Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart
Although I found some valuable insights about cult behavior in this self-published novel, I would not recommend it for general reading. The author, June Summers, reports that she escaped from a cult 20 years ago. I assume that she belonged to a charismatic Christian church much like the one in her novel. Summers adopts a definition of cult as any religion that does not comply with a particular form of evangelical Christianity. Among her “signs” of a cult is “emphasis on experience and emotion instead of scriptural truths.”
In the story, Penny, the main character in the novel, moves from her home in the Midwest to the Portland, Oregon area to try to find herself. She quits her job and has a conflict with her boyfriend Rick, who is dedicated to his golf career and does not wish to relocate with her to Portland. In Oregon, Penny encounters a lively Christian community in Grace Church. Mark, a man who speaks with an impediment that some women find irresistible, leads the independent church.
Throughout the book, the author writes Mark’s words as “petty,” “spiit,” “paise,” “poblem,”and so on. Mark has piercing blue eyes, but is otherwise a frumpy sort of fellow with a pompadour hairdo. Early in the story, we learn that Mark has illicit sexual encounters with women in the church, and some of them have complained. Dissidents are “handled” or disfellowshipped and shunned by the community. Strict about marriage and sexual misconduct at first, Penny begins to experience changes in the church and herself over time. She succumbs to these changes as they happen gradually after certain charismatic bursts that surprise the congregation. She convinces her boyfriend Rick to marry her, drop golf, and join the church. He does so reluctantly. Part of the reason he agrees to marry Penny is that he is really horny after not having seen her for some time, and she will not have sex with him until they are married. Sexual tension is a prominent theme in this book—sex between Christians who fight their impulses to comply at first with the rules. No frontal hugging is allowed, for example, until the pastor changes the rule.
During charismatic leadings from “God,” some people in the church begin to dance spontaneously in an erotic fashion. At first, Mark, the pastor, is confused and wants to stop this behavior; but because of his own lewd propensities, he allows the “spiritual connection move” to thrive. Mark gets caught up in it, too, especially with a few of his closest female prayer partners. Mark is married, as are most of the characters, but soon the spirit dancing leads to illicit encounters. Couples dance and make out in the “mega connection” room, and many succumb to the “mistake” of intercourse with someone other than their spouse. The “connections” are so powerful that church members enter a kind of ecstasy that they interpret as God’s energy flowing through them.
Tragedy hits the congregation when one member drowns her young son to spare him from possibly becoming an active homosexual like his father. The already-controversial church is now thrust into the news. Ex-members speak out about the sexual abuse and erotic activity, some threaten lawsuits, and many begin to doubt the holiness they felt in the group.
Despite her efforts to be a good “churchite,” Penny struggles with the obvious flaws in her community. She gets away for a while to think. She stays with an aunt who had been trying to convince Penny to leave the group for some time. While attending to her aunt’s garden, Penny picks up an apparently good cucumber that has been hollowed out by a worm. At that moment, she hears the voice of Jesus tell her that the fruit is rotten, like her church. She has a disturbing dream about the occult nature of her church. After five years of devotion in the church, she can finally admit to herself that it is a “cult.” She talks with dissidents who convince her to leave. She, in turn, helps others to quit the cult.
After the end of her story, Summers offers help through her Web site for people bothered by cult experiences, but she is nonspecific, save suggesting they contact her through email. Summers uses an odd spelling of occult for her title, but she clearly intends to convey that the devil can work through spiritual (occult) experience, even in a born-again, spirit-filled Christian community. She implies that the devil can turn a church into a cult through occult experiences that do not square with scripture. For example, illicit sex violates the commandment, “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”
In my estimation, the book fails as a novel. I did not enjoy reading it. Perhaps the challenge was the tedious dialog among mostly humorless characters too simply developed. Mark, the misguided and perverse pastor, remained in caricature throughout for me. I struggled to believe that any woman would fall for this guy. In contrast, Frank Peretti’s occult fiction (This Present Darkness) also feeds the fundamentalist Christian imagination, but Peretti manages to entertain the reader with his comic-book notion of evil and the occult. I felt little richness of place throughout the Summers book, so it was less believable.
The author missed great opportunities to create suspense and sympathy. For example, when the distraught wife of a gay parishioner drowns their son Willy, I felt removed from the child. We have no insights into little Willy’s character, whether he had friends, his hair color, how he played. The author inserts sexual tension between characters, but not enough for it to feel more important than creepy adult behavior. Exorcisms described in Chapter 7 offer little dramatic power. Occult activity amounts to eyes locked in trance and group ecstasy with erotic touching. I was not convinced that the devil had anything to do with what seemed more like loosened libidos. Descriptions I’ve read about Umbanda or Macumba dance rituals are far more interesting.
In the genre of fundamentalist Christian literature, cult and occult carry the same sinister though equivocal spiritual warning—they both are “of the devil.” However, there are other ways to view cult behavior, and to portray occultism more realistically as not only deceptive, but ridiculous, and sacredly sublime, as well. See my review of another novel, Imaginary Friends, also based on a real cult experience.
Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2006, Page