outright malicious; just Fundamentally Misguided to quote my book title.
Did you have to pay to be in the cult or give up anything like contact with friends and family?
No, but I alienated myself from so many people in the process- and then alienated myself even further trying to find my way out of fundamentalist Christianity. Can’t win either way, I guess.
Are you a religious person? How so?
I don’t know. Part of me wants to believe in something, but I even have a difficult time trusting my own judgment at times. I also have a difficult time committing to any one expression of faith. My fiancé is Jewish, and I find comfort in those traditions.
Do you believe in God?
I am not really sure about that. Depends on how you define “God.” If you are talking about the angry, vengeful god I grew up with, no. Those images are still there in the back of my mind, though. I will probably never be able to get rid of them.
Are you a spiritual person? How so?
Yes, in my own way. There have been things that happened in my life that I just simply could not explain.
What else can you share with us about the experience of being in a cult?
There are still things about my experience I feel I cannot openly talk about, even though my most terrifying experience is mentioned in my book.
What advice would you offer others about being in cults?
I would just briefly like to say something to ministers and those in positions of authority in religious settings: Please be careful what kinds of messages you send to those entrusted into your spiritual care. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me;” not “scare them into heaven.” You never know how something you say may be later misinterpreted or what may occur later as a result. You also never know how something you say in the pulpit may hurt someone in the long run.
What did you think about the South Park episodes pertaining to cults?
I didn’t really connect with it as much, because it didn’t ring true to my own experiences. Honestly, I related more to the episodes dealing with Cartman and fundamentalist Christianity; the one where he becomes a televangelist and the other where he goes to Christ-fest.
A little about yourself: I am a teacher and writer, and I am engaged to be married in September. I also have a parakeet named Ratzinger. On Feb. 21 of this year, my proposal “reaching out to disaffected Christians” was passed in the Christian Unity Committee of the North Carolina Council of Churches. My hope is that I can offer encouragement and healing to those who have been through what I went through. I am 28 and live in North Carolina (deep in the heart of the Bible Belt).
Education: M.A. Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and Master of Ecumenical Studies (University of Geneva). My second degree is through the Ecumenical Institute Bossey of the World Council of Churches.
Publications: From Rapture to Revelation (2006) and Fundamentally Misguided (Dec. 2007). It is interesting that they were written in this order, but I can assure you it was not planned this way. The first book is my thesis from Geneva, which is written in very heavy theological discourse; the second is my direct experiences and attempts to come to terms with everything that happened. The two actually work hand-in-hand quite nicely.
Next Project: I am now trying my hand at some religious comedy. I am working on a manuscript entitled “The Misadventures of Brimstone Baptist Academy,” which is a fictional account of some kids at a fundamentalist Christian school. I have not yet sought out a publisher for this one, but I can see it going in that direction.
If you would like to contact me for a speaking engagement, I can be reached at email@example.com.
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