I want to invite you to be a part of a movement:
This movement is about light overcoming darkness. The mission of this movement is to bring healing to our world—to restore the brokenness that exists in the planet and in our fellow human beings. The movement is about protecting and valuing all life. It is environmentally conscious and seeks justice for all. Should you choose to join this movement, all the damage that you have sustained throughout your lifetime can be removed and healed. In this movement, you can unburden your transgressions against your fellow human beings freely as you pursue the light and overcome your darkness. The decision to join this movement is crucial because, in the future, our planet will be undone by environmental crises: floods, earthquakes, and the like. In this chaos, humanity will turn on itself: looting, killing, madness. But you can avoid the chaos. If you rid yourself of damage and burdens in the present, you can become one with the Light. You will survive this terrible future, and you will live in the post-apocalyptic reality — the Garden. In the Garden, everything will be the way it was supposed to be, and we can all live carefree lives, surrounded by Light.
Does that sound like a movement worth joining?
If it does, you just joined a cult.
It’s called Meyerism, and it is the center of the Hulu original series The Path starring Aaron Paul.
I started watching the show a few months ago as I stayed up with fussy newborn. What interests me is how very close the description I gave above, of the Meyerist movement (cult), is to the message taught in Christianity today.
There’s a great deal of overlap in the language:
Light vs. Dark
Healing Brokenness (Sin)
An Afterlife of Peace
A Value on Life
In many instances, the adherents of Meyerism come from troubled pasts. They find acceptance. They are freed from the bondage of their past. Their worship and prayer often lead them to ecstatic expression and unbridled happiness.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but ask, “What’s the difference between this cult and Christianity as I see it today?”
I have been a Christian my entire life. I don’t want to give the impression that I am not a Christian or that I am considering giving it up. By comparing modern Christianity to a fictional cult, I am not pretending that the Church has treated me poorly or that I have not derived much benefit from the people who make up the Church. I’ve been a part of some great communities and I in no way wish to denigrate the people who made up those churches. But a great many churches (notice I didn’t say all), especially in America, seem to be offering something pretty similar to this television cult.
I see churches marketing “an experience.” This experience largely happens on Sunday morning. People attend because there’s a fantastic light show, a killer worship band, or a charismatic speaker. It wouldn’t be nearly as bad if leaders in these churches were not aware that people are searching for this experience. Perhaps then we wouldn’t have churches competing with one another for Christian consumers. Yet, buildings are constructed that cost millions. Pastors are paid six-figure salaries. Teachings are designed to impart some knowledge or feeling that can’t be attained at the church down the road. The goal of many churches is to assure its people that they will go to heaven when they depart this world. So far, all of these pretty much parallel Meyerism.
But there’s something even worse that many churches have in common with Meyerism and it is lurking beneath the veneer of the light-shows and shallow teachings — an intolerance for doubt.
What troubled me the most as I watched The Path was that the cult would not permit doubt in any of their members. If someone decided to leave the movement because they no longer believed in its teachings, they were labeled “Deniers.” A Denier is forbidden from contact with the community because unbelief could be contagious. To question the leadership, the practices, or the beliefs was to be excommunicated and cut off from the community and even family members.
The reason this bothered me so much was that I noticed this same allergic reaction to doubt in the church.
I study the Bible for a living. I can read Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. I’ve read the whole thing multiple times. I am telling you there’s weird stuff in there.
God creates the world by talking.
A talking snake is the source of all the world’s problems.
2 million people lived in the desert for 40 years off of magical bread and quail.
Our Savior was born to a virgin.
He died… and then came back to life.
If you start reading more closely, you start to notice some things don’t quite add up.
In Exodus, God tells Moses that the Passover sacrifice is not to be boiled in water.
In Deuteronomy, the law explicitly states that the Passover is boiled!
The theology of Deuteronomy says that if you are bad, bad things will happen, and if you are good, good things will happen.
But the worst kings in Israel’s history live the longest, and the best king, King Josiah, is killed in battle. Job, the most righteous man on earth, suffers.
So even some of the biblical writers realized there were some problems here.
In short, there are plenty of reasons for a Westerner living 2000 years or more since the events of the Bible took place to have some reasonable doubt. Doubt doesn’t have to be the modus operandi of a Christian, but if you stick with something long enough you begin to wonder if you are getting it right.
The Church, especially in America, needs to start embracing doubt. If, as we believe, the Truth is on our side, what are we so afraid of? People in the Church should be able to express doubt over Church teachings without fear of being made a social pariah. Questions should be welcome. Questions and doubts and suspicions should push the Church to be constantly examining its epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions. We should always ask whether what we are defending is “truth,” or if we are fighting to keep something that makes us feel good; something that is man-made; something socially constructed.
The Church needs doubters in its midst because, if it doesn’t, it’s one degree closer to Meyerism.
I do not believe that the Church ever was intended to offer feelings of assurances or neatness.
The Church largely exists to enter into the messiness and the chaos. Being a Christian isn’t about purging doubt from your belief system, but trusting that every experience and question is valid and can lead you to a truth that is real.
Ultimately, I concluded that the only thing that was really separating the fictional cult on The Path from the faith I grew up with was how it responded to doubt. I’d like to see the faith community of Christianity stop pretending it knows all the answers and start living with a doubt that pushes it towards more action, more questions, and more humility. Because it was never about knowing — it’s always been about faith, which is the absence of knowing.
About The Author
Caleb Gilmore is a PhD student at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion. Before pursing a career in the academic world, he was a pastor and a Starbucks barista. He is interested in history, religion, public discourse, and interfaith dialogue. The best part of his life is spent figuring out life with his wife and learning how to be a dad to his daughter. Follow him on Twitter @CalebAGilmore
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