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Book Review: Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther

For those of you who have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I lost one of my best friends to alleged murder inside a Christian community that had slowly deteriorated into a cult. It was a shock to all of us on the outside, although in hindsight we saw signs that things weren’t as normal as they seemed. (For the full story, please read this article in Rolling Stone).

My friend’s murder happened in October 2012–almost 1 1/2 years ago in April. The months following her death were some of the hardest months of my life, as everything I thought I knew about God, Christianity, and faith was sent into a whirlwind of sifting sand. I clung to God throughout it all, and I landed on solid ground once more…But needless to say, I’ve been changed in ways I can never take back because of what happened.

And this isn’t a bad thing. It’s sharpened and refined me to be able to look objectively and thoughtfully at what happens within a faith community with the same kind of honesty and critique I’d look at anything else. These experiences have forced me to think more deeply about a lot of issues.

Because sometimes, there are wolves in sheep’s clothing in our churches, slithering serpents in our ministries–out to kill, steal, and destroy the innocent and naive. Jesus Himself said that we should be innocent as doves, but wise as serpents (Matthew 10:16). He knew that the world is full of depravity, and that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). He knew that there would be people within our own faith communities who would try to destroy all that good stands for. Men are made of darkness, and many times they will instinctively quench the light (John 3:20).

But sometimes, it’s hard to discern who exactly the bad guy is when the bad guy is the lauded pastor of one’s church or a respected spiritual leader…

This is why memoirs like Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther (on sale TODAY!) are so, so, so important.

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Esth_9780307731876_cvr_all_r1.inddElizabeth writes about growing up in the 1970s-90s inside a well-known, world-wide group of churches called The Assemblies. In fact, her own grandfather, George Geftakys, started the first Assembly out of his living room (without any kind of seminary or ministry degree, because you didn’t need a degree to be called by Jesus!). The movement might have started out innocently enough–who can really know? Yet by the time Elizabeth was a child, it was already showing signs up corruption, manipulation, and spiritual abuse of a fundamentalist cult.

Memoirs like Elizabeth Esther’s help reveal the ugly underbelly of twisted, unhealthy Christianity (which isn’t true Christianity at all). They help us see and taste and feel and hear what spiritual abuse looks like. They help us realize what kind of tactics controlling spiritual leaders use in order to stay on top. They help us discern how Scripture can be easily twisted to mean anything by anyone (and that questioning a leader’s authority on Scripture is harkened to questioning God).

Religion based on fear and control and legalism and unquestioning authority is always abusive.

BUT let me be clear about something. Girl at the End of the World is ultimately a story of redemption and hope. Elizabeth begins to realize something is off early on in her teenage years. While she is labeled rebellious by most of her fellow church members, readers will cheer her on as she tries desperately to find freedom.

Elizabeth is one of those people that cult leaders hate. Someone who has a sensitive spirit, who can discern that something is off even at a young age, that has just enough guts to rustle a few feathers, who is seeking and exploring and thinking and dreaming…

And who eventually finds her way out.

Elizabeth was always a creative, a poet, an imaginative being. In high school, she was already dreaming of going to college and becoming a writer (when most girls in this cult were discouraged from attending college).

It’s the dreamers, the creators, the wild-spirited, that so often lead the way to truth, to justice, to freedom.

So ultimately, that is what Girl at the End of the World is about. A wild-hearted woman who will not stop questioning the environment she finds herself in (even when she is told multiple times that women should be “quiet” and “submissive”). A genuine woman who always believed in God and felt God calling to her even through the cage of twisted Scriptures and spiritual manipulation. A woman who wanted nothing more than to see her own children grow up in love and freedom, not fear and control.

I will not give away the ending. All I will say is–this book is worth a read. It’s an important and hopeful book that can help many others find freedom.

Girl at the End of the World is not just a book about a cult survivor.

It’s a book for anyone who was raised in the church (or outside of it), so that they can know and understand what unhealthy religion looks like.

It’s for anyone who just wants to get a glimpse of the hope found in God’s overwhelming love despite our feeble attempts to quench that love in empty platitudes and controlling regulations.

And it’s for anyone who wants to understand that fundamentalism is a human problem, not just a religious problem, and that it can creep into so many types of settings.

So read it. Read about the girl who was afraid the world was ending, but who finally learned to live.

Read the first chapter here.

(Full disclosure: I work for Random House, the publisher of this book. I helped shaped this book in early editorial stages. I also interviewed Elizabeth for the back of the book, and my name is found therein. But I truly believe it’s an important book, and I wouldn’t endorse it on my personal blog unless I felt so strongly about it.)