One might believe that all of the groups that oppose cults might get along quite well, seeking the same end of encouraging individuals to make well-informed and reasoned choices about their religious faith. Unfortunately, there remains a great deal of controversy and conflict between the counter-cult apologetics effort within Christianity and the anti-cult effort, two related but often very different worlds. For the benefit of my secular friends who read here, the term “apologetics” (“to give an answer”) was adopted from Biblical Greek to describe the rational defense of the Christian faith. Modern day counter-cult apologists work to expose doctrinal error within the plethora of Christian belief systems, comparing any aberrant teachings to sound, sure, and clear doctrine.
Many Christians and counter-cult apologists believe that development of a strong knowledge of Scripture and doctrine provide an impervious defense against unbalanced cultic teachings and the problematic lifestyles that tend to follow them. I agree that it certainly helps. In other words, they believe that good Christians who have studied adequately are impervious to surreptitious manipulation. I was once one such person, and apparently, Hank Hanegraaff remains one. He has chosen to protest the Teen Mania documentary which aired on MSNBC on November 6, 2011 as well as the Duncans who assisted in its production. Hanegraaff's longstanding and often aggressive opposition to the anti-cult perspective dates back even further, at least until 1998 when I first heard him discuss the matter on his radio show, The Bible Answer Man.
Two rebuttals of Hanegraaff's position have been recently written HERE and HERE, but I keep reading this post to learn about the more comprehensive rebuttal of Hanegraaff's position written by in 1998.
The anti-cult perspective differs from counter-cult apologetics, postulating that all human beings can be vulnerable to manipulation if conditions favor such, and manipulative ideological groups use specific techniques or undue influence to surreptitiously change the way people think in order to recruit them. Life stressors such as a new job, a move, the death of a parent, or other such difficulties deprive people of their full fortitude and personal stability. Steve Hassan points out that all aspects of a person's experience can be manipulated to work against their own better judgment, even if they are not under undue life stress at the time. He maintains that by influencing a person's emotions, thoughts, behaviors and the information that they take in, their resolve can and will be challenged. The stress is so tremendous that most people will cave in and will agree with those applying the pressure.
Because our human nature tends towards consistency, when these factors conflict with one another, it creates a tremendous amount of psychological stress (cognitive dissonance). By dominating just one of these aspects of the person (thought, emotions, behavior, or information), the stress caused by the discord is enough to break an individual's continuity of self which makes them vulnerable to ideas that they'd otherwise reject. (Salesmen capitalize upon this all the time. If they can get you to comply in some behavioral way, or if they can engage you emotionally to connect with a product, they know that they can make a sale.) Now, imagine that if an aberrant group or a cult can get you into a situation wherein they influence all of these factors, they stand an even chance of converting a person.
By manipulating all of these factors, an ideological group can use these pressures, deception, and other aspects of human nature to get a person to accept ideas that they would otherwise reject. Robert Lifton, one of the psychiatrists who counseled the Americans POWs who were brainwashed in Chinese prison camps during the Korean war observed these survivors and devised his list of eight tactics to covertly convert the soldiers. That list of tactics which were highlighted in MSNBC's Teen Mania documentary became the gold standard of what defines a cultic or manipulative, closed group. The tactics employed by such groups cause a suspension of critical thinking, literally slowing down the brain wave patterns of their “mark,” just long enough for the group and the group's ideas to be accepted in a favorable light. Anyone with behaviors, thoughts, emotions or anyone who relies upon information – all people – become vulnerable to the acceptance of this type of undue influence.
As a Christian, I view Lifton's Criteria as a description of the common features of human nature at a collective level, taking both the positive and negative tendencies of people to use against them to benefit the group at the expense of the follower. Steven Martin has written an excellent book, The Heresy of Mind Control: Recognizing Con Artists, Tyrants and and Spiritual Abusers in Leadership, reiterating Lifton by explaining how thought reform works within modern Christian churches. The Bible talks about the common features of fallen human nature, and the Apostle Paul listed the primary “works of the flesh” in his letter to the Church at Galatia. I view Lifton's list as just another way of describing the limitations and trappings of the experience of being human.
For Christians, because of the disturbing nature of brainwashing and because of general biases against psychology, I believe that the same group dynamics that Lifton defined are also captured well in what author David Henke defined as “Spiritual Abuse.” In general, all of these criteria just describe the common nature of what we human beings tend to do when the end is used to justify the means of achieving any objective. When groups become unbalanced and do not adhere to a reasonable code of ethics, they will inevitably slip into these common destructive patterns.
In 1997, I learned through painful personal experience that when conditions favor it, even a thoughtful Christian with excellent training can fall prey to aberrant Christian beliefs and cultic influence. I've written about my own experience in greater detail, but I will summarize a bit here. After relocating halfway across the US in my mid-twenties with my husband to an unfamiliar part of the country to build a new life, I was happy to find a new evangelical church. Eventually and after a couple of years of very active membership, there were just too many unexplained, strange ideas that I heard over time. I hit a point where I could no longer tell myself that I misunderstood what people were saying, and my husband had the same experience. For instance, about a year into my experience there, I stood in the office of the church to hear the pastor say, “You know, when they left the church against the wishes of the elders and without our blessing, their lives fell into ruin.” At the time, the comment prompted an image in my head of some 20 year old who left home to start a heavy metal band.
When it became obvious that the church winked at and justified physical abuse of women, I no longer was able to tell myself that I misunderstood the dynamics. My husband and I left of our own accord after four years and as members in good standing, though we considered walking away a full year earlier because of the mounting difficulties we had there and the abuses we witnessed. We were cursed with painful and traumatic death and disease by an elder when I told him we'd left, a fate that he said would befall us because we “exited the umbrella of protection of our covering,” (without the permission the elders and pastor). I'd never heard such nonsense, though the whole experience was deeply disturbing and troubling.
After calling every evangelical church in the phone book which afforded no help, I called former members whom the church had declared heretics. Three months later, I found my way to a cult exit counselor. She approached the topic from the anti-cult perspective and simply taught my husband and me about the tactics of Lifton by reading them in a matter-of-fact manner from Lifton's dated by timeless book. I responded to no sophistry as Hanegraaff describes it – I responded to simple truth that was quite easy to grasp, based on what we'd lived and suffered.
We then devoured the writings on the subject and our healing began, because the truth of Lifton's words rang true for us based on our experience. It gave words to that which we knew from living the process of spiritual abuse but didn't understand because the dynamics were so cruel and unthinkable for us. (Who finds it pleasant and encouraging to admit that you were brainwashed with the same techniques as the Korean POWs? I found it miserable and one of the most horrible moments of my life, but I happen to love truth more than the lies we were told. No one wants to find out that they were manipulated with thought reform. It's like living through the worst horror film you can imagine if you are a thoughtful person who strives to live the examined and meaningful life.)
I experienced nearly incapacitating periods of anxiety and depression, grieving the idea that I'd spent my whole life serving the church full of the traditions of men to obtain their unobtainable approval rather than serving my Creator. My faith was the very glue that gave my life meaning, and it had been cruelly exploited in ways I could have never anticipated. My husband and I both suffered somatic physical problems, I developed several life-threatening allergies, and our recovery from what was nothing short of PTSD took many years. I desired this because I found the status of “victimhood” novel because someone told me it was so? I don't think so, Mr. Hanegraaff.
In early 1998, I began to regularly listen to Hank Hanegraaff on the local radio, and he featured the Passantinos on one of the programs. They had once worked with Dr. Walter Martin and eventually branched out into their own counter-cult apologetics work, but they were very much against the anti-cult movement. I could not believe my ears! Hanegraaff and the Passantinos basically discounted the past two or three years of my life, the suffering that we'd endured, the suffering of other families who were disciplined and thrown out and who were cursed when they walked away while bearing the long term effects of involvement in spiritual abuse and cultic Christianity, as well as our healing. I found a 1994 article written by the Passantinos online, and I was thrilled to read Dr. Paul Martin's rebuttal of the position of the Passantinos in the latest edition of the Cultic Studies Journal within a month of finding the '94 article. CSJ makes only the abstract available, but the entire rebuttal of the Hanegraaff/Passantino position in the full article can be read online by linking HERE. It is the consummate rebuttal of Hanegraaff's position on thought reform and mind control, the position of the anti-cult effort.
I really do not understand the impetus to discount another person's perspective concerning trauma. I knew the Word of God and was well trained in the orthodox faith. I loved God and wanted to serve Him. I became sick in my heart, soul, and body, not because of lack of faith or knowledge of God and sound doctrine or lack of Christian duty. I was sick at what those who had declared themselves to be ministers did and said to me and because of the harm to the helpless that those minstered both ignored and often justified. The learning curve was quite difficult because of the manner in which the true doctrines of that church were concealed from new members through the use of thought reform. I never had any desire to be a victim, and if what I've endured constitutes victimhood, I would do all to escape it and would have run for my life. That's my impetus for writing this blog – that many might be spared what my family and I have suffered and to comfort those who have suffered because I look forward to the day when there will be no victims. I work to tell both the anti-cult and the counter-cult perspective, squeezing any kind of goodness and benefit from my own heartache. I want to redeem it, to buy it back, as a good testimony that brings glory to God for putting my life back together again from that terrible place of despair. That's not a culture of victimhood at all. It's a culture of healing.
I can understand the disturbing nature of the idea that a thoughtful Christian with strong knowledge sound doctrine can be deceived by cultic doctrine. If it was true for me, and if the thought reform theory is true, it must be true for everyone. That idea is terrifying and should be.
But I don't understand what people like Hank Hanegraaff derive from protesting that people did not live out a certain experience. To agree with him, someone would have to somehow figure out how to erase my memory of the events that I lived and from whence my help and comfort came. I'd also probably need a lobotomy, too. My life was significantly altered and remains so in many ways because of how powerful I found thought reform to be. I often wonder if he seeks the proud position to be identified as the only guru who can help people after a cult or cultic experience in aberrant Christianity? Are there not enough hurting people to go around? There are plenty of walking wounded from spiritual abuse in the Church, and there are few who are competent to minister to them. Why would it matter? His experience might be different, but why must he invalidate the experience of others, particularly when his own ministry was inadequate to address my own needs?
I can understand that he lacks experience of such events, but what benefit does he derive from protesting the experience of other Christians who have be so greatly helped through the anti-cult literature and organizations? The radio broadcast that I heard on Hank's show that day in 1998 essentially condemned and discounted the whole of my Christian life, because my cult experience touched upon and exploited nearly everything about my spiritual experience and Christian walk. I felt like God took me back to the foundations and rebuilt my faith from the very bottom, but it was a terrible thing. My spiritual abusers took my love for my Savior and used it to make me a slave, crushing my heart for their own power and gain. I don't think that Mr. Hanegraaff understands how deeply invalidating and how terribly condemning his message is to those who have endured the inestimable pain and heartache of experience in a Bible-based cult. Why? There is room for all of us under God's grace, mercy, and care.
I pray that God tenderly and lovingly softens Gretchen Passantino's and Hank Hanegraaff's hearts to show him just what he has done to his fellow believers. (Robert Passantino died in 2003.) Recovery from religious deception and all that goes along with it is heartache enough to endure. Cruel condemnation from men such as Hank Hanegraaff do not proclaim liberty to those recovering captives who are captive no more. I don't think that he realizes that he kicks and treads upon wounded people while they are broken and downtrodden, throwing and scattering them away like so much trash.
Walter Martin said that a Believer needs two types of fruit in their life. They need the fruit of the life lived and the fruit of the doctrine preached. I am blessed and thankful that Hank Hanegraaff has dedicated himself and his life's work to teaching sound doctrine. And to honor his predecessor, Dr. Walter Martin, I pray that Hank will also rise to that higher standard of the fruit of the life lived that Walter Martin preached, specifically that he accepts and blesses those who have suffered such great harm at the hands of wicked religious leaders, whether they use the language of Robert Lifton or not.
Check back for more thoughts on Hank Hanegraaff's position.