Getting it Right
One of the things I intend to do here from time to time is point out cases where somebody gets it right. Since religion is one of those topics I've staked out for myself here, I'll go ahead and take it on now.
Religion is one of those areas that's just chock-full of landmines; not only are there thousands of varieties that look very similar but have distinctive marks, there's a whole lot of opinion and tradition that most people will totally miss. For example, the Steve Martin movie about a fake faith healer, Leap of Faith. They may have gotten all the details right about the methods charlatans and grifters use, but the major plot point is something that (a) could never happen and (b) most people would never notice. The movie is at least 10 years old, so I won't be spoiling anything by revealing this bit, but if you don't want to know, skip ahead to the next paragraph now. Okay. We're all alone now. In the movie, Steve Martin fakes a miracle by repainting the eyes on a giant crucifix he uses as set dressing, so he can later "notice" that the statue has opened its eyes in a miraculous demonstration of the faith healer's power. The problems with this bit are that no Pentecostal/Charismatic tent revival show would ever display a crucifix, and no such group would ever look for or accept miraculous signs involving statues. The crucifix is a Catholic symbol. Protestant churches, and especially pentecostals, would have an empty cross, signifying the risen Christ, and would consider the "miracle" of the crucifix to be idolatry. See, a trivial detail of cultural difference utterly shatters the premise of the film. They could have asked one of the phenomenal gospel singers who appear in the film to fact-check it, but apparently they didn't, and it hurt their credibility.
So, who gets it right in comics? Kurt Busiek springs to mind. Astro City's vampire-priest The Confessor is a nuanced look at questions of faith and sacrifice, and the details are right. Likewise The Crossbreed, his creationist spin on the X-Men, which perfectly captures the right tone and has the characters adhere to biblical teaching. My only quibble there would be naming the "angel" (winged girl) Mary, as Mary wasn't an angel. Given that there aren't any female angel names mentioned in the bible, that's a tricky one to solve, so I'll let it slide.
Mark Waid and Alex Ross, in Kingdom Come, did an excellent job of finding parallels between DC's characters and the Revelation of John, and the character of Reverend McKay was every inch a minister in the Unitarian-Universalist tradition (understandable, since Alex Ross' father was the basis for the character).
But the one I want to talk about at the moment is Birds of Prey. In a recent storyline ("Between Dark and Dawn," issues 69-73), the Birds infiltrate a cult that they believe is responsible for the suicides of several teenagers. Their suspicions prove to be correct, but the plot is really incidental to the topic here.
Early on in the infiltration, Oracle informs Huntress that "Second Heaven Redemption Farm" is "a cult, not a church." Huntress replies "sometimes that's blurry thin line, in my opinion." But is it?
Actually, that's a pretty accurate statement for Huntress to make, speaking from her experience as a life-long Catholic. Distinguishing cults from churches is not something that the Catholic church spends a lot of time on; in their view, there is Catholic and everybody else. Picking through the details of some other religious group is not high on their priority list, so it's quite natural and accurate that Huntress wouldn't know how to spot one.
Before we go any further, I'd better define my terms.
There are two primary definitions of the word "cult": Sociological and Theological. Most Christian groups that concern themselves with the subject stick to the theological definition, which in a nutshell is any group that claims to be Christian while teaching doctrines that are incompatible with or contradictory to the doctrines of the New Testament. That does not concern us here, so we won't spend any time debating who is or isn't a cult.
We may safely assume that Oracle is using the sociological definition of the word. A brief summary of that definition is "Any group (religious, political, psychological, or otherwise) which exercises significant control over the thoughts, feelings, and actions of its members by use of deception and manipulation, without the knowledge or consent of its members." Under this definition, what makes a particular group a cult is not so much its beliefs, but what it practices.
The writer of Birds of Prey, Gail Simone, wisely avoids a lot of potential traps by not going into much detail about the cult's beliefs apart from saying that they believe superheroes are angels. She could have spent some time looking for Bible verses that could be distorted to fit the thesis, but that would have just opened up a lot of opportunities for accidental offense and revealing of a possible lack of in-depth knowledge on the subject. There's something to be said for keeping it simple.
(Interesting aside: there is a verse in the New Testament that includes a word that could be translated as something approximating "super-heroes;" a pat on the head and a cookie to the first person to find it.)
But I digress.
Other examples of Simone getting it right: Huntress never once refers to "going to church;" she always phrases it as "attending Mass." That's a tiny detail, but it helps to sell the character and story to those who know the difference. Likewise the fact that Vixen, a woman who channels animals and borrows their natural abilities, is able to reconcile her essentially pagan powers with the teachings of her minister father, where a lesser writer would have her summarily reject him completely. This was a refreshing change form the norm.
Getting back to the cult, there are particular characteristics that all cults share to some degree or another. Leaving aside doctrinal disputes, these are the signposts that can tell you if the group you belong to is actually a toxic cult, and the ways that Simone includes these points in her story.
AUTHORITARIANISM. A cult is built around the teachings and personality of a particular person, and absolute loyalty to that person is required. These leaders use guilt, fear and intimidation to manipulate members and keep them in line. "The Sovereign," leader of Second Heaven, does exactly this. He controls his followers through violence and terror on the part of his goons, while portraying himself as a minster of love and peace.
ELITISM. Cults indoctrinate their members that they alone are right. The top leader who is portrayed as perfect and therefore beyond reproach is the bearer of God's truth. The movement is God's means of fulfilling his purposes on earth. Once again, Simone is right on the money. The leader alone has special revelation from and direct contact with his god.
SPIRITUAL DISILLUSIONMENT. The group becomes the center of one's life and personality. It also becomes the center of one's Spirituality. The motivating force. The only truth. To leave the group is therefore to reject the truth with all its accompanying consequences. Those who leave suffer a great deal of Spiritual Disillusionment. They feel an unbearable separation from God because in their minds, the group and God are synonymous.
MORAL CONTORTION. Deception is often used in different ways particularly in recruiting new members. At first sight the members of the group appear very pleasant and friendly. They seem to offer a love and care that most people havenever experienced. But this only lasts until you have been recruited and then they are out to get the next victim. The new member is now quickly put to work to recruit more people. Violating the law when necessary is done readily with no thought given to the moral aspects. The logic is that the cult is answering to a higher law and need not worry about the laws of man. Honesty and integrity are optional. The group will also employ any means to protect itself from threat. The leaders will do anything from misinformation to outright lies in order to cover up their wrongdoing. When there is a problem members are only told that the problem is with someone else outside the group.
FINANCIAL DISHONESTY. If there is an area where the cult leaders' double standards are exposed it is in the area of finances. This is basically the automatic result of a non-accountable leadership that believes that the end justifies the means. All too often we notice that leaders of these cults live in a luxury that is not only far beyond the reach of their followers, but that is also offensive to the world around. Although the leader of this cult is not shown flaunting his wealth, he is blackmailing the parents of the teens he has lured in.
PSYCHOLOGICAL MANIPULATION. This is perhaps the most important danger that cults are associated with. Cults use mind control i.e. the group exercises undue influence over its members and impairs their ability to think for themselves. All cults lie to and manipulate people - their own members and outsiders in order to further their own ends, which are rarely the same as their publicly stated reasons for existing. Simone's cult leader has an added advantage here, low-level psychic abilities that allow him to control his followers to a degree that Rev. Moon can only dream of. Here are the techniques cults (including this one) use:
a) Group pressure
Cults capitalize on people's basics nature as communal animals and the need to make a good impression, to fit in and to get along with others. Much work is done in groups, and often the individual is allowed little time on their own to think or analyze. The cult members here are shown living in dormitories and traveling in groups at all times.
b) Removing people from their ordinary spheres.
By taking people out of their normal social environment they become that much more susceptible to pressure. This is done by persuading an individual to join one of their communal houses, where independent thinking and action becomes almost impossible. Again, accurately portrayed.
c) Love bombing
A member is made to feel that they are deeply and unconditionally loved they are hugged often, told what a great person they are, and how much they have to offer. This appeals both to an individual's vanity and also to their insecurity. The love is very far from unconditional however, as anyone attempting to leave the group or criticizing an aspect of the group will soon realize. All pressure can be brought to bear, and life made utterly miserable for the one who wishes to leave. Love is withdrawn and replaced by an almost demonic anger. This cult's motto is "Love above all things," a pleasant sounding, vaguely biblical phrase that hides a number of traps. For example, what is the object of this love? The leader? God? Others? Self? Love must have an object. It also neglects the fact that true love, spiritual love, is bound by ethics and morals; if one truly loves, one must be truthful in love. The "love" peddled here is toxic.
As a Christian, amateur student of comparative religion, and comics fan, I am very much impressed with the care and research that went into this story. It could easily have been a cliched rehash of Guyana or Waco, or an opportunity to bash mainstream Christianity under the guise of taking on the evil cult, but neither of those even threatened to rear their ugly heads.
More telling, I've never yet seen Simone get a detail wrong. Okay, once. In one issue of this run, one of the followers calls the cult leader "Father." That rang false to me. Cult leaders usually go for a more exalted title, such as Sovereign. Pretty trivial, huh?
And that's what doing it right looks like.