Deprogramming: documentaries and movies about cults and Christian subculture

Last week we finished the UnBoxing Project series.

Some of my readers asked what life was like after we left, how we handled it.

My friends and I went through a period of deprogramming, which is ongoing. We’d been told what to think, what is good and what is evil, and then we found we’d been lied to.

Cults teach the deviants in the group that 1) you’re the only one questioning and 2) this is somehow your fault, because everyone else is compliant and does what they’re told.

This is how they maintain control, through isolation.

My friend Cynthia Barram found some documentaries about cults and fundamentalism that demonstrated nationwide trends and helped our little group realize we weren’t alone.

Sons_of_PerditionSons of Perdition (2010)

About the adolescent boys who get kicked out and the girls and women who leave Warren Jeff’s FLDS cult in Arizona. Filmed in 2010.

Although each of our circumstances were different, we identified with their stories because of our own experiences.

The “sons of perdition” struggled to support themselves and enroll in school. The daughters cut their hair for the first time and put on pants.

daddy i doDaddy, I Do (2010) and The Virgin Daughters (2008)

On purity culture and the father-daughter virginity ball hosted at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs every year.

Daddy, I Do features a variety of perspectives: fraternity boys, churchgoing parents raising kids, abstinence-only program leaders, and progressive Christians like blogger Matthew Paul Turner. It addresses the problematic nature of a daughter promising virginity to her father until marriage.

The Virgin Daughters focuses on Colorado Springs specifically, centering on the father-daughter ball, interviewing the various families who attend and showing the pledge the fathers sign to protect their daughers’ chastity.

Both feature parents who admit they weren’t virgins at marriage, but they want their children to be.

jesus campJesus Camp (2006)

Mostly about an evangelical Pentecostal-style church camp gone wrong.

The camp director says in the opening scenes that America’s only hope for spiritual revival is through the hearts of malleable children. So she and the other leaders proceed to brainwash them and manipulate their emotions, telling the children that they are engaged in warfare for the good of the nation.

The film also shows the group visiting New Life Church in Colorado Springs and meeting the pastor at the time, Ted Haggard.

Harrowing portrayal of spiritual abuse, but I needed this film to fully grasp what happened to me and my high school youth group in one of my fundamentalist churches.

god-loves-uganda-movieGod Loves Uganda (2013)

Non-denominational Evangelical churches that have emerged over the last 20 years in a reaction against established denominations leaning away from conservative theology and missions.

This documentary looks at what happens on the other side, at the financial impact of church planting and aid on third world countries.

The Ugandan people depend on the monetary support, and the churches use their influence to pass laws advocating the death penalty for homosexuality. Basically, missionary work gone bad.

waiting_for_armageddon_movieWaiting for Armageddon (2009)

I’ve mostly given up on rapture theology. The whole philosophy is based on a handful of verses and wasn’t widely accepted until television preachers in the 1960s started it. If Jesus actually comes back like that, great, but if not, I’m okay with that, too.

In the film, a group of somewhat clueless Texans tromp around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, threatening international incidents by yelling that this is where Jesus will come back until security asks them to stop. And they play the Star Spangled Banner over the Sea of Galilee. Lovely.

Jewish leaders who better understand the intricacies of the religious history of the area are also interviewed, and the annual Tribulation Conference in Dallas, Texas is shown.

On the lighter side, we also watched comedies critiquing our background.

Saved! (2004)Saved_movie_poster

A high school girl decides to “save” her boyfriend from being gay by giving him her virginity. And she gets pregnant.

And did I mention she’s in a Christian high school?

Cue goth punk chick and dude in a wheelchair (the other outcasts) to her rescue.

We laughed and laughed…because so many of the ridiculous plot lines would actually happen in evangelical subculture.

unbreakable_kimmy_schmidtThe Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015)

Kimmy escapes an apocalyptic cult’s bunker after 15 years of captivity and reinvents herself in New York City.

The episode titles are hilarious from the obvious “Kimmy Goes Outside!” or “Kimmy Gets a Job!” and “Kimmy Goes on a Date!” to the more mundane, like “Kimmy Makes Waffles!”

The Netflix-only show received a positive review from an actual survivor of an apocalyptic cult.

I watched the first season over spring break last month and loved it, but I couldn’t watch too many episodes in one sitting because some of the comedy was too real.

When I first moved out, I was so very, very much like Kimmy, right down to her bottomless optimism. Laughing at her is laughing at myself, which is both healing and painful.

Leaving is hard.

But for those of us who seek freedom, it’s worth it.

And we’re not alone, in this mess of deprogramming and making sense of what our lives were like and what our futures will be.

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