A collection of Facts, Opinions and Comments from survivors of Herbert W. Armstrong, Garner Ted Armstrong,  The Worldwide Church of God and its Daughters.
Updated 04/03/07 01:06 PM PDT

The painful truth about Herbert W. Armstrong, Garner Ted Arrmstrong and the Worldwide Church of God

Articles Pertaining To Herbert W. Armstrong, Garner Ted Armstrong and The Worldwide Church of God

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O thou of little doubt, wherefore didst thou believe?

(Compare Matthew 14:31.) 

By Retired Prof

Part I

Almost everyone who has experienced residential college life remembers the bull sessions as some of their most important educational experiences. Freed of any obligation to stick to a syllabus or any pressure to try to guess the answers a teacher considers “correct,” students can assume whimsical roles and fool around with outrageous ideas on any topic that strikes their fancy. Many of the ideas batted back and forth turn out to be worthless, but the process of revealing their lack of value is itself entertaining and educational. On the other hand, outlandish ideas thrown out just for shock value sometimes lead to profound insights. Even in high school I enjoyed bull sessions with my friends Eddie, Glenn, Marcella, Paul, Charley, Sandra, Scarlett, and others whose names I can’t recall.

If you called us a bunch of young smartasses you’d be right. We avoided earnestness at all costs and cultivated a cool, ironic attitude. Remember, though: irritating as it may be to us oldsters, that’s one of the stages of playfulness by which youth practice for adult roles. We didn’t think of it that way, of course. We just knew it was fun. College would be even more fun. We weren’t all headed for the same institution, but wherever we planned to enroll, we each expected to find a larger pool of dedicated students from a wider range of backgrounds than we had near home, and we anticipated many more stimulating bull sessions.

In this regard Ambassador College was a washout. The pool of dedicated students was larger, all right, and they came from far and near, but they were all humorlessly dedicated to the same thing: loyalty to Herbert W. Armstrong, the church and college he presided over, and the “truth” he proclaimed. Earnestness trumped irony every time.

I learned this lesson early. We all worked to help pay our tuition, and until the college administration could figure out what jobs we had desires and aptitudes for, many of us were put to work with paring knives rooting weeds out of the lawns. Nothing wrong with that, especially since it opened up opportunities for jokes. Fred Kellers had the same appreciation for conversation that I did, and I just knew we could spark good bull sessions if we found a few other students with similar tastes. At lunch one day we got started joking about the salad. It had watercress in it, which resembled the weeds we had been extracting from the lawn. He claimed he recognized what was in my salad as the very plants he had dug up earlier. No wonder we were asked to box up our weeds carefully. I observed that it certainly was wise of the cafeteria cooks not to let any source of nutrition go to waste. But I disagreed about who had dug it; it looked like something I had uprooted myself. Probably they were making sure we each enjoyed the benefit of our own labor.

An upperclassman sitting across the table cut us off. He said, “That’s not funny. We have excellent food here, and I don’t like to hear people make fun of it.”

Okay, it was excellent food. The Ambassador cafeteria served the best institutional food I have ever eaten. In fact, it was better than the food in most for-profit cafeterias, and it sometimes beat Mom’s home cooking. Fred and I weren’t making fun of it, just using it as the inspiration for a little humorous fiction. That earnest dullard who failed to get the point soured the mood and killed the fun.

Once some guys in the dormitory got started on the joys of the kingdom of heaven. This was also early in the school year, when Fred and I still hadn’t grasped the rules. It didn’t dawn on us that the dolt who reprimanded us in the cafeteria was no aberration; he represented the Ambassador mainstream. I’ve forgotten whether Fred started it or I did, but we took the position that if god didn’t supply good waterfowl and quail hunting in his kingdom, we’d just as soon not go. Also big flocks of doves and plenty of deer. And fishing holes, he couldn’t leave those out. The other guys were shocked, and one of them rebuked us. He earnestly informed us that no mere earthly pleasures will amount to anything in the kingdom of heaven. There, god will provide other joys greater by far. One of us asked what, for example, and he replied he couldn’t say, because they were simply unimaginable to us here below.

We tried to curb our youthful exuberance after that, but didn’t fully succeed. At a dorm meeting a few weeks later, our Resident Assistant, Art Kirishian, declared that Fred and I were the biggest problem he had to deal with in managing dormitory life. Accordingly, for the second semester Fred was going to be moved into a dorm at the far end of campus and I would stay where I was. We still hung out together when we could, and we kept on making lighthearted iconoclastic comments, but we learned to share them with nobody except a couple of equally fun-loving coeds. By the way, I did not bring up serious theological issues with these three people, because they grew in faith at about the same pace that I grew in doubt. I liked them and didn’t want to alienate them by calling their beliefs into question.

So although I listened to many bull sessions during my Ambassador year, I spoke up in very few. I couldn’t fake the obligatory earnestness. Stories from the bible struck me in the same way as literature from other times and other cultures, including my own. They were thought-provoking in and of themselves, and they provided starting points for discussions that might lead in almost any direction. In contrast, everyone else at Ambassador discussed the bible with the limited and deadly serious goal of supporting Armstrong’s theology. I didn’t dare make any edgy, off-the-wall pronouncements. It would never do to suggest, for example, that scenes in which drunken Lot copulated with his daughters provide evidence in favor of Sigmund Freud’s Electra complex theory.

A few scenes stand out in memory. One night I walked with a fellow student the few blocks to bible study off-campus. On the way, she asked me what I thought about the passage in Matthew 24:17-18 telling those who are “in The Truth” what to do when they see the abomination of desolation: “Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes.” I said it sounded like the rhetorical tactic of hyperbole, an exaggeration calculated to convince someone a situation requires urgent attention. Jesus was apparently using the figure of speech to emphasize that we should all try to live virtuously day by day so we will be worthy when the end comes; we can’t count on having time to clean up our act at the last minute. I don’t remember whether I brought up the seven wise and seven foolish virgins or not, but in my own mind I put this warning about housetops and fields in the same category as that parable, which everyone agrees is figurative. I thought my date might come back with another interpretation, but she didn’t. I should have spurred more discussion by asking her what she thought, but I didn’t. We went on to other topics.

She submitted the same question for the question-and-answer period in bible study. Possibly the leader that evening was Garner Ted Armstrong, but all I remember for sure is the answer: Jesus meant the warning literally. When the time comes to go to the place of safety, you actually physically drop whatever you happen to be doing and take off. Don’t grab your overnight bag or pack a lunch.

I wondered, “How can anyone believe that, literally?”

Afterwards, on the way back to her dormitory, it would have been fun to ask my date this: “Think of all those people exercising in gyms who can’t go back to the locker to get their billfolds or purses. How will they be able to make the trip, especially without packing a lunch?” Or this: “So. What if somebody gets the message in the shower and has to leave for Petra wet and naked?” But I didn’t dare play around with the question any further, because we had received the official answer. The subject was closed.

As I had learned early on, closed subjects were an Ambassador hallmark. Once a group of my dormitory mates were discussing human nature in the light of human history. I don’t remember what remark I made to cause the reaction, but one guy turned to me wide-eyed and said in a jeering voice, “You were thinking ‘cave man’! YOU were thinking ‘CAVE MAN!”

I thought, “Of course I was thinking ‘cave man.’ Adam and Eve were characters in a Hebrew myth. How can anyone take it literally?” But the subject of evolution was off limits, so I shut up and dropped out of the conversation.

Another time an older student was describing experiences during his summer ministerial internship. He told us about counseling one of the faithful who boasted, “I study my bible six or seven hours a day.”

He said, “And I told him, ‘You know, that’s just asking the devil to come in.’”

I thought, “For goodness’ sake! How can you believe the bible is the word of god, if close study of it leads a person to accept the devil?” I knew better than to say it out loud.

Some students seem to have paired my adopted reticence with my native Ozark accent and concluded that I was culturally ignorant and probably also congenitally dense. One evening I fell into step beside two of them on the way back from bible study. All the way, they discussed theological matters. I don’t know what, because I quickly slipped into “listening to Waterhouse” mode and spent the time thinking my own thoughts, letting the words wash over me unheeded. When I turned aside to go into my own dormitory, one of them asked, “Well, August, has it been too deep for you?”

To my credit (I hope) I resisted the impulse to shoot back, “Do you mean deep as in ‘profound,’ or deep as in what a farmer wears rubber boots for?”

Another time a bunch of guys were hashing out the arguments for special creation. Life and the universe that contained it were physical and therefore transitory; they had to have a beginning. That beginning could not have been accidental. Anything as complex and beautiful as the universe must have had a creator even more complex and beautiful, and eternal besides. That creator was god.

Somebody—not me—had the temerity to ask the obvious next question: “So who created god?” He used the familiar ironic tone my friends and I had practiced in high school. I conceived a tiny spark of hope. Maybe he would get a real, honest bull session started: no ground too sacred; no holds barred.

A senior in the group gave that upstart a sharp look and said in an earnest voice, “That’s where you have to stop. You can’t ask that question.” My little spark of hope winked out. How could I forget about the limits Ambassador placed on inquiring minds? On the other hand, how could anyone, even in “God’s college,” believe those limits were a good thing?

It would be too much to say these conversations planted seeds of doubt; I already harbored doubts. What they did was water and fertilize those doubts. I replayed such discussions whenever I went to the prayer closet to trick dorm mates into thinking I was actually putting in my daily quota of prayer.

As I have said elsewhere, I could not pray because I never felt the presence of anyone listening. Besides, even if an almighty god did exist, and even if he did actually pay attention, I could see no point in praying for more than a few seconds. All anyone needed to say was, “Do whatever you want to, god. Go ahead. You will anyway.” However, I dreaded sitting through the counseling session that was sure to follow if anybody found out I wasn’t praying, so I would take my bible into the prayer closet and stay for twenty minutes or so every day. There all alone I would think back on conversations like those reported here and invent retorts that would have been welcomed as clever and enlightening in bull sessions uncensored by dogma. Quite literally, I was becoming a closeted skeptic.

(...to be continued)



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