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Wednesday, July 25, 2018
Life at Herbert W. Armstrong College by Kieren Underwood
Life at Herbert W. Armstrong College
by Kieren Underwood
feel free to contact Kieren here (remove spaces)
kieren j underwood @ gmail .com
Many stories of life in the PCG have been told before (on sites like this), but there is precious little information on what it is like to be a Herbert W. Armstrong College (HWAC) student. I’d like to remedy this.
Let me first preface this story by letting you know that I enjoyed most of my time at HWAC. (The actual classes stand out as the worst parts.) Perhaps this seems weird, given I now despise everything the PCG does. Yet ignorance is bliss. I still had friends, sports, trips, and all the good stuff. It just happened to be based on lies.
A big picture before I embark on the details: I spent three and a half years at the college, meaning I left one semester before I would have graduated. Two and a half of those years I worked as a junior writer for the Philadelphia Trumpet magazine and website. I attended “editorial meetings” with the big dog writers and watched exactly how we produced our propaganda. After my second year, I went to the Edstone, England campus, living in the huge mansion along with Stephen Flurry’s and Brad Macdonald’s families. My also sister attended HWAC, starting 2 years before me. And my best friend, who can remain nameless, was eventually the Student Body President (of the 2017-18 class).
I was accepted to HWAC in the 2014-15 year, but I had applied the year before and been rejected. Something about too rebellious and immature. It was about the time I was leaving from Wollongong, Australia that my local minister (John Macdonald, at the time) let me know, “Kieren, you are too insular. … And think that you’ll either be very successful or a failure.”
I had to look up insular at the time. Here’s the definition: “adj. ignorant of or uninterested in cultures, ideas, or peoples outside one’s own experience.” Now, this seems, all things considered, to be a rather rich insult, but I don’t believe even he really knew the definition of the word. Perhaps what he wanted was “dismissive.” There is a distinctive culture of submissiveness amongst the COG community, as if their ability to challenge the usual “argument by authority” is slowly whittled down with each spurned attempt at critical thought. My intellectual compliance, apparently, hadn’t been sufficiently confirmed.
What every Freshmen remembers of Orientation is the opening lecture from the Assistant Dean, Eric Burns. It’s the dos and don’ts lecture (but mainly it’s a don’ts lecture). The overwhelming message of this lecture is “if you have to ask if you can do something, the answer is probably no.” Actually, Eric Burns says this straight out. Add to this a long list of things you definitely can't do. I wish I had a better memory, but a partial list of the weird rules at HWAC will have to suffice:
- No underclassmen are to own cars (upperclassmen only).
- No underclassmen are to borrow upperclassmen’s cars.
- No alcohol on campus (not to mention drugs).
- Maximum of 2 drinks when off campus.
- No stargazing.
- No sitting on the same towel or blanket of someone of the opposite sex. (Something weird must have gone down in previous years….)
- No underclassmen are to take other underclassmen off campus to date.
- No walks with girls on campus after 10:00pm.
- No inter-racial dating.
- No dating a girl twice before you have dated every other girl at the college.
- No dating college alumni (this was a recent rule update).
- No “pairing off” with anyone of the opposite or same sex. (This essentially means spending “too much” time with someone and not spreading your time equally with all.)
- No persons of the opposite sex can sit next to each other in the back of a car. (Apparently, there was too much butt-brushing.)
- No going off campus on a group date if there is not an even number of people of the same race. This could give off the wrong impression (horror!) that one of the couples is actually interracial! (This actually stopped me going out many times in a group with one of my black female friends.)
- No touching the opposite sex. (This became stricter as time went on. Hugs were not allowed. A touch on the shoulder was frowned upon.)
- No hoodies in class. (I was brought into the dean’s office because of this rule.)
- No watching movies on a laptop with anyone else. (I remember students circumventing this rule by watching the same movie on different laptops, while sitting next to each other.)
- No eating at the cafeteria without slacks and collared shirt.
- No “thinking about marriage” until final semester of senior year. (Yes, I’m not making this up.)
- No girls are to walk outside after dark.
- No two-piece swimsuits.
- No interracial dancing.
- No soda on campus.
You can add to these the numerous clothing guidelines for females. No miniskirts. No skirts above the knee. No butt-hugging pants. No low-cut tops. No showing your midriff. Etc, ad nauseum. The female RAs are told to check girls’ clothing before they leave the dorms and report back to the ministers. My sister, a fashionista of sorts, brought across thousands of dollars’ worth of clothing from Australia for her Freshmen year. Very soon after she arrived, Eric Burns told her to throw most of them out, the style being too “out there.”
Now, of course, many of these rules you cannot find in the HWAC handbook. Eric Burns and co. don’t want these to be official rules, just in case any of the strange ones get out into the public. And on top of these, there are many other un-written-un-written rules determining what you should do and how you do it which are just a part of the culture:
- If your room is not tidy, expect the RA to report it to the Dean.
- If you’re not praying the recommended 30-60 minutes a day, the upperclassmen will be thinking bad thoughts behind your back.
- If you don’t have two dates a week (Friday and Saturday) you’ll be reported for not dating enough.
- If you go off campus too often for snacks, you’ll be reported.
- If you are hanging around a girl/boy too much, expect to be both gossiped about and reported to the RA’s and Dean.
- If you talk back to an RA, or think that they are being overly demanding, expect to get a reprimanding by “having a government problem.”
- If you do anything out of the ordinary, expect it to be reported to the Dean and Dean’s assistant at the weekly RA meeting.
I could tell literally dozens of stories about people being ratted out for things that would seem ridiculous to anyone outside the COG community, but your attention may run thin. One sticks out to me. The Sophomore and Senior classes were having a get-together (apparently, to remedy our problems with disunity). I had a lively argument with my sister, who, being related, clearly realized underlying joviality. But the room quietened, and suddenly everyone was staring at us, brother and sister, arguing over the state of my shoes (which were unpolished). Shock! Despair! Disunity in the family of God! But it ended soon after, and was, in a similar timeframe, forgotten.
Well, so I thought. Later I found out that the “incident” had been brought up at the weekly RA meeting. In a stroke of universal luck, I was walking past Gerald Flurry’s office and saw some pieces of paper on his outside desk. (Assistants and helpers leave papers on this outside desk so that they don’t have to “disturb” the great master in his mediations, most likely because he is receiving important revelation from god.) I turned them over and had a quick read. Lo and behold, there was a message from the Student Body president, discussing the disturbing incident between my sister and I! “How petty,” I thought. This man-child is being sent the juicy gossip about each and every student. … And this useful idiot [who I had known for about 15 years] is feeding it to him.”
Now, to some of the actual classes. I’d love to be able to question a few of my former lecturers on the utterly useless teaching they provided during my three and a half years at HWAC, but I’m sure this will not happen any time soon. A brief synopsis of some should be adequate.
Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ– Wayne Turgeon
Wayne Turgeon may just win an award for the most banal lectures delivered about Christ in human history. This is a man who has his entire lecture notes written out, including the jokes! Previous students had already nicknamed this class Life and Sleepings, because of the … well, need I explain? It consisted mainly of reading through A.T. Robertson’s Harmony of the Gospels, reciting a few Greek words, and explaining how all of Christ’s words fit into Herbert W. Armstrong’s doctrines. By the end of this class, you would have absolutely no clue that there are different interpretations of Christ’s message, and you would have essentially no understanding of the debates over the historicity of the gospels. About a year after I finished this class, I read through the gospels myself—this time without the commentary. What I learned in the week it took me to read them was worth ten times the semester of lectures.
Principles of Living– Stephen Flurry and Eric Burns
This is the class on how to live—Herbert W. Armstrong’s way. The most amusing part of this class was that the first-semester textbook, The Closing of the American Mind, was written by a homosexual atheist, Allan Bloom. If Flurry realized this, he would have to take it off the curriculum, given these are almost the cardinal sins of the PCG. Not that Bloom’s atheistic viewpoint really affected any of the students, because they barely did the assigned reading anyway. (One student argued with me that Bloom was “too intellectual, and just trying to show off how smart he was.” It was more likely that he just didn’t understand the book.) Among the other assigned readings were sections of Augustine’s City of God, Gibbon’s 15thchapter of The Decline and Fall, and Plato’s Apology. I don’t think even a handful got through the Gibbon handout and I’m pretty sure I was the only one who read the Augustine. I always wondered why these were even a part of the curriculum, considering the authors. Augustine is the chief of Catholics, Plato’s Apology is literally the work of anti-dogmatism, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall originally scandalized the public with its rationalistic view of Christianity’s origins. I think Stephen Flurry is just too stupid to understand what’s actually in the readings, and just blindly follows whatever Ambassador College did.
Now, the real fun started when we arrived at the so-called “German rationalism” and “biblical criticism” of the 18thcentury. By this time, Eric Burns had taken over the lectures. Before Burns became a lecturer at HWAC, he was a Parks and Recreations manager, so he was almost overqualified for the position. At this point, Burns would just throw out names like “Immanuel Kant,” “Fredrick Nietzsche,” “Max Webber,” and “Martin Heidegger” along with adjectives like “very bad Basic Writings of Nietzsche and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I had the strange feeling that no one in the room knew what they were talking about; that they all just expected someone else had done the thinking so they wouldn’t have to. This was to be a feeling that became more familiar as time went on. Someone smarter than me, someone higher-ranked than me, had done the thinking and had proved all this stuff. Until I was sitting in editorial meetings with the senior writers and I realized they hadn’t proved it either.
History of Western Civilization– David Vejil
Just one story needs to be told of this class. We were given a written assignment with the question, “Who built the Great Pyramid?” Those familiar with Dr. Herman Hoeh’s crazy Compendium of World History may know that he posited it was actually Job who built the pyramids. After referencing some obscure historians, and doing some crude linguistic analysis of names, he closed up shop, concluding the Egyptian “Khufu,” “Cheops” and “Saaru” were all manifestations of the Hebrew name Job. We were thus to read Dr. Hoeh’s articles on the subject, do a little “research” and write an essay proving that it was in fact Job. Everyone in the class did so, and no one thought anything else of it.
After I left the PCG, I read the essay again. This time, I googled “Khufu.” His reign was around 2570 BC. The earliest Jew in history, Abraham, if he existed, dates to around 1800 BC. I just shook my head. How could I be so stupid?
Fundamentals of Theology– Andrew Locher
I must preface this one by recognizing Andrew Locher as one of the better teachers, and one of the nicer ministers within the PCG. Unlike many of the others, Locher never patronized those who didn’t maintain our beliefs. He was just earnest. And that’s to his credit.
We took some big topics on in this class, like the PCG vs. WCG court case, and the charges of Herbert W. Armstrong plagiarising The United States and Britain in Prophecy. It was at this time that I read Stephen Flurry’s Raising the Ruins. (It was recommended reading for the course.) It was very inspiring—“faith building,” as the saying goes—and I even sent Flurry a long email expressing my gratitude that he wrote the book. When I took the time to read it a few weeks before I left the PCG, I was sad that I hadn’t seen through the ridiculously flimsy logic and outright slander. (If Stephen Flurry ever wakes from his stupor, he ought to send a long apology letter to Joseph Tkatch Jr., perhaps with something along the lines of “sorry for mistaking you for Satan.”)
In any case, Locher took us through the debate surrounding J.H Allen’s Judah’s Sceptre and Josephs Birthright and the USBIP. The plagiarism charges really hit me at the time, and I had some serious doubts about whether Herbert W. Armstrong’s “lost master key” for prophecy was really given to him by god. Then, by some strange coincidence, I walked into a friend’s study and found a paper he had written on the topic. His conclusion (obviously) was that there was no plagiarism involved. (Imagine submitting a paper with the opposite conclusion!) This shored me up for a time. Little did I know at the time that the British-Israelism theory had originated in 1794, been through numerous interpretations, and had been given a thorough demolishing by David Baron in 1915—decades before Armstrong even went into religion! If only they had mentioned that in class.
Oh, and also: Hislop’s The Two Babylons. For anyone that was forced to read this indescribably complex and convoluted collection of myths, Greek gods, symbolism, and dubious history, you know the drill. I believe there is a technical term for the method Hislop used in his book. It’s called the gish gallop—where the arguer provides an almost Niagara Falls flow of facts and arguments (with little regard to their integrity) in the hope that the effect is to convince the listener of its overall truth. Since HWAC students know little of history and Hislop seems like he knows his stuff, we just trusted that he lined everything up. I believe all you would have to do to debunk his ridiculous theory is to check the Wikipedia entry on “Semiramis.” As you can expect, no one ever did.
For the second-semester term paper, we were to research a topic related to The Mystery of the Ages. I chose to study the Paulicians, the Armenian Christian group Armstrong mentioned in the chapter on church history. I researched hard, reading the entire Key of Truth manuscript, which was essentially a catechism for 8thcentury Armenian Paulicians. Armstrong had mentioned it in a sermon or two. (Perhaps he never did read the entire thing, or if he had, he decided not to take it at its word.) I even asked for Ryan Malone’s research on the subject, because I heard he was the actual researcher for Gerald Flurry’s book The True History of the True Church.
I found the Paulicians weren’t really what the COG’s described them as. Most scholars see them as solid trinitarians (oops!), although some say they believed in the ancient heresy of adoptionism (the belief that Christ was originally a man who adopted the characteristics of the son of god). They practised a triple baptism, which scholars point to as a sure sign of trinitarianism. Apart from avoiding physical idols, infant baptism, and hating Catholics, they had little else that would link them to the COGs. No ham-hating, no keeping of the Jewish festivals (besides Passover), no “holy-spirit-is-the-power-of-god.” They looked pretty much like an early form of Protestantism. In fact, some Baptists claim them as part of their own unbroken lineage. This didn’t stop me, though, from going along with the farce, and deciding to leave out all the contrary evidence from my term paper. What I submitted looked exactly like the party line. In fact, I had managed to convince myself that there was probably something wrong with the Key of Truth manuscript rather than with my analysis.
I think a brief interlude between sophomore and junior year is in order. Because it was during my sophomore year that I had my first spell of serious doubt. At the time, I believe Armstrong Auditorium was running an exhibit on Jeremiah, and our “tour guides” were ending by telling the story of how Jeremiah took the Ark of the Covenant and the heir of Judah, “Tea-Tephi,” to Ireland. One student told me a story of a man who balked at this crazy idea, asking where we got this nonsense idea from. “Oh the poor man, hopefully, one day god will open his eyes,” was the typical response from other students. In any case, I took to researching the subject since I had never proved it for myself. I read Mystery of the Ages and found nothing to support the claim. I read The United States and Britain in Prophecy and found about a sentence or two on something about “Irish historical documents.” I read the Jeremiah booklet and found nothing. I read PCG articles on the subject and found similar hand-waving. Where was the evidence we supposedly had by the bucketload?
I took to the internet to find some proof, but found precious little apart from what looked like sketchy conspiracy theory sites. On the other hand, there were sites that were telling me the whole thing was a farce and there weren’t any historical documents. Whenever I would read such sites, my heart would start racing and I would become jittery. I’ve never had a panic attack, but I imagine the beginning is what I felt during those times.
One night, after a little too much searching (and without even coming across any anti-Armstrong sites, mind you), I had this sickening feeling that it could all just be a big scam. I had a vision of how my whole ideological edifice was built upon a few core beliefs (Israel being England and America, Assyria being Germany). The rest of my beliefs were piled up, one after the other, and for fear of a crushing existential crisis, I hadn’t brought myself to question whether the bricks at the bottom existed. To examine the foundation meant questioning whether all I had believed for my entire life were ridiculous absurdities. It would mean my whole life consisted of lies built upon lies. My entire day consisted of listening to these lies and then writing about them for a magazine. I got on my knees and prayed like I’ve never prayed before. And then I got into my bed and cried myself to sleep.
Perhaps the main thing I prayed about in the following months was Father, show me some proof that this is real. This, put in a multitude of different ways and phrasing, was the only thing I wanted from prayer at that time. Forget health, work, and relationships. I wanted Truth of the capital T type. And I received nothing either way.
A few months went by, and I managed to stop thinking about the hard questions. Students at HWAC talk of how busy the schedule is: 20 hours of classes, 20 hours of work, an hour of prayer each day, an hour of study each day, compulsory sports, compulsory dating, compulsory extracurriculars, choir, music lessons, homework, speeches, and (if you do it) compulsory reading. The Assistant Dean, Eric Burns, used to give assemblies where he calculated the hours in the week and compared it to the hours of things we were required to do. There were always more hours of activities than were possible to squeeze into the week. The point was to make you “rely on god to get everything done.” I had another theory: it was to make sure you never had enough time to stop and think. I like to subscribe to Hanlon’s Razor, which tells me to “never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by ignorance.” This leads me to believe there probably was no conscious effort to waste all our time. But it sure did mean a lot of students never had the time to think about what they were doing.
In order to counteract this severe lack of time, I would stay up into the early hours of the morning, reading philosophy and studying a lot of (biblical) history. It meant passing through much of my Old Testament Survey and Fundamentals of Theology classes with glazed eyes, but it was worth the perpetual tiredness. At least I learned something at the end of it.
Junior and Senior Year
The later years came with two of the better courses taught at HWAC: History of Ancient Israel and Biblical Archaeology. Perhaps the only reason was that they were taught by one of the more sane lecturers (and fellow Australian), Brent Nagtegaal. I think he realizes that much of the PCG is hyper-dogmatic and relatively uneducated, so he tries to provide some balance. His classes were the only ones I looked forward to attending.
Epistles of Paul – Stephen Flurry
For a man who has taught a class on St. Paul for 11 years, Stephen Flurry knows abysmally little about him. Flurry teaches from Conybeare’s and Howson’s The Life and Epistles of Saint Paul, which despite its brilliant style of prose, was written in 1865 and lacks much of the needed historical scepticism. Not, again, that students did the assigned reading. I can recall one story, related to the now-wife of Grant Turgeon (son of the then Assistant Dean, Wayne Turgeon). In order to speed along her marriage with Grant, given there was no marriage until graduation, she was allowed to complete the year-long course during the summer. I asked her how she managed to get through the 900-page Conybeare reading. “Oh, I haven’t really worried about that,” she replied.
It’s sad really, because if students had read through it, they might have picked up on the idea that there are Christians outside of the PCG who dedicate their life to the study of Christian history and actually care about truth as well! Imagine that! Reading books like The Life and Epistles of Saint Paul, Wordsworth’s A Church History (Until Nicea), Lord Lyttelton’s Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul, O.T. Allis’s Two Views of Prophecy, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and Heretics are some of the books that got me thinking there might be other people who know about this Christ thing apart from the PCG. Alas, to the student at HWAC, this is merely wasting your time on “worldly scholarship.”
It was while taking this class that I thought seriously about baptism. I was one of the last in my year to be baptized, mainly because I was scared of doing it for its own sake. I wanted to know for sure. I was talking to a female friend and found myself justifying why I was waiting on the decision. Since a part of the Epistles of Paul class required us to actually read the Epistles, I asked if she had read through Galatians. As any Christian should know, Galatians discusses grace and the law, in, as I discovered when I read through it, rather dogmatic terms like “bond,” “slave,” and “free.” She told me she hadn’t read it. “How can you get baptised and give your life to this church,” I asked, “if you haven’t even finished reading the book its all supposedly based on?” She told me something along the lines of “I know its true and I’ll get around to reading it later.” What was really happening was that Stephen Flurry would tell her what Galatians said and she wouldn’t worry about checking it for herself. And then she would read the scriptures he mentioned in isolation (and with his commentary in mind) and you could manage to miss the fact that it said the exact opposite.
When I finally left the PCG, I tackled Peter Watson’s mammoth tome titled Ideas: A History. I learned from Watson in the dozen or so pages where he discussed Paul than from the whole year we studied him in class.
(On a personal note, Stephen Flurry and his family displayed many of those traits some would call “Christian.” On several occasions, they took me into their house and helped me when I was sick. During one Philadelphia Youth Camp, I had a fever which was then followed by a bout of fainting. Amy Flurry, who has gone through some severe health trials, gave me a room and meals and made me feel at home. It is not their charity but their ignorance at which I feel so much sadness.)
Minor Prophets, Marriage and Family, Church History, Comparative Religion– Brian Davis
It is at times where you need to describe a man like Brian Davis where you wish you had the literary genius of Voltaire in order to adequately satirize his blubbering foolery. Alas, I am no Voltaire, but I’ll try on behalf of the hundreds of people who probably fume at the mere mention of his name to give a worthy description of this man and his classes.
Brian Davis is the most arrogant man I have ever met. It’s bad, obviously, because he happens to be wrong. But it’s worse because he spends a great amount of the time in his classes telling students about how amazing he is as a man, father, husband, masculine handyman, scholar, king of logic, etc, along with amazing stories of bravery and southern wisdom that he forgets he told us earlier in the year. You might think I’m bitter and prone to exaggeration. Not at all. At the end of the semester, he found himself having to provide summaries of the remaining lectures because he spent too much time telling us how he could solve all the world’s political problems with his back-of-the-envelope, common-sense legislation. He wanted to expand the Minor Prophets course from a 2-credit-hours a week to 3, all because he couldn’t stop talking about President Trump during the lectures.
In his defence, there is perhaps no one who could get away with teaching the Minor Prophets course without seeming like an idiot. According to Gerald Flurry, every minor prophet had nothing else in mind but the Philadelphia Church of God, and all the prophecies mentioning Israel, Judah, Zion, priests, or specific people are actually code-words for the PCG, WCG, Herbert W. Armstrong, or himself.
Marriage and Family is an incoherent mess of misogynistic rantings and stories about PCG or ex-PCG members who could have solved all their problems if they had “just listened to my advice.” In regards to his misogynism, I was told there were certain lectures where the girls left feeling anxious and depressed because of how bad they were at “fulfilling their roles” or just how much worse women were compared to men in general. How do I know this? Brian Davis’s own daughter, taking the class, told me. She told me other things as well, such as the fact that he was struggling at the same time with terrible marriage problems with his own wife. As his daughter recalled it, in previous years Brian “Just Follow My Lead” Davis would come in, after constant arguments with his wife, to tell the class just how easy it is to fix up your family if you just “applied god’s clear rules on marriage and family.” His daughter, because of his brilliant and godly parenting, hated it so much that she moved out of home to live with her grandparents for the last half decade before she was accepted to college.
But Church History was the class where I realized Brian Davis must really know more about his church than he puts on. It seems obvious enough that Davis reads some of the anti-Armstrong blogs on the internet, considering he would tell stories in class about those that mentioned him. I’m yet to figure out whether he realizes it is all a farce and just continues to go with it anyway, or whether he truly hasn’t figured it out yet. Upton Sinclair tells us “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” so we could go with that hypothesis. But there is evidence to the contrary.
At one point, he read out a significant portion of the article “In Bed with Garner Ted,” which documents a particularly problematic libido problem with the Apostle’s son, produced originally by the Ambassador Report. Now, this is not just an article which you “stumble upon.” You can find it on the Painful Truth blog and a few others, but forget about finding it without some specific searches. Based on the stories he told about Ambassador College, its obvious he’d read more. Even his daughter confided in me after an especially revealing lecture in Church History, “it’s hard to believe that the WCG was even god’s church in the 1970s.” (‘Hard to believe’ is not a phrase I like to divert any real-life effort towards anymore.)
Yet no class compares to the sham which was Comparative Religion. I’d decided in the summer break prior to taking the class that I would do my own research. I read two textbooks covering Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and the various forms of Christianity during that time and was fairly familiar, because of prior studies, with Daoism and the overall structure of Eastern philosophy. I walked into the class at least expecting some coverage of the basic tenants of these religions. What we actually received was mockery. It seems Brian Davis can rally all the forces of scepticism to every religion but his own. Buddhists just worshipped fat people, Hindus were idiots who went off and abandoned their families in search of enlightenment, and the Koran’s factual inaccuracies were picked apart like Martin Luther searching through the Catholic Catechism. He once played a 20-minute clip of a Harvard Professor of Philosophy discussing life after death just so he could spend the rest of the class mocking how ignorant the man was. Really? Talk about picking the wrong fight.
The problem is that students at HWAC never get to hear the other side of the argument. It’s very easy to seem right when no one is there to challenge you. Want to claim the Epic of Gilgamesh is a clear forgery of the biblical account and not the other way around? No problem! There’s no other historians in the class to tell you otherwise. Want to claim that nearly all the Greek myths are really referring to Noah and Nimrod? No worries! No one has even read them anyway. Davis would find a way to connect any amount of dubious characters in secular and biblical history, never minding whether they were real figures or completely mythical, and my friends sitting around me would just eat it up, questioning nothing.
After the first few months, I gave up showing myself at lectures (I took the class for audit), and only attended when there was a religion of my own interest he was discussing. At this point, I was at the Edstone, England campus, meaning we would watch the live-stream version of the lecture given in Oklahoma. A few times during class, I told my classmates he was just simply wrong, and that they could get a better understanding of the religions in question by a quick read of Wikipedia’s entry on the subject. They paid little attention, and probably just thought I was an arrogant prick. Perhaps I could have gone about it better, but really, how else was I to respond to such garbage?
Speech and Homiletics– Roger Brandon, Joel Hilliker, Wik Heerma
Fundamentals of Speech is no doubt the most useful class HWAC has. The only reason for this is that the skills are transferable. If you are taking Advanced Homiletics and attending Spokesmen’s Club, you could find yourself giving a speech every week. You might be speaking claptrap for 10 minutes at a time, but you’ll find after four years, you get better at delivering it.
What is truly sad is watching your friends turn into walking mouthpieces for Herbert W. Armstrong and Gerald Flurry. In Freshmen year, they barely know the doctrines. By Senior year, they are preaching them like attack dogs, mocking “worldly scholarship,” and ridiculing other Christians for not understanding “the truth.”
An example. My best friend (and also the Student Body President) was giving a sermonette in Advanced Homiletics and managed to slip in some obligatory slander: “Other Christians don’t even read the Bible!” I was lucky enough to be called on to deliver an evaluation. The room we were in happened to function as a makeshift library, which made it easy to turn around and point to the 63 Volume set of Lange’s Commentary that was sitting on one of the shelves. “Now you may be able to make the case that they don’t understand the Bible,” I said, “but please don’t tell me they haven’t read it. Do you believe Lange wrote that commentary without even perusing the Book?” The sad thing is, I was the only person who would ever call speakers out for making ridiculous statements like the one above. Everyone else would nod their heads and deliver banal evaluations: I think you could use some more eye contact…or Perhaps you could repeat your main points at the end for emphasis….
I could go on, but Christ could return at any moment and I need to get this published. I remember the time where I had to give an impromptu speech on “Why we don’t use vaccinations.” It ended up as six atrocious minutes of stumbling over words while I thought to myself why don’t we use these obviously beneficial things again? Then there were the attack speeches. In these monstrosities, you are meant to come out mad and finish screaming. Now, there happened to be three German brothers attending HWAC at the time (one of them writes for the Trumpet magazine) and two of them were in my speech class. Both arrived at the podium screaming incoherently and god would have had to pull out a big one for me to comprehend a mere majority of what was said. At one point during the older brother’s “speech” he began smashing the podium. It was on small rollers, so it began to move precariously with each smash towards the middle of the aisle, finally stopping just short of an audience member. At this point, the podium was at a 45-degree angle, but our German friend continued to power through. My best friend and I were trying to hold in hysterical laughter. At any point in the speech, I genuinely would not have been surprised if the Nazi SS had barged through the doors and reminded the speaker that he had some important missions to complete. He was exhausted when he finished. I believe the speech topic was “The Benefits of Religious Freedom.” I don’t even….
On Worshipping Gerald Flurry’s Words
On leaving the PCG you might wonder how you can get your money back—all those tithes and offerings! You might wonder how you can get your time back—all those wasted years! You might wonder, if you abandoned them in the process of joining the PCG, how you can get all your friends back. I, for one, wonder about how Gerald Flurry can refund me all the hours I spent reading his ridiculously boring books. I used to admire the statistics you can find on the back on all PCG literature: “Gerald Flurry has written over 50 books and booklets….” Wow, this dude is productive! I have since realized his “productive” capabilities are so high because of the paltry effort he puts into writing. It’s easy when you don’t bother if your facts are true and you can pull your reasoning out of your ass. Flurry’s books on the Minor Prophets are brain-numbingly boring. One is tempted to use Clive James’ classic review: “Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs would drop dead.” God’s Family Government is just incoherent ranting. The True History of God’s True Church (there are perhaps two more Trues than necessary) is simply plagiarized from Andrew Dugger’s A History of the True Church, and besides that, Flurry didn’t do the research—Ryan Malone did. Much of his writing assumes you already have familiarity with all the COG doctrines, so I can only imagine what some poor fool feels when he requests Daniel Unlocks Revelation, expecting biblical exegesis and instead receiving a rant about how Worldwide Church of God ministers didn’t have the “Father focus” and didn’t see just how important Herbert W. Armstrong was to the flow of world history.
You’ll often hear COG members talk of “following the teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong.” You wonder why they don’t say “teachings of Jesus Christ.” During one college-wide assembly, Wayne Turgeon told us that the best way to “stay faithful” (codeword: “stay in the PCG”) was to “keep your nose in the books and booklets.” No, not keep your nose in the Bible. Keep your nose in the booklets. When asked to give Bible study tips during a Homiletics class, I gave the seemingly banal advice of reading through entire books of the Bible to get the context. My teacher asked my classmates if they would follow through on the advice. Jack Wood, who now writes for the Trumpet website, replied by saying he “didn’t have enough time” to do that, and that he would give priority to studying all of Gerald Flurry’s books and booklets.
Any of the writing that doesn’t put you to sleep was done by Flurry’s ghostwriter—Joel Hilliker. There has been a significant increase in the writing coherency as the years have gone by since less and less of the writing is done by Flurry. As one friend who still attends put it to me, “it was a real struggle to get through articles in the early days.” One day at an editorial meeting we had a special lecture from the big dog himself. Flurry proceeded to rant for an entire hour and a half about a “supercritic” who walked up to him at services and told him: “I know you don’t write your own articles.” We were asked to set straight anyone in the congregation who asked any questions about this, the justification being that Flurry’s ghostwriter was simply a useful tool for the ageing Apostle in the same way that Baruch was assigned as Jeremiah’s scribe.
What makes it worse is that editors and copy-editors are literally scared to change anything the great man of letters writes. (They would feel free to edit my work into oblivion, and I had a scrap at one point with a junior copy-editor who tried to change too much in one of my articles.) Obviously, to question if Flurry’s words are not god-inspired would be heresy itself.
An example. For many years, Gerald Flurry has claimed that 50 million people died in the Inquisition. E.g.,
During the Inquisition, over 50 million innocent people were killed in the name of “Christianity”! That’s right—50 million! – “The Last Crusade” by Gerald Flurry
You can find this claim in around 10 different articles and several published books. Now, a simple Google search can show you that even the most generous of scholars puts the number at a mere 50,000. At the time I came across these claims from Flurry, I was reading Toby Green’s Inquisition: The Reign of Fear. He puts the number at definitely below 30,000 total deaths across a span of 300 years. Yes, many more were tortured, and I am in no way defending the Inquisition; but its one thing to hate it and another to tell blatant lies about it.
In order to treat this hazardous situation, I sent an email to some senior editors and fact-checkers, asking whether they would fix the outrageous claim. I told them they might want to change it, “considering the figures are off by a factor of approximately 1000.” They thanked me for the concern. Nothing was changed.
PCGers would often tell each other, reassuringly, that they did not worship a man—everything was based off the Bible. But their actions said otherwise, because every time you were to claim something Armstrong or Flurry said was wrong, they would go into a fit. At one point, Armstrong had claimed music with a beat faster than your heart rate was unfit for Christians. I told my mother this was clearly ridiculous and asked her whether she would stop listening to essentially every piece of music Bach or Mozart ever wrote. Outrage ensued. The funny thing was, she didn’t even agree with Armstrong’s comment, but was just furious that I would point out he was wrong.
Another time, while I was in England, a group of students were discussing Steve Jobs. Flurry has a strange fetish for Steve Jobs, and has mentioned Walter Isaacson’s biography of him on a number of occasions. This means that all the HWAC students like to buy copies of the book and pretend like they have read it as well. Now, one particular Freshman had had a conversation with Gerald Flurry and was told that he should instead read Becoming Steve Jobs by Schlender and Tetzeli. Apparently, it detailed more of Jobs as a human and Isaacson’s biography was too “scholarly”—a word Flurry and Armstrong loved to use to demonize people who knew more than them. The Freshmen relayed this information to the group. I then told him, because he clearly had read neither, that Isaacson was not too scholarly at all and was, in fact, very readable. This set some people off, who accused me of disagreeing with “Mr. Flurry.” They literally said: “No! But Mr. Flurry says that it is!” By the end of it, I was just talking with automatons. I had read the book and knew Isaacson’s style. They had heard Flurry say something. There was now nothing you could say to win the argument. To think this was not even a doctrinal issue! This was just an off-hand comment. And they would tell me that they didn’t worship Mr. Flurry! I left the room and gave up reasoning with that Freshmen ever again.
When I sat down to write this, I thought it would be several short comments on some of the classes I took at HWAC. The more I wrote, though, the more ridiculous nonsense I remembered. Brian Davis once had the gall to claim “worldly” colleges were the ones who were really brainwashing their students. I’m now attending university, trying to make up for the four years I lost studying cult propaganda. More than a few lecturers at my new university have told me to “question everything they say”—and these are lecturers from the hard sciences! If you even thought about questioning what a lecturer said at HWAC, you’d be in Stephen Flurry’s office getting a lecture on why you had a “government problem.” In fact, I was—after I sent an email to Stephen Flurry questioning a multi-choice answer on one of his quizzes.
I have been discussing an institution whose most educated lecturers claim “going to Ambassador College” (Wayne Turgeon), “writing instruction manuals” (Dennis Leap), and “being a Green Beret” (Mark Nash) as their academic credentials. With this incredible arsenal, they have decided to wage war against the accumulation of 2000 years of Christian scholarship and a few hundred years of scientific research. All this is then occurring in an obscure campus located in Edmond, Oklahoma, with 80 other students who’ve never had the chance to demonstrate a shred of independent academic thought. It’s plays like a Shakespearian tragic-comedy, although I’m hoping it doesn’t all end as usual, with everyone dying in the last scene. In the meantime, HWAC can have its “Truth” with a capital T. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be busy, living in the real world.