In Defence of Shunning

A Review of the Movie Apostasy. Part 3

The biblically literate Christian generally wishes that Hollywood would forget that Book exists. They butcher it each time they touch it. It is seldom through malice. Hollywood simply isn’t that spiritual of a place, and few can put themselves into the shoes of persons of faith. They mix a bit of nonsense that they remember from Sunday School with formulas for what makes a riveting movie and produce a product in which Moses pops Pharaoh in the nose and gets the girl, a far cry from the actual Moses who carried on so much about being slow of tongue that God assigned a helper to handle public relations for him.

It doesn’t always work against us. I once worked with an agnostic woman who knew that God’s name was Jehovah because she had seen an Indiana Jones movie. She knew that God’s original purpose was for the earth to be a paradise because she had seen the film Dogma. She had never been in a church, yet she knew more about God from two movies than do many after a lifetime of attending church. Usually, though, we get clobbered at the hands of moviemakers.

The first Hollywood production I know of that specifically mentioned Jehovah’s Witnesses was Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World. The Witness mother therein quelled the complaints of her two children, upset that they could not do Halloween trick or treating, with the pious platitude: “We have a higher calling.” No Witness in a thousand years is going to say “We have a higher calling”—they just don’t speak that way, and so I knew that Clint probably didn’t have it in for Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular; he just wanted a premise for a good movie, as most of his are.

A robber in the film had inadvertently kidnapped one of the Witness mother’s two children. As though testimony that this movie was filmed long ago, he did the child no harm. Instead, he warmed to the lad. The boy, too, didn’t seem too upset at being kidnapped. He warmed to his kidnapper, for now he could escape his frumpy Witness mom and go trick or treating like every kid longs to do. The detective assigned even arranged for this to happen, after exploding: “What kind of a nutty religion doesn’t do Halloween?” He made his deputies bring the boy candy, which the lad in his ghost costume eagerly collected. It was a heartwarming scene, indeed, and then the sharpshooter shot the boy’s new best friend dead just feet away from him.

Other than sporadic attempts to make hay out of a Witnesses’ refusing a blood transfusion—it is an irresistible film premise—and a doctor crusading, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to override this bit of perceived pig-headedness, there have been few film attempts to tackle Jehovah’s Witnesses. To my astonishment, one episode of The Practice, a legal drama of the late nineties, featured the topic and got most of it right. Trustworthy Rebecca, the resourceful secretary, got caught in a bomb blast brought on by a former client that the team should have stayed far away from. Suddenly a new character appeared out of nowhere for one or two episodes—Rebecca’s mom, who had affidavits from the local congregation that her daughter was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness and wouldn’t take blood!

Don’t Witnesses carry “blood cards,” head attorney Bobby objected. Don’t Witnesses talk about their faith? Rebecca hadn’t. But mama said that she had been so beaten down by being the only black girl in the office that she had learned to keep her mouth shut. Well, maybe. It’s a little thin, but this is television after all.

Bobby determined that he would force a transfusion on the unconscious woman. He railed in court that this woman could be saved but for this - this “voodoo” religion. When it was mama’s turn on the stand, she said “You tipped your hand, Bobby. This has nothing to do with saving life. This is about your own religious prejudice.” The judge ruled in favor of mama. I couldn’t believe it. At Witness headquarters worldwide, they all rose to their feet and cheered—or at least they might have had they been watching, which they probably were not. Afterwards, as though admitted to the bar, mama joined in group prayer with the legal team gathered around her daughter’s hospital bedside.

Okay, okay, so they messed some things up. It’s still immeasurably better than how we usually fare in Hollywood. Throughout, Jehovah’s Witnesses were presented with dignity. They were not presented as the cult-addled nut-jobs that they supposedly are in The Children Act, a 2018 offering. In this film, the judge does not rule for the Witness position, but personally intervenes with a young man dying of leukemia to sway him of his beliefs. He apparently becomes somewhat unhinged thereafter, which is to be expected, the premise goes, upon breaking free of a cult. The judge herself is on shaky ground, with her marital life falling apart.

It’s hard to say if the movie is any good or not. The star power of the cast is formidable. To the extent that Witness detractors are in the audience—and that will be a very large extent—they will reliably praise it to the heavens for taking powerful aim at their former faith. I may have to see the movie myself. But even counting television movies, I see only a handful a year, and that usually is at the behest of my wife. Can one write about a movie that one has not seen? It’s dicey. However, if scientists can do forensic research on events eons-old and have that research accepted, there is no reason that I should not be able to give it a shot, doing forensic research based upon existing reviews and my own background knowledge of how the Jehovah’s Witness faith works.

I was roundly thrashed by ex-Witnesses when I pulled this trick by writing a review of another film that presents Jehovah’s Witnesses in a bad light, the movie Apostasy. You don’t win them all—sometimes they blow up in your face. Even I had to admit that it is a bit much to review it unseen, forensics notwithstanding. I took on the challenge because I knew that whatever problems might lay with the film would lay with, not what was said, but what was not said. I readily conceded that the film was well-done, and it has gone on to win honors—though once again, it is hard to say how much of those honors stem from Witness-bashers lauding it to the heavens. Once again, the stars are top notch. My aim was to offer context, since the film, by all accounts, portrays Jehovah’s Witnesses as the most deluded of people.

It does not portray them as bad people, however, but merely hamstrung in life by immersion in a cult. It doesn’t even portray them as unhappy people, just people whose happiness somehow rings hollow, as it is based upon unreality. The movie’s director was raised in the faith and says “it was liberating to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses.” It is probably well for Witnesses to know, to the extent they don’t already, that they don’t all pine away for the good old days at the Kingdom Hall after departure.

This director certainly doesn’t. As he himself developed doubts growing up, he has concocted two film characters who also develop doubts. Perhaps all three of them do—I may have to see this one as well. He is described as a “gentle, softly spoken man” who was initially uncomfortable with the topic of his debut film. The reviewer praises the film’s “even-handedness, the way it stirs in the audience sympathy for characters whose beliefs most of us might ordinarily struggle to understand.” Only the “cult” that has so hoodwinked them suffers.

Confounding his co-ex-members, he tells the Guardian film critic in a July 15, 2018 article that he on good terms with his Mom, though he left his childhood faith years ago. Perhaps that will change with the movie. Or perhaps it will go the other way, and his apparent dream will come true—he may succeed in undermining her faith in the spiritual things that she signed on for, and, having canceled out the positive, there will remain only the negative upon which to focus.

The most telling part of the interview is his statement: “The audience needs to understand the weight of their beliefs, the spiritual pressure they’re under. Because that’s what motivates them.” Plainly, this is an opinion, not a fact. But it is an informed opinion of one who has “been there and done that,” and there have been many that have held it. He has been mobbed at showings by ex-JWs who hail him for succeeding in his mission.

He describes the atmosphere of his former faith as one of “elitism.” This, too, is plainly opinion. It is like how it has become standard fare for parties on either side of a dispute to pronounce the other “arrogant” upon failing to sway them. Any time you have an outlook not shared by the general populace you are a sitting duck for those who want to paint you as “elitist.”

He even applies the phrase “cognitive dissonance” to those of his former faith. It is the modern method of giving insult, as in, “Your cognitive dissonance must be massive to stand in the face of my overwhelming arguments.” Is it really so that persons cannot simultaneously hold non-dovetailing ideas without short-circuiting their heads? One glance at Americans watching pharmaceutical ads will dispel the notion, with narrator insisting that you must have the product peddled and voiceover saying that it may kill you.

He is disappointed that the other Witness-bashing movie, Children Act—there are not that many of them, after all—is released at exactly the same time as his. What are the chances? He doesn’t particularly like the other film, describing it as “an outsider’s movie.” “When I read it,” he says, “I found myself nit-picking. Ex-Witnesses always say: ‘Oh, that’s not quite right.’” Present Witnesses would do it, too. Did I not just do the same with the Clint Eastwood movie?

Granted, the movie is fiction, and so by definition is untrue, but the outward facts do not appear to be wrong, merely incomplete and skewed. “Meagre” and “joyless” are not words I would ever use describing the Jehovah’s Witness world, as the director does—one certainly would not get that impression upon visiting a Kingdom Hall, much less a large convention. “Unnervingly quiet” also doesn’t ring true, nor men who “rule the roost.” Still, I know where he is coming from. If you become disillusioned with your own cause and start to long for the offerings of the other side, your life becomes meagre and joyless until you grasp them. What is a guardrail for some becomes an iron curtain for others.

Jehovah’s Witnesses may be best thought of as a nation. Unlike physical nations, its citizens are united in terms of common purpose and goals. Barriers that divide elsewhere mean nothing to Witnesses—those of nationality, race, economic, and social status. Like any nation, Witnesses will have their own culture. Unlike other nations, that culture is ever the minority view. The happy citizens of China will surely seem immersed in a cult from an American point of view, their outlook and concerns molded by forces of which Americans are mostly unaware and would not think important if they were aware of them. The citizens of America will surely seem immersed in a cult from a Chinese point of view for the same reasons. The two situations cause no internal discord because, in each case, persons are surrounded almost entirely by their own. Witnesses are a scattered nation, though, nowhere the majority, and since the beginning of time, the majority has been intolerant of the minority.

There are two views of the world. Let the adherents of both have their say. Long ago, in a lengthy discussion with a householder on the topic of evolution, the man at last ventured to ask what difference did it make how we all got here? I replied that, if there was a God who created us and the earth upon which we live, he might just have some purpose for them both and not sit idly by to see it all ruined. But if evolution put us all here, then whatever hope there was for the future lay in human efforts. “And they’re not doing so well,” I added. The man’s wife, who had been silent up till then, said, “That’s a good point.” Here in the Apostasy movie is a reality drawn by one who thinks that they are doing well, or at least he has lost faith in God’s purposes to remedy the earth that is now, for he describes himself as agnostic. Let all voices be heard as the struggle for minds and hearts continues.

There are two worlds from which to choose. The Book describes the one to come, everlasting life on a paradisiac earth made possible when God’s kingdom truly comes “on earth, as it is in heaven,” as the prayer says. It is the “real” life of 1 Timothy 6:19. Some translations call it the “true” life. Jehovah’s Witnesses, without too much fuss, know how to delay instant gratification in this life so as to lay hold of the “real” one. Their anti-cult detractors readily concede that delaying instant gratification is a good thing, but will protest that this is going too far, because, for them, the game is well along in innings, with no concept at all of a succeeding “real” life.

Most Witnesses will have conniptions about seeing their faith slammed so publicly. They’ll have to get used to it. It’s okay. “The game is the same, it’s just up on another level,” says Bob Dylan in a context he never imagined. For decades Witnesses, who came “out of the world,” have spun an image of that world that rings true with some and untrue to others. Now the shoe is on the other foot, with someone who comes from their own ranks and does the reverse. Let people decide for themselves what rings true and what rings false.

“To his followers, Jesus says “Happy are you when people reproach you and persecute you and lyingly say every sort of wicked thing against you for my sake.” It is a saying that makes no sense at all until it is taken as an indication that they must be on the right track for it to be said of them, for “as they have hated me, so will they hate you.” Beyond all question, whatever is done by the Witness organization is done for Jesus’s sake. They are accustomed to showing the gem through its most appealing facet. Let them learn, if need be, to show it through its least appealing one. Disfellowshiping is unpleasant and the prospect of that unpleasantness serves to discourage the conduct that might trigger it. Once incurred, it serves to spur the conduct that might reverse it, for the door that was closed was never locked. But if that one goes thereafter his or her own separate way, relations will cool. If he turns upon and savages the framework that his loved ones hold dear, it will almost certainly sever.

Jesus says both hot or cold are desirable, but lukewarm doesn’t work. The illustration that every Witness knows is that of the embers staying hot only if they huddle toward the center. They also know the expression that it is possible to engage in the ministry just enough to hate it—only whole-souled with do the trick. They encourage members to solidify their faith through study, ministry, and association. “Make the truth your own,” is an expression all Witnesses know. If that sounds cult-like, it is because, given the present expanded definition, Christianity true to its roots is a cult.

It all boils down to what Jesus told Saul, related at Acts 26:14—“to keep kicking against the goads makes it hard for you.” A support system is only a support to those in line with the program—they will not think of them as goads at all. Should one choose to pursue Christianity, it does indeed come with a support system to better ensure success. But to those whose alignment to the Christian purpose has waned or even shut down, the goads will seem almost unbearably oppressive—it is no wonder that these would depart and thereafter speak ill of the faith they once breathed.

The situation resembles the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He is probably making lemonade out of lemons, but it is lemonade all the same: “True, some are preaching the Christ through envy and rivalry, but others also through goodwill. The latter are publicizing the Christ out of love….but the former do it out of contentiousness….What then? [Nothing,] except in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being publicized, and in this I rejoice.”

Let the man write his movie. Should he be lambasted for it? He is a person of creative bent. What else should he be expected to do with his talents other than address what he once lived? I feel the same pressure, only from the opposite direction. I, too, tell stories, and everything comes with a Witness’s perpective because that is the topic I live. Should I write of something else—say, current matters of newsworthy interest, I find that they usually come down to the same ending: “it’s all bolloxed-up because we ‘need the kingdom.’” As Solomon put it, “that which is crooked cannot be made straight.”

Is it really Jehovah’s Witnesses that live in a manipulated unreality? Or it is their apostates? Each will choose differently. Thrilled to be finally liberated from “waiting upon God” and his kingdom rule, some of them dive into the formerly off-limits governments of nations with verve. Let them at least consider briefly The Confession of Congressman X, a book released in 2016:

“My main job is to keep my job, to get reelected. It takes precedence over everything,” the author quotes an anonymous member of Congress. “Voters are incredibly ignorant and know little about our form of government and how it works….It's far easier than you think to manipulate a nation of naive, self-absorbed sheep who crave instant gratification.” He describes most of his colleagues as “dishonest career politicians who revel in the power and special-interest money that's lavished upon them.” “Fundraising is so time consuming I seldom read any bills I vote on. Like many of my colleagues, I don't know how the legislation will be implemented, or what it'll cost,” the unburdening Congressman says—he is cleansing his soul, for he found the reality so different from what he had anticipated, and it has shaken his core, but, after all, he knows he has landed a good gig and doesn’t want to start pounding the pavements in search of another. “We spend money we don’t have and blithely mortgage the future with a wink and a nod. Screw the next generation. It's about getting credit now, lookin’ good for the upcoming election.”

Like the three hoaxers of chapter ***, Congressman X will not be invited soon for any speaking engagements of the establishment. Every so often a factoid emerges from somewhere to make clear that the emperor has no clothes. Perhaps his is not the last word on matters. But then, perhaps the Apostasy movie’s word is also not the last word. We live in a world in whihc people process exactly the same data, come to polar opposite conclusions, and thereafter scream at each other day and night on social media. Let the spiritual things that preoccupy Jehovah’s Witnesses also take their turn in the spotlight—the things with the greatest consequence of all. Let them, too, divide people, according to what they wish to fixate upon.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are drawn from ones who know within themselves that the reality today has changed little that of from Bible times. Then, the common people were “skinned and thrown about.” It has only intensified today in that there are more to do the skinning—powerful commercial, political, and religious interests. Those prospective Witnesses know intuitively that the game will not change, though it is ever moved to another level so as to give that appearance. They also sense a gross injustice at God’s taking the blame for the misuse of the free will he afforded humans. Yet when they later band together and impose some limits on their free will, they find that their God takes the blame for that, too, for that is an affront to “freedom.”

The urge to investigate the promises of the Bible and then stick with them in the face of opposition or adversity is largely a matter of the heart, not the head. “Sighing and groaning” over all these detestable things (Ezekiel 9) is not the same as bellyaching and complaining. Many do the latter. Relatively few do the former. The heart chooses what it wants, and then entrusts the head to devise a convincing rationale for the choice, lending the impression that it was the head all along. But it is mostly the heart.

Not everyone will feel as do future Witnesses, and some, like the movie director, will move in the other direction. Hope springs eternal. The game will change one day, through human efforts, they will maintain. The young will yet fix things—why did no other generation ever think to do this? Others acquiesce that the game may not change but they remain determined to ride it out, for good or ill. They will look with derision at Witnesses riding cramped in their self-described lifeboat. It is only to be expected. Jesus didn’t come to save the cool people. The cool people will tell you that they don’t need saving—they are doing just fine, thank you very much. He came to save, not those who do not need a physician, but those who do.

Are they really that cool? How cool can one be when in, a heartbeat, one can be run over by a truck? From their ranks come the ones who deride religion as a “crutch” of which they have no need. The analogy is correct—religion is a crutch. What is wrong is the premise. The premise that more aptly fits is that of the abased fellow dragging himself through the mud, too stupid or proud—or maybe just unaware—to know that a crutch would be useful. In his day, Ronald Reagan was arguably the most influential person on earth. Ten years later, in the throes of Alzheimer’s, he didn’t know who he was. How cool is that?