Cargo Cults and Restoration

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When we speak of restoring the New Testament church it immediately begs the question of what, exactly, that means. Another legitimate question arises at the same time: was it God’s intent to have a first century church in the twenty first century? Was God a God of patterns, as one famous book in our tribe argued at length a few decades ago? And if He does want something restored, is that something an outer pattern or an inner heart? When we restore patterns of outer behavior and apply social peer pressure to keep those patterns unchanged we very easily may tip over into the realm of totem-ism, leaving relationship in its dust.

We may sneer at the totems used by third world tribes but no one is as invested in totem-ism as we are in the west. We all know the power of totems. Walk into any school, mall, or public space and you will see whole family groups wearing them. Some wear Denver Broncos’ jerseys while others wear Red Sox hats or US Olympic Team shirts. None of those people were ON the team… but they wanted to show their support or somehow be identified with their favorite athletes. This can take an odd turn when you see people buy Michael Jordan cologne. I am sure Mister Jordan is a fine man and he was undoubtedly one of the finest players to every play the game but… when you saw him running down the lane covered in sweat, did you really think “I wish I smelled like him!” Of course, that is not what the cologne is all about. It is a totem. It is worn to identify with a hero and, perhaps, share in his essence, ability, fame, or success. To a lesser extent, this explains why people wear clothing with the names of the manufacturer or designer on it. Chaps, Polo, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Old Navy and other names on your shirt make a statement about where you shop and place you in a certain group of people (such as the kind of people who wear Ralph Lauren vs. the kind of people who wear Old Navy). We put stickers on our cars with the names of our favorite bands or teams or colleges for the same reason – it gives us an identity and places us into this or that group.

But totemism taken to the extreme becomes… well… formed based religion. You might have to look this up before you believe it but there are religions based on moving bits of this or that around and waiting for a blessing. Called Cargo Cults, the greatest concentration is in the southwest Pacific ocean. The islands of the nation of Vanuatu has three separate cults and others flourish on nearby islands. What are these religions and how did they get started?

Beginning in the 18th century, when ships from developed nations began landing on the islands of Micronesia and Melanesia, natives who lived in a Mid-Stone Age culture were shocked to confront modern, industrial people groups that came out of nowhere. The cults remained a minor phenomenon until World War 2 when, suddenly, vast amounts of ships and materials began pouring into the islands. First the Japanese and, later, the Americans and British arrived out of nowhere with radios, manufactured clothing, fine furniture, huts, inflatable boats, medicines, and so much more. The natives of these islands – most of whom are still in the Stone Age to this present day — were overwhelmed by the materials, wealth, and “magic” these white people brought with them. It is hard to overestimate the power these ships, men, and goods had over their imaginations.

When the war ended, the rest of the world rejoiced and the ships with their crews and materials went home. The Islands were plunged back into isolation and darkness. The tribes had assumed that the arrival of these blessings had been a gift from their gods so… what did it mean when the gifts went away? Gone was the steady supply of medicines, trinkets, shiny things, food, and clothing. Is it possible that they had displeased their gods? Maybe they could find a way to call them back. They were certain that all they had to do was what the outsiders (Japanese, Dutch, Americans, British) had done and the gods would come back. In other words, they wanted to restore the conditions under which their bounty appeared the first time.

They constructed crude approximations of landing strips, desks, phones, radios, etc. and moved bits of bark or scrap paper around, picking up the “phone” (think of something the professor would have made on Gilligan’s Island out of coconuts and straw) and barking out orders before going down to the beach and waiting for the ships to come in. They thought that their actions would call their gods back to them. When years went by without any response from their gods, they began to search for better ways to move things around and better models to build, dividing from each other when disagreements arose. That is why there are three major denominations of Cargo Cults on small Tanna Island in the nation of Vanuatu alone.

There is the John Frum cult – a name that has never been adequately sourced. It is thought someone heard someone called by that name or something similar and the natives decided to use him as an intermediary, somewhat in the same way that some Christians pray through saints. There is also the Tom Navy cult which is generally thought to have been named after the US Navy and a few fellows named Tom (any common name would have done, but this denomination believes Tom is the superior, true name). And then there is the Prince Philip Movement which worships Queen Elizabeth’s husband who visited the islands back during the war. Each believes the others are moving the wrong bits, or moving them in a wrong manner, or moving them out of order, or saying the wrong words, or saying the right words in the wrong way… you get the idea.


And they are not alone. There is also the Yali Cargo Cult on Papua that shares land with other Cargo Cult denominations such as the Paliau Movement, the Peli Association, and the Pomio Kivung.


All of these practice sympathetic magic – some of them even building airplanes out of straw and sticks, carving wooden headphones, sleeping in abandoned Quonset huts, and trying to mimic the day to day activities of the men who were there during the war including sitting at long tables to eat, marching with sticks in the place of guns, etc. in the belief that when they get it right, the gods will come back.


There is more than a little of this in many Christian churches. My late cousin, Frank S. Mead, wrote a book called the “Handbook of Denominations in the United States” which was revised and reprinted every few years until he passed away. Now, a committee has taken up that task and prints a new version every so often. I make it a point to read each new edition because it reminds me that each of these tribes thought that the other religious tribes of their day were missing something very important and, if it were added, THEN Jesus would be happy and salvation would be assured. Some go further and teach that when they get their religion right, Jesus will come back and start a thousand year reign on earth…but only when they get everything exactly right. When they looked around them, they saw that this church took the Lord’s Supper THIS way when it should be taken THAT way. In my own religious tribe there are divisions (all of them very minor and making up, collectively, just a few percent of the total) who are divided over whether we should pray for the bread and then break it or vice versa, whether we should use one cup or many, etc. They draw lines of fellowship over these distinctions. Five divisions over how to take this simple bit of bread and wine (and, yes, others are divided over whether it can be wine or if it can be grape juice), each convinced that the way they do it pleases Jesus.

These divisions grow more common – if less official – when we add in rules on music, organization, and association. I know of churches that split because some clapped during a song or a baptism. One side was convinced that Jesus would remove his blessing if they clapped while the other side believed Jesus would like them better if they did. Mess with the “order of worship” at a great many congregations and you will find terror and fear in the hearts of many as they believe we have left “the old paths” and no longer please God. Some “coat and tie” churches will never let you up if you aren’t wearing proper clothing while the “untucked shirts and hairy toes” churches wouldn’t be comfortable with an Armani clad scripture reader.

All of these fears originate from a misunderstanding of who we are and what we have in Jesus. Since the Bible compares our walk with God with marriage several times, allow me to do the same. I have been married to my sweet Miss Kami for over 34 years (i.e. not long enough). If I tried to make our lives fit a certain form and ritual to make sure that she was happy, she would be miserable. She doesn’t want a form, but a friend; not rote, but relationship. Marriage is a dance where each leads this way and that and each pulls and allows themselves to be pulled. It is not stagnant… or, if it is, it is doomed.

And so it is in our dance with God. He released us from the temple and told us that His intention was that we would be like Him (see 1st Peter 1:14; Genesis 1:26; First John). We enter the family and then become more and more like the family as we continue the relationship with Him. That is why there is no detailed explanation of how we are to worship Him in the New Testament (as opposed to the incredible detail we find the in Old Testament). God tried giving us ritual AND relationship and we went for the ritual even though He continually told us that He was much more interested in the relationship (1st Sam. 15:22,23; Psalm 40:4-8; Psalm 51:16-19; Jeremiah 7:21-23; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 9:13 and SO many others). Now, we are children of God through faith in Christ and we are to take on the characteristics of the new family; our adopted family. We are the continuing canon of scripture – God’s people moving about the planet with His Word – Jesus – writ large on their hearts and in their words and deeds.

The only alternative is to play at Cargo Cults in our churches and God already gave us a story to show us that was not what He wanted. In the parable of the Loving Father – often misnamed the parable of the prodigal son when it is not really about the son(s) but the father – one brother stayed home and did every single thing the father required of him and, yet, was unhappy and not fulfilled in his life with the father. He had tried to get by with duty and ritual, not relationship, and found himself bitter when the father was rejoicing.
I recently read Michael Coren’s book “Why Catholics Are Right” and found it fun, informative, and very helpful, even if less than convincing on many points. The problem I had while reading it was that I had read other books before I got to this one – “Why I Am A Member of the Church of Christ” and a hundred tracts by A.G. Hobb, Batsell Baxter, and their ilk – that used the same method to proclaim their rightness: they had the correct ritual handed down in the right way and performed with exact precision, thereby gaining the favor of God. To be honest and fair, I don’t see our books, or Coren’s book, or the books written to prove the “one true church” nature of the Baptists or Missouri Synod Lutherans saying that if we have our ritual right, the heart and relationship don’t matter… but neither do they spend much time on relationship, narrative, and the journey with Christ. It seems that most of these tribes (and I am making a judgment here which may not be accurate, but it fits with my experience so far) are far more likely to accept someone whose ritual is right but whose heart is wrong than vice versa.

For example, in my tribe, Mother Teresa would be considered lost because she was not immersed, called men “Father” on earth, and a dozen other ritualistic “errors.” At the same time, they will often call another person brother or sister because their ritual is perfect and Biblical even though they are unkind to their neighbors, unsacrificial in giving, known to complain and whine, and hoarding possessions. Ritual trumps relationship and the heart in most religious tribes, turning them into modern day versions of cargo cults.
There was a booklet available decades ago that tried to introduce young men and women to the subject of sexuality. It was available via Christian bookstores and its main thrust was that happy and satisfying sex in marriage was due to the person, not the performance. In other words, it wasn’t a mechanical act, but an emotional one with physical expressions flowing from those emotions. About the same time, an MD named David Reuben wrote a mega-bestselling book called “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask.” After writing several chapters on our bits and how they functioned, he walked the reader through a sex act between two people who did everything right, physically. He asked at the end of that narrative if this, then, was the perfect sexual experience and he answered his own question with a firm “no.” Why, when the ritual had been performed perfectly and both parties were happy with the result? Because, Dr. Reuben said, there was no emotional aspect to the act. There was no love, commitment, or mutual feeling – it was just physical.

If we are speaking of the outer, physical aspects of worship and church organization when we speak of “restoration,” I fear that we are headed toward a lifetime of division and unsatisfactory worship experiences. A lot of people leave worship each week feeling like they did everything right but it “just isn’t working for me.” They have fallen into the Cargo Cult error and are shoving bits of cracker and juice around, standing and sitting, and even saying/singing the words at the right time… and leave emotionally untouched and unchanged because they are not dancing, walking, singing, talking, and living with God the rest of the week. They replaced relationship with ritual and their ship just isn’t going to come in.

Perhaps…just perhaps…God wants us to restore the relationship He had with Adam and Eve before the fall and the relationship He had with His Son, our Savior (and John 17 indicates this rather strongly) and not an outer set of movements that leave many of us wondering why it just doesn’t seem to make us better or less fearful year after year.

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