Bill Bright said that all of man's problems can be traced to his concept of God.
In Lauren Drain's book, Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps, the founder of the cult, is described as someone who knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that God is indeed an angry God. Hate is God's overriding characteristic and so, when the Phelps family wave nasty picket signs and shout unpleasant slogans at passersby, they are not the angry haters, they are just the mouthpieces for God. He is the one who hates, um, pretty much everybody who, well, isn't a Phelps. And even then, not all the Phelps are okay - some are headed for the hottest part of hell because they are "defectors".
In the book, Lauren brings out some of the contradictory teachings of the leaders. For example, they picket in order to save souls from the wrath of God but over time they have reached the conclusion privately that no one else besides themselves will be saved. Yet the picketing continues. Hard to explain... that.
However, it is okay because they aren't into explanations. Newcomers are allowed to ask questions at first but as time goes on, questioners are shut down, ridiculed, and/or eventually banished from the ark of the inner few, the chosen ones. The Holy Spirit speaks primarily through Shirley, Fred's daughter, and everyone must adhere to Fred and Shirley's interpretation of the Bible. If they don't, there will be hell to pay... literally. So questions are out.
The book is easy to read; hard to put down. On the other hand, it is very repetitious in some places and there are a few things about Lauren's account that bothered me. When she describes how they held up picket signs after 9/11 saying that God was happy with that terrorist event, she frankly says that being on the picket line energized her and gave her a bond with the other young people of the cult and I get that. But she also said that she never intended to hurt anyone and was too childish at the time to basically identify with outsiders and their emotions - in other words, she didn't know that she was hurting people. However, by the time 9/11 happened Lauren was a teenager and had only been in the cult for about a year. (Her family joined the cult when Lauren was 15. For most of her formative years she was raised in a liberal home with no religious practices, leading a fairly normal life). I honestly don't understand how a 16 year-old could see the coverage of 9/11 and fail to understand that the yelling and sign carrying she did was indeed hurtful. Ditto for the nasty signs and yelling at military funerals where families were clearly grieving and wanted only to bury their dead in peace.
By the time I had made it three fourths of the way through the book, I found myself wanting her to at least apologize for her youthful mistakes. In the epilogue she finally did apologize for being "disrespectful" but even in hindsight she never apologized for inflicting emotional pain on others. Yet the book graphically describes her own times of pain, which were tough indeed but no more so than the ones she picketed against during her 7 year captivity in the Phelps "compound".
I think what it boils down to, maybe for me, is that brainwashing is hard to understand.
In the end, it is a truly interesting look at a group which displays all the characteristics of a cult: extreme control over the daily lives of its members, leaders who speak for God while the rest simply adhere to the new revelations and/or rules, confrontational assemblies which remind me of the "struggle" groups used in communist China and Russia, and ultimately banishment, both physical and eternal, for those who fail to toe the Phelps' family line.
And all because one man many decades ago decided that God's overriding characteristic is deep, abiding, hatred for people.
Which leads me to:
so loved the world....
that He gave His only begotten Son...
that whoever believes in Him should not perish....
but have everlasting life."
I'm thankful that Lauren was able to leave and make a new life for herself. She definitely has courage as well as an abiding love for her family even though they have turned their backs on her. I find it hopeful that she and a few others are opting out of this group and I hope this trend continues. I certainly wish them well in their bid for freedom and hope that each"defector" will find a different God, the One of John 3:16 who so loves...
And, after reading the book, I'm more than ever inclined to agree with Bill Bright:
We can trace all of our human problems to our view of God.*
Undoubtedly, this is the case with the Phelps of Lauren's book.
* Quote is from the title page of The Discover God Study Bible published by Tyndale.