I submit for your consideration two apparently unrelated questions:
- Is the Assemblies of God a cult?
- Is Wikipedia an authoritative encyclopedia?
I submit that the Assemblies of God is as much like a cult as the Wikipedia is authoritative. We are, instead, a movement.
A Word on Wikipedia
Over the last few months Wikipedia has taken much heat over its collaborative form of public authoring and editing. Nearly anyone can post an article, make an edit, or undo edits. This is good, and not-so-good: The good of it is that Wikipedia benefits from the collective mind of many editors. Where one editor may have it wrong, several others can guide an article to incremental perfection (in theory). On the other hand, one misinformed or biased “editor” can make subtle or egregious changes, and it may not come to the attention of those best armed to correct it. Thus, Wikipedia’s “democratic” version of truth becomes “reality” … or “Wikiality.” (See Stephen Colbert’s “Wikiality” report from August 1, 2006.)
Here’s a brief roundup of stuff that has surfaced in the media—note, this is only what’s surfaced. Wiki-vandalism and counter-factual edits occur frequently, perhaps daily. This is just a sampling of the most sensational Wiki-news:
- On May 26, 2005, Brian Chase created an article on John Seigenthaler, Sr., former assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy and founder of the First Amendment Center. Containing numerous falsehoods, the article claimed: “For a brief time, [Seigenthaler] was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.” The article was remained uncorrected until September 23 — four months. Seigenthaler journaled the affair in an op-ed piece in USA Today on November 30, 2005. (See: “A false Wikipedia ‘biography,’” “Seigenthaler and Wikipedia — Lessons and Questions,” and: “Wicked truths about Wikipedia show weakness of online encyclopedia: South Florida Sun-Sentinel“.)
- On November 9, 2005, an article on Jens Stoltenberg, prime minister of Norway, was edited to accuse him of languishing in prison for pedophilia. Editors corrected the article in 22.5 hours but by then the Dagbladet newspaper had already featured the edit on the front page. (See: “Norwegian Wikipedia Locks Page about Prime Minister,” and “Wikipedia and Vandalism“. Oh, and there’s a lousy machine-translation of the Dagbladet article here.)
- On December 1, 2005, former MTV VJ and so-called “podfather” of podcasting, Adam Curry, anonymously edited a Wikipedia article on podcasting to inflate his own role and deflate others’. (See: “Adam Curry Caught in Sticky Wiki,” and Curry’s admission to “pilot error” on his blog. Meanwhile, Dave Winer complains about “People with erasers“.)
- On December 12, 2005, a Long Beach, N.Y., group associated with QuakeAID (also alleged Wikiality victims), announced a class action suit against Wikipedia on behalf of those “who believe that they have been defamed or who have been the subject of anonymous and malicious postings to the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia.” (See: “Wikipedia Class Action Lawsuit.”)
- On December 13, 2005, Alfred Cunningham releases, “Online Encyclopedia Is a Gathering for Internet Predators,” claiming that numerous Wikipedia contributors are pro-pedophilia.
- On December 19, 2005, A photo of Bill Gates on his bio page, mysteriously acquired both horns and mustache. (See: “Screen shots of Wikipedia vandalism.”)
- On January 18, 2006, popular British DJs, Scott Mills and Mark Chapman took turns defacing their own entries until Wikipedia locked the article from further changes. “‘We can’t be held responsible for anything,’ concluded Chapman, drily, inadvertently summing up the Wikipedia philosophy.” (See: “Wikipedia editing hobby goes nationwide.”)
- Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia co-founder, has come under criticism for repeatedly making edits to his own bio page on Wikipedia, removing credit for his fellow co-founder Larry Sanger, and deleting “porn” and “erotica” references to his adult search portal. (See: “Who owns your Wikipedia Bio?”)
Now, I enjoy and use Wikipedia frequently. It’s a quick read (though articles are not always well-organized) and is a handy source of links to external sites with more information. It’s also a good barometer of current thought on a given subject, but the thinking is often shallow and disorganized nevertheless. Wikipedia is admittedly weak on facts — nobody’s job is on the line. Professionally-edited publications have staff who fact-check articles going to press—reputations and careers are at stake after all. It pays to get it right. Wikipedia, with one paid staff member, has nobody. And, in practice, efforts to fact-check and repair articles are still subject to fellow collaborators ability to revert an article to its former status if they feel like it.
Wikipedia illustrates “truthiness,” a word selected by the American Dialect Society as the Word of the Year for 2005. Truthiness is, “the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” Indeed, Wikipedia scores high on the truthiness index: all the editors who get their words publicly viewable fully believe, or wish, their writing to be true. But as we can see with the recent controversies over personal bios, we have no reason to endorse Wikipedia’s truthfulness … its accuracy … it’s reflection of reality.
As the Wikipedia disclaimer states:
“[N]othing found here has necessarily been reviewed by professionals with the expertise required to provide you with complete, accurate or reliable information. … The content of any given article may recently have been changed, vandalized or altered by someone whose opinion does not correspond with the state of knowledge in the relevant fields.”
On Wikipedia and the Assemblies of God
In early January, an article came across my feed reader piquing my interest. I have a feed sucking down references to the Assemblies of God in weblog entries, and Google’s blog search evidently spiders Wikipedia “talk” pages. (Talk pages are publicly viewable “behind-the-scenes” discussion among the contributors for any article.) On the talk page for the “List of Purported Cults” article, Wikipedia user T. Anthony (aka. Thomas R., a conservative Catholic), was debating the status of the Assemblies of God as a purported cult, eligible for inclusion on the list.
This invited research.
Back in August of 2005, another Catholic from Australia, user Jachin, added the A/G to the list—no surprise given that the new Family First political party in South Australia has been “energetically derided as a fanatical right-wing fundamentalist Christian organisation” for its conservative values and close ties to the Assemblies of God in Australia (the former A/G superintendent, Andrew Evans, co-founded the party and is the SA Parliamentary Leader for the party). However, T. Anthony removed the listing by August 30 and asked for a source citation. Apparently, the BBC was blamed for the cite, but T. Anthony couldn’t find it. All the BBC had to say was that the A/G is “Another small Pentecostal body in which each congregation retains its autonomy.”
(Now, T. Anthony is no A/G-lovin’ fool. His grandmother is A/G, sure, but she has “strong faults” and “unpleasant aspects,” and he finds that “Pentecostalism is odd.” While open to persuasion, he’s just not sure we’re a cult.)
The discussion continued through September, when T. Anthony noted the Assemblies of God returned to the list despite his earlier edit. Throughout September, he continued requesting the elusive BBC citation, but like Yeti, the Roswell Alien, or the Loch Ness monster, it remained missing. The best Anthony could find this go-around was a discussion on the Sydney Morning Herald website—from a discussion forum, not the newspaper itself. This kind of citation is not sufficient to warrant inclusion on the list.
By November the A/G was off the list once more at T. Anthony’s insistence, consistently and politely continuing to demand a cite for verification. Again, the BBC is the alleged culprit, without evidence.
And in the latest round (the one that caught my eye), on January 7, 2006, T. Anthony removed the A/G from the purported cult list once more. Again, he asks for the evidence that the BBC ever referred to the Assemblies of God as a cult or even, in British terms, a sect. T. Anthony has searched the reliable sources on the Net and has turned up nothing. He allows that, “individual AoG preachers may make their congregations cult-like, but I don’t see how you can justify the entire religion being a purported cult by any normal definition.”
Still, as ever, he remains open. Just give up the proper citation and he’ll throw in the towel.
Normally, I would dismiss this kind of discussion—if I even noticed it in the first place—because every religious movement has its evangelists and detractors. Nothing in the Wikipedia talk pages raises the bar on the discussion. No new evidence is shared, no thoughtful dialog ensues. We have one quixotic defender of the A/G, who doesn’t even agree with us, and a void of silence — until the Assemblies of God is quietly added to the list for another go-around.
But this minor skirmish is taking place on the most highly visited encyclopedia site online. You know, and I know, that Wikipedia isn’t authoritative. But not everybody who reads the site knows or cares about that disclaimer. Sites and publications like this frame issues, people, and events in a certain light, and it’s possible—likely, even—that a few motivated detractors can do more damage to a reputation than an army of evangelists or a horde of neutral editors could correct.
So what if Norway’s prime minister got out of jail with a clean bill of moral health in only 22.5 hours—it made front page news. So what if Seigenthaler didn’t kill his boss—his reputation was besmirched for four months!
Wikipedia has made itself a gateway for … something. I don’t know what. I can’t call it a gateway for “truth,” or “facts,” or “knowledge,” because those aren’t claimed and evidence abounds otherwise. It’s a gateway for organized opinion, I suppose, but even then, it’s only organized on the page. Behind the thin veil of order and neatness and clean design is a chaotic brew of dissension, reverted entries, vandalism, petty retribution, honest inquiry, sound editing, and puerile commentary.
You get what you pay for? On a good day, I suppose. But on a bad day you might pay for far more than you deserve. Like Seigenthaler. Like Stoltenberg.
Were it not for the lone efforts of T. Anthony we’d be stuck in the cult-bin. I applaud him.
So what is a cult?
According to the Wikipedia editors, a cult is merely whatever a trusted media source identifies as a cult. This circular definition keeps the list in harmony with Wikipedia’s policy on neutrality, no original research, and verifiable sources. So, if the BBC ever does run a piece asserting that the Assemblies of God is a cult, we’re on the list. Period. And no amount of apologetics or frothing at the mouth will change it. It doesn’t matter which definition of “cult” you use, and there are several, it only matters what others with media leverage have said.
The editors involved on this article have agreed to a policy for taxonomy that attempts to remain neutral. In order to avoid any claims of personal or ideological bias, all entries on the list must be verified with a citation from a trusted news source. To assist the editors, there’s an orderly list, in descending value and international scope, of sources which can be trusted to call it right. Never mind the fact that articles from the AP, Reuters, BBC, CNN, the New York Times, and so on, can be equally biased as any single editor on Wikipedia, as long as it is a legitimate cite, it’s fodder for the list.
Truth by democracy.
Before we can make lists of a certain kind of thing, whether it be antique bread knives, 4th-dimensional super-beings, best rock songs of the 80s, or mind-twisting cults, it is helpful to define what the thing being listed actually is. To do this, I refer you to a nice overview written by the late Jan Groenveld, from the Cult Awareness Information center, titled: “Identifying a Cult.” Here are some salient distinctions between commonly used definitions of “cult”:
CULT — From the Latin “cultis” which denotes all that is involved in worship, ritual, emotion, liturgy and attitude.
This definition actually denotes what we call denominations and sects and would make all religious movements a cult.
CULT — Any group which deviates from Biblical, orthodox, historical Christianity. i.e. They deny the Deity of Christ; His physical resurrection; His personal and physical return to earth and salvation by faith alone.
This definition only covers those groups which are cults within the Christian religion. It does not cover cults within other world religions such as Islam and Hinduism. Nor does it cover psychological, commercial or educational cults which do not recognize the Bible as a source of reality.
CULT — Any group which has a pyramid type authoritarian leadership structure with all teaching and guidance coming from the person/persons at the top. The group will claim to be the only way to God; Nirvana; Paradise; Ultimate Reality; Full Potential, Way to Happiness etc, and will use thought reform or mind control techniques to gain control and keep their members.
This definition covers cults within all major world religions, along with those cults which have no OBVIOUS religious base such as commercial, educational and psychological cults. Others may define these a little differently, but this is the simplest to work from.
(From: Jan Groenveld, “Identifying A Cult,” [http://www.caic.org.au/general/idencult.htm], viewed 01/30/06])
And then, regarding the Christian definition of cult—especially the “Orthodox Bible-Based Cult”, Jan adds this comment:
A group is called a cult because of their behaviour — not their doctrines. Doctrine is an issue in the area of Apologetics and Heresy. Most religious cults do teach what the Christian church would declare to be heresy but some do not. Some cults teach the basics of the Christian faith but have behavioural patterns that are abusive, controlling and cultic.
This occurs in both Non-Charismatic and Charismatic churches. These groups teach the central doctrines of the Christian faith and then add the extra authority of leadership or someone’s particular writings. They centre around the interpretations of the leadership and submissive and unquestioning acceptance of these is essential to be a member of good standing. This acceptance includes what we consider non-essential doctrines e.i. not salvation issues (such as the Person and Work of Christ.) The key is that they will be using mind control or undue influence on their members.
(From: Jan Groenveld, “Identifying A Cult,” [http://www.caic.org.au/general/idencult.htm], viewed 01/30/06])
I like this structure. It resonates with what I’ve read on cults and various cult practices, and provides a nice framework to know what is being discussed when the world “cult” is brandished. I especially like the focus being on behavior over and above doctrine. On one hand, anything religious is a cult. But from within orthodox Christianity, typically only those groups outside of orthodoxy, with aberrant doctrines, are viewed as cults. However, given the framework above, we can say that even within orthodoxy, there may be an adherence to orthodox doctrines, and yet individual churches or pastors can rise to the level of cult-status by their behaviors. This is like seeing definition three (universal definition) worked out from within a group that is mainstream and religious.
So, is the Assemblies of God a cult? Yes. According to the secular definition. And if a BBC journalist were writing with this definition in mind, we might easily get tagged as a cult without failing any sort of cultic litmus test. And if that happens, guess what? Editors for the leading Internet encyclopedia have all the rationale needed to identify us as a cult.
And thus a long-standing meme is revitalized. Truthiness wins and truth gets knocked on the head.
I suspect there are several A/G churches operating as cults according to the universal definition—or even the Christian definition. It would come as no surprise to me. However, I wouldn’t be shocked if it turns out there are Baptist cults that fit the bill, too. Or Methodist cults. Anywhere you find people, something will go wrong somewhere, eventually. And before you know it, some intrepid Wikipedian is taking names and editing stubs.
But Pentecostals and Charismatics sometimes get a raw deal. Do a few searches online and you’ll find the A/G mentioned in connection with emotional abuse and mind-control on various watch lists. The whole “Holy Spirit” thing is just too weird for some Christians to grapple with. As one anonymous poster writes on FactNet.org, “Casting demons out or exorcism is a procedure that is not performed in mainstream religions; only extremist cults perform these kinds of bizarre, abusive, sadistic, mind-control rituals.”
If Not a Cult, What Then?
Way back in September 1998, historian Vinson Synan, dean of the Regent University School of Divinity, told the Pentecostal World Conference that about 25 percent of the world’s Christian population is Pentecostal or Charismatic. Yes. In all, one in four Christians today believe in this sort of stuff. And that number increases daily.
While there is evidence for an unbroken thread of Pentecostal/Charismatic-like mysticism running throughout church history, the modern phenomenon began with the “touch felt around the world” on January 1, 1901 when Agnes Ozman was baptized in the Spirit and spoke in tongues at Bethel Bible College, under Charles Fox Parham’s leadership. From 1906–1909, it reached a tipping point with the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, California, led by a former student of Parham’s, William Joseph Seymour. This revival and the worldwide attention it captured is often considered the genesis of the movement that became Pentecostalism.
From humble beginnings at a backwater Bible college under a racist teacher, to a racially integrated revival, to the formation of new denominations by 1914, to the charismatic renewals of the late 50s, to the incredible, explosive growth of the Pentecostal world in the global South (Brazil’s Pentecostal population exceeds that of America by far), the Pentecostal/Charismatic cultural phenomenon is nothing less than a full-fledged movement.
But what is a movement, you ask?
I’m grateful to Steve Addison‘s weblog for providing this succinct quote from Luther P. Gerlach and Virgina H. Hine, authors of People, power, change: Movements of social transformation, a sociological study of the Black Panthers and Pentecostals:
“A movement is a group of people who are organized for, ideologically motivated by, and committed to a purpose which implements some form of personal or social change; who are actively engaged in the recruitment of others; and whose influence is spreading in opposition to the established order within which it originated.”
On the surface, this helpful definition sounds suspiciously like the “universal definition” of cults cited above. However, looking closely, I see a significant difference between mind-controlling cults and movements like the A/G: with a cult, personal change is imposed by an authoritarian structure for the benefit of the hierarchy itself. With a movement, personal change is organic: it comes from within. In the case of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement that change from within is not imposed by any human agency, it is enabled by Divine agency acting from within, and the change benefits the individual first. Society then benefits as individuals are themselves empowered to be change agents within their culture.
Does that sound like Acts 2 to you?
Anything worth doing well is worth doing badly for personal gain. Simon the ex-sorcerer fell prey to this temptation when he was first impressed with Philip going about working miracles. Even after his own conversion, when Peter and John came to Samaria, Simon was fascinated that when the disciples laid hands on people, folks were filled with the Spirit. So, naturally, he offered money and then begged of them, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” Of course, that earned him a stern rebuke (Acts 8:9–25).
Perhaps today there are not enough stern rebukes going on in the Pentecostal and Charismatic world. Perhaps there are too many cult-like churches rising up in our midst because, after all, the temptation to capitalize on a movement’s power to change and mobilize is heady stuff. There’s a good reason we are admonished to “lay hands on no man suddenly” (1 Timothy 5:22). Men and women of anemic character, of uncritical, impressionable minds, and of weak doctrine and practice should not be suddenly thrust into leadership. I am not sure that “premature ordination” is really the root of doctrinal and behavioral excess in some churches, but it does seem clear to me that without leaders evidencing the spiritual transformation that is at the heart of our movement we are vulnerable to every Simon the Sorcerer who wants to mold his church into a cultic center of power.
Despite the inaccuracies of Wikipedia and the discussion over whether the A/G is a cult, or not, the truth is, perhaps there is more fodder for this claim than we would like. It’s Wikipedia’s job to be “truthy.” Whatever that is. But it’s our job to be spotless.
Think there’ll ever be a Wikipedia list of purported spotless denominations?
Websites of Note:
In addition to the articles linked to in my story above, I found these posts on Steve Addison’s blog worth reading:
Also see “The Origins of the Pentecostal Movement” by the inimitable Vinson Synan, Ph. D.
[tags]Adam-Curry, Agnes-Ozman, American-Dialect-Society, Assemblies-of-God, Assembly-of-God, Australia, BBC, Bethel-Bible-College, Bill-Gates, BlogRodent, Charismatic, Charismatics, Charles-Fox-Parham, colbert-report, controversy, cult, cult-watch, cults, Dave-Winer, encyclopedia, Family-First, Global-South, Jan-Groenveld, Jens-Stoltenberg, Jimmy-Wales, John-Seigenthaler, Larry-Sanger, mind-control, brainwashing, movements, MTV, orthodoxy, pedophilia, Pentecostal, Pentecostalism, Pentecostals, QuakeAID, Regent-University, religious-movements, Robert-Kennedy, Stephen-Colbert, truthiness, USA-Today, vandalism, Vinson-Synan, Wikiality, Wikipedia, William-Joseph-Seymour[/tags]