Back in February, Jonny Sacramanga gave an interview about Leaving Fundamentalism. A section of the interview really jumped out at me, so I bookmarked it with every intention writing a post. In the interview, Sacramanga talks about positive peer pressure in relation to Accelerated Christian Education (ACE). On his blog, ACE is described as
a cult-like fundamentalist education system where children work individually, in silence, at isolated desks. The science curriculum emphasises Young Earth Creationism and mocks evolution. The politics curriculum teaches the views of the Christian Right.
You’re probably wondering what ACE has to do with positive peer pressure, Christian Science, and anything else I’ve written about. I can’t speak to ACE specifically, but I can speak to cult-like systems in relation to Christian Science, and more specifically the culture at Principia College and the surrounding community.
Although I was not raised with ACE or Charismatic Christian culture, I could relate to Sacramanga when he talked about his initial experiences with ACE, I found they echoed my initial experiences with Principia.
(JS) And I thought this was heaven. I felt so lucky to be surrounded only by good Christians, away from the evil and the temptations of the world. I wouldn’t have used the word ‘lucky’ at the time, because I was taught ‘luck’ came from the root word ‘Lucifer’, as in Satan.
There was quiet music playing in the background, and I was where God wanted me to be. Everyone was so polite and so friendly. I find it sinister now, because I think it was unreal, but it seemed wonderful to me then. And I felt so lucky to be learning the truth about Creation…
…because everyone else in the world was being taught these ridiculous lies about evolution, and I was one of a fortunate few who was hearing the truth about how God made the world.
I had gone to a large, public schools. My high school had over 4,000 students, with maybe four Christian Scientists in attendance (including myself and my sibling). Alcohol and drugs were a problem, and for a time there was a pushy boyfriend who wanted sex. At first, Principia was amazing, a beautiful campus (my husband mistook my high school for a prison complex), small class sizes, and everyone was a Christian Scientist. There were no odd looks that I didn’t drink, no one offered me a smoke, no one pressured me for sex (I also didn’t date any Prin guys).
(LL) It seems that many people really appreciate the absence of peer pressure and other positive aspects so that they don’t immediately realize all the crappy things being taught.
(JS) Well, there was peer pressure. I just thought of it as positive peer pressure. It was pressure to be the right kind of Christian, not to be worldly.
My father had lectured me at length about the dangers of peer pressure. My friends were pretty mild, at home the “pressure” had come from friends dragging “inexperienced” me through a sex toy shop (mostly to slut-shame, giggle and blush), offering cough/cold medicine for a hacking cold, and worrying about my eternal salvation. There was none of that at Prin. While we did get the occasional giggle from the penis-shaped pasta at Spencer’s Gifts, the strongest thing anyone offered me was a caffeinated Dr. Pepper (the horror!!), and as Christian Scientists, we didn’t need to worry about our “eternal salvation.”
(LL) How did this “godly” peer pressure play out?
(JS) Well, for me it was a big thing to be the first to the door at break times so I could hold the door for everyone on the way out…
… to show what a good servant I was.
In the last year I was there, we had morning prayer meetings for the older students, and because the church was very Charismatic (even though ACE isn’t at all), it was a big thing to show how spiritual I was by praying in tongues ecstatically and delivering prophecies.
At Principia I faced a different kind of peer pressure: the pressure to go to Sunday School, later church, on Sundays (my BFF insisted I join her Sunday School class because her teacher was “so inspiring”). The pressure to go to Tuesday morning Christian Science Org. testimony meetings. The pressure to go to Sunday night hymn sing. The pressure to read the weekly Bible Lesson. The pressure to attend Christian Science talks on campus — “professor X is such an inspiring speaker!” The pressure to participate in House Bonding Activities (often attending Sunday hymn sing or Church as a group).
The biggest pressure, was to demonstrate Christian Science. This pressure didn’t come from my immediate circle of friends, as individuals we were all in different places with “our understanding” of Science, it was campus-wide. We had to demonstrate supply — usually financial so that we could continue to be enrolled (or keep a scholarship), we had to demonstrate academic success (in many cases this was tied to financial supply/scholarships), we had to demonstrate healing, and we had to demonstrate support by actively participating in Christian Science activities on campus.
Some might argue “had to” might be a bit strong, but when a faculty member can remark they “haven’t seen you in Sunday School recently” and professors can require you to go to Christian Science talks, “had to” doesn’t begin to describe it.
Your peers are standing up in Tuesdays to give testimonies of healing, your classmates work Christian Science into philosophy, religion, history, and sociology classes (possibly others as well, but these seemed to have significant crossover). The roommate that is the House Metaphysical Head, marking the Books for the House Quiet Study Rooms, and pick readings for house meetings. The roommate that is “working on” something and gets up at 6 am to read the Bible Lesson every day, because Quiet Time is for prayerfully supporting the campus, not reading the lesson (or taking a shower, or doing homework, or sleeping, or making out with your boyfriend).
Christian Science forces people to create a facade of everything is Perfect. There are no chinks in the armor of God. To admit shortcomings is to give power to mortal mind. God is working his purpose out! Fear not little flock! The “everything is Perfect” attitude penetrates the community at the deepest levels.
Then there is the darker side to it all, the side you can’t talk about because it would be admitting something less than perfection.
The roommate that calls her CS Practitioner a dozen times a day and is so paralyzed at the thought of making a decision she has to call her CSP for advice – you start to wonder if the relationship is healthy, even from a Christian Science perspective. The roommate with debilitating menstrual cramps that are so bad she can’t get out of bed two days a month — you have a class with her and are quizzed by the teacher as to her absence. The friend on a full academic scholarship who spends nights in the Science Center because she falls asleep studying (or making out with her boyfriend). The young woman who is asked to leave because the college is not equipped to handle her severe eating disorder. The couple who spent a quarter on an “Office Of Student Life Abroad” because they were “caught” having sex and were “requested” to leave. The young woman who one day stopped going to class, and suddenly, completely disappeared from campus — I’m sure someone knows what happened, but none of our mutual professors had any idea. The students who end up on “academic probation” because they dedicate themselves to their department — usually music or drama, at the peril of their other classes.
Then there are the countless students who suffer from depression, a nasty or abusive relationship, simply being overwhelmed by all the demands placed on them (or that they’ve volunteered for). The solution was usually “Have you tried reading the Lesson, or talking with your Practitioner?”
The way Christian Science culture plays out at Principia, it is impossible to seek help, medical or otherwise. You can’t talk to anyone about these problems, that would be admitting failure, opening yourself to malicious animal magnetism, aggressive mental suggestion, or a number of other unreal monsters lurking in the dorm closets, besides no one else on campus could possibly be having these problems, they’re Perfect Christian Scientists. You should be demonstrating over the problems, having remarkable healings and sharing them openly with the campus on Tuesday morning testimony meetings.
Principia offers “Confidential Counseling” through the Resident Counselors (RC) but given the gossipy atmosphere that pervades the institution, I know very few people who availed themselves of this service. I’m also unclear what exact qualifications the RCs need, beyond a “solid foundation” in Christian Science, and Christian Science isn’t all that helpful when trying to manage a house full of college students and their needs.
It took me several years before I’d developed close enough relationships before I opened up and talked with some of my friends about some of my doubts and fears regarding Christian Science, a failed relationship, Principia, etc. It was still done largely in secret. To my surprise we were struggling with similar situations, and in one case, they were even more frustrated with Principia than I was.
Like those entangled in ACE, Christian Scientists pride themselves in knowing the truth, and those who have demonstrated their way to Principia are a special group. The cult-like mindset that shuts out all non-Christian Science thought and is reinforced by the community. Sure, there may be doubters, but they largely keep their heretical thoughts to themselves. It isn’t until you get out of the entangled mindset you start to realize what seemed like positive peer pressure, was the continued indoctrination of Christian Science.