Freedom: Part Six of My Life Inside the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College

A man is something that’s real. It’s not what you are, it’s what you can feel. It can’t be too late to look through the hate and see – I know that’s what a man can be. (Boston)

220px-First_Knight_PosterI’ve been to quite a few Men’s Ministry events in my life, but none has ever been quite like the one we had in Narrowgate. Usually there is some type of “manly” food as the man-bait. For some reason, it’s usually either chili or chicken wings – the unspoken rule is that it has to contribute towards either methane or heart disease.  Sometimes Men’s Ministry events take place at a church, though a fair amount have taken place at a restaurant or pub, or even at a member’s home. There are sometimes some ice-breaker games to get us out of our manly shell. Sometimes there are focused discussions about being a better husband or father or all-around swell guy. Sometimes there is a little bit of self-conscious singing of hymns or worship hits, with everyone singing the melody without harmonies. Some men’s ministry events come together as an event like a super bowl party or board game night. As I said, I’ve been to quite a few Men’s Ministry events in my life – but none has ever been quite like one memorable one we had in Narrowgate. Forgive me, I’m getting ahead of myself – how about some background.

The men’s night at Narrowgate originally started up for men to get together and build stronger relationships, to “sharpen iron with iron”, and to help build each other up into the core of the group, leading our families and the rest of the group with the authority God gave us. This, because we have biological male genitalia. OK, that last part was my own sarcastic comment, sorry.  While biology was certainly a factor, the teaching went much deeper than that. The belief we were taught in Narrowgate was that because we were males, we were divinely imbued by the almighty in ways that females were not. These teachings were backed with a patchwork quilt of different passages of scripture pieced together, which made the teaching irrefutable – it was God’s plan for the natural order. If you want to be blessed by God, you follow this natural order – and if you step outside this same natural order, you would be cursed by God. This theological belief is called patriarchy, and is fairly common in many fundamentalist Christian churches.

patriarchy

umbrella.jpg

The overall concept centers on a hierarchy of leadership and submission, where the man is to be the primary breadwinner and provider, the leader of the home and head of the house. There are many varying shades of gray to this teaching, with more militant views believing women are subservient and of lesser value than males. In the classic 1985 movie Real Genius, Val Kilmer’s nemesis nerd Kent asserts his authority over the rest of the nerd pack by saying that all authority goes from God to their professor Jerry to Kent… and then to the rest of the common folk. In patriarchy, authority flows from God to the husband to the wife, as illustrated in the graphic to the right. It is also worth noting that some religious groups add to this “umbrella of protection” by placing a pastor / priest “umbrella” between God and the Husband.

Back in an earlier blog, I mentioned that I was not aware of Narrowgate leadership directly telling anyone to quit college. One of the most amazing parts of writing this blog series is that so many former Narrowgate survivors have come forward and wanted to talk with me about their experiences. During one discussion with a former junior leader, I was informed that within the leadership circle, Liam was actively encouraging females to quit college, as their goal was to get married and have babies (my summary) and they did not require a college education to do so.

greekwedding
Memorable line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Some teachers of patriarchy believe that a female is under the headship of the father until she is married off, then she switches the divine headship over to her husband. Likewise, if a female is over 18 and not yet married, she should remain home with her father, who is to provide for her and protect her until she can catch the eye of another male and get married. It is not uncommon in this belief system for arranged marriages, where females have little or no say in who they are married off to. There are even documented cases today in the US of child brides – in 2019, the legal age for marriage in some states is as low as 15 years old, as long as the parents (read: the patriarch father) approve.

The patriarchal paradigm is not unique to cults. Since leaving the Narrowgate cult, we encountered it in a nondenominational Evangelical church, and again in the Southern Baptist Church we recently attended for twelve years. Having been raised in a single parent home by my Mom, I have never taken this world view seriously, though it has impacted my marriage to lesser degrees. The pressure placed upon men in this paradigm is heavy, made more so by church leaders, authors, and televangelists who blame the woes of society on weak men and strong women.

On one very memorable occasion, my wife posted a comment on Facebook regarding Southern Baptist Churches not doing enough to protect children from sexual predators. The board of elders sent me a scathing email for what I wrote on Facebook, accusing me of slander and lying. The reality is that my wife wrote this, not me. Within their patriarchal world view, anything my wife does is my responsibility. In their patriarchal world, my wife and children dwell under a lower umbrella, separated from both God and Man.

Oh, I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite, so don’t let me have any rights… Oh, I’ve had it up to here! (No Doubt)

I could write an entire blog series just on Patriarchy (though it would pale in comparison to the rather excellent poem my wife posted on this blog on the topic). I believe it is not at all different from the despicable racism and segregation that took place in the South in America’s earlier history. It is no wonder that sexual abuse and patriarchy go together like peanut butter and jelly, as females ultimately exist to serve the needs of males in this belief system. Sadly, the statistics and studies back this up.

To quote Jennifer Shore from an article for Focus for Health:

“The conversation about Domestic Violence must be elevated from “why doesn’t she leave” to “what are we doing to perpetuate and tolerate objectification and subordination of women?”  It has been consistently demonstrated that men who accept very patriarchal beliefs about gender roles have a higher likelihood of engaging in violence against women. To resist patriarchal ideology we all, men and women, need to explore our beliefs and actions to bring consciousness to what we are doing to condone toxic masculinity, male privilege, and gender inequality. ”

It is my firm believe that Patriarchy is a poisonous world view that harms women, children, and even other men. In an article about the effects of patriarchal culture on campus safety and company workplaces, Rama Singh wrote this:

“Men are also victims of patriarchy. Man has become cocooned by patriarchy. The solution to the problem of campus safety lies in making male students aware, individually and collectively, of the dangers of masculinity. Their social upbringing combined with their biology is a deadly mix for doing harm to others.”

Patriarchy is not a black and white scriptural issue, as some would want you to believe. The myriad religious excuses provided for this world view are drawn from a few key proof texts that are just as easily refuted by other passages of scripture, as well as historical and theological context.  I will admit my own limitations here – unpacking complex theological issues is not the purpose of this blog. I would encourage you to look deeply into this topic, as you would look into any other. Look at passages of scripture in their entirety, to see what the author’s original intent was, based on a very specific historical context, at a very specific period of time. Look at how relevant passages of scripture were translated, when and by whom. Compare themes that are brought up in some passages with themes in other areas. If there are discrepancies, figure out why they exist, and for what purpose.  A person’s worth exists outside a specific social hierarchy such as slavery, gender, race, political affiliation, and spiritual sects. I said I would stay out of the theological arena and am doing a poor job at it. Let’s continue.

Freedom? Yeah, right. (Rage Against the Machine)

I decided to go to these Narrowgate manly bonding events since I have always had a difficult time trusting and relating to other men.  As I mentioned, I was raised in a single parent home by my Mom. It is also worth noting that I was physically and emotionally abused as a child by a male alcoholic relative. I subsequently tend to interact better with women, and am generally distrustful of males. Yeah, I acknowledge that I have issues. I figured that the best way to overcome this was to go to these men’s meetings and try tackling it head on.  At the Narrowgate Men’s Meetings, we spent many an evening sitting around and just talking or listening to someone (usually Liam) talk.  We had a lit candle, and would keep the lights off except for that candle. Though I can’t recall for sure, I imagine the candle had some manly scent. This was not a Lavender candle kind of Men’s group.

During this time, a frequent topic in Narrowgate was overcoming the religious things we have always believed and done because of an oppressive world view that was forced upon us by our parents. It was pointed out that Jesus went to parties and he turned water into wine, not vise versa. Both Liam and Noah liked to smoke cigars on occasion, so for one memorable Men’s Ministry event, they bought a bunch of cigars and some wine.  We packed into Liam’s small home office and watched the movie First Knight with Sean Connery.  Nothing says “manliness” quite like Sean Connery and Richard Gere. During this event, Mason kept drinking wine and got quite drunk, which Liam laughed about and kept encouraging.  I drank and smoke nothing, but leaders kept encouraging us to let go of our religious chains and partake in the freedom freely offered.

zulmaury-saavedra-zh0J32MrJfA-unsplashAs I gazed at the bottle of wine being passed around, I was aware of the chains I wore – but they were not chains of religion. Inside my soul, the chains assaulted my senses with echoed memories of when I was a child… I heard angry slurred speech. I saw diluted pupils. I smelled the pungent odor of drunken piss on the bathroom floor. I saw clenched fists. I felt the familiar pang of fear deep within for my own safety.  I felt alone and helpless as I had so many times before as a child trapped under the same roof as an alcoholic. All of these things assaulted my mind each time the bottle of “freedom” passed by.

As Mason encountered the slurred drunken bliss of religious freedom, he started getting more and more out of control. He kept asking me detailed questions about my intimate relations with my wife, which was highly offensive to me.  Some of us in the room decided that Mason had had too much to drink and attempted to keep the wine away from him.  It turned into a funny game as Mason drunkenly grabbed at the wine and fell over.

I left that night very angry about the meeting – and I apparently wasn’t the only one.  After the meeting, two other guys shared with me how disturbed they were about the way things went.  Later that evening, I called Liam and discussed my concerns about the situation with him.  I asked him how much good it did to act out in freedom if it caused problems in other areas.  For instance, Mason’s freedom to drink and get drunk collided with my freedom not to drink, and his freedom to drink also offended me when he was very rude and inappropriate in asking about my relationship with my wife.  Liam thought that that was a good observation, and that he was sorry that happened.  He seemed genuinely concerned with this information, and I was elated that Liam listened to something that I thought was important and would try to resolve the concerns.

Liam brought up some of my concerns about freedom at the next Narrowgate meeting, though he addressed them in light of freedom from religion. The concerns he addressed were not warnings about our personal responsibility involving the exercise of our freedom, and much of what I discussed with him went unaddressed. This was one of the first times in my life that I recall bringing up concerns to church leadership (if that is what we can call Liam at this point), and having it manipulated to further the leader’s agenda without even addressing my actual concerns. In this case, the root issue presented to the group wasn’t that Mason was drunk, or that he was making inappropriate sexual comments about my wife – it was that the group needed more freedom. Leadership was in a sense saying that if we had more freedom, we would have less offense – and would then shut up and not rock the boat. This tactic is right out of the global spiritual abuse handbook that pastoral predators and pedophiles appear to have. It takes on the appearance of addressing a concern, but then weaponizes it to further the abuser’s goals.

Liam used my concerns to teach that we needed to resist religion at all cost and that we were free from those activities that were religious. He then changed our meeting day from Sunday to Wednesday, so as to break the religious tradition of meeting on Sundays.  From this point forward, the Narrowgate meetings grew in length until we were meeting from 7:30 PM until around 1 or 2 in the morning every single Wednesday night.

I don’t know what’s out there. I don’t know where or how. Just take me to your leader now. (Newsboys)

Liam encouraged others to share more in our meetings, and encouraged men within the group to take a more active leadership role within the group.  It is possible this decision was made to further break religion from the group – having a single pastor / leader was how most traditional religious groups operated. This became an odd balance, though.  About once a month we would have a meeting where Liam would tell us his bills were due and we were responsible to help pay them if we wanted him continue being our leader.  Nobody was told that they had to pay them, though, since we had “freedom” to do whatever we wanted to do.  Obligatory giving was a part of dead religion. But on more than one occasion, an end-of-month meeting would drag on for several extra hours until Liam received enough money to pay the bills. It somewhat like a hostage situation, where we could not leave until the bills were paid for.

It was a delicate balance of inconsistencies where he wanted us to be free of religious obligations, but wanted us to feel obligated to give him our money religiously. I hardly ever gave money, and it seems that only a few others did, either – at this time, few in the group had money enough to spare. Sometimes on those occasions, Liam would keep us all in meetings for half the night talking about his financial needs until people gave. It was like a hostage situation, and we were held until the monthly ransom was paid.

I didn’t understand why if he didn’t want to be the recognized leader but instead wanted us all to be leaders, why should we financially pay for his needs?  And I still was concerned that there was no oversight for the money we gave. It was admittedly discouraging to see members of the group giving whatever money we could, which Liam would then spend on things like new furniture, or an expensive Thomas Kinkade painting for their Living Room, or a new computer.  Then about a month later, we would find ourselves in the same meeting covering the same topic, needing more money for their needs. It did not seem like the money we collectively gave was being handled responsibly. I have to this day struggled with this concept – once we give, should we just not care about how it was spent?

It was around this time that I started to “blog” for the group. I would get a spiritual idea into my head, then write about it in the form of a short story – what we know today as a blog. I would write it down, print it out, and share it with the group. These blogs were admittedly bizarre, and I still have a few of them in electronic Word Perfect format. Yeah, that’s right – Word Perfect. Reading them now is… painful and difficult. Some are pretty sound and legit, with an undercurrent of religious fervor. Others are just flat out crazy. There was one about a man’s own hand going rogue and trying to strangle a man, the symbolism being about members of a religious group being in dis-unity and how it destroys the body. Another was about individual pixels in a digital image, and how each dot of color was like different church members coming together in harmony to make a beautiful picture. Another was about a time that I won a DC Talk CD from a radio station event at the mall, and how after I won the CD I confused myself about the rules of the game, and wasn’t confident enough to pick up the prize. While doing research for this blog, Pooky and I met with a fellow Narrowgate survivor, who brought up one of my blog entries about Chapstick that I admittedly forgot about. It was about how I was a lot like Chapstick because just as I loved Chapstick (and who doesn’t?), God loved me. Yeah, quite a profound theological point, right?

The overall point here is that back in the 90’s, I was beginning to write about my spiritual journey. And 25 years later, I can say that in many ways, I was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Yes, that’s a nod to the previous blog. I was full of a reckless zeal – but for every touchdown pass I threw, I was just as likely to throw a remarkable interception. I was all over the place as I stretched my wings. I’ve heard time and again that this is the normal approach to modern evangelism – you have to practice things like prophecy and speaking in tongues and preaching and talking about God. As much as I want to believe that, it doesn’t seem to align with the events of the Bible. God’s gifts were from God, and as such, were perfect when in the hands of the right people at the right time (ie. Paul, John, Peter, etc.). There is a lot of scriptural evidence throughout both the old and new testament that when you try to represent God and are wrong, it’s a pretty serious offense. I confess that I don’t know how this should play out today. But I’m much more wary of misrepresenting God now than I was then. When someone misrepresents God, people and their faith are harmed. That is something God seems to take very seriously: the passage in Matthew 18 says it’s being better to go swimming with a millstone be tied around my neck than to lead someone else astray (my paraphrase). That sense of weight seems to be missing in today’s modern Christian culture. And it was certainly missing within Narrowgate, where we practiced our “spiritual gifts” on each other with all the discreetness of a spaghetti cannon while hoping a stray noodle hit the mark.

Given Liam’s escalating consolidation of power within the group, it seemed somewhat odd that he was now encouraging others to step out and in essence lead the group. One possible reason for making the group more self-sufficient became clear at about this time: Liam was about to become a father.

(to be continued)


Narrowgate Blog Series: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven; Part Eight; Part Nine; Part Ten; Part Eleven; Part Twelve; Part Thirteen; Part Fourteen

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