Be sure and drink the kool-aid

Last Friday I performed for a new crowd. I have to admit I was a little bit nervous about creating connections with them. They were 7th Day Adventists who have a Friday night community event in their little church near Tacoma. What little I know about the “Saturday-worshiping vegetarians” is from growing up near a local 7th Day Adventist school. Oh -and a brief romance in the 80’s. I am not sure he really counts, though, as he considered himself still in recovery.

Several wheat and barley fields away from where I was raised, there was a  7th Day Adventist boarding school for grade school through senior high ages. Like everything in the Palouse, it was in the middle of a barley (or wheat, lentil, grass, or pea) field. Whenever we made the trek through those winding hills to Spokane on a Saturday, we had to slow down to avoid hitting someone crossing the highway between the school and the church. All of those people filing into church always looked to me like a Billy Graham crusade.

People were dressed in their “Saturday best” sauntering over to the church. No cars, just surprising numbers of people who seemed to come out of the creeks and pine trees destined for a curious round sanctuary. I always wondered what happened on the inside of that building and whether, as my grandfather had whispered to me, “they are a religious cult.”

At that time, Rev. Jim Jones was the only thing I knew about a cult. You remember him: the delusional narcissist who established a communal cult in Guyana and eventually convinced his followers to “drink the kool-aid” or be killed – rather than be investigated for human rights abuses. It still gives me the heeby jeebees. Anyway, somehow the combination of those little tofu-esque Vienna sausages packed in that weird jelly coupled with the images of those bloated bodies from the Jim Jones tragedy made me feel a little edgy about even the suggestion of a cult. Edgy, that is, and curious.

On the other hand, the two best doctors in town were a husband and wife Adventist team, Dr. Thiel and Dr. Shirley. Shirley was her first name; Thiel their last. Being a small town Dr. is not exactly “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” but they were indispensable to our little town, population 540. I was impressed that they worked on Saturdays if it was necessary, even though they were 7th day people. We KNEW their sabbath was more important than we Presbyterians because they actually observed the “no work” rule on their Sabbath. I very much liked the idea of having a day where no one could make me clean my room or dry the dishes. So, while being a little bit scared, I felt some envy for them.

The really important thing I picked up about the only other schooling option in the area was that if you screwed up, your parents would yank you out of public school and send you to “the Academy”. In your new institution people would whip you into shape by making you wear a uniform and keep you from having a good hamburger. And we were in farm country. This was a serious threat.

Performing for the folks at this little church was the furthest thing from threatening. They were attentive, engaged, laughed at my jokes, and layed out quite the spread for everyone to enjoy. Thankfully, there was no kool-aid, but instead a hot, honey-sweetened mint tea, creamy spinache soup, hummus and veggies, and veritable Christmas Eve mix of goodies. Candles were lit. There was romance in the air of this little clan south of Seattle. I think I am easily impressed with people who light candles for their meals. And serve good food. I felt right at home.

My mind wandered back to the aforementioned brief romance. He didn’t really count as a 7th Day Adventist because he had sworn off all religious pursuits, especially anything involving Jesus, whose name he always said with a sort of nasally sarcastic tone. Not in the two syllable “Jays-sus” as lots of people like to do now, as if they might  “bouff” up themselves up with a couple of extra feet of hair and add those stunning spider-like false eyelashes for emphasis.

Like all of us, he was wounded. For him, it all centered on being raised as a 7th Day Adventist. He had been sent away to boarding school in India while his parents were missionaries in Australia. Was there no boarding school in Australia? That always seemed so sad to me. How does a parent send their child away so young? I know it is not unheard of, and that people continue to have close relationships, but as a mother and educator, it is hard to imagine – knowing what we do about emotional, behavioral, and spiritual development in children.

When my friend was a frustrated High School junior and jumped over a stone-walled boarding school in India, he had begun a path that for the first time was his own. In addition to his great escape, which took him a substantial distance down a winding road with extremely large insects, he smoked a pack of cigarettes and snuck into his first movie at the closest town. Of course the movie was a John Wayne classic, but that didn’t matter to him. It was a movie!

Fortunately, the rest of his “descent” was more gradual.

Fundamentalism, no matter what religion it is cloaked in, reduces your humanity. It may keep you grateful and powered down for a while, but eventually, your rage erupts. And not in the “this person puts the fun in dysfunctional kind of way.” It erupts in abusing those closest to you; it erupts in a self-and-other hatred that brings down planes and towers and entirely decent people. I suppose it is no wonder people cling to it. Ultimately, and I am just guessing here, fundamentalism is about concentrated control. And sometimes it seems the world is just spinning out of control so it can be nice to force it on someone else, I guess.

In the middle of the show, which was going swimmingly, the pastor was invited up to “say a few words.” Extemporaneously, he talked about how Rob Bell, the founder of the midwest-based Mars Hill Church (not to be confused in the slightest with the one in Seattle), was getting a bad wrap for his new book, “Love Wins.” The conversation in theological circles is whether Bell has strayed from “orthodox” Christianity and become a Universalist, the “all roads lead to God” perspective.

He, whom I had assumed was a conservative fundamentalist, was not so worried about all of that. He said, “I don’t believe everything Rob Bell says, but heck, I don’t believe everything I say!” There was an honest humility to this man that went contrary to what I had come to “feel” about 7th day-ers – based entirely on second hand smoke. Later I thanked him and he said essentially “we had that theological point all ironed out a long time ago… we don’t buy that hell thing.” What? I thought all fundamentalists had hell to cling to.

What kind of kool-aid was he drinking?

The bigger question is: “what kind of kool-aid have I been drinking?” Once again, I find that things are not what I think they are. The “religious” world – the spiritual universe – is so much grander and more nuanced than my informants tell me. Just when I have something all tied up with pretty wrapping paper and ribbons, I find out that I’ve used the wrong kind of wrapping paper.

Alas. And thank god!

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4 Responses to Be sure and drink the kool-aid

  1. Jette Shears says:

    sweet, innocent and brilliant… loved it very much…

  2. Sue Peterson Blyth says:

    Shannon – Great article. I grew up in a seventh day cult – and was able to leave the cult only after 40 years in 1998. I found your perspective and writing quite good. I especially liked your conclusion – boy does this sound like a song!

  3. Peggy says:

    Universalist, huh?! One of the reasons I became a UU. I just couldn’t believe in a higher power that cast people out into a place like hell or that only those who believed in a specific god were going to heaven.
    I always enjoy your writings, Shannon!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I preached a little about the new Rob Bell book on Sunday. It didn’t change my life, and I didn’t think he was a heretic. I appreciate people who ask questions and put “loving others” as first in their theology. That seems like it makes a lot of sense. 🙂

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