I have this theory, influenced by my senior seminar spent immersed in Derrida and my personal observations of trends in the conservative Christian bubble, that I think I’d like to pursue for graduate work.

The problem is that I haven’t the first clue about what field this would fall into or where I could go to find a department supportive of me pursuing this idea academically. Care to help?

Earlier this week I mentioned that I think having the vocabulary to name your problem is the first step to being able to confront it. The reason I think this is closely connected to what I’ve observed…

In “cult”-like churches (here loosely defined as churches with isolated/insulated and somewhat controlling internal social culture, using fear and shame to manipulate members into continued acquiescence and support of the leader, group, or “movement.there’s usually a distinct vocabulary that is used within the “cult” (I’m going to use that from here on out, but don’t get upset. That’s just me using the term broadly because it’s handy.) which the members understand instinctually, but the loaded connotations of these terms don’t make sense to outsiders OR don’t register with outsiders as loaded terms.

Let me give an example. In Sovereign Grace Ministries, longtime members are humorously self-aware that their lingo doesn’t make a ton of sense to outsiders (CLC’s 25th anniversary celebration pageant included a sketch where two members were talking with a non-member and hilarious confusion ensued due to the terminology). The unchurched have a certain confused reaction to phrases like “I just want to purpose to” and “don’t want to cause anyone to stumble” and “I just want to be a blessing here,” etc.

But, within the evangelical world, these terms tend to translate all right. Where it gets weird is that the “reformed big dogs” (a term used to loosely refer to the celebrity pastors/leaders of the new reformed movement in America, such as John Piper, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, etc., and those at the Gospel Coalition and Together For The Gospel.) hear someone like CJ Mahaney saying something like “I’m going to purpose to humble myself and make myself transparent and accountable to xyz men in my church/church leaders elsewhere” and they think “Oh! He’s going to listen and ask for advice and is willing to change and receive feedback and fix the problems in SGM. We should assume the best.” But what CJ [functionally, maybe not deliberately] means by saying that is more like: “I’m going to meet with likeminded people who will tell me I’m okay and we’ll talk these issues through and when we come out on the same page we can continue business as usual because I’ve been open to talking about it [humble] and gotten outside input [accountable].”

The language is loaded and the mistranslation perpetuates unconscionable defenses of bad behavior on the part of leaders like CJ because it’s easy to assume the best when he’s saying things that in your interpretation mean he’s genuinely repenting and willing to change.

That’s how this works on the leader-on-the-inside talking to leaders-on-the-outside level. But where it’s most troubling is how it works internally, how this affects the cult members who are fish unaware of the linguistic water in which they swim.

On the internal level, once you’ve been in one of these churches for a while, you start to adapt to the vocabulary, and the loaded meanings of the cult’s use of certain common churchy words start replacing the original meanings. The words slip and slide from loaded Christianese to be weighted with new meanings, usually marked by elements of shame and guilt as the impetus for the new meanings.

Example: “unteachability” in the normal world means: “someone who is obnoxiously full of themselves and can’t take criticism or follow rules.” In the mainstream evangelical church, it means that plus “someone who will hurt others with this attitude and probably should work on humility and learn how to listen better because that’s Christ-like.” In Sovereign Grace Ministries, it means “someone who has concerns about how things operate and asked uncomfortable questions/has uncomfortable observations about leadership and their habits and won’t accept the standard answers to their questions at face value and is looking for more honesty than we’re comfortable with.” Whether or not this person has an edge to their attitude or has a vendetta motivating their questions, once you’re labelled as “unteachable,” you’re perpetually on a short leash in SGM and asking why they won’t answer or why they don’t trust you anymore will prove your unteachability further and perpetuate your status as out of favor with the leadership.

The thing is, this is not just SGM that does this. It happens in little Presbyterian churches turning into cults by not reporting honestly to their session. It happens to home churches, to Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches. It happens in Bill Gothard’s program members, it happens in home school groups, it happens in Vision Forum, it happens in Calvary Chapels, it happens in essentially any church or church-like group that isn’t mixing with those different from themselves or are deliberately engaging in self-protective isolation.

This is why the Westboro Baptist Church is so impenetrable with their positions — they don’t need to protect themselves from people trying to persuade them they’re wrong. Their internal cult dialect does that for them. Without a translation, they’re safe from being convinced that they’re wrong.

I call the psychological effect of this loaded language on members a “stop-think trigger” (I need a better term — is there a real term in academic use for this?), where a cult member’s normal reasoning function shortcuts itself when one of these loaded terms is used, and they don’t follow through the process of thinking an idea through from A to Z, and end up in an irrational and emotionally harmful place because they accepted a phrase on the terms set for it by the cult’s use of it, and the phrase surrenders its original meaning or vitality to the new meaning.

And that, this ability of church leaders to use psychological manipulation by defining the dialectic of a church or group to control the social and emotional habits and atmosphere of a church, is what I want to study for grad school. [I think.] Why does it work? How does it work? How is it connected to “brainwashing” or “Stockholm Syndrome”? What does it mean for someone to get out of a cult and how does the language affect that process and what is the psychological fallout and why is it so similar to PTSD?

So, questions.

1) Talk to me about my theory. What do you think?

2) What discipline would best support pursuing this academically? Sociology? Linguistics? Psychology? Philosophy? 

3) Has this been done before? What schools have programs/professors that would support this best? Should I look for a Christian institution or a “secular” one?