Out of the Cultic Frying Pan, Into the Postmodern Fire: A Review of “In The Days of Rain” by Rebecca Stott

Judging by the selection and popularity on Amazon, ex-cult-member bios are a big category in the literary world. People are intensely curious about cults. How do they form? What’s it like to be caught up in one? What causes people to join and what makes them leave? According to author Rebecca Stott, she has found it impossible to tell “bits” of her family’s time in the Exclusive Brethren, because each bit raises more questions. In The Days of Rain, commissioned by the author’s father on his deathbed, is her attempt to tell the whole thing.

I’d be lying if I said this memoir was boring. I read half of it in one two-hour sitting, and the other half in episodes of free time over the next couple of days. The story of the Exclusive Brethren (which still exists today under another name) is like a slow-motion train wreck: it’s hard to watch, but harder to look away. It all made me feel deeply sorry for the little girl that was Rebecca Stott, so stressed and confused by her deceptive, lopsided world that she hallucinated and heard voices in bed every night. I want to go back in time and tell that little girl about a Father who loves us because of Christ, and not because we wear the correct clothes, refuse to eat with non-group-members, and don’t own a radio (or at least hide the one we do own, as did her father).

Like many Christian spinoff groups that went off the rails, the Exclusive Brethren started with a small band of Christians interested in piety and purity, and ended with a prideful and grossly immoral dictator implementing a God-dishonoring plan of total control. Stott’s father, who as a young man zealously helped enforce this plan, referred to that part of his life as “The Nazi Decade.” As nearly always happens in such cases, the organization ultimately fragmented in scandal, spawning dozens of offshoots and thousands of confused and morally unmoored individuals like the Stott family.

I’ve noticed that people who exit an imbalanced religious group have a natural human tendency to run to the opposite of whatever they were taught. Were your leaders against Christmas? Order seventeen Christmas trees and a giant inflatable Santa for your front yard. Did they teach strict Sabbath observance? Mow your lawn every Saturday for the rest of your life.

In Stott’s case, this flight-to-the-opposite instinct seems to have run beyond harmless externals and deep into her worldview. The Exclusive Brethren were suffocatingly patriarchal; Stott became a vocal second-wave feminist. Her grandfather physically snipped Darwin out of his encyclopedia’s “D” section; Stott made Darwinism not only her belief but a large part of her career.

The Brethren obviously believed in God (though a harsh and arbitrary version, much different from the compassionate Father revealed by Jesus Christ). On that most fundamental of worldview questions, Stott wavers between atheism and a sort of superstitious moralism. (She seems to believe in ghosts, for example, but not in a particular deity.)

Stott is, however, very certain of one thing about God: insofar as the Bible contradicts her opinions, the Bible is in error.

If the apostle Paul thought that women should be completely subject to the rules of men, if he thought the Spirit was too good for them, then Paul was wrong.

Stott, Rebecca. In the Days of Rain (p. 268). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The above statement is a miniature train wreck all its own, misconstruing as it does both Paul’s teaching and the historical perspective of orthodox Christianity. (An inaccurate grasp of Christian doctrine is a hallmark of Stott’s theology, but that’s to be expected in light of her background.) Apart from this, however, the assertion begs an important question: How does Stott know that Paul was “wrong”? Or that anyone, or anything, is “wrong”?

On the subject of absolutes – a concept Stott seems to be invoking when it comes to refuting Paul – she has this to say:

[As I raised my daughters, they] do not believe in absolute good or absolute evil. They’ll fight to protect this fleeting life and one another and to make the world more just and kind.

Stott, Rebecca. In the Days of Rain (p. 298). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Absent a belief in absolute good or evil, how do we know what is “better” and what is “worse”? What defines justice? And why is justice, or kindness, important? What if I believe in tyranny and meanness as the highest values? What if I think men should be dictators over women? By what standard or authority would Stott and her daughters oppose such a view?

Near the end, Rebecca Stott makes it clear that she wants to retain meaning and morality in her worldview, but also autonomy – freedom from any sort of external authority. Trying both to have and eat this philosophical cake creates dissonance within and incoherence without. Consider the following manifesto from the the book’s final chapter:

I don’t have to remember what I was sent here to do … because I wasn’t sent here to do anything. … My brain is made up of atoms forged billions of years ago in the heart of countless far-flung stars. … Those particles drifted for eons and light-years out there in the universe until gravity and change brought them together in my skull to form the tangle of atoms that make up my brain. Now I can wonder about the gods, or life after death, or consciousness and where we’ve all come from and where we might be going to, and I can sit outside under the stars talking with my children and their friends and wonder about my ability to wonder.

Stott, Rebecca. In the Days of Rain (p. 299). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

It now appears that the author does believe in at least two gods after all: “Gravity” and “Change.” Like the late Dr. Stephen Hawking, who famously asserted that “everything can and will create itself from nothing” because of gravity, Stott uses these brute forces themselves as starting points. What they are or where they came from is not really addressed, because it can’t be explained. This approach amounts to what would normally be called theism.

Beyond this return to theism through the back door, Stott asserts a contradiction: she is nothing more than a brain made out of atoms “forged long ago” and “brought together by gravity and change,” and yet this randomly-generated brain somehow has personal volition to think what it wants and determine its own path. Having replaced God with gravity, Stott slips back into theism to borrow human volition and transcendent meaning.

All this unfortunately amounts to incoherent wishful thinking. It meets the definition of what the elder Stott called a “life lie” – something false that people believe to make their lives bearable.

Stott spends many pages pondering the Exclusive Brethren, with all their deception, hypocrisy, and control. Are they a cult, or just a sect? How much of their teaching did former believers, such as her father, really believe? This sorting is a natural part of getting free from a cult. Also natural is the tendency to fully discount every aspect of your former group’s beliefs. The tragic error happens when, unable to distinguish baby from bathwater, ex-cult members trade one brand of deception for another.

In Stott’s case, she appears to have traded the loveless control of the Exclusive Brethren for the empty pleasures of recreational drugs, offbeat entertainment, literature, and finally science-as-religion. My prayer for this author is not that she “returns home” to the church (Exclusive Brethren teaching could hardly be called orthodox Christianity), but that one day in Jesus Christ she finds a home she has never yet known.

Jesus said again, “Truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.

John 10:7-10 CSB

Quitting Social Media: Three Months In

On Labor Day weekend 2020, I deleted (or initiated deletion of) my profiles on Facebook, Instagram, and MeWe. Here’s part of the announcement I wrote at the time for friends and family:

I am an easily-distracted person, with a strong tendency to choose quick entertainment over productive activity. There’s no entertainment so quick and easy to access as a phone in one’s pocket with Facebook and Instagram ready to hand. Over the years, I’ve found myself reaching for said phone more and more often….

Worse than the frequency of distraction is the effect on my overall mental state. It isn’t just that Facebook is often irritating…. Even reading a few screens full of perfectly wholesome, encouraging social posts leaves my mental vision foggy, my work focus dissipated, and my appetite for daily life dull.

That announcement was three months ago. Since then my only interaction with social media has been via official pages such as the one for this blog (administered from my invisible “ghost account”), and indirectly through a few people showing me things others have posted. For the first time in about three years, my days are free from endless, mind-numbing scrolling through other people’s pictures, updates, and opinions.

Though I extensively thought through the ramifications of quitting for an entire year beforehand, there was one thing I never saw coming: I never considered the possibility that I wouldn’t miss social media at all.

It’s not that I hated being on Facebook; if that were the case, I’d have quit long ago. It’s just that I love mental peace and focus more than I love the quick pleasure of seeing something new every minute. This isn’t a matter of nobly choosing what is good for me over what I want; I simply needed the courage – and a practically workable plan – to choose what I myself would truly prefer.

Being off social media feels to me like locking a door that needs to stay closed, or plugging a leak that’s continually draining away valuable resources. Obviously, there are some such doors in life that can’t be locked, and some such leaks that can never be fully plugged and must always be watched. (For example, I can’t practically get around having a smartphone in my pocket.) This makes it all the more important – and also gratifying – to lock and plug the ones I can.

In my announcement I quoted one of my favorite sayings: “The easiest temptation to resist is the one you don’t encounter.” Three months into “not encountering” social media, I believe that saying even more strongly.

This is not to suggest that my brain has stopped its search for passive entertainment. During election season, I found myself constantly (and I mean constantly) hitting my favorite news and commentary websites for “the latest.” One nice thing about this substitute is that it’s inherently limited; the news cycle may be 24 hours, but there are only so many different stories to report and opine about during that time. Also, news gets boring after awhile – especially when election season is over.

Years ago I followed Paul Miller’s series on The Verge about his one-year experiment of living without internet. In a particularly memorable installment, Paul recounted finding a folder full of mostly-unfunny GIF memes on his now-landlocked computer. His report: “I looked at every image in that stupid directory… I read every imbecilic word.”

While I (thankfully) haven’t become desperate to the above extent, I have been amused to find myself scrolling through the photo gallery on my own phone, looking for something “new” in a collection of pictures I took myself. This is, once again, a very limited activity that quickly becomes boring!

The same applies to sitting in front a search engine trying to think of something interesting to look up. Without the passivity-coddling convenience of the never-ending scroll, “browsing” online seems to lose its charm.

It’s no coincidence that I’ve made record progress on my reading since Labor Day. I’ve both finished and started several non-fiction books, and I’m finally close to completing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has taken me longer to read in real life than the quest to Mount Doom takes Frodo & Company in the novel.

Even with the aforementioned self-distraction of periodic news-binging, I am more productive at work and more present at home. The attention that was going to Instagram now goes to my task planning app, Todoist, which helps my workdays but has also vaulted my weekends into greater fruitfulness. One weekend undertaking is this blog, which uses time I’d spend consuming something on producing something instead. And when I play on the floor with my son Matthew, I actually play with Matthew – rather than “playing” with my phone while trying to keep one eye on him.

In writing this update I didn’t want to be tedious by quoting the entirety of my quitting announcement. However, I do want to reiterate one important point from that piece: I am not suggesting that everyone needs to quit social media. (If I were, my wife would be the first recipient of that advice.) Rather, I’ve made an “editing decision” for my own personal life based on my own personal inclinations and struggles.

Three months in, I am very happy with my decision.

‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but I will not be mastered by anything.

1 Cor. 6:12 CSB

My Suffering is Worse than Your Suffering

Two politicians recently had a spat on Twitter. That’s hardly headline news, but the subject of their tiff caught my eye. The first, in an effort to promote her working-class cred, bemoaned her difficult past life as a barista working double shifts and serving mean customers. The second, a military veteran, mocked her barista story by pointing up the much greater suffering he underwent in Afghanistan.

“My suffering is worse than your suffering!” can be a devastatingly effective putdown. The veteran used it with crowd-pleasing success to paint his opponent as a whining crybaby. But here’s my question: is making your point by one-upping somebody’s pain ever useful for anything but a verbal weapon? Does it reveal anything true and helpful?

Quite often, we do it to ourselves. My wife is a past master at it. “I shouldn’t be complaining,” she’ll say, “because so-and-so has a much worse such-and-such than I do.” (Fill in the blanks; you’ve probably done it too.) And to that I would say to you what I often say to her: “Don’t invalidate your pain.”

Our one-year-old gets very upset over very small things, such as his toy slipping out of reach or his favorite person leaving the room for five seconds. His mother and I don’t stand over him and say, “Listen, you pathetic whiner: we have problems and trials a billion times bigger than your silly baby issues!” Such an attitude would not only be unkind, but unfair. Matthew’s infant world is different from our world. Even though the source of his pain is tiny compared to our adult problems, his pain itself is just as big and real in his world as ours is in our world.

Why do we understand this with children but not with each other? My problems as a middle-class American are very different from those of a poor person in Ghana; and that person’s problems are very different from those of a persecuted Christian in China. Who is helped when we try to arrange them from biggest to smallest?

Returning to the squabbling politicians from earlier: a Holocaust survivor could tap the veteran on the shoulder and say, “At least you had guns to fight with and food to keep you going.” And then (permitting time travel) a survivor of the Black Death could show up from 516 or 1382 and put down the Holocaust survivor: “At least you understood what was happening; we fell by our millions in terrifying, helpless ignorance.” And so on, to no end and no useful point.

Search the Bible and you won’t find God putting people down as whiners because they haven’t suffered as much as somebody else. God takes a different approach: He supplies us with vivid examples of those who have gone before – not to lame-shame us by comparison, but to inspire us with greater courage and endurance (Heb. 12:3).

Sometimes the examples chosen are not even those we would pick as the most striking. The poor widow in Mark 12 gave only “two tiny coins, worth very little.” But in her world, those coins represented everything. Rather than comparing her unfavorably to those who had “sacrificed” much more, Jesus did the reverse: Against the backdrop of her circumstances, He recognized her small contribution as the great sacrifice it was, and enshrined her story in the Gospel.

No one has ever given and suffered, or could possibly ever give and suffer, more than Jesus Christ Himself. And yet He does not contemptuously put us down when we balk and faint at comparatively small sacrifices and trials.

Here’s what the Bible says about Jesus, the one sufferer whose story could never be one-upped by anybody: “… we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin … He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he is also clothed with weakness.” (Heb. 4:15 & 5:2 CSB)

Maybe my suffering, in some area at least, is “worse” than yours. So what? What matters is not the harshness of the trial, but the strength and purity of character God brings through it as we endure.

Don’t invalidate your two tiny coins. Your pain is real, and your life is precious to Him.

You rejoice in this, even though now for a short time, if necessary, you suffer grief in various trials so that the proven character of your faith—more valuable than gold which, though perishable, is refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

1 Pet. 1:6-7 CSB

The Great Post-Election Depression

This week I had an interesting conversation with a business contact, a conservative Republican who also happens to be Jewish. He told me that he has been “depressed ever since Election Day” – a sentiment likely shared, if not spelled out, by a large number of Americans whose candidate didn’t win.

The modern Jewish faith, as my friend practices it, is a moralistic but largely earthbound religion that tells you to do right because it’s right – not for any guaranteed temporal reward, and certainly not for any specific eternal benefit. Jews in general don’t seem to have a clear belief about the afterlife, if they affirm such a concept at all. If you lose the battle in the visible realm, you’ve lost the real and only battle, for today at least and perhaps for your generation.

While I did follow and vote in the US presidential election of 2020, and would have preferred a different outcome (starting with different candidates on the ballot), I was able to share with my Jewish friend that I haven’t been suffering from depression since the morning of November 4th.

The name of this blog, Passing Pilgrim, is a reminder to me of a simple but central belief Christians hold – one that separates us from Jews, many other religions, and irreligious people in general: this world is not our home (Heb. 11:13).

If I’m a missionary in a foreign country (I’m not), and things are going a bad direction with that country’s politics, I may be very concerned. I might even get involved, should the opportunity arise, to try and promote a more just and stable environment. If I live there, what happens there affects me. Thus, it’s natural and right that I should care (Jer. 29:7).

However, consider my much deeper care for the society back in my home country. That’s the place I come from; the place in which my friends and loved ones live; the stable base I count on for my support; the home I love and hope to return to when my work overseas is done.

It will always be my home country, and not the land where I live, that has my heart. As long as things are okay there and I know I can return one day, I can cope with whatever happens here.

Most people in America, including my family, live lives of historically-unprecedented comfort, security, and control. Maybe it’s a good thing for us to experience some discomfort, uncertainty, and a sense that the wrong side might be winning. Then we remember our heavenly citizenship – not just a comfort when things go wrong, but also the greater joy that keeps us eternally-minded when things go right.