Is your religion a cult?

Anthony made fun of me for having plans Friday afternoon to meet with the Mormons at our house. He said why are you doing it, so you can blog about it? That was part-true.

They were supposed to be here at 2, and I planned my day around them. I got back from walking the dog and thought about offering them some ice water with lemon, we’d sit in the den.

But 2 o’clock came, and they were late. I sat in my lawn chair reading Brave New World, tried to nap, read some more, got in the car at 3 for the grocery store and that’s when they appeared: the same two from earlier in the week with a third one driving.

I said I had to get my kids in 45 minutes because I was expecting you at 2. Was there still enough time?

They took off their shoes and we sat in the den; the dog sniffed them and settled in her donut cushion by the fireplace.

They were about 20 years old, each of them. While subtle, there was a vying for attention, a kind of positioning as each of them spoke. Two spoke better than the third, Elder Savage. I wanted Elder Savage to have a chance though and let him stand when he spoke, and I paid attention and thanked him for his comments.

We started with a prayer and then they asked what my level of religious experience was, in so many words. I said I liked the idea of religion in general, at least the part about people being kind and loving to one another, but had a lot of cynical barriers from all the hate and violence around religion, all the divisions it formed between people.

I knew some of the same Mormons they knew, knew them pretty well, really liked them, but never talked “Mormon” with them so I was open to listening, to hear them talk about their faith.

I asked what their intention was, and it was basically to invite me in for an option to be baptized, if that were true, after they talked to me and after I talked to God. I don’t want to be baptized though, or join a church. I tried to be clear about that and not be an ass or waste their time or do all this just so I could blog about it, honest.

One of them had a phone he was balancing on his knee and an illustration of Jesus on the other, held upright facing me. He was diddling the phone, which I found distracting and odd, considering he had a picture of Jesus right there in the other hand. He later explained he was referring to passages of the Bible, that’s why he was diddling, preparing it for reference, which he did a few times, but kept dropping the phone and looking apologetic, allowing an awkwardness to fill the space between us.

They talked about being perfect and that we’re all imperfect, and that I could agree with. So I mentioned the Fibonacci sequence, the uncanniness of those numbers and how they recur in nature, since I just learned about that on a NOVA program about how math permeates our world, and appears in the number of flower petals and the distance between the spirals in sea shells, just like the crab nebula. Like, there’s this perfection in nature but nature is also imperfect, like us.

And they introduced the Book of Mormon then, and sure, my mind went to parody with the illustrations of Jesus descending on the Americas, but I didn’t want to go there, I resisted: I said I believe if you believe it, it’s true. I believe we all create our own realities by what we focus on for ourselves. But I don’t believe we have to go through someone to talk to God, that was a key point I wanted to make.

We prayed before they left and I teared up, saying goodbye. They asked if there was a good time they could come back and one of them, who was playing with his phone, looked me in the eye and asked, will I read it, the book? I said I’ll read some of it because I’m a writer, I read all kinds of things. I believe stories can change the world.

I told them I’m leaving for Germany to take my pets there so it would be best for us to meet again toward the end of June, and then we can talk about the parts in the book they emphasized. Elder McBeth (that’s his real name) asked what I write and I said memoir, trying to make sense of the last 20 years.

There are times in life you come across things that, were you to write them down, sound contrived. I couldn’t remember Elder Savage’s name, but was glad to see it’s the same as the one character in Brave New World, a character named John, also called the Savage — a human that hasn’t been conditioned like the others.

And I’ve never met anyone named McBeth (he spells it differently than Shakespeare’s), though my daughter Lily is reading that now, and Brave New World is a line from The Tempest.

The Mormons pulled up as I was cueing a song on my CD player in the car called Blessed State, the song Wire closed with in Seattle earlier this week:

Closing doors
Opens eyes

To the fatal gift
Of a well timed lie
Loved in the flesh
But butchered in the mind
Oh what a pearl
What a well made world

Holy globe
Eternal home

Sacred sphere
So glad I’m here
Oh what a pearl
What a well made world

— “Blessed State,” Wire 1979



Categories: writing

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36 replies

  1. Doooon’t dooo iiiiit. I mean, read the book if you must but, don’t do it. Sincerely, a former mormon.


  2. I do think we can create our own realities, but I also think that, with respect to God, they can be right or wrong, correct or incorrect. There either is a God or there is not, for exams. One person may choose to believe and another may choose not to, and both may live out their lives quite happily, but one of them is wrong.

    And then of course there is the question of cult or not cult.

    But it’s 2:34 a.m my time, 1:34 Baton Rouge time, and I’ve been driving for 15 hours and might be quite delirious.

    Best Cult album: Electric.


    • I like your POV on the is/is not, for exams. But I do disagree about Electric, and hold to Love, for The Cult. My god, you’ve been driving for 15 hours and you read this blog post? I should have punched it up with some sex and violence, to keep you stimulated. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on faith — favorite Cure album, speaking of Faith?


      • Is Faith a Cure album and am I supposed to pick it? Well, I am no expert on the Cure, I’ve only heard Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and Disintegration. And I think they had some kind of greatest hits/b-sides combo that came out around that time which I liked. But I think Disintegration is probably a Top Ten album of the 80s. That’s a great album.

        Hanging out in Baton Rouge today with family and back in the car again for another 8 hours in the morning to DFW (that’s Dallas-Fort Worth, not David Foster Wallace.)


      • Yes, I know the DFW though haven’t been. Faith is a good Cure album, though bleak. I heard recently Robert Smith got inspired by his time with Siouxsie to explore darker themes, and owes a lot to their style/sound to Siouxsie’s influence, when he played with her for a short while. I think the project was called The Glove but I wasn’t a fan of it. I agree Disintegration is one of their best — and that greatest hits you speak of, if it’s Standing on a Beach (starts with Killing an Arab) that’s a gem; that’s what got me into them. Enjoy your roadtrip, and hope your AC keeps working. – Bill


      • Standing on a Beach, yes…that was it. That was the first Cure I heard. Someone put it on in a hotel room while we were on a road trip and I fell asleep to it. Good stuff.

        I just re-read your comment so I could respond to it (I’d already read it earlier today when I wasn’t able to) and realized it’s your fault my AC went out. You jinxed it. Thanks a lot. 😉


  3. When my husband read ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ he was floored by the fact that anyone could believe that 150 or so years ago a regular man claimed to find gold tablets buried in the earth and that he was able to start a religion. For me, having grown up Catholic, I could see no difference between claiming to find gold tablet in a hole or a virgin impregnated by God. The only difference is the time and history that separate them. I admire your quest for learning and your kindness–the phone thing would have driven me up a wall.


    • Thanks Dina — I was startled by that part of the story, the discovered tablets. But I won’t make fun or go on about it, because I do respect what people believe as long as they kind of keep it in their yard if you know what I mean. I almost said something about the phone thing, but I was concerned about my ability to not lose my temper, as I was already tensing up in the neck and my voice was choked. I’d like to have similar conversations with others about their faith though, as it’s so foreign to me — and I think it’s a special thing if it’s expressed in a loving way. I just can’t imagine it for myself.


  4. Sometimes the earnestness of young believers is touching, other times it seems creepy. Having been down the road to religion(s) early on, I get why it is so appealing. It’s nice to believe that someone is taking care of us, that things have a reason, that there are rules to live by. If that was all there was to it, it would be as benign as believing in Santa Claus.

    Instead, humans add their own spin of exclusivity to entering heaven, like it’s a private golf clubhouse, condemnation of others and the sociopolitical aspect of trying to control human behaviors that are likely older than any religious doctrine.

    I saw the Broadway version of The Book of Mormon. It was godawful. The actual book is an interesting read and no more nutty than any other religious tome. Object lessons wouldn’t be as fun to read without magic hats, heroes’ odysseys and a fear of women.


    • Fear of women, yes. Earnestness and creepiness, yes. I thought in some pea-brain way I could help them nurture their faith by talking to a non-believer, to challenge them in non-threatening, respectful ways. But they were an hour late, WTF! What you say about the exclusivity is what inherently turns me off, that everyone insists they have the code.


  5. You’re an awfully open-minded sort, aren’t you! Personally, I have trouble seeing the difference between Mormons vs. Scientologists vs. Hari Krishnas (etc. etc.), though there may well be positive elements in each if we were allowed to cherry-pick.

    Seems to be true, as you say: We land on our own reality and run with it.

    PS — Bon voyage!


    • Yes, open-minded but perhaps a bit funny upstairs. This is what happens after being unemployed for so long. Or I feel like those older, lonely folks who get excited when someone calls for a survey. Like, they won’t let the survey person off the phone because they just want to talk to someone, bizarre. Thank you for the bon voyage Kevin.


  6. I was raised in the United Church of Canada, about as tolerant and inclusive a denomination you will find. It’s essentially religion by committee. My parents are strong members of the church. I went to Sunday School and was into it for a while, the God thing, the Bible, I realize now more as a study than any conviction. I have little faith now. Most religion is nonsense, human-made therefore human-flawed. But in times of struggle, I know my parents’ faith has supported and comforted them. How can that be a bad thing, comfort?


    • I agree – so many good things about religion, in terms of potential. Where I first saw this is when my father-in-law was sick and ultimately didn’t make it through, their pastor was there visiting him every time I was, and likely many more times. Just taking time out to drive to the hospital and be there with him. And the pastor of course did that for many others. That really touched me. I saw in these kids such wonder for their faith, I thought I’d give them a chance to share it with me. I hope I didn’t waste their time but in all earnestness on my part, I thought I could help them grow into it more by being a genuine listener. I’m in this ‘reed in the wind’ phase where I’m trying to be open to things I normally wouldn’t be. For example, my wife suggested this morning we have margaritas later on her mother in law’s deck, and I thought I might give that a shot. That’s a selfless, Christian act right?
      So what are we doing for your 50th? It’s less than six months away now Ross. Should we start a cult and insist on beards, and bad humour?


  7. I grew up as a PK (preacher kid). My dad was a Presbyterian minister and so were both of my grandpas. In the last ten years I have become disillusioned with much of what I’d call religion. I have formed my own little church in my mind that allows me to sleep in on Sunday and to try to follow the ideal of radical empathy. Organized religions have become too intolerant and judgmental for my tastes…which also includes beer and coffee.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just finished that Huxley novel, quite brash! Interesting upbringing I am sure. I learned the word presbytery (unsure the spelling) from one of those Elders yesterday. Too bad about religion I think. Or not, like many things some of us get it and others don’t. How about this day? The leaves are purring here in the suburbs as are the fenced-in dogs, toddlers, stay-at-home moms.


  8. Well, that was a lovely piece. Reading Brave New World while waiting for Mormons is hilarious. Well played.

    Elder Savage is a cool name for a superhero.

    I dated a Mormon for about nine months. It was pretty serious. I attended Mormon services and read The Book of Mormon because I wanted to understand better where she came from. I found the book strange and, frankly, not to be believed. Not that the bible is, mind you. I think ALL religions are cults. The popular ones aren’t branded as such because…well…they’re popular. That’s the only thing separating them from the ones that are considered “weird.”


    • Hi Mark – yes, I had a blog topic I wanted to seriously explore (like research) and that was to provoke a conversation around the difference between what we consider religions vs. cults, because cults obviously have a negative ring to them. I may still do that one day. There are some defining characteristics to a cult, yet in some ways they bleed into the religious space too. Thanks for sharing your experience with your Mormon friend, and the fact you read the book. I will have a look at it myself. I like weird stories, especially when truth/fiction/lore superstition get rolled up in the sausage-making.


  9. I took my girls to a Unitarian church this fall into winter. Church isn’t for me, but I’m glad we went and may or may not go back. I think I need other people somehow to build a spiritual base, but I’m disappointed in what that looks and feels like. Nature is great, though. Math’s not half bad either. I like that you kept an open mind and wrote respectfully about the Mormons. (They don’t drink, so I relate to them more than I ever would have thought.) We get Jehovah’s Witness around here and I never open the door, though read The Watchtowers they leave behind.


    • It’s nice you gave your girls that exposure to church. We do too, but funny how it seems so much more important to my mother-in-law that they be baptized than it does me, or my wife to some degree. I’ve never been baptized myself. My youngest girl calls it “bath-tized” by Jee-jus. I’m glad you appreciated the respect I intended to convey toward their faith – parody is easier than respect sometimes.


  10. I’m impressed to see a religion(s) post that hasn’t immediately devolved into an internet shouting match over who’s diety is better/right/true or whatevah.

    Being a spiritualist in a family of raging Christians – I get way too much of that. According to my family, I’ve a first-class ticket to fire and brimstone.


    • Hi Peg – yes, I’m glad there’s been no shouting. There’s enough of that in my house, with me talking my kids in all caps sometimes. Like, get down here – and what are you doing up there, and so forth. You can imagine the caps, I won’t shout at you. I guess that’s what I am too, a spiritualist. I should look into that some more, might learn something.

      Liked by 1 person

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