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