After reading my post “Christian Patriarchy: Here is how you have left God,” author Sara Roberts Jones contacted me to ask me to read and review her novel about the fictitious cult “The Fellowship of True Christian Churches.” Since I didn’t know her (and didn’t know at that time about her excellent articles on Recovering Grace), I wasn’t sure what I would be getting into, but I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised. As soon as I received the book and flipped it open, I was hooked.
The writing style is witty and engaging, with enough humor to keep the dark side of cult life from feeling overwhelming (for me, anyway—some readers might need a trigger warning). In describing former cult member Bekah’s difficult integration into a normal world, with all her memorized Bible verses coming bubbling back to the surface, the author brought me laugh-out-loud moments without being irreverent. When Bekah returns to the cult, the dark undertones are woven through a light-hearted atmosphere with guileless friends. All the elements are included—the weird quirkiness of cultic groups, the oppressive rules, the smooth-talking “I’ll get along and have it all” leader, and the black hypocrisy of the demanding leader who is a secret abuser.
These characters were so well developed I actually truly cared about them. I wanted to find out if the cult victims would be safe. I wanted to know if Bekah would end up with this man or that man. (Goodness, it’s been a while since I’ve read a romance!)
I also found the epilogue satisfying in a way, as people continue to try to escape the cult.
I had to say, though, that I found the epilogue satisfying “in a way,” because the end of the book left something to be desired for me. I wished for something more, and I wrote to the author about this.
In the cult, God is predictably depicted as an angry judge. Jesus is depicted as the one who gave 732 commandments that no one can ever keep. The cult members are also often reminded that He prayed for unity, which the cult leaders use as a tool to prevent people from leaving their control.
This kind of teaching angers me and breaks my heart, as you might know from my blog. So I wished that there could be some small hint at the end of the book that Bekah was beginning a journey of understanding of who Jesus really is and what He really has accomplished and is accomplishing for and in and through His people.
I don’t mean to say that she needed to be fully grounded by then, because I believe that would be unrealistic, but I would have liked to have seen a glimmer of hope other than simply the hope of getting out of the cult. Maybe a hint of a teacher who has been patient in opening up the truth about what “free grace” really means. (You know, the true gospel, the non-works gospel, about what Jesus has already done for us instead of what we’re supposed to do for Him to gain His favor, which we actually already have.) Maybe even something like “Bekah was looking forward to introducing [a former cult member] to the Jesus she was getting to know.”
There is a real Christianity to know, so that we can live in freedom and joy outside of the system of rules, as His Holy Spirit empowers us to live the life He destined us for without our needing to strive to please Him (link). (Here and throughout the rest of the post, I’m providing links to articles I’ve written about the highlighted topics.)
So this is where I would say . . . .
The Rest of the Gospel: When the Partial Gospel Has Worn You Out, by Dan Stone, which I happened to be in the middle of reading for the second time when Sara sent me The Fellowship.
I bought an earlier version of this book in 2008 when I wasn’t familiar with the author, simply because I loved the title. I loved the play on words in the title—because the author really does emphasize what Jesus means when He says He will “give you rest.” (link)
Back in 2008, I had in recently become aware that the gospel that was usually preached was truncated: We would hear (1) forgiveness and (2) gratefulness for forgiveness as the motivation to try harder (link).
But the gospel is so much more than that. I was aware (through Colossians, Romans, Galatians, and a few outside resources) that the gospel isn’t only about the forgiveness offered through Christ’s death, but is also about the power offered through His resurrection (link). It isn’t just His forgiveness, but His change of our nature so that we have new desires, to live in love for God and others and by the Holy Spirit we’re enabled to live in love for God and others (link).
This is what I had been learning.
I found this book to be one of the best resources for helping give shape and form to the substance of what I was learning.* The author writes in simple and plain English, and sometimes even uses diagrams, which I always appreciate.
Here’s a sampling of the helpful truths in this book.
I have found that in experience there is a series of gates along the path to life. These gates are the progression from being a completely external person, trying to find life in things and people around us, to being an internal person, finding life in the One who lives within us. (p 16)
We are saved not just by Christ’s death, but also by Christ’s life. That’s true eternally, but it’s also true in the here and now. We are saved by the life of Christ that lives within us. (p 59)
The old you was crucified on the cross with Christ. The new you was born of the Holy Spirit and has been raised with Christ and seated with Him in the heavenlies (Ephesians 2:6). (p 102)
At the deepest level of your personhood, you [Christian] are not a sinner. You are a saint (link). (p 108)
We are transformed into His image as we behold Him (link), not as we behold ourselves (2 Corinthians 3:18). (p 116)
* I do have a few quibbles with the author that are small enough I don’t think they need to be mentioned here except to say that I don’t necessarily agree with absolutely everything in the book.