1993, 07/05 3. What Are The Underlying Assumptions About Life In COBU?

This is a journal tape I made on July 5th, 1993. It is presented in four sections. (Here in 07/05 pages 3, 4, 5 and 6.) It was on both sides of a 90 minute tape.

I was talking about the underlying assumptions about life in The Church of Bible Understanding that everyone there accepted, believed and lived according to without questioning them. I got this idea from the session the night before, when Stewart Traill hosted a debate about science vs. religion. During this debate, Stewart was using many of his standard methods of manipulation on us, but this time I saw him doing in a milder form and just for fun.

One of the concepts Stewart spoke about during the discussion was that in any debate, people on both sides of the issue accept a lot of underlying issues as a given and they don’t dispute these things they hold in agreement between them. So, later I asked myself, what were the underlying issues here in the church? What were the things we accept about Stewart without questioning them? 

The only way I had to reason my way out of this world I lived in was by using thoughts and concepts that Stewart taught! The only thing I could add to this were my experiences in life before I came to the cult. (According to Stewart, longing for my past was “looking back,” which meant I was “unfit for the Kingdom of God.”) I also began to read books on cults and organizational behavior. I devoured these books as if they were life saving medicine for my mind and my soul.

I made this tape when I was alone in a secluded spot on the church’s New Property, a former educational facility owned by COBU in Philadelphia. Everyone else was inside, still asleep after a late night meeting. It took me a while to get into any subject matter that might be of interest to the reader, but further on, I got into talking about life in the Church of Bible Understanding.

-*-

This tape is being made on July 5th, 1933. I’ve found a secluded spot on the New Property. It’s quarter after ten in the morning, in this two day meeting where I actually have time to get up and do something like this. I’ve found a secluded spot where I can see the sunlight shafting down through the branches. It’s so rare that I find any solitude away from a city atmosphere. This has an effect on me, like that postcard about New York City where the four seasons are shown as the same picture in black and white. I often think about how it’s summer and I can’t even experience it.

I slept in a van last night and there were newspapers in the van from Sunday. The Times carried a front page article about the waterways in New Jersey, including the Manasquan River. It reminded me of the last time I was there, in a boat with my father and we cruised around the river for a while. And I began thinking about how I would really love to be able to go down there for one day. To, God forbid, go to the Jersey shore. To even to express a desire for a vacation. For a day of unstructured time down there.

(Our lives in COBU were highly structured. Our time, and what we were supposed to be thinking about and believing were highly regimented. Once in a while, I got unstructured time on job sites, which was refreshing and I longed for more of it.)

I always feel like I have to qualify my statements. Maybe it’s because I know too much, but I need to go somewhere to see the blue sky and the green plants, away from the New York feeling where I always have to look over my shoulder. I’m in this corner of the Property, where I can see the violets carpeting the ground. And sunlight shining through branches. It’s nice.

(The concept that “I knew too much” – Stewart told us we knew too much about God’s will and the level of faithfulness expected of us and that we could not go back to not knowing this and to what our lives were like before coming to COBU. That was Stewart’s deal with the fact that many of us wanted to leave. I heard this concept soon after coming to the church. A lot of people were leaving at that time.)

This is an aimless talk. It might take me a while to get into any subject matter. I woke up only a half hour ago. And also, I’m not used to going off in solitude to try to compose and collect my thoughts. I always try to make an update, to have a cross section of my thoughts recorded on tape.

Okay, I’m thinking about the book I read by William Olin called Escape from Utopia. During the meetings and at other times, the contents of these books I’ve read come to my mind. There’s really no way to gauge whether they do something for me. But in some ways, they form a buffer zone. They help me to cope with this world I’m living in. Other people have lived in intentional communities and religious communities. How did they cope with this? I can reach and, in a way, talk to people or hear what they have to say through their books, whether they’re alive now or if it was from a century ago.

(Escape from Utopia is about Synanon, a therapy-based communal group which evolved into a cult.)

I can’t directly pull out a point from Olin’s book that I was thinking of, except that the book was on my mind. The main idea is that, he got out. At first, he was in it and he was totally idealistic about it. He shelved his doubts, but he was for the most part, really into it and idealistic. But toward his last years there, he was looking around and thinking. He was becoming aware of things. And that’s what I was taking out of that book, a sense of looking at this place with new eyes, and asking myself, what’s really going on here?

Well, it’s lot more than asking what’s really going on here. That would be an unanswered question. But even, realizing that this and that is going on here. Maybe my idealism is wearing off and I’m now looking at this whole place in the light of the cold hard facts, realizing that this isn’t the only place that has ever been like this and that its lofty ideals are sometimes no more than a repackaging of simple needs, necessities and even questionable activities. And, that this place primarily exists for the needs of its leader, but it can never be stated that way. So then the ideals and the lofty words come in, and in our case, the threatening side, and the danger and warning side of it all.

Of course, I could say that any thoughts that I now generate along those lines are merely rehashing these books I’ve read, and it just ends up sounding like an amalgamation of books on cults and books on the history of communal societies I’ve read. But that would mean that I can have no original thoughts or observations and that I’m a robotic character who has no original thoughts and who doesn’t really see or know what’s going on here, and who can’t form his own opinions and even conclusions. Which, by the way, I think is ridiculous.

Yes, looking at the two books that seem to help me, which were written in a personal testimony or subjective experience style, were William Olin’s Escape from Utopia, and Shirley Nelson’s Fair Clear and Terrible, which she wrote about the Shiloh community, a church which paralleled ours in a lot of ways.

(In addition to the two links in the text above, more can be read about Shiloh in Chapter 3 of Ron Enroth’s book Churches that Abuse, entitled Abusive Churches Are Not New. Reading about Shiloh helped me to understand more about COBU.)

Sure, some of the historical facts and events about Shiloh are different. Our leader does not sail around the world in his private yacht. But they (like us) were largely isolated and lived in a secluded community and they had purges. They also had various plagues and sicknesses and a lot of it really did seem self-made. They could have gone for medical help if they wanted to, but instead they chose to view it as the hand of God punishing them. And we do the same kind of thing. There is probably a word for it, but I don’t know right now.

Once I saw a Beetle Bailey comic strip showing Beetle and the Seargent falling off a cliff in the dark. Luckily, before they fell too far, they grabbed onto a branch and hung on to it in the dark all night, in terror. All they saw below was blackness. But when the sun came up, they saw that they were only three feet from the ground. It wasn’t such a high cliff and their terror was nothing but an illusion.

Although in that case, you can’t say their terror was self made. As far as they knew and all the input of their senses told them not to let go of that branch. But if they had let go, they would have hit the ground just a second later. That is like an illustration of our own crisis situations and our purges. Supposedly, we have all these terrible problems, yet we’re three feet from help.

Or, it’s like a person in a hotel room who thinks he’s all alone in some foreign town and he’s sick, but he doesn’t want to yell for help and he lays there in pain all night. And in the next room, on the other side of the wall, was the hotel infirmary with every modern device, and if he had just whimpered, someone would have come and helped him.

Yes, our whole thing of suffering in silence and suffering in the dark, when it’s totally unnecessary. It’s really an illusion of our own making and if we didn’t make the illusion, if we had looked a little bit, we could have gone for help. It’s just this isolated situation we’re in that fosters this illusion.

As a parallel illustration, I’m here in these circumstances, under the tremendous power of this man, and he’s the all-powerful lord. And if I were to step outside of the gate, as soon as I get past the gate and on to the sidewalk, his power no longer has an effect on me. And the fence is right over there, I can see it over there. The question is, how real is this and how artificial is it and how self-made is it?

For example, the author of the book about Shiloh was saying that the people there largely defined their own reality, and I can relate to that. They went through things. But when the sun came up and they found out they didn’t have to! The group disbanded and they all had to go live in the world. God forbid, if anyone ever tried to say that we don’t have to suffer this and that it’s all a scenario in the theater of our minds – although it largely comes from the theater of a certain person’s mind.

And I often wonder if Stewart weaves and creates these circumstances, and that due to the communal nature of our enterprise, we’re locked in here and we don’t see anything else. And we don’t really have to go through this. There’s no calling for outside help. Our isolated community is not where a lot of the problems arise as a cause, but it’s a container in which they can happen. And a lot of this would never even happen under other circumstances. But we get all of Stewart’s ideal talk about how “this is the only way that works.” Now, I assume that not only includes his teaching, but the way of life – the communal lifestyle, the whole way we’re living together in fellowship.

I suppose when I listen back on this tape, I will see how I dropped the ball and I could have developed my thought here in other ways, but these are just rough notes, off the top of my head. Well, if this is going to be a dirty linen tape, I can bring out some more of the things I think are going on here.

Now, maybe I should be mourning over my own sins, and that’s the problem I should be thinking about, rather than thinking about what’s wrong with this place. Again in that vein, I’m thinking more about how Olin wrote about what he saw around him and what the place he was in was really like. No matter how much I look at my own sins, I can’t hide my eyes from the way this place is. In fact, it would take a lot of pulling the wool over my own eyes to just forget about it and to concentrate on my own sins, which I would have whether I was here or if I left. My sins still going to be there. Stewart’s idea is that if I have sins in any way, I can’t deal with anything else outside of myself, because sin is within me. And I wonder just how much hocus pocus and propaganda that is, that if something does not take care of sin, our worse problem, then there’s no point in trying to change this or that. Things must only relate to our problem with sin. Everything is in terms of the utmost eternal issues – we’re going to die in two minutes, so why does this or that matter? So no intermediate problems can be fixed.

(One of Stewart’s teachings at the time was “My own sin is my own basic problem – not circumstances or the other bad guys.” This got used on anyone who tried to point out any problems in the church or offer suggestions to fix it.)

To bring up an old lament on that, I remember a lot of times over the years thinking that’s how we have to deal with things, but when Stewart wants something, he fixes it! And he doesn’t seem to have to go through the whole lament. But I suppose one could say, now that Stewart has had his main problem of sin taken care of, of course he can go to these lesser issues. But I don’t know when he ever did stop doing things he wanted to do.

Well, there is a big difference between the way Stewart lives and the way he preaches that we have to live, but we always have to come back to, our own problem with sin. Not that I do, but that’s what we’re told and that’s why my arm’s too short to box with God. My arm’s too short to box with problems, or to box with a certain person, or to say anything about anything. But I wonder if that’s just his way to keep all the monkeys in their cages and to make sure that everyone’s at arm’s length, because when will I be without sin? I’m probably totally botching the current theology, even to say something like that.

And even if I were to ever get to the point of finally dealing with my sinful nature and I was fully committed to Christ, well I have a very definite feeling that Stewart is still going to be laying out the plans. “Oh, you’re fully committed then? So then you’re going to be doing this and that now!” And of course, me now being eager to show I’m fully committed, I’ll jump up and say, “Yes! I’m going to do this and that!” And there’s going to be a lot laid out for me to do and I’ll have to be so busy. So again, Stewart is still going to be saying who are you to stop and look at this or that problem here in the church? So either it’s my own sin as the reason why can’t look at this or that – or if I say I’m faithful now, then I don’t have time for this or that, because what about all these things I have to be doing? If I don’t to them, Stewart will say, Oh, you’re not doing them? So you’re not faithful to Christ then.” So, sometimes I wonder if it’s still going to end up being both sides of the same stick.

(The essence of the above paragraph is that Stewart said that I could not try to fix any of the things I thought were wrong in the church, or with the leader of the church, because he teaching said, “Your own sin is your basic problem, not circumstances or the other bad guys.” And if I got right with God and became faithful, I still couldn’t talk about these things, because there was going to be a long list of things I must be doing all the time as a faithful COBU member, so I would not have time to get into these other things, because they were not the “real issue” anyway.)

Well, I seem to have forgotten the other piece of linen I was going to drag out, but don’t worry, there’s plenty more and I probably don’t have to look too far to find them. I was talking about how we can’t take care of any intermediate problems because if it doesn’t deal with our problem of sin, it doesn’t really solve anything. And also, that Stewart keeps us in a constant crisis mentality.

Now, here’s something. Last night Stewart talked about a man who’s into testing, who wrote about how when you perceive that something is wrong, you don’t argue point by point with people, but instead you go to the underlying issues, because in any situation there are underlying issues that everyone is assuming and taking for granted. (This was during the session on evolution.)

But I thought, how true this is with me. And this is what I’m doing now, and any time I ever do this. I argue point by point. I’m always thinking, “Hey, you know Stewart says to do this or that thing, but is he doing the same thing he tells us to do? I don’t see him doing it.” And I end up just sounding like a soft drink can with a rock in it that somebody’s rattling, just being a rattling noise.

(I was trying to analyze how Stewart’s actions didn’t match his words, how he didn’t practice what he preached. I can never pin Stewart down by arguing with him, or by talking to others there about what Stewart does, but instead I should look for the underlying issues about Stewart that everyone here accepts and is coming from in a collective agreement about life here and our obedience to Stewart. I’ll just wear myself trying to nail down every point, otherwise.)

I would say with us, that the underlying issue which is never questioned – even by outsiders, who argue the same way I do by saying, “Stewart says this, is he doing that?”

The underlying issue is in this area. I’m probably still halfway between surface things and maybe I’m just barely touching the underlying issue. It could be summed up and pointed to by the following kinds of phrases. I don’t know if once I brought them out and said them, if this would do me any good or not. But, it’s this:

(The following are what I thought the underlying issues here were, the things that no one in COBU questioned, but just accepted as being the truth.)

Whatever Stewart says is the truth. If Stewart says it about you, whatever he says you are, it shall surely come to pass, no matter how much you say “no!” and try to fight against it. Stewart has a special divine calling, he has spiritual sight. He’s a seer. At the same time, we must never point to Stewart directly as having this sight, because really, he stands and points to what God does.

Now, in the past, Stewart claimed to have the only true interpretation of the bible. He had it and nobody else did. And it was definite that only he had it. Again, he never stated that only he had it. He would never connect the two directly openly in words, but he always said, “there is only one true interpretation.” And since he was the only one who was talking about that, he was implying that he was the only one who had it. He’s always careful not to say “and only I have it,” but that’s the kind of thing he does.

What I’m trying to say is, Stewart has a special aura or calling to see the truth and to set all Christianity straight. And if any other Christians try to disagree – well, they’re wrong! It’s just that concrete. Stewart has it. And the enemies of the truth, masquerading as sincere Christians, and sometimes not even able to masquerade, quite openly contentious Christians, will come and fight against this truth, which just annoys them and sets them into a rage. And of course, another basic assumption is, and they cannot win.

And it would probably still take some work to get down to say what the real assumption is.

And, of course, with us, there is no use trying to fight against Stewart, because we can’t win. And all the people who ever disagree with him always end up out the door. They’re either found floating in the river, dead, or they’re on drugs or walking around talking to themselves in the street. Or into even worse things. It would be better to found floating in the river dead than one of the following two things: either they end up in a “Christian” religion out there somewhere, singing and dancing and praising the Lord. Or, they end up in a marriage (this is the worse one), where their wife utterly controls them. And all of this is from disobeying or disagreeing with Stewart. And we always see what happens to those people.

So, the words you could use for Stewart would be: invincibility, infallibility – and there may be other words. And, the best I can say is, these are the underlying assumptions that everyone here is coming from. So, there I am, trying to stand up and say something to Stewart at a meeting. Because of these assumptions, well right away, I’m the gameplayer and troublemaker. He’s the faithful defender of Christianity. And it doesn’t take him many words to do away with me or to put me in my place.

Oh yes, the other assumption is, that Stewart has the right. Not only will he win, he has the right to win. It’s hard for me to say he has the God given right, because I don’t really see God, a personal God, being like this. Stewart’s God is very impersonal. It’s a God of processes and methods. Logical methods. Like mathematics.

The other assumption could be, Stewart has all the systems under control. And, as I’m running across the carpet to lunge at him with my attack, he just rolls up the carpet that I’m running on and then he he dumps it down the trash chute with me still running inside it! You know, his ability rip the ground, the earth out from under me, as I’m speaking.

(Another assumption would be that anything I said that contradicted Stewart was an “attack,” against him and against the truth. Any time I ever tried to speak to him in meetings, he dealt with me as if I were attacking him and attacking the whole church.)

I never get a sense of God personally working through Stewart, but somehow he has “the right.” And he understands universal laws, and applies them. But it’s all in the area of, Stewart always wins. Something like that. And us as his captive audience and the basis of our years of experience starting when we first came here, where he always did win.

Now I wouldn’t know how to wrap that all up in one concise statement, but maybe I can review this, because it takes some thinking. That may help me in dealing with all of this. Because, I write all these things down and it’s just one point after another and I really get lost in all the details.

But I’ve often thought, it’s all the same thing. Like when I write home, explaining about life here and I mention this detail and that detail, and then I’ll add another detail. Well look, it’s all basically the same thing. I’m just saying it in a hundred different ways. It’s wearying to write it all down. Nailing down the circumstances is after the fact anyway. “Ah hah! Stewart said that. Yeah, what about this then, now that he said that?” And fine, I can spend the rest of my life copying down the things Stewart says and commenting on it, if only to myself, and saying that I really wonder if this or that thing he did or said was right.

And in the meantime, to make another analogy, I’m like a squirrel running faster and faster on my exercise wheel and I think I’m finally going to get there, but Stewart can just pick up the cage I’m in and hold it up to his face as I’m running in there, and laugh at me. And then he can carry the cage with me still running in it and dump me into the lake!

(A good description of all of these things I was talking about can be found on the Freedom of Mind website under the 12 Rules of the Community Leading Con Man.  This article describes Stewart Traill very well.)

And so what if I say, “I got this one!” And I figure out some specific point about what Stewart is doing wrong. I can add up one piece after another, as symbolized by running on my little exercise wheel, and I get to spend my whole life trying to pick up the pieces he drops. Like clues after the crime, like the detectives examining the evidence and saying, “Oh, a cigarette butt. Hmm. Yes, a fingerprint.” But nobody questions the underlying assumption that there’s a burglary going on here.

Well, that’s the whole thing and that is what’s underneath what I’m up against. And as I go to stand before him (I don’t do this much), I already know that as I’m speaking, he’s got that button behind the pulpit and there’s a trap door which just happens to be right under where I am standing! I don’t even know how I got to stand there, but maybe that was already arranged. “Uh huh… uh huh…” he says. And bam! I go right down! He has the ability to pull the earth out from under my feet! I was thinking, there are a lot of basic assumptions, but the extreme assumption is, Stewart is Lord.

Read the next section of Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry Cult Leader here: Stewart’s Bag of Tricks.

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These pages, as well as my other pages, A Day In The Life Of A Cult Member and The Tangled Web, are part of the source material of my book, Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding, which is available as a Kindle book or in paperback.

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