Why I Cannot Support Frontline Family Ministries’ Abuse Prevention Week: Part Four, Not Open

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By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

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In this series: Part One, Introduction | Part Two, Kalyn’s SecretPart Three, Kalyn’s Secret (Continued) | Part Four, Not Open | Part Five, Unmask the Predators | Part Six, Recommended Resources | Part Seven, Conclusion

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Part Four, Not Open

“SOMETHING IS TERRIBLY WRONG HERE! THE PAIN AROUND US IS NOT DECREASING!”

~ Lisa Cherry, Not Open, p. 19, capitalization in original

On Tuesday I examined Kalyn’s Secret, written in 2009 by Lisa Cherry and her daughter Kalyn, which tells the story of how then-14-year-old Kalyn was groomed for sexual abuse via phone and online interactions with a 46-year-old male parishioner from their church. That examination was in two parts (here and here). I argued that based on Kalyn’s Secret alone, I would highly discourage people from consulting Lisa Cherry and Frontline Family Ministries for advice on sexual abuse prevention. This is due to multiple factors ranging from their advocacy of unbiblical theology, their perspective on mental health, their obsession with demonology, to their shockingly bad recommendations of people like Bill Gothard and Reb Bradley and organizations like IBLP and Teen Mania.

Today I will be looking at Not Open. This book was written in 2013 by Lisa and her son Lucas. Every chapter is almost entirely Lisa’s voice; however, at the end of each chapter Lucas writes a “Millennial Moment,” where he explains why he as a Millennial agrees with what his mom said in that chapter. The book comes highly recommended by individuals most of you are probably familiar with: WallBuilders’ David Barton, American Family Association’s Don Wildmon, and Teen Mania’s Katie Luce.

Not Open is the one book I am examining that is not specifically about sexual abuse prevention. I believe it is nonetheless important for understanding the Cherry family’s worldview. The book argues that Christians in 2014 face a uniquely apocalyptic moment in history because, as the back cover declares, “Only 1% of the Millennial generation have a biblical world view.” Basically, the American Christian sky is falling. No generation has faced the intensity of spiritual warfare and cultural decay that we do, it is argued, and thus those parenting the current generation face a do-or-die situation. Lisa argues that we must be “Not Open” to the current culture because “Open” is the position of Satan. To be “Not Open” means to take stereotypical American conservative Christian positions: biblical literalism, a return to Platonic absolutism, patriarchy, traditional gender roles, corporal punishment, anti-homosexuality, and so forth. (Note: I say “stereotypical” because I think it’s overgeneralizing and/or unfair to say those positions are necessarily “conservative” or “Christian.”) Christians today need to follow Noah’s example and become a “remnant,” building metaphorical “arks” (homes/families, see p. 221) to withstand the cultural and spiritual storms to come.

Honestly, this is Lisa’s weakest book in terms of analysis. The biblical exegesis is particularly shoddy, the historical and philosophical claims are almost always inaccurate, and the statistics she uses are often misquoted or misunderstood. While I do not agree with most of the book, I have read plenty of books that say these same things but in far more accurate and nuanced ways. (I was homeschooled in a conservative Christian environment until high school graduate, after all. I have heard all this stuff a million times before.) So I almost did not review it. But I do think there are a few observations to be made to help with understanding Frontline Family Ministries.

I should first note that many of the problems seen in Kalyn’s Secret are also evident in Not Open: poor biblical exegesis (126)positively referencing abusive people (e.g., authoritarian John Bevere, accused rapist Jim Bakker, domestic terrorist Rollen Stewart), encouraging fear-based child discipline (115), and an excessive amount of demonology (151-3). However, since I already addressed those previously, I want to focus specifically on the problems unique to Not Open.

a. Misquoting citations

The clearest example of this is when Lisa claims potential persecution for Christians in the workplace because “silence on the issue of homosexuality [could] still be interpreted as disapproval.” She backs up this claim by saying this very sentiment was declared “in a recent Department of Justice memo to employees” (125). I looked up the citation (from a Justice Department brochure entitled “LGBT Inclusion at Work”), and it says nothing of the sort. The only item that resembles what Lisa says is a quotation from a department employee expressing a personal opinion, not any part of the department’s official memo. Here, you can look at the brochure yourself.

Lisa does this repeatedly, most egregiously when she says “modern science” now “explains all the history book stories of the rise and fall of nations based on the rise and fall of sexual passions” (162) — citing nothing more than a Charisma News article and a no-longer-existent Psychology Today article, neither of which says a single word about the rise and fall of nations.

This makes me distrustful in general of her ability to verify the factuality of any of her claims.

b. Faulty statistical foundation

The whole premise of Not Open rests on this statement of Lisa’s:

Something is wrong when 83 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians while only 9 percent of adults and less than 1 percent of young people have a true biblical worldview. (6)

This statement is so significant to the book’s premise that Lisa adds a section at the end of the book explaining where she got those claims. If you grew up in a conservative Christian home, you are probably entirely familiar with such doomsday proclamations. You also are probably not surprised to know that these claims come from George Barna and his Christian statistics organization the Barna Group. Barna’s declarations about eminent cultural emergencies drove much of the worldview curriculums and camps that I and many other church-raised Millennials used or attended.

Barna seems to have not backed down over the last decade. The above statistic that Lisa bases her book on comes from Barna’s 2011 book FutureCast, and it’s understandable that Christian parents would be alarmed by a statement like, “Less than 1 percent of young people have a true biblical worldview.” However, one must keep in mind that Barna has been repeatedly and harshly criticized by fellow Christians for propagating “false alarms”, “questionable methods”, and “myths”.

These criticisms are all applicable to the claim that, “Less than 1 percent of young people have a true biblical worldview.” To understand why, consider Lisa says the Barna Group

“has defined as biblical worldview as one that includes the following six points: 1. Absolute moral truth exists. 2. The Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches. 3. Satan is a real being or force, not merely symbolic. 4. People cannot earn their way into heaven by trying to be good or by doing good works. 5. Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth. 6. God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world and still rules the universe today” (242).

I want you to do something. Go pick up a Bible and find me the passage that says the above six points are what pure and genuine religion is.

Go for it. I’ll wait.

Didn’t find the passage?

That’s because it’s not in the Bible.

But you know what is in the Bible? James 1:27:

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.

Now I ask you: if pure and genuine religion according to the Bible is (1) caring for orphans, (2) caring for widows, and (3) refusing to let the world corrupt you, why are none of these points included in the Barna Group’s definition of a biblical worldview?

The answer is simple: the Barna Group’s definition of a biblical worldview is not based on the Bible but on a 20th century, modernist, regressive, and distinctively American Protestant understanding of the Bible. Consider the fact, for example, that none of the early Church fathers would agree with all 6 of Barna’s worldview requirements. Or consider the most ironic fact that Not Open’s role model for following a biblical worldview, Noah, existed before “the Bible” even existed. The fact is, this definition — because it is based on a 20th century, modernist, regressive, and distinctively American Protestant understanding of the Bible — is naturally going to create numbers that do not accurately portray the true religious state of people today. As people move into the 21st century and away from modernism (whether to postmodernism or anti-modernism), this definition’s functionality will cease. That doesn’t mean we are facing a historical moment more apocalyptic than any other moment in history. It means there’s a cultural shift occurring, on par with the shift from Catholicism to Protestantism.

Why does this matter? It matters because of the next point.

c. Alarmism

Most everyone is familiar with the imagery of Henny Penny (or Chicken Little), the chicken who ran around claiming the sky was falling (when in reality an acorn from a tree had dropped on its head). We usually use this imagery to mock people who have doomsday proclamations. However, fewer people are familiar with the fact that the story of Henny Penny is a morality tale. The end of the story is that Foxy Loxy the fox, observing how distraught Henny Penny and the other animals are, promises safety from the “falling sky” in its den. Foxy Loxy then eats all the animals. The moral of the story is thus not simply to avoid believing doomsday proclamations but to be on the lookout for people who take advantage of other people’s fears. Fear, after all, is one of the foremost forces in the creation of high control, totalist environments (aka “cults”).

Now think about fear in the context of what Lisa says based on the Barna Group’s statistics: less than 1 percent of young people have a true biblical worldview. I mean, this is even worse of a number than when I was a kid 20 years ago — back when we thought we were this country’s only hope! Us, the Millennials, were the Joshua Generation. That’s exactly why we went through all these worldview curriculums and camps, that’s why our parents homeschooled us, that’s why all those Quiverfull families had enormously large families — and things got worse? The message being conveyed to families and parents is clear: you are failing, you must try even harder. You must double-down. This could be the end of the world. 

That foists an enormous amount of pressure on this generation’s families to be exceptional — even more than all the pressure foisted upon my parents’ generation, the generation that was tricked into believing formulas could guarantee the perfect home. We know now that those formulas were snake oil peddled by merchants like Bill Gothard and Reb Bradley. My parents’ generation didn’t end up with perfect families (after all, that’s impossible), but people like Gothard and Bradley sure made money from their manipulative promises. And my parents’ generation was left with the job of picking up the broken pieces — the relationships bruised or lost due the effects of fear and control. This was the point of my concluding remarks from my “Facing Our Fears” presentation:

“Despite our best efforts, children still scrape their knees. And we get mad at them for it. We get furious. We feel like our best efforts went unappreciated, or thrown out the window, or stomped on in a tantrum. Our kids get hurt — and then we get mad at them for getting hurt. Which only hurts them more.”

This is why I care about inaccurate statistics like the one Lisa promotes from the Barna Group: it leads to very real hurt and sometimes broken families. When Lisa begins her book with the sentence…

“SOMETHING. IS TERRIBLY. WRONG” (1).

…and then repeats the phrase “something is terribly wrong” four times in just the first chapter, it communicates the necessity of alarmism. When Lisa repeatedly issues warnings in all-capitalized sentences like…

“DO NOT SWIM IN THE “OPEN LAKE!” IT IS NOT WHAT IT APPEARS TO BE!” (8).

…it communicates the necessity of alarmism.

This alarmism drives families into the foxes’ dens: into people peddling formulas leading to attempts at exceptionalism and perfectionism. And I have seen, year after year, person after person, that a combination of exceptionalism, perfectionism, and alarmism leads to toxic environments. Most ironically, those toxic environments — through placing high demands and pressure on children — often results in forced, age-inappropriate maturation of children (see, for example, Lisa’s daughter’s self-described “rapid maturation”)… the very age-inappropriate maturation that makes such children prime targets for sexual predators.

d. Emotional abuse

During the “Millennial Moment” in Chapter 17 (“I Will Fight the Right Enemy”), Lucas tries to make the point that our real enemies are not people but rather “the devil” (155). While making that point, Lucas relates a disturbing anecdote:

“During the young seasons of our lives we are still trying to figure out who is for us, who is against us… For instance, have you ever yelled at a little kid who opposed you by doing something wrong and then, as they burst into tears, you immediately realized they weren’t a real enemy and yelling probably wasn’t the best solution to the problem? With nine siblings and six of them younger than me, I can assure this has happened to me on many occasions (155, emphasis added).

…no…

…no, I have not yelled at little children.

And yes, I have siblings and I have worked in numerous children’s ministries. Yelling at little kids to the point of making them cry is emotional and psychological abuse. It is sibling abuse and it has the same mental health effects as peer aggression. The fact that Lucas would so nonchalantly bring up this example, say that he’s done this to his siblings “on many occasions,” and then pass it off as “not the best solution” is damning. It’s damning to him because he’s admitting emotional abuse and not seeing how problematic it is. But it’s even more damning to his parents, Lisa and Doug, because they created a home environment where siblings frequently yelled at each to the point of tears and don’t see that as a serious problem. 

This is yet another reason I cannot trust the Cherry family to truly understand — and thus teach about — the dynamics of abuse. They don’t see some of the most basic forces that create environments ripe for abuse.

e. Faulty sex education

In Chapter 18, titled “Defeating the God of Sex,” Lisa discusses sexuality and various facts about it. There are numerous problems with this chapter, including the fact that a lot of the facts are wrong. The most glaring example of this is when Lisa describes the benefits of abstinent-until-monogamously-married sex. Those benefits include the following: “No strange diseases” and married individuals can have sex “Any day they want it.” Let’s talk about the former first.

The context for this whole series is of course child sexual abuse — and that’s the most common topic for the Cherry family as well. So let’s talk about the relationship between child sexual abuse and these “strange diseases,” AKA sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

First, how frequent is child abuse? Well, as many as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be sexually abused at some point in their childhood.

Next, what are some other facts we know about child abuse? According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, (1) “most sexual abuse in childhood escapes detection,” (2) “multiple episodes of abuse increase the risk of STD infection,” and (3) “the majority of children who are sexually abused will have no physical complaints related either to trauma or STD infection. Most sexually abused children do not indicate that they have genital pain or problems.”

So as many as 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be sexually abused — and most of that abuse will escape detection. And those who are abused are at risk for these “strange diseases” — yet “most sexually abused children do not indicate that they have genital pain or problems.” Furthermore, consider that — apart from delivery-caused ones — all gonorrhea infections in children under the age of 9 are caused by “molestation by relatives.”

The take-away here is that a person can desire to be pure their entire life but that doesn’t guarantee sexual safety. A chance encounter of abuse (one that a person might even block out of their memory) could infect your partner (married or monogamous or otherwise) with an STD. The conservative Christian ideal of marriage, therefore, is no guarantee — nor should it be presented as such — that your partner will be disease-free. We live in a cruel world where abuse and rape run rampant. Thus accurate and healthy sex education will make zero promises about diseases. This is especially important in conservative Christian homeschool environments where strict notions about courtship and betrothal still hold sway. The average courtship process would never allow for the sort of conversational intimacy where a partner with a history of abuse would have the opportunity to feel comfortable disclosing that abuse to the other partner. But that is absolutely necessary prior to one’s first sexual encounter (even if that encounter is on one’s church-blessed wedding night).

The other “benefit” I want to examine is the promise of partners having sex “Any day they want it.” Yes, people in relationships have the opportunity to have sex whenever they want to provided that the other partner in the relationship is consenting. However, Lisa never mentions consent. For someone presenting herself as an educator on abuse prevention, this silence is extraordinarily disconcerting. And mind you, the silence is deafening —

The concept of consent does not appear a single time in any of Lisa Cherry’s books. 

This is vital because marital rape exists and is a serious problem through society, including many conservative Christian homes. In fact, this problem is particularly pronounced because many conservative Christian leaders have taught that marital rape is a fiction and/or appear to condone marital rape. Furthermore, conservative Christian sex education has been sorely lacking in discussing consent. As homeschool alum Kathryn Brightbill has pointed out,

“I’ve racked my brain trying to remember even a single time that I’ve ever heard consent mentioned in a church-related setting growing up and I can’t remember a single one. By not teaching about consent, you produce girls who don’t know that they can refuse consent for any other reason than ‘it’s a sin,’ and you produce boys who have never been taught that no means no. That’s a recipe for disaster. Is conservative abstinence education turning boys into accidental rapists and girls into easy victims because neither one has been educated about consent being an inviolable element in a sexual encounter?”

Accurate and empowering sex education is an essential tool in fighting abuse. If the sex education you are teaching includes inaccurate information and does not mention consent, you need to go back to the drawing board. You are hurting, not helping, the cause of fighting abuse.

f. Marginalizing LGBT* individuals

I am fully aware that as I examine how Lisa discusses and treats LBGT* individuals (both in this post and tomorrow’s) it’s unfortunately going to be controversial. The community that Lisa teaches to — and the community I hope will learn from what I am writing here — is a conservative Christian one. Having grown up in that community, I have seen firsthand how it tends to be marginalizing towards LGBT* individuals. This is due to deeply held religious beliefs about what the Bible says concerning gender and sexuality. In light of that fact, I am going to put into brackets (for the sake of this post) any conversation about the morality of various sexualities. That’s an absolutely important conversation (and I certainly have my opinions) but I want to continue to focus on the efficacy of prevention techniques related to child abuse and mental health.

Where I want to start is by laying out a few facts:

• First, and most importantly, children who will later identify as LGBT* are at a higher risk for sexual abuse: “Children who grow up later to identify as LGBT are more at risk of sexual abuse as children… LGBT adults report that their behavior and interaction with others was often atypical in childhood when compared to their peers. Being or feeling ‘different’ can result in social isolation / exclusion, which in turn can lead to a child being more vulnerable to the instigation and continuation of abuse.”

• Second, feelings of social isolation and rejection are statistically linked with experiences of abuse. In fact, abusers specifically use isolation as a tool of abuse and target people vulnerable to isolation.

• Third, LGBT* youth are far more likely to be rejected by their families: “Highly religious parents are significantly more likely than their less-religious counterparts to reject their children for being gay – a finding that social-service workers believe goes a long way toward explaining why LGBT people make up roughly five percent of the youth population overall, but an estimated 40 percent of the homeless-youth population. The Center for American Progress has reported that there are between 320,000 and 400,000 homeless LGBT youths in the United States.”

• Fourth,  numerous studies indicate that LGBT* individuals “are likely to be at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. One study found that GLB groups are about two-and-one-half times more likely than heterosexual men and women to have had a mental health disorder.”

• Fifth, supporting LGBT* individuals reduces the risk of mental illness. According to the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, “Specific parental behaviors, such as advocating for their children when they are mistreated due to their LGBT identity and supporting their teen’s gender expression, were linked to a lower likelihood of depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.”

The above five facts form the framework in which I will be discussing LGBT* individuals and child abuse for the rest of this series. It is my belief that, without even touching the issues of morality and sexuality, we can drastically reconsider how we as the Church (and religious homeschooling communities) approach LGBT* children and youth. Because when we realize that (1) LGBT* kids are more vulnerable to abuse, (2) isolation and rejection also make kids more vulnerable to abuse, (3) LGBT* kids are more likely to be isolated and rejected, (4) LGBT* kids are more vulnerable to mental illness, and (5) isolation and rejection increases vulnerability to mental illness, we need to wake up.

How LGBT* kids have been treated by conservative Christian homes is itself grooming for child abuse.

This is frightening and should be a bucket of cold water on everyone’s heads. We are putting LGBT* kids at risk for child abuse by the messages we are sending.

In light of that, consider the following passages from Not Open that mention LGBT* individuals:

  • Lucas saying “I am horrified” when a Christian friend of his revealed she was bisexual (10).
  • Lisa including “Homosexual” in a list of “bad people” that includes “Sex offender” and “Murderer” (26).
  • Lisa claiming the existence of LGBT* people “threatens to destroy our kids’ relationships with and faith in God” (59).
  • Lisa calling a gay person a “sexual offender” (62).
  • Lisa’s daughter complaining about how she “has” to treat a gay colleague with kindness: “What do I do? I have to have a working relationship. I need to treat him kindly. It is messing with my head.” To this, Lisa responds, “What can I say? I AM NOT SURPRISED” (65).
  • Lisa encouraging her aforementioned daughter to “pull that man aside” and declare to him, “Homosexuality is not an appropriate lifestyle” (103); Lisa then exclaiming, “Someone is going to have to shut the open doors!” (104).
  • Lisa declaring that LGBT* people are “no longer identifying with Christ” and are thus “out of heaven” (162).
  • Lisa describing the mob in Sodom at Lot’s door (wanting to gang-rape his visitors) not as rapists but as “the homosexual men” (207).

Put yourself in the shoes of an LGBT* individual. Would any of the above statements make you feel welcomed or loved? No. All these passages would make LGBT* individuals feel isolated or rejected. It’s not even because of a declaration of morality; it’s because this language is hurtful.

I should point out that Lisa says, in Chapter 3, that she knows the church has unfairly hurt LGBT* individuals:

“When anyone walked into one of our Christian churches with their lesbian partner on their arm or with their tongue-ringed gothic son in tow and were turned away without receiving the love of our Lord from us, then we were clearly and unequivocally wrong. If anyone has ever been the recipient of an icy stare or has been hidden in the back seat of a balcony by one of our ushers, we have clearly violated Jesus’s example” (23-4).

Unfortunately, this observation immediately gets lost as Lisa then proceeds to (as I pointed out above) unfairly hurt LGBT* individuals. If anyone is giving LGBT* people an “icy stare,” it’s Lisa in Not Open (and especially in Unmask the Predators, as we shall see tomorrow). In fact, she is actively encouraging people to give them icy stares. When you call a group of people “sexual offenders,” that doesn’t exactly encourage warmness.

Clearly, therefore, life isn’t as simple as being “Open” to people but “Not Open” to ideas. Sometimes people and ideas are inherently intertwined and knowing how to love someone you disagree with isn’t reducible to bumper sticker-like mantras.

Tomorrow I will examine Unmask the Predators, which is Lisa’s updated version of Kalyn’s Secret and the book she is promoting the most now through Frontline Family Ministries. It is also the book that most concerns me.

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