How the ABCs of Recovery and Resilience—and The Lord of the Rings—Saved My Sanity After Spiritual Abuse

I have long intended to write more about what I’ve come to call “the ABCs of recovery and resiliency”—Arts, Beauty, Creativity. In my studies of forms of abuse since 2007, I’ve frequently noticed these ABCs showing up in profiles of survivors of abuse, and in people involved in resistance against evil. Even in the most extreme situations of control and violence, forms of media emerge as a source of comfort, solidarity, inspiration.

I will have much more to say about some of the case studies I’ve come across. But, on this first day of 2023, I have an initial story of my own interactions with the ABCs to share … and how The Lord of the Rings saved my sanity after severe spiritual abuse 20 years ago.

The Fellowship of the Ring was released in theatres in December 2001. It may surprise you that, at that time, I had not yet read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy! As a novice immersing into Middle-earth, I remember the movie being hard for me to follow. So many characters and places and plot points, and the names Sauron/Saruman being so similar—and which was who again?

It was daunting. I asked a lot of questions of friends who knew their Tolkien well. Still, the journey of Frodo and the Fellowship inspired me to read The Lord of the Rings while awaiting The Two Towers, Peter Jackson’s next installment in December 2002. There was something deep here which tugged at my spirit, broadened my perspective, opened my emotions. Although I’d wished I’d read LOTR sooner than age 46, I was glad I finally had!

It turns out, I moved from Marin County, California, to Austin, Texas, in the autumn of 2003. This was to join a group of friends two decades younger than me who wanted to experience living in community. Among them were Shannon and Jessica, who’d been prime movers of my starting to blog, and Nathan and Amy, Erika, Laura, Stacy, and TK. We’d all been at the milestone WabiSabi event earlier that year, exploring authentic ways to connect with people like us who could be described as “cultural postmoderns.”

I was thankful to be there—not just to be in community, but to recuperate. I had recently exited from the founding team of a church plant that had turned worse than sour. It had proved downright toxic! I’ll have much more to say about that some other time. But, for now, I’ll just say the stress of that entire two-plus year situation depleted my already broken health even further. Right after the move, I could hardly walk more than a few hundred yards without being totally tuckered out. Sleep and rest often added up to more than 12 hours a day. I was a wreck!

But the time in Austin was healing—for body, soul, and spirit. LOTR played a memorable role in that, both then and later. In December 2003, our entire household went on opening night to see the finale of the trilogy: The Return of the King. We were excited for the event, as themes from LOTR had been a regular topic of conversation. (TK even went dressed as Arwen, in a spectacular burgundy and gold costume she’d made just the day before.) And we were not disappointed. Our whole row whooped and hollered and clapped at the film’s conclusion!

I didn’t know at the time, but The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy would become a strong source of solace and encouragement for me when I returned to California in the autumn of 2004. I was still dealing with the crushing impact of spiritual abuses experienced in that church plant, and, unfortunately, ended up in another church ministry that turned out likewise to be manipulative and malignant. How could I cope with serial spiritual abuse situations?

Something subliminal from deep in my previous experiences of abuse drew me then to LOTR for recovery and resilience, just as other forms of media had before. For instance, I had worn out several sets of Handel’s The Messiah on cassette tapes after a devastating church split in the 1970s. A cross made of nails from the Coventry cathedral destroyed in World War 2 had been a point for reflection after another disastrous ministry experience. And I had cycled through the Broadway soundtrack of Les Misérables over and over during that horrific church plant.

All of these somehow touched memories and opened emotions that had been harmed by abuse. I couldn’t predict what type of media would do this, but came to trust that something would serve to unlock my longing for arts, beauty, and creativity.

Anyway, I started watching the entire LOTR trilogy on DVD repeatedly. At first, the shorter theatrical version satisfied my longing for the ABCs. But, oh! The extended edition with almost 11 and a half hours of following the Fellowship! That became my main go-to free-time selection for the next five years.

I’m certain I’ve watched the trilogy at least 250 times in 20 years, and there was a time when I could quote every line. But “enduring” the epic most often felt like slogging through Middle-earth in real time. I didn’t always enjoy the experience—but if the Fellowship could endure such suffering and still overcome various impacts of evil, then perhaps there was hope for me, too.

What else drew me in?

  • The creativity and complexity of Tolkien’s story.
  • The loyalty, bravery, and resiliency of characters.
  • The operatic quality of the emotions-opening score.
  • The brilliant artisanship shown in creation of multiple cultures.
  • The beautiful depictions of nature and showing the importance of earth-care stewardship.
  • The decisive-moment perfection of photography that captured the poignancy and peril of the fight by the free peoples of Middle-earth to overcome evil.
  • The evocative truths of “eucatastrophe”—that an unexpected, providential turn of events can lead to positive outcomes when it appears all is doom and destruction.
  • The echo of biblical realities that evil will eventually be unmade and its consequences undone, often by God working through weak and marginalized people to overcome the privileged and proud.

It has been months since I last watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy. These days, I generally only watch a few hours (one of six discs) at a sitting. And I have been watching it this New Year’s weekend. It reminds me of a poem I wrote in 2003 after my first completion of The Lord of the Rings: “I Want to be Like Gandalf …” I’ve just updated it slightly to post here in celebration of 2023’s 20-year anniversary of the movie trilogy. I hope you enjoy it … and that, this year, you find the unique ABCs of recovery and resiliency that inspire and equip you toward deeper healing, higher aspirations, and enduring fellowship.

I Want to be Like Gandalf @ Brad Sargent 2023

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Book Review: *Celebrities for Jesus* by Katelyn Beaty

A vital resource for diagnosing toxic evangelical celebs and their harmful ministry platforms.

As a futurist, I’m attuned to how generational dynamics play into transformation for individuals, institutions, and populations. My work includes scanning cultural horizons for emerging troubles and trends, patterns and possibilities, that affect preferable ways forward. The roots of over-relying on celebrities in evangelicalism go back 150 years. Such deep-seated paradigm flaws will take several generations minimum to fix.

We’ve seen the seeds of breaking through this stagnancy in the growing abuse survivor and deconstruction movements. Will we undertake the challenge to change our reliance on those “known for well-knownness”? Celebrities for Jesus is a first-rate field guide to equip us for discerning our best pathway ahead.

In recent years, we’ve seen a steady release of excellent books on identifying and dealing with aspects of systemic abuse in Christian settings. These new resources significantly advance our understanding of abuse as survivors, those who support and counsel them, and leaders who seek to create constructive ministry spaces. Celebrities for Jesus by Katelyn Beaty is the best yet for spotlighting the distinctive problems of toxic celebrities in evangelical Christianity.

In it, she defines celebrity as “social power without proximity.” Celebrities for Jesus examines the dynamics feeding into misuse of power in evangelical circles. Beaty—formerly a Christianity Today managing editor and now a book acquisitions editor—gives us a 150-year history of how evangelicals, media, and celebrityship became a thing so that now, “Celebrity is a feature, not a bug, of the contemporary evangelical movement.” She offers memorable concept frameworks for understanding the inner workings of celebrity power, platforms, and personas; and how these make avoiding accountability far too easy for them.

She also considers the fandom side of these issues, unveiling what’s underneath questions like:

  • How do those we fawn over turn us into pawns?
  • Why do we grant influence over ourselves to people we don’t/can’t personally know—even if we feel we know them because of the image they project?
  • Do Cool People Christians really make our beliefs more culturally relevant and Jesus more personally attractive?
  • What happens to Christianity’s image if they fail and fall?

Beaty’s research is meticulous; her writing style, accessible and personable. She masterfully interweaves details from abuse survivors and academic experts, news reports and personality profiles, and both secular and Christian pop culture. She includes insights from trauma psychologists, sociologists, historians, counselors, denominational leaders, and more—plus illuminates her astute analysis with theological principles and practices for discerning toxic situations and developing safer/healthier ones.

Her descriptions and diagnostics are relevant to all theological/cultural rivers in Christianity. But, she maintains her promised focus by illustrating issues across multiple streams that feed into the river of evangelicalism. I was especially impressed with how Beaty navigates the unfortunately wide range of abusive evangelical celebrities. She selects an insightful set of negative examples that are not just among the most prominent (and widely destructive) in recent years, but that typically have yielded years to decades of documentation exposing specific tools and tactics each used in their particular forms of misconduct and in silencing their victims.

I also deeply appreciate the new perspectives I learned from her chapter on persona. These include dynamics of (self-)deception and how the inner workings of “character splitting” and “parasocial relationship” set celebrities up for isolation and adulation.

As Beaty herself has stated, the emphasis in Celebrities for Jesus is on problem diagnosis. However, she does use the last two chapters to explore practical solutions. In them she shows the value of everyday discipleship, serving with humility, laboring in obscurity. She touches upon these themes in earlier chapters, making her concluding section a hope-filled springboard for applying all that she has shared.

Full disclosure: I received a digital Advanced Reader Copy of Celebrities for Jesus for being on Katelyn Beaty’s book launch team.

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Some potent quotes from Celebrities for Jesus.

*Celebrities for Jesus* by Katelyn Beaty, Available for Preorder!

Celebrities for Jesus, by Katelyn Beaty

I’ve been following Katelyn Beaty on Twitter for a while now, and that’s where I found out about her forthcoming book, Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church. It will be published in August by Brazos Press.

This hits many topics that I’m interested in. I applied to be on Katelyn’s launch team and am grateful to have been accepted! Over the last 50 years, I’ve survived five severe situations of spiritual abuse in churches, ministries, and Christian non-profits–several of which were connected with celebrity preachers. The first (late 1970s) was at a time when there would not be books on identifying and recovering from spiritual abuse for another 15 years. So, resources for survivors has long been a priority.

I’ve also been developed case studies of malignant leaders and their toxic systems for the last 15 years, and am highly concerned about how UNqualified and DISqualified individuals keep getting platformed–especially in church planting systems.

So much toxicity that needs to be brought under Kingdom klieg lights and aired out to prevent future abuses–insofar as possible! From her insightful presence on Twitter, I felt Katelyn’s book would make a significant and timely contribution to practical resources about safe versus sick leaders and platforms.

I’ll be reviewing Celebrities for Jesus soon, and want to encourage you to preorder a copy. You’ll receive a link to download Chapters 1 and Chapter 2 within one business day of filling out the preorder form.

Also, consider following Katelyn on social media for more insights on these relevant topics.

Here are more info and links.

Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church

Preorder link: https://bit.ly/C4JPreorder

Publisher’s page link: http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/celebrities-for-jesus/406890

Table of Contents:

Part 1: Big Things for God
1. Social Power without Proximity
2. The First Evangelical Celebrities
3. Megachurch, Megapastors
Part 2: Three Temptations
4. Abusing Power
5. Chasing Platforms
6. Creating Persona
Part 3: The Way Up Is Down
7. Seeking Brand Ambassadors
8. The Obscure Messiah and Ordinary Faithfulness

Katelyn Beaty

Publisher’s profile page link: http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/authors/katelyn-beaty/3560

Katelyn’s website: https://www.katelynbeaty.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KatelynBeaty1

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/katelyn_beaty/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/KatelynBeaty

Hashtags to Watch For

#CelebritiesForJesus

 

Futuristguy Resource Article Downloads

I’ve been teaching myself Adobe InDesign, to develop templates for: (1) PDF articles drawn from ~20 years of blog posts and (2) my forthcoming Field Guides on identifying/dealing with abuse and developing safer organizations/collaborations.

If all goes to plan, I’ll post articles periodically, on deconstructing issues of toxic individual and institutions, and on constructive building of intercultural, missional ministries.

Many of these articles represent first drafts of the more developed content in my Field Guides. Also, the article format is still in process, and my work on graphics is still clunky. Still, I hope you’ll find these pieces from the Futuristguy archives helpful.

JULY 28, 2021. For the inaugural PDF, I’m posting my “Pyramid of Abuse and Scale of Accountability.” This particular article has probably been the most often referenced piece I’ve produced. It’s based on my having found myself in five major situations of spiritual abuse in churches, parachurch ministries, and Christian non-profits. These totaled about 20 years out of the last 50 since I became a born-again Christian. It’s gone through several updates, and I’ve edited it slightly for this PDF.

I plan to expand upon the material here in my forthcoming Futuristguy’s Field Guide #1 (no date set yet). That will likely include descriptions of those five experiences, and what it was like being in almost all of these various pyramid roles. I will detail some of the accountability issues and long-term negative consequences that were experienced by the main abusers of their positions of power, and show how pyramids of several organizations connect to form larger platforms and “industrial complexes.” And I’ll recommend movies and other media I consider key “practice sessions” for readers to identify malignant people and toxic systems in their situations.

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AUGUST 28, 2021. Readers on Twitter have indicated interest in issues of institutional dynamics and what constitutes an “industrial complex.” So, I put together sections from three source articles and one case study for this article on Toxic Institutional Dynamics. Contents include:

  • Describing Systems and Systemic Abuse
  • Seven Elements in Social/Organizational Systems
  • Devolving from an Open System to a Closed Industrial Complex
  • Mutually-Benefiting Platforms and Pushback by Those Victimized
  • Focusing in on Five Platform Element Clusters in an Industrial Complex
  • An Example of My Process for Detecting the Pieces
  • Sources for this Article [links to earlier posted versions]

Toxic Institutional Dynamics (c) 2021 Brad Sargent v8

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Two Must-Read Articles on Ravi Zacharias and RZIM, and a Reference Post

The past week, I have been compiling article links and analysis for “Ravi Zacharias and RZIM 2020 Research and Resource Post: Timeline, Links to Articles/Analysis, Nonprofit Reference.” The light for a change of discernment has been dawning for many associates of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), mostly since RZIM released an intermediate report confirming Mr. Zacharias had been sexually abusive to multiple women in spas that he had owned. The horizon is changing, and that compilation may help those who are in the process of understanding and reinterpreting what actually happened–despite earlier denials and deflections about the reported abuses. Continue reading

Update 2020 on Abuse Survivor Communities: Patterns of Progress Amplify Hope

My extended series on Cultural Geography of Survivor Communities took a year to write. I completed it December 31, 2019. Much has happened since then. We’ve seen some leaps forward, some steps backward.

In an August 20th Twitter thread about what’s going on in our various communities and denominations, the issue of abuse solutions that scale came up. This sparked a lot of thoughts for me on where we are at and where we are going. I posted 20 tweets throughout the day.

The way my brain usually works, I don’t necessarily know what I’m thinking until I get it out of my head by either saying it aloud or writing it down. Partway through this bunch of tweets, I surprised myself at a conclusion that was forming: I realized I was relatively hopeful about the progress and trajectory of abuse survivor communities, and that this sense of a constructive pathway forward was based in patterns I could see in concrete actions–not mere “I hope so …” musings attached to imagined concepts.

Here is the Ruth D. Hutchins’ tweet that set up the consideration of scale, and a compilation of my responses. I have edited this slightly for clarity and to change abbreviations back to their full form. Continue reading

For Such A Time As This Rally 2020

FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS VIRTUAL RALLY 2020. For 20 years I’ve watched to see what SBC individuals and institutions would do in dealing with issues of systemic abuse. I’ve posted what research I could, sounded the alarm when I felt I should.

SBC systems, leaders, and stewards demonstrate evidence of extensive and historic corrosion by power and complacency about all forms of abuse. Specific situations have been documented for decades by abuse survivors, and the extent of it was also exposed in 2019 by the #AbuseOfFaith series by the Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express investigative reporting team.

Before the #SBC19 annual meeting, I concluded the SBC had only a year left–through June 2020 and #SBC20–to prove any substantive movement institutionally on #SBCToo and abuse. Despite a few steps forward, it did double steps backward. In light of this, I am asking these question:

* Is this the SBC’s “Ichabod moment”?

* Has any glory that was there departed because of refusal to minister to the needs of a large segment of church and community who’ve been traumatized by sexual abuse (1 in 3 women, 1 in 4 men)?

* After decades of systemic complacency *institutionally* about abuse — regardless of what individuals and particular churches do — why should we trust SBC entities purportedly doing anything about it from here on out?

* What must they do to prove genuine repentance and change on their long-standing abuse situation?

For research documentation, analysis, and resource links, see SBC Abuse Solutions website.

https://sbcabusesolutions.wordpress.com/

#SBCtoo
#SBCadvance
#VirtualRally2020
#SBCDatabaseNOW
#forsuchatimeasthisrally

Meanwhile, as an encouragement in the midst of what may seem like immovable odds …

Each of us can contribute something important to the larger picture of being an abuse survivor, advocate, or activist; a trauma-informed counselor, minister, or organizational developer — whether it’s providing pieces of the puzzle, sharing peace in the struggles, even getting pizzas for the huddles! Let’s learn, transform, serve.

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For my most recent reflections on the SBC and abuse, see this thread on Twitter.

 

 

Continue reading

The Hunger Games Prequel–The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes–Release Date: May 19, 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – screenshot of Scholastic Press product page

PREPARING THE WAY FOR A HUNGER GAMES PREQUEL!

It’s been 10 years since the release of Mockingjay completed The Hunger Games series. As a student of malignant leaders and toxic organizations, I was engrossed by the insightful ways author Suzanne Collins wove truths about social control and trauma throughout the narratives.

Her series gives us a rich source to mine on abuse, resistance, and resilience. I posted an analysis of how those features fit with Robert Jay Lifton’s eight criteria for identifying a “cult” of “totalist psychology” control. This series includes discussion questions for abuse survivors, people in their support network, and organizational developers. My hope is these questions will help build bridges among these audiences.

I also developed a Hunger Games reference fansite for the book and film series. Check it out for links to sources for the books, audiobooks, movies, games, and related materials for study. What have been social impacts of the series? Do you think some fan items may have contributed to over-the-top Capitol-type consumerism?

And now, a prequel novel will be released on Tuesday, May 19th. We can at last return to the nation of Panem, this time to the roots of Districts’ rebellion and The Hunger Games, and the origin story of Panem’s eventual president, Coriolanus Snow. What The Hunger Games did for us in exploring the range of social control tactics, perhaps the prequel(s) will do for us in displaying the route someone takes to complete the searing of their conscience in choosing the pathology of power. Continue reading

NARCISSISM NOTES #13–Trajectories of Transformation, Chapter 9: “Transformation for Narcissists (Is Possible).”

Narcissism Notes share my interactions with material Chuck DeGroat presents in When Narcissism Comes To Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse.

Can abusive people change? If so, how–and how much? Chapter 9 deals with hard theological and therapeutic questions like these. My notes on this final chapter lay out Chuck’s case for possibilities of change as stratified according to the spectrum of narcissism (detailed in Chapter 2), indicators of openness to change, and who is likely or not to pursue transformation.

Continue reading

NARCISSISM NOTES #12–Trajectories of Transformation, Ch. 8: “Healing Ourselves, Healing the Church.”

Introduction

Narcissism Notes share my interactions with material Chuck DeGroat presents in When Narcissism Comes To Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse.

This chapter presents a unique challenge: How do you do justice in just one chapter to the immense issues involved in the healing process when people and organizations have been traumatized by narcissistic abusers of word, deed, and power? There are entire books dealing with that.

And yet, I feel Chuck has done a credible job in that Herculean task to lift up healing with a framework that makes sense for both personal and organizational transformation. His use of the Exodus journey as a metaphor provides a meaningful touchstone for reflecting on the ups and downs of recovery. And his use of three people’s narratives — Paul, Stacy, and Heather — periodically throughout the chapter interweaves how individuals and institutions influence each other in both wounding and healing.

For this chapter, things went in a different direction as far as sharing my thoughts on Chuck’s material. A number of quotes struck me, and I decided to feature them, with a small amount of commentary. After the initial quote “slide,” the rest are numbered in the lower left-hand corner, and those numbers appear at the end of the subheads. Continue reading