Escaping Fundamentalism: An Interview with Charlene L. Edge (Part I)

By Maria Moss

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In her award-win­ning book Under­tow, Char­lene Edge dis­sects her past as a long-time mem­ber of one of the largest fun­da­men­tal­ist cults in the Unit­ed States, “The Way Inter­na­tion­al.” Under­tow is a demon­stra­tion of the dan­gers of fun­da­men­tal­ism and the destruc­tive nature of cults. Through her per­son­al sto­ry, Char­lene Edge shows how a vul­ner­a­ble per­son can be seduced into fol­low­ing an author­i­tar­i­an leader and how dif­fi­cult it can be to find a way out.

Charlene’s expe­ri­ences with “The Way” depicts the down­ward spi­ral­ing of a col­lege stu­dent who – for rea­sons all her own – fell for a cer­tain kind of pro­pa­gan­da. Now, if it hap­pened to her, why not to you? To us?

Maria Moss: What do you think made you – a beau­ti­ful, intel­li­gent col­lege stu­dent – so vul­ner­a­ble to a cultish orga­ni­za­tion like “The Way”?

Char­lene L. Edge: First, thanks for the com­pli­ments, but I always remind peo­ple that giv­en the right cir­cum­stances, any­one can be vul­ner­a­ble to per­sua­sive recruiters from high-con­trol groups – often called cults – that promise spir­i­tu­al enlight­en­ment, Bible knowl­edge, self-improve­ment, or polit­i­cal pow­er. I say this because humans seek to make mean­ing in their lives. Much of Amer­i­can soci­ety, for exam­ple, is struc­tured around Chris­tian­i­ty, so it seems nat­ur­al for a large part of our pop­u­la­tion to seek mean­ing through that religion.

In my case, I think sev­er­al things con­tributed to my vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to The Way. Most of all, I was look­ing for what the group offered: Bible knowl­edge and Chris­t­ian fel­low­ship. When Way believ­ers recruit­ed me, flash­ing lights went off! They were col­lege stu­dents like me, but they sin­cere­ly believed in the good­ness of their group’s inten­tions to help peo­ple under­stand God’s teach­ings. They were also trained in over­com­ing objec­tions to their fun­da­men­tal­ist approach and per­spec­tive. For exam­ple, The Way believes that the only way to know God and have a robust rela­tion­ship with Him is through an ‘accu­rate’ knowl­edge of the Bible. To con­vey the group’s alleged abil­i­ty to teach ‘the accu­rate Word of God’ in the class­es they sell, they attempt to prove, for exam­ple, that the Gospels – when har­mo­nized – show that there were not two, but actu­al­ly four men cru­ci­fied with Jesus. Then, since The Way sup­pos­ed­ly demon­strat­ed a supe­ri­or under­stand­ing of the Bible, the only way to have that alleged robust rela­tion­ship with God was to take more and more of their class­es and com­mit to reg­u­lar and fre­quent fel­low­ship meet­ings with them.

They claimed to be and sound­ed very cer­tain that their Bible class, “Pow­er for Abun­dant Liv­ing,” would answer all my ques­tions. At the time, how­ev­er, because I was so young and had so lit­tle life expe­ri­ence and lit­tle under­stand­ing of the Bible, I was not wise enough to effec­tive­ly chal­lenge their claim that their teacher, Vic­tor Paul Wier­wille, taught ‘the accu­ra­cy of God’s Word.’ In fact, because of the social and emo­tion­al real­i­ties of my life at the time, I didn’t even real­ize I should chal­lenge those claims. They pre­sent­ed The Way as a rep­utable, orga­nized bib­li­cal research, teach­ing, and fel­low­ship min­istry. I bought into it because it sound­ed spe­cial and they made me feel special.

In addi­tion, Wier­wille seemed to have good cre­den­tials, i.e. a degree from a sem­i­nary and expe­ri­ence as a for­mer church pas­tor. More impor­tant to thou­sands of us was his claim to have received spe­cial rev­e­la­tion from God. I was hooked.

But I want to explain a lit­tle more about why I was a prime tar­get (I tell this sto­ry in-depth in my book, Under­tow.) In high school, I’d been born again in an evan­gel­i­cal youth group called “Young Life” where lead­ers con­vinced me I need­ed to find more Bible knowl­edge and Chris­t­ian fel­low­ship. Boom. The night I met Way recruiters on my col­lege cam­pus, their enthu­si­asm infect­ed me like a virus. Their per­son­al tes­ti­monies, over­whelm­ing atten­tion, and con­vic­tion about know­ing the ways of God were irre­sistible. Last­ly, I think the most impor­tant thing to know about why I was vul­ner­a­ble is this: I became 100 % sure that God was direct­ing my life behind-the-scenes, and that He had brought Way believ­ers to me in answer to my prayers.

MM: In your book you men­tion ‘speak­ing in tongues’ – could you please explain how that works?

CLE: The phe­nom­e­non called ‘speak in tongues’ is men­tioned in the Bible. Many Chris­tians believe it start­ed on the Day of Pen­te­cost with the Apos­tles. There’s a record in Acts 2:4 that says, “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with oth­er tongues, as the Spir­it gave them utter­ance.” In The Way, Wier­wille taught that any born-again Chris­t­ian could do what the Apos­tles did. He attempt­ed to teach us how to speak in tongues, direct­ing us to close our eyes, pray, relax, breathe deeply, and ask God to fill us to over­flow­ing with the Holy Spir­it. We were sup­posed to speak any words that came to us, one after anoth­er, until we were speak­ing what sound­ed like real sen­tences, only they would be in a lan­guage we’d nev­er learned. I know this may sound strange to out­siders, but this phe­nom­e­non is described by oth­er groups, too, such as Pen­te­costal Chris­tians. When they speak in tongues, in some of those church­es, they fall on the floor, shout­ing strange words uncon­trol­lably. In The Way, we didn’t roll around on the floor, but would sit calm­ly and do it quietly.

Please check in next week for Part II.

After spend­ing sev­en­teen years with “The Way Inter­na­tion­al,” Char­lene L. Edge earned a B.A. in Eng­lish from Rollins Col­lege and became a pub­lished poet and prose writer. She is a memer of the Flori­da Writ­ers Asso­ci­a­tion and the Authors Guild. This year, the Flori­da Authors and Pub­lish­ers Asso­ci­a­tion award­ed the gold medal to Charlene’s mem­oir, Under­tow, in the cat­e­go­ry of Autobiography/Memoir.

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