Monday 3 February 2020

Cult Cinema #21: Sects Education, Part One

I'm heading into what feels like the home stretch of my Cult Cinema project. Which means it's time for the Weird Christian Sects. Here then is the first part of a short subseries on the estranged delinquent children of the Christian faith, as they appear in film. Of course spoilers appear, but today's film at least is not the sort of film where spoilers are really a relevant concern.

Sects Education
The Awkward Offspring of Protestant Christianity

Question: what's the difference between a cult and a legitimate religion?

Answer: honestly, about a hundred years.

That's time for the question of what happens when the first couple of generations has died off to be settled, and for doctrines and practices to become a thing that can consistently continue beyond the whim of a charismatic leader and their followers.

It's awkward to admit this, but Christianity started as a charismatic cult. It was a Jewish splinter group that rapidly distanced itself from its parent religion. It took centuries for it to achieve societal recognition as a religion in its own right, and in the process of its ascension to a religion of state, it continued to split like crazy, with the winning subsect, Catholicism, playing a sort of whack-a-mole game as it tried to remove its further splits for centuries more.

Protestant Christianity, by its very nature as a decentralised version of the faith born in schism, is especially prone to having congregations in the thrall of a charismatic leader. These don't tend to last, mainly I think because orthodox Nicene Trinitarianism (which is the technical name for the baseline set of stated beliefs codified in the Nicene Creed since 325CE) is in fact vague enough that you can have a wild variety of equally orthodox views in the same protestant community.

Truly, Christianity is the Swiss Army Knife of religions.

Consider how in roughly the same period of twentieth century history, Catholic Christians in good standing with the Church Eternal could enable fascist dictatorships in Europe and lead resistance to fascism in South America. Or for that matter how right now protestant evangelicals are at the centre of anti-poverty and refugee support movements in Britain while, well, their counterparts – people who sing the same songs on a Sunday – are enabling fascism in the USA. Other religions are just as prone to this, but Christianity is widespread and fractious, and with its myriad interpretations, contradictions and loopholes, you could argue quite seriously that it is more or less ideal as an overreaching justification for you to do pretty much whatever you were going to do anyway.

And this, I think is both why so many sects and splinter groups form, and why so few survive for any length of time.

But a few do. And I think the key to the survival of a splinter group as a separate entity – as it was with Christianity itself, and later Protestantism as distinct from Catholicism – is separation, the idea that the group founded is unique in its access to revelation and hence in its access to the truth. While there are older groups – Swedenborgians and Unitarians spring to mind, although they are also among the most benevolenty and cuddly of the Christian offshoots – most of the most enduring and popular sects arose in the 1800s.

The nineteenth century was, for various reasons – the first real conflicts of science and faith, the spread of imperialism, colonialism and frontier settlerism, an explosion of literacy and education – a boom time for post-Protestant sects in the English speaking world. The ones that survived began by segregating themselves, and continuing to, from the wider Christian constituency. Great Britain has its own variety, in the Christadelphians (who always seemed to me to be strongly invested in doing Christianity Without Any of the Good Bits), but it was in the USA, where in the 19th century geographical separation was very much possible, that the majority of the most enduring sects arose.

The Seventh-Day Adventists have existed on the edges of the Protestant mainstream for a long time now, and go through phases of being considered some sort of orthodox, despite their peculiarities, especially since Billy Graham gave them the OK. But they are still quite odd, and let's not forget that the Branch Davidian offshoot led by David Koresh were Seventh-Day Adventists. Further from the mainstream we have Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Scientists, the Jehovah's Witness, and, of course, the wealthiest and most powerful group, the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormons.

Apart from conservative evangelicals themselves, who are very much a phenomenon of nineteenth century origin, and who have a strong claim to being a post-Protestant sect in their own right, the Jehovah's Witness and the Latter-Day Saints are the best known, and, to both secular and religiously orthodox minds, the weirdest. And so, they're the ones who have had the most attention from film and television.

Now the Latter-Day Saints, with their early history of territorial violence and polygamy, and their own fundamentalist splinter groups, have been subject to many screen treatments.

In the 2007 film September Dawn, the subject is the Mountain Meadows Massacre, of September 11th 1857, where a group of settlers passing through a Mormon-held area of Utah, were killed en masse by the first generation Latter-Day Saints. The film presents the Mormons, as led by Jon Voight's Jacob Samuelson, as rigid, hard-faced fundamentalists who murdered devout, harmless settlers out of nothing but hate. There's a scene where the settlers, having stopped at Mountain Meadows, pray thanks for the generosity of their hosts, intercut with Samuelson praying curses on the settlers, and really the film gets no more subtle than that, even using the date, September 11th, to make on the nose and frankly tenuous points about fundamentalist terror. It even manages to imply that Joseph Smith's Apostle Brigham Young (arguably the actual founder of the Latter-Day Saints as a religion, and here phoned in by Terence Stamp) knew about the massacre and condoned it, which is not, as you might imagine, the official line of the LDS.

September Dawn is a godawful film on pretty much every level, and it's very much part of that depressing subcategory of movies where many of the principals know it's bad while they're making it, and so aren't even really trying. There's no truth to it, and it tells you nothing about Mormonism. It seems to exist for no other reason than to make you hate Mormons (and literally compare them to Osama bin Laden). And let's be honest, even if you're not convinced that the Church of the Latter-Day Saints is really a good thing, if you're going to dump on a movement, you should at least try to dump on a realistic portrayal of them.

HBO's mid-2000s series Big Love at least gave you rounded characters, but was about a family in one of the crazy lotsa-wives splinter groups that do actually exist, and I don't know, maybe humanising polygamists really is a noble venture, but Big Love illuminates actual Mormonism less than you might think. In fact, I'm going to tackle the Church of the Latter-Day Saints on film from a more left-field direction, as we'll see.

There are comparatively few movies about Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, and they tend to be more dour and factual, which is not really a surprise, given that the Jehovah's Witness movement, despite being a religious organisation that crashed out on three different apocalyptic prophecies (and let's respect that, since most groups disintegrate or re-orient themselves like the Seventh-Day Adventists did after just one failed Second Coming), is much less camp in its weirdness. I mean, the Latter-Day Saints have an entire book of Joseph Smith's odd Bible fanfiction. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is much less fun, and the Jehovah's Witness don't seem like a lot of fun, either. It stands to reason that a film about the Jehovah's Witness isn't going to be a barrel of laughs.

Apostasy (2017)

Apostasy's director Daniel Kokotajlo left the Jehovah's Witness movement, and this film is based upon his experiences. It is a well-directed, well-performed film that I have no doubt accurately represents what happened to him. In Apostasy, the Jehovah's Witnesses are miserable, and joyless, and proscriptive, and controlling, which is, to be quite fair, is what people who clash with Jehovah's Witnesses do generally tell you. Is that fair on them?

The film follows a year or so in the life of a Jehovah's Witness family, single mum Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran, probably best known as Mrs O'Brien, the improbably villainous housekeeper in Downton Abbey), and her daughters Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and Alex (Molly Wright). There is a father, who is absent, and not to be contacted. Mother and daughters are active in the faith. Alex, the younger girl, is devout, and prays hard all the time, wrestling with her faith while never giving up on its foundations, and she might, because she has a life-threatening illness, which, inevitably, requires a blood transfusion to save her life, which is the first of the notorious Jehovah's Witness proscriptions that the film addresses. Luisa gets pregnant by a boy from college, and the community disfellowships her, banning Alex and Ivanna from any meaningful contact with her. Later she will attempt to return to the fold, but the hoops they make her jump through are so many and so ridiculous that it proves impossible for her. Ivanna's response to this, and the way that her austere religiosity gets in the way of being able to love her daughters, is the heart of the film, and the portrayal of a woman who will break before she bends is really the main reason to see it.

Apostasy is not a balanced portrayal of the movement. But it is an accurate run-down of everything that is crappy about Jehovah's Witnesses and a lot that is crappy about movements like it. Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate birthdays (or Christmas for that matter): Alex gets a birthday card from the bank and her mother tells her to send it back. Jehovah's Witnesses have to evangelise, so we see Alex and her sister being trained on how to target the Urdu-speaking community and going door to door, and Alex and Ivanna on the literature stand in town, surrounded by Christmas shoppers. The Jehovah's Witness made three (for what it's worth very different) apocalyptic prophecies, each of which had a date, and none of which came off, and they're mentioned and rationalised exactly as unconvincingly as they always are in discourse that is critical of the Jehovah's Witness. The Jehovah's Witness have a weird obsession with the shape of the object on which Jesus was crucified, and there's a scene where Alex volunteers this information to one of Luisa's college friends who's wearing a cross.
But all of these things, ticked off as if on a checklist, are superficial. More profound, and more real, I think, are the ways in which the people are hurt by the narrow world they're in. So Alex, who is almost impossibly sweet, saintly even, is convinced that people would not like her if they get to know her, and is consumed with guilt because, as an infant, a hospital overrode her parents' wishes and gave her a life-saving blood transfusion. She reads literature about brave young believers in the Truth who died rather than receive another's blood. She wants to do the same. Half way through the film, this chance arises, and she dies, and the fallout of Alex's death informs everything that follows.

Barry (Christian Foster) honestly believes his doubts and struggles are due to a possible demon in his attic, and this could be presented as a comical thing, and his friends are amused, but it's not, it's bleak and it's awful and it's hurting him, it's torturing him, and it's just horribly tragic.

And then there's Steven (Robert Emms), the new trainee elder from down south, who starts to court Alex awkwardly and formally, with Ivanna's approval, who's been taught all the doctrines and practices and hasn't learned a lick of empathy. And then we have Ivanna herself, who like so many exclusivist believers – and this is a thing I've observed with some of the more hardline evangelical Christians I've known – can't look on the unbelieving world and see any good in it, can't see the work of God in the everyday, the sort of person who looks at children running around in a playground and laughing and only sees the damned.

And that's the hardest thing about the sort of religion that demands separation. You don't see the good anywhere except among your own, and it's a terrible paradox, that a religion that is entirely predicated on a statement of the Love of God so limits the boundaries of who and how we can love.

We see the signs of community – affection and kindness – among the people in the Kingdom Hall but it's overwhelmed by the bland austerity of it all, and the way ideology overcomes the bonds of family, friendship and love.
Luisa: Do you know how it feels – to think Jehovah the Almighty is punishing you, directly, all the time? Why? When I'm sorry? I've tried, Mum. But the elders have got it in for me.
Ivanna: Don't be daft.
Luisa: But they do. Do you think it's right how they make you treat me?
[Ivanna is silent]
Luisa: It's not God's way.
Ivanna: You need to earn His love. It's conditional. It takes strength to live up to His standards. Strength I pray you will find soon.
And this is the heart of why this particular sort of self-segregating, proscriptive religion is so harmful. It forces the love that should be unconditional to be conditional.

And yeah, there are reasons to stay in a faith, and if there weren't it wouldn't be enough – hate and fear aren't the only things that hold together any group, even the very worst people in the world. Even Nazis are capable of real friendships and genuine love (consider the prominent British Gamergater who was supported by the spontaneous donations of his fellow woman-loathing nerds when he fell into dire straits in terms of mental health and finance, for example). But these expressions of affection and kindness are explicitly shown to the members of the group and withheld from outsiders.

Steven, coming out of a meeting where Luisa is being quizzed on whether she has repented, tells Ivanna that it's not going so well because she's giving her own opinions rather than the correct answers, and that's much more telling than anyone thinks – because honest seeking, however much it's lionised as desirable, is only wanted when you ask the questions they want you to ask and give the answers they want you to give.

What happened to Luisa and Alex's dad? He's alive, surely, but he's gone. Presumably he was disfellowshipped too – when a spouse loses faith in the Truth, they're out of the family, with no connection even to their children, and in these situations, which are not uncommon, it's more often the father who goes, if only because society makes it easier for men to go it alone and easier for women to keep the children.

As crappy as the Jehovah's Witness are – let's not mistake my opinions here, I think that even their undeniably kitsch literature is bloodless and dour and their conservatism hems in the heart, stunts human affection, and even in its obsessive pursuit of God extirpates any signs of the presence of a divine in our lives and relationships – Apostasy has no desire to be a balanced portrayal of the sect. 
If you're the sort of person who wound up getting disfellowshipped from a group like the Jehovah's Witness, rather than someone who never crossed any line, the chances are that you were already able to see the bad parts of the faith, and that you were already asking the questions they didn't want you to ask – Luisa clearly wasn't in line with the Truth in this, not so much in the getting pregnant part, although the Jehovah's Witness are pretty strongly old-school on the subject of premarital relations, but more because she simply made friends.

I think there are two sorts of escapee from the world of prescriptive and controlling religion. There are the ones who profess extreme antipathy towards their former faith, and instead take on oppositional political or ethical standpoints that are sometimes no less reactionary than the ones they left – there's a reason New Atheism appeals so powerfully to bigots, for example. And then there are the ones who are for whatever reason bereft, who feel much the same as a person does who has escaped an abusive relationship with someone who they nonetheless loved. They know they're better off, and they grieve anyway.

Apostasy is a film that comes from the viewpoint of the estranged. I think that the director is invested in making a film that reflects how it actually was for him, and how it felt to have the community divorce itself from him. In that respect, it's just not able to show what it's like for someone who's secure in “the Truth” and it's not supposed to. It's a film about what it's like to get kicked out, and to realise that your lifestyle is weird and off-piste when compared to the normal run of things, and to face up to the withdrawal of communal affection and the contact of the people you knew at a stroke, and how they make you suffer even when you want to come back.