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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The road to Westmont College winds up a hill and between the estates of people too wealthy to let their houses be visible to passersby. Oprah Winfrey, it is said, lives somewhere along the road, on an estate last valued at $50 million; “one of the most beautiful places on earth,” she calls it. “I have a little ritual,” she told a newspaper. “Every time I pass the front of my house I sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’.” A quietly marked turn-off leads to Westmont’s campus, 111 acres of an estate built and landscaped in a Mediterranean style, ocean below, mountains above. A streambed meandering down the hill, wooded paths crisscrossing it, stone benches squatting beneath California oaks, eucalyptus, and exotic evergreens collected by the property’s previous owner. The smell of sweet pine and flowers, rose gardens and a dozen different tropical blossoms pouring off balconies and bubbling fountains. It’s the prettiest campus in America; or, in the words of one alumnus, a Presbyterian pastor in San Jose named Ben Daniel, “a very beautiful corner of a dying world.”
Ben called after I published an essay about a short time I’d spent living with a Christian conservative movement called the Fellowship, or the Family. The Fellowship is secretive, “invisible” in its own words, and exclusive, intended not for the masses but for those whom the movement calls “key men,” particularly in business and politics. Some members speak of “biblical capitalism,” others of “biblical law,” but in essence their beliefs are simple: “Jesus plus nothing,” they like to say.
“Look at Westmont,” Ben told me. “It’s a feeder school.”
Westmont’s motto is “Christus Primatum Tenens,” or, “Holding Christ Preeminent.” Some call it the Wheaton of the West, after Wheaton College in Illinois, which likes to consider itself “the Harvard of evangelicalism.” Its liberal arts faculty is distinguished and its students generally affluent, many of them drawn from the wealthier suburbs of Southern California. Not Ben. He’d been raised, he said, “behind the redwood curtain” of rural Northern California. His parents were Jesus freaks, hippies for Christ. In 1986 he went to Westmont to become a preacher, but he understood the job as something more like that of a druid, deciphering God’s works in nature, than that of a megachurch CEO.
Ben chose Westmont because his older brother had done a year there, and his divorced father lived in Santa Barbara. But his brother dropped out, his father found the college’s mix of aggressive conservatism and Christianity unsettling, and Ben found himself adrift in a campus culture that revolved around beach parties. Not long after he got there, a group of older students “sock and dimed” him: they scooped him up, drove him to the beach, stripped him naked, and left him with a sock to cover his crotch and a dime to make a phone call. Ben had no one to call. He found a couple making out on the beach—Westmont students, it turned out, in violation of campus policies forbidding sexual activity before marriage—and they drove him back to campus.
Ben’s father called the dean of students, but as Ben recalls the conversation, the dean had no sympathy for the 18-year-old. He told Ben’s father there were no rules against hazing. (There are now.) Ben’s father was shocked. “You don’t allow dancing,” he said, “but hazing’s ok?” The dean’s answer, Ben’s father said, was a chuckle and a “Yep.”
Ben didn’t go to the beach much after that. Instead, he went hiking. He could walk off the campus and right into the Santa Ynez Mountains. When he got to Westmont, they were brown and crackling, ready to ignite, a condition Californians refer to as “golden.” As the semester progressed, green crept up the hill from the well-irrigated campus. It reminded Ben of fertile Humboldt County. He’d finish classes and set off by himself and walk for hours, thinking about the usual things, girls, and grades, and being lonely, and also Christian things, theology and God and the pressing problem of creation. He’d wanted at one point to be a physicist, but geology was more his speed. He loved the stories of mountains rising and falling and shifting and colliding, the quiet grandiosity of the earth in motion. But the stories made him uneasy, too. They nudged him toward questions he’d never had to ask and to which he had no answers. If the fossil record chronicled life emerging from a primordial soup, what did that mean for the truth of Adam and Eve?
Ben’s questions didn’t drive him away from his faith, they propelled him deeper into it. He began writing columns for the student newspaper about faith in the world. Standard social gospel fare, working with the poor, the hypocrisy of affluent Christians, American involvement in the late 1980s dirty wars of Central America. Radical by Westmont standards. And yet nobody could deny Ben’s sincerity, his intensity. He became a student-chaplain, and then, with the encouragement of the head chaplain, a man named Bart Tarman, Ben joined what Tarman called a “cell group,” a group of young men devoted to their faith through their devotion to one another.
Ben remembers Tarman telling them they should seal the deal: commit to being a cell group forever. Brothers for life. Such a brotherhood would be stronger than “Christianity,” a term, Ben recalls, that Tarman considered nothing more than a label. They could leave names like that behind. They could leave everything behind. Ben, in fact, should ease off writing for the paper. The brothers should live together. They would be special. The dean of students, Jonathan H. Hess, became one of their mentors. “Every guy confessed to one another,” Ben remembers. “Mostly, we talked about masturbation.” It was a sin, but not as great a sin as women. “It was supposed to be just men and Jesus.”
Ben didn’t last. “I was a failed recruit,” he says. “I fell in love.” Fellowship men were allowed to fall in love, of course, but their romance was to follow a certain order. When Ben tried to explain he told me about a Fellowship man he’d spoken to recently, about to marry. The groom-to-be told Ben he had his priorities straight: 1. His Fellowship mentors. 2. His Fellowship brothers. 3. The Fellowship. 4. His fiancé. He compared himself to Hosea, the prophet who married a “harlot” on God’s command: “Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms.” A lesson in humility for the groom, and a chance for the bride to be redeemed. “You must dwell as mine for many days,” the biblical Hosea told his wife when he bought her in a slave market for 15 pieces of silver and a bushel of barley. “You shall not play the harlot, or belong to another man.”
Ben didn’t want to own his girlfriend. He didn’t want to submit to his mentors. But the Fellowship wanted Ben. The older men invited him to Washington. By now Ben knew his cell was just one of many, that the main work of the organization was not with students in need of grooming but with “followers of Christ” in politics, business, overseas. In Washington he attended the Fellowship’s only public event (the Fellowship “works best when it’s clandestine,” another member told him), the annual National Prayer Breakfast. Public and not-public; the President of the United States is the star speaker and much of Congress attends, but the Breakfast belongs to the Fellowship. They decide who’s invited and where they sit and who attends the week of hotel suite meetings, the dinners, the receptions for generals and contractors and defense ministers around the globe.
This was not the social gospel. This was not what Ben believed. There was a man there Ben had only read about: a man said to run death squads in El Salvador. That made Ben’s decision easier. He chose the girl. He left the Fellowship behind.
As the years went on, as he began to pastor his own church, he started wondering more about what he’d been a part of. That led him back to Westmont College; in particular to a man with whom he wanted me to speak to better understand his time with the Fellowship: Dr. Ronald Enroth, a sociologist who studies what he calls “spiritually abusive” religious movements.
Enroth was my first appointment at Ben’s alma mater.
* * *
Enroth was a bearish man, bearded and gruffer in voice than in fact. We met outside the school’s switchboard office, in the mansion at the heart of the campus, and he guided me to a handsome room bordered west and south with walls of windows, where we sat at one end of a long oak table. Enroth had been teaching at Westmont College for 39 years, and it was where he intended to end his working days. “Why would I leave paradise?” he said. He was fascinated by his college’s history, his evangelical Presbyterian faith, and, recently, the threats to both he perceived in the Fellowship. He’d launched his career with studies of cults, a word, he admitted, that had fallen out of fashion. “Now, we’re supposed to call them ‘new religious movements,’” he said. But “cults” are what made him. Jesus People USA and the Children of God, the Unification Church, AKA “the Moonies,” and even the Family—a hippie fundamentalist group famous for “flirty fishing,” recruitment through the implied promise of sex, and not be confused with the Family also known as the Fellowship—provided him with grist for eight books and a reputation that brought speaking fees and courtroom appearances as an expert witness, work that both thrilled and inspired him to further investigations.
Then Enroth turned his methodology inward, toward mainstream evangelicalism itself. Churches That Abuse, as he titled one book, became his obsession, and the phrase “spiritual abuse” his contribution to modern American theology not just as studied in academia but also in popular magazines and on talk shows. Like the discovery of a disease long suspected but ill-defined, the words “spiritual abuse” gave a form and a name to what had until then been just a feeling.
Spiritually abusive movements, Enroth explained, lack the most explicit warning signs by which we know fanaticism and charlatanism. They don’t usually believe in flying saucers, like the 39 suicides of Heaven’s Gate, or homegrown Christs with a taste for classic rock, like the Branch Davidians of Waco. They rarely retreat into compounds, they don’t stockpile weapons. But common to cults, “new religious movements” gone sour, and old church communities turned abusive, is an emphasis on submission and obedience, what one informant called “learned helplessness,” stumbling upon a common psychological term for a condition of perceived powerlessness that can lead to depression and mental illness.
Enroth ran down a list of characteristics of spiritual abuse: “disrupted families,” “surveillance,” “spiritual elitism,” ostracism of those who leave. I found myself nodding in recognition. It sounded like what I’d witnessed in the Fellowship. Later, I’d read in Enroth’s work about other aspects that were just as instantly recognizable:
—an emphasis on amorphous “attitudinal sins,” especially “rebelliousness”;
—suppression of dissent;
—no institutional checks and balances;
—an aversion to publicity;
—a perception of persecution, the notion that outsiders can never understand;
—a recruitment strategy that, in the beginning at least, denies that there’s anything to which to belong.
Enroth glanced toward the door frequently as he spoke. His voice rose and dipped between indignation and tact. When he settled on one tone he’d tilt his head back and close his eyes and tick off point and counterpoint like a rhythm, petting and tapping the table. His two books on spiritual abuse, Churches That Abuse (1992) and Recovering from Churches that Abuse (1994), won him more notice than the combined work of his three-decade career, and also more attacks. Fellow evangelicals who thrilled to Enroth’s anti-cult crusades grew angry when his diagnoses returned to the house of the faith they shared. Enroth, long at war with a secular academic establishment that prefers the term “new religious movement” to the pejorative “cult,” found himself embattled among other evangelicals. His tenure at Westmont spanned half the life of the college, he was unmovable; but the quick glances at the door and the resolute recitations of symptoms, signals, and warnings were the results of certain unpleasantnesses to which he had become accustomed. There were things, he said, he couldn’t talk about because his lawyer had told him not to. And there were things, he said, he couldn’t talk about because of his heart. At the height of his career, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery. Afterward, his doctor gave him a choice—his life as an investigator of hostile organizations, or his life, period. “So,” he said, “I have avoided any formal research on the Fellowship, or ‘the Family.’”
But still. Students talk. Parents, grandparents, complain. Other faculty members grumble. One man, he said, Jonathan Hess—no longer Westmont’s dean of students but still a fixture in the community—launched a prayer group for Westmont grads who’d remained in the area. During his Westmont tenure, Hess had decried the college’s conventional place in the world. In a 1987 speech to the college, he described Westmont not so much as an educational institution as a kind of training ground dedicated to producing “change agents” bound by “deep unity of mind.” The goal? Transformation of the “out there” culture to conform to the “in here” culture. That is, to make the world more like Hess’s vision of Westmont. It was a radical amplification—or perhaps a radical reduction—of Romans 12:2, which reads, “Be ye not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Hess took a Bible verse that speaks to a believer’s liberty of conscience and turned it toward a hive-minded tautology: “We will transform culture to the extent that we are a transforming community,” he said. “We will be a transforming community to the extent that we are being transformed individually and corporately…. Students will become transformers to the extent that they see and feel us being transformed.”
Hess left Westmont and began working on transformation full time. The Fellowship became one of his partners. A first step, as far as Enroth could tell, was to send out a mass mailing to students and alumni asking them for funds to support his new mission. Enroth recalled Hess’s unusual travels over the years. Once he’d told Enroth that he was flying to Peru just so he could spend some time on the plane sitting next to a “South American leader”—the Fellowship way of “coming along side” the powerful people it considers “key men.” Enroth said Hess became vague when Enroth asked him who the man was, dodged when Enroth asked him who was paying, and directly refused to answer when Enroth asked him what they’d discuss. “We’re trying to make an impact on leaders,” Enroth recalled Hess telling him.
Who’s the “we,” Jon?
There is no “we”; just a group of friends.
So when the buzz about Hess’s new group started crackling with what Enroth thought might be symptoms of spiritual abuse, he asked his old acquaintance directly if he could learn more. He was evasive, Enroth recalled.
Not much to learn, Ron.
Well, Enroth asked, is it true that it’s a closed group?
Everyone who knew Hess said he had an easy manner. Some women thought he could be creepy, but men understood; Hess was a guy.
That’s what Enroth remembered Hess telling him.
No, no. We’re just a group of guys.
Would I be invited? Enroth asked.
One of Enroth’s neighbors, a mutual friend of both men, a wealthy contractor who told Enroth that he was a big financial contributor to the Fellowship, tried to explain. It wasn’t that Hess was excluding anyone. It was just that—well, Ron would be uncomfortable. These men had grown close together in the Lord. There were things they shared, about their lives, and Ron hadn’t shared such things, and so.
Another time, Enroth recalled, three young men from his neighborhood approached him while he was gardening. Clean cut, good Westmont grads. “Dr. Enroth. We understand you’re going to include the Fellowship in your next book. Hope you’re not going to write about us.”
Every now and then, “maybe two or three times a year,” Enroth said, a parent would call him about the Fellowship. They wanted to know if the Fellowship is a cult; Enroth would promise to investigate; and, he said, invariably reassures them that it is not. But as the questions and the complaints piled up over the years, he became less certain. One student told him that the Fellowship’s longtime leader, a man named Doug Coe, had explained to her that certain young people don’t “need” college. A couple called him in distress upon learning that their son, having spent much of the family’s savings on four years at Westmont—comparable in cost to elite secular colleges—had announced that he was called by God to be Coe’s personal driver. “Coe,” said Enroth, “appears to me to be a sort of an evangelical guru.” Another student had gone to Washington to work for the Fellowship. “ ‘These people have good connections,’ ” Enroth recalls him explaining. “ ‘They’re going to get me a job. And if I don’t play along, they might make sure I don’t get a job.’
“I’ve heard from some students that [Coe] discourages the name ‘Jesus Christ,’” Enroth continued, “that he tells students, ‘Don’t use the two terms, Jesus and Christ, together. Just refer to Jesus.’ Jesus minus the Bible, in a sense. They don’t like the word Christian. There’s a reluctance to identify with mainstream Christianity. There’s a sense of spiritual elitism. The Fellowship tells young people this is a way to be closer to God, closer than they can get within Christianity.”
Bart Tarman, Ben Daniel’s old cell group mentor and the chaplain of Westmont—a position of real influence at an evangelical college—was proud and open on campus about his Fellowship connections, many of them with rich and powerful people around the world. These relationships constituted what he considered to be true community of Jesus followers, marked not by the “natural liberty” of an individual to make his or her own choices, but rather, he explained in a recorded talk, “true freedom,” as John Winthrop put it, the “liberty to [do] only that which is good.” Tarman was invoking Winthrop’s Puritan ideal of control, applied to the modern world in all its difference.
One time Enroth asked Tarman about the stories he was hearing from students and parents. “Bart said to me, ‘Where in the world would anyone get the notion the Fellowship is cult-like?’” Enroth recalled. “And then he says, ‘Ron, I appreciate the work you’re doing but don’t make parallels. The Fellowship? We’re in a different ballpark.’”
The sky had gone from bright blue to indigo while Enroth talked. He had some materials, he said—videotapes given him by someone within the Fellowship, Coe preaching, strange metaphors—that might help me. But I’d have to return another day to pick them up, he had to leave, he had no more time. I promised to do so, and Enroth shook my hand twice and rushed away. I remained where I was; my next appointment was with Dr. Shirley Mullen, the provost of Westmont College, whose office we’d been sitting in.
Mullen came in, sat down across from me, and waited. She was a handsome, angular woman of sharp features and short auburn hair, eyebrows given to arching amidst an otherwise impenetrable expression. Raised in upstate New York in a strict Wesleyan Holiness family, Mullen was a devout believer who has nonetheless forged a scholarly career out of heresy. She’d completed two PhDs at two universities, one in British history, one in philosophy, and had published a respected book, Organized Freethought: The Religion of Unbelief in Victorian England; she was currently examining the empiricism of David Hume. Both Enroth and Ben Daniel had told me that she knew about and was unhappy with the Fellowship. ”The Fellowship,” Ben said she’d told him, “is forced to hiddenness,” because to them the very language with which they might acknowledge what they were doing was suspect; they believe “all words are tainted by culture.”
The first thing Mullen said when we met was, “anything associated with the Christian faith does not need more bad press.” But it soon became clear that the Fellowship, for her, was not exactly associated with the Christian faith. “Two things,” she told me, “cover my comments on the Fellowship. The first is that there is a wide range of people in the Fellowship.” She paused and stared at my notebook as if to be certain that I was writing that down; I assured her I understood that many—most!—of those involved with the Fellowship had the best of intentions, that I knew this to be true from my own experience. It was the leadership that puzzled me. “The second,” Mullen continued, apparently satisfied, “which is a source of unease, is the very fact that the organization purports not to be.” That is, that if an outsider asks a member of the Fellowship about the Fellowship, he’ll likely say there is no Fellowship. “When I try to ask questions,” Mullen said, “I’m told there is nothing on paper. My uneasiness is brought about by two things. First of all, there was a time in this institution when a significant number of speakers in chapel seemed to have come through the Fellowship.” Chapel at Westmont is weekly and mandatory, though most students would attend regardless. Ambitious students take it seriously, not just as moral guidance but also as instruction for ascending in the world. Among all the worthy evangelical ministries and churches, why should the Fellowship have such a hold on this elite pulpit? “‘Why are there so many Fellowship speakers?’” she asked her colleagues. Nobody would provide an answer.
“Secondly,” she continued, “the Fellowship seems to have very distinct roles for men and women. I would say it this way. As a woman who grew up in a faith context, it never would have occurred to me to ask how I could be a woman for God. I wanted to be a person for God. The Fellowship emphasizes brotherhood. It emphasizes discipleship. It seems to leave women out. Its reading of scripture is selective; it leaves women in a supportive role. Not as actors, but as people who nurture the actors.”
Mullen’s impression was reinforced by her students, several of whom came to her upset by Fellowship experiences. One girl had been invited by the wife of a Westmont administrator to Washington over a break with the promise of a vacation, only to find herself serving as a maid at the Fellowship’s headquarters, a mansion called The Cedars at the end of a cul-de-sac in Arlington, Virginia. Then she heard of other young woman returning from Washington, disturbed and confused by their assignments: dusting, mopping, acting “feminine.” Her students came to her not to complain but to make sense of what had happened, to ask a woman in a position of authority whether it was true that they should resign themselves to “service.” Not Christian service; serving men.
“Our world,” said Mullen, staring out the window as a group of young women walked by, silhouetted against the purpling horizon, “our culture, it’s starved. For community. And that is how they” — the Fellowship — “have become so powerful. My student. She realized, in Washington, that there was a certain agenda. It felt very controlling to her. Every time she tried to ask questions, she felt her questions were not given direct answers. She began doubting herself. She was told to focus on her relationships. This idea of relationships as everything.” Pause. “If older men, who have not developed good relationships in their lives, want to see the light, now that their careers are successful? That’s fine. But for a young person, 21, just starting out, relationships are not all that matter. It seems more of a corrective for the mentors than the mentored. And I’m uneasy with the nature of the relationships. Relationships are supposed to be about something. But the young women I’ve spoken with—they felt that the young men care more about the other men, and in a sense, they were supposed to as well.
“I would see the Fellowship as, in part, a response to feminism. Particularly in its claim to ahistoricity. It does not seem to be interested in history. It is not interested in theological language. There is a fine line between accountability and manipulation, and it is not interested in that distinction. It is not interested in ‘Christianity.’ Doctrine, they say, divides. Theology divides. What they claim, in fact, is innocence. They are innocent of doctrine, of theology, of ideas. They say, ‘We’re just followers of Jesus. But the historian in me says, ‘You can’t bejust anything.’ They say just Jesus. [They say] ‘Christ’ is a theological term. To me, this is a resistance to clarification. Being just a follower of Jesus doesn’t provide a basis for a moral ethic. Just a follower of Jesus needn’t be concerned with social justice. It leaves everything underdetermined—and that’s what makes it so marketable. There is nothing intrinsic to it. It is not intrinsically conservative. It is not intrinsically anything. It is what the followers are. It is outside of history. A tradition always critiques itself. If you can’t critique the tradition, you can’t critique anything. There is no context for questioning anything.”
“That’s Jesus plus nothing, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Mullen. “The emphasis is on nothing.”
* * *
The last person I spoke to at Westmont was Ben Patterson, who had succeeded Bart Tarman as chaplain. I’d called Tarman with no response, but Patterson agreed to talk by phone; I got a message from him after I ate dinner in Santa Barbara and was setting out for the long drive north to San Jose, where I was to meet Ben Daniel the following morning. My phone’s battery died, so I pulled off into a gas station with a pay phone from which I could hear the ocean and the highway at the same time, and stood with my back to the wind, scribbling notes while an emaciated woman in a surfer t-shirt stared at me, palm open and outstretched. “Hold on, Ben,” I told Patterson, and gave her what change I had. The coins made no difference to her hand or her expression, so I added a dollar, got the same result, and carried on my conversation.
Patterson had no real brief to deliver for or against the Fellowship, just “gut feelings. The Fellowship has a lot of access to students here, but they’re sort of friendly-vague, we’re-not-saying-anything.” What bothered him, he said, was the paucity of faith he’d witnessed among the people involved. “It’s as if everything about the church gets shrunken down to ditto boys, to your buds, to the guys you hang out with. That’s all the church is for them. I believe the church is a lot bigger than that.”
He’d been invited to a Fellowship meeting, but had declined, because outside the pulpit and beyond the boundaries of pastoral counseling he was a shy man. Since then his relationship with the group had been little more than cordial. Which had suited him, he said, until he had read my essay about the Fellowship in Harper’s Magazine. A private person, not given to political grandstanding, he was troubled by what seemed like the clarity of their political expression: its cultivation of power, its assurances to its elite members that they are a “new chosen,” put into office not by voters or shareholders but by God.
He described the group as a kind of stunted Young Life, an evangelical outreach organization for teenagers. Young Life wins converts by starting with an introduction to the “person” of Jesus, the idea that Jesus was flesh and blood just like a young, potential believer. More, that Jesus was—is—the kind of guyyou’d be friends with. That’s step one in Young Life. But then you’re supposed to move on, to grow in your faith and deepen your knowledge, to grapple with hard questions and to learn humility from the ways in which Jesus was not like you, the ways in which he was God, beyond any person’s full knowing.
The Fellowship, said Patterson, had taken the Young Life approach, and stalled at step one; they were stuck on the part where Jesus is a lot like you, and what you do, he did. So the answer to the question of “What Would Jesus Do?” is simple, since you’re already doing it. The Fellowship, said Patterson, never seemed to take it any further; didn’t seem to want to take it further. What they seemed to want, he said, was a caricature of Young Life.
“Only, they want that caricature in the centers of power. The Christian message gets boiled down to Jesus. It’s as if Psalms aren’t real, the Old Testament is not real, even the Gospels are read in a very selective way. I’ve heard enough sermons from Fellowship people to know that they’re reading a highly selective kind of scripture. And what you end up with is a Jesus who looks like who you want to be. It’s wrong. It’s a heretical view of Jesus, to imagine that you are just like Jesus.”
“What does that kind of Jesus mean?” I asked.
“Doesn’t mean crap,” Patterson said.
The skeletal surfer girl was still waiting for money or something better when I hung up the phone. “What?” I said. “What do you want?” She stared, not at me, I realized, but at the darkness; she was just standing where the ocean and wind had cast her for the moment, waiting for nothing.
* * *
It’s a 4 ½ hour drive from Santa Barbara to San Jose, but it was night without a moon and I was bone-tired from talking. I drove so slow on the inland California highway that it took me six hours. I spent much of that time hunched over the wheel, eyes burning, my ears full of the words of radio preachers, radio ranters, top 40 country, “Coast to Coast” AM ghost stories, any voices I could find on the radio dial. All I wanted was to listen to more voices, telling me what to think, what to believe, what to whistle. Telling me how to avoid the hard questions that sat before me. Route 101 is brown and bland by day, but dark and twisting at night, interrupted only rarely by dead or dying farm towns, a gas station, a shuttered motel, then nothing more for miles but a sign that warns you not to pick up hitchhikers; somewhere in the blackness where you can’t see there’s a prison. So long as I could catch a radio station I didn’t have to think. But when the voices disintegrated into white noise I’d press play on the one CD in the car, The Shape of Jazz to Come, by Ornette Coleman. On the loneliest stretches that’s all that I had to listen to. It offered little distraction, especially the third or fourth time. Instead of hearing the music, I’d think about words and phrases. “An emphasis on nothing.” “Forced to hiddenness.” “Tainted by culture.” “Jesus,” without “Christ.”
Jesus without Christ. It haunted me more than Jesus plus nothing. It positively buzzed, or maybe that was the wind—I couldn’t say. Whatever the noise that phrase generated in my skull was, it scared me. Scared me stupid, literally. There was this dumb idea that bothered me at times, usually late at night, driving up the spine of California in the pitch black, or lying in the dark in a blank, empty apartment in Wheaton. I think the first time the idea crossed my mind was under a streetlight in Arlington, three in the morning, I’d been up late reading some documents a member of the Fellowship named Josh Drexler had given me. That was the first time I read the word invisible, this invisible organization, the odd allusion to conspiracy without the actual trappings of conspiracy. It was a theology that wanted to be invisible to the world and wanted insiders to know that it was invisible to the world. To them—to me, since I had for the time being become one of them—invisibility hinted at power. That’s when this dumb idea, the one bothering me as I drove through the California night came to me. Or maybe it was the time David Coe, Doug Coe’s son, came round to lecture the young members of the Fellowship I was living with on Genghis Khan as some kind of metaphor for Jesus, the purity of destroying one’s enemies absolutely, and David smiled and flirted with the boys. I excused myself and crossed the street to the park and made for trees down the hill and once I was out of sight I shivered, and said aloud, “What if this shit’s real?”
Not just the politics and the cultishness, but all of it—the hard, bland Jesus of whom they spoke, the Jesus plus nothing, not even “Christ.” Which would make this god what? The devil? That’s what I thought. David Coe grinning at me all bright white teeth against perfect skin, Ron Enroth’s weak, frightened heart beating time against the hum of the highway. The bleating horn squealing from the speakers, “an emphasis on nothing” in front and behind me. Jesus without Christ and I’d signed up to, what, “investigate” him? What if I was asking questions and all around me there really was a spiritual war raging? Worse, what if I was on the wrong side? Worse yet, what if I wasn’t?
 When I Googled “Hosea harlot wife” to see how common this interpretation is, one of the first sermons that came up, “The Prophet and the Prostitute,” was that of a pastor named Ray Stedman—a longtime “key man” in the Fellowship’s Californian branch. Here’s how Stedman translated God’s words to Hosea: “”I want you to know the whole story about this girl. I want you to marry her, but she is going to be unfaithful to you; in fact, she will become nothing but a common street prostitute.”
 I later obtained the tapes of which Enroth had spoken. “All through these last forty years,” Coe preaches to a small group of leaders gathered at the Glen Eyrie Castle, a Christian conservative retreat in the Rocky Mountains, “I’ve had the privilege of traveling to countries, I’ve been in China, in Vietnam with the Vietnamese, the Vietcong, Communists in Panama, Communists in Russia, the Red Guard in China, Nazis in Germany. And you know, I discovered that the same things that they make people give vows to keep, are the same things that Jesus said. . . . The only thing that was changed was the goal, the only thing that changed was the purpose. In essence, it was all the things that Jesus taught in private to the disciples. I began to realize why they were so successful in human terms.” It was, he explains, the secret of Matthew 18:20, which reads “When two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” “Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler were three men,” Coe continues. “Think of the immense power these three men had, these nobodies from nowhere. Actually, emotional and mental problems. Prisoners. From the street. But they bound themselves together in an agreement, and they died together. Two years before they moved into Poland, these three men had a study done, systematically a plan drawn out and put on paper to annihilate the entire Polish population and destroy by numbers every single house and every single building in Warsaw and then to start on the rest of Poland.” Their unity of mind allowed them to kill 6 ½ million “Polish people,” Coe says. “These three men by their decision alone.”
Salon is proud to feature work from Killing the Buddha, a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches and embarrassed to be caught in the spirituality section of the bookstore. Founded in 2000 by authors Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau, KtB specializes in literary journalism about faith of all kinds. A recipient of an Utne Reader Independent Press award, it also published the anthologies “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible,” one of Publishers Weekly’s best religion books of 2004, and “Believer, Beware: First person dispatches from the margins of faith” which Library Journal declared “shocking, exhilarating, and never dull.” For more, like it on Facebook or follow KtB on Twitter @KtBuddha.
Jeff Sharlet, Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, is the bestselling author of "The Family." His most recent book is "Sweet Heaven When I Die."More Jeff Sharlet.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)