The People Of The Sign, by Wade Fransson
At its core, The People Of The Sign is a personal memoir that ends Jonah-like, incomplete, examining the wreckage of the author’s decades of life spent in the Worldwide Church of God and explaining to a larger audience the general theological, psychological, and political markers of that group. The account is gripping, dramatic, and remarkably free from bitterness given the great deal of suffering that many families had to deal with during and after their time with the Worldwide Church of God. The author provides a relatively sympathetic view of the organization in an accessible way that will do much to counter a great deal of the misinformation that exists about the group while presenting at the same time a warts-and-all view of the all-too-human realities for children and young adults within the greater Church of God culture, including the particularly poignant way in which broken families and broken people were summarily abandoned by a lack of loving concern by leaders of all different theological and political viewpoints. The author shows a grim awareness of a church culture that shoots its wounded, a culture I know very well from my own personal background.
The author’s portrayal of his life as a kidnapped child growing up in Sweden, his youth as a rebel, his young adulthood as a gung-ho believer, and his increasingly difficult attempts to chart a moderate course in the post-HWA world of the Worldwide Church of God read like the screenplay to a movie, and chart the wreckage of broken families, struggles against alcoholism and workaholic tendencies in an atmosphere of brutal conformity and a general lack of love and concern for others, and where the hope of peaceful and gentle releasing of the strictness of WCG’s past turned into the horrible abuse of unwelcome and unbiblical doctrinal change that divided Worldwide and scattered its bitterly squabbling fragments into a shocked world.
Reading this book was a bit painful for me personally because of the many unexpected and highly troubling ways in which my own personal experience has mirrored that of the author. I was born into the Worldwide Church of God, but my story too is full of many of the same sorts of problems that the author had to deal with. For one, after a very abusive early childhood, at the age of three my mother took my younger brother and I without letting our father know and spirited us away to her folks in Central Florida, where it was years before I would see my father again and where I grew up as an alien and an outsider in a culture where I did not belong. My natural tendency to stick up for the underdog and my intense hatred of hypocrisy in high places has tended to get me labeled (rather falsely) as a liberal and a rebel, while my love of debate and my conspicuous tendency to serve (even internationally) have sometimes struck others as being a bit too pushy. I too feel a great deal of discomfort with intimacy, though I was better able to develop friendships even if romantic relationships have proven difficult for me as well. I too have longed to steer a middle course between firm commitment to biblical truth (even if that leads me in unusual directions as I wrestle with God) while avoiding a rigidity that fails to love and care for people who are hurting and struggling and need comfort rather than haranguing. Ironically enough, the author and I share views on tithing and a deep concern about brokenness that extends from our own broken family background and our own cosmopolitan and international experience. We also share interactions with the same sorts of ministers (both of us had notably positive relations with Mark Kaplan and Bill Jacobs, for example, and the similarity of my name to Greg Albrecht has brought a great deal of unintentional humor to my own church experience). The author and I even share a passionate love for rock & roll music as well as a concern about its legitimacy and an appreciation for the ability of music to convey powerful emotion.
The openness and honesty of this work should appeal both to people who grew up in the Worldwide Church of God and whose ugly and brutal downfall in the mid-1990’s has forced us to wrestle with the complexities of our inheritance from that organization and its leaders as well as those who are curious about reading an insider’s look at the church. Both those driven to understand and explain what happened in the Worldwide Church of God will find this book to be a valuable aid to their efforts. This does not make the book pleasant reading–it is not, but then again what has happened to many of us, even those of us who have worked hard to overcome any “root of bitterness” (to use a catchphrase of WCG) about our experiences there, was not pleasant. Nonetheless, those experiences were instructive, and the gentle hand of God was present in His providential care even in the darkest moments. This book is a reminder not only of the suffering that results from human frailty, but also the gentle hand of God in guiding us graciously to growth and maturity, forgiving us for our own human frailty and telling us to forgive others for their own also. Hopefully, this book may help encourage those of us who are people of the sign (namely, the Sabbaths) to also become people who exhibit godly love for others, whether within or outside of our splintered fellowships.