book reviews, religion

Reviewing Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of The Way International, by Charlene Edge…

I just finished reading my latest book, Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of The Way International, written by Charlene Edge and edited by Ruth Mullen. This was the first time I had ever read anything about The Way International, a a global, multi-denominational, Christian organization based in New Knoxville, Ohio and founded by Victor Paul Wierwille in 1942. Wierwille had started his ministry as a radio program, and it eventually grew into The Way, Inc. in 1955. The Way is now officially known as The Way International, and is now widely regarded by many as a religious cult.

I was curious about The Way after seeing some viral videos a few years ago. You may have seen them yourself, as they are quite hilarious. I’ve shared them on my blog, but I’ve also seen them on Facebook. Behold…

This is from The Way International’s 2007 Concert Series… but as cheesy as this is, it’s not as famous as the video below. I’ve had this song stuck in my head for days. That choreography is enough to make me cry.
Oh my God… They sure look happy, though.

I discovered these videos in 2014, while visiting Nice, France. My cousin’s late husband shared a funny post about Christians making cringeworthy music videos and the one directly above, along with “Jesus Is a Friend of Mine” by Sonseed, were the best of the lot in the most embarrassing ways. Sonseed was a Catholic group, though, and not as intriguing as The Way was. I say “was”, because I’ve just finished reading Charlene Edge’s book, Undertow, which, at 475 pages is a pretty substantial and informative read about what she, herself, now defines as a cult.

Who is Charlene Edge, and why did she write this book?

Charlene Edge was, for many years, a dedicated member of The Way International. She was raised Catholic, mostly by her father, because her mother died when she was a teen. She has an older sister, Marie, who at seven years older was never very close to Charlene. When Charlene was suddenly left without a mother, she became disenchanted by the religion in which she was raised and went looking for something new. As it so happens with many future cult members, Charlene was basically a sitting duck when she first encountered recruiters for The Way. They found her when she was young, inexperienced, and weakened by misfortune and tragedy.

Back in the late 1960s and early 70s, when Charlene was a young adult, she had a Jesuit boyfriend who liked to surf. She really liked this guy, but bristled when he pointedly told her that The Way is a cult. She lost touch with him, and seemed to regret that they didn’t marry or at least have more of a relationship. She went to college at East Carolina University, but could not focus on school as she became more and more involved with The Way. Soon, she dropped out of college, blowing off her exams and leaving school with a 1.8 grade point average.

Against the objections of friends and family, she got a job working for The Way, researching the Bible and learning Aramaic. Her work led her to spend a lot of years studying the Bible, and even reading ancient texts in libraries around the world. I don’t know if she’s ever visited Armenia, but I do know that her enthusiasm for reading ancient Bibles would make her a prime candidate for visiting the Matenadaran, which is a museum in Armenia where ancient Bibles and other manuscripts are displayed. I visited there myself when I was in the Peace Corps.

Speaking of being of service, Edge eventually joined The Way Corps, which she made sound like a cross between Sea Org (in Scientology) and the Peace Corps (which isn’t a cult, but does have kind of a churchy/missionary vibe, even though it isn’t a religious organization). It was an intensive two year program, designed to make followers of The Way even more dedicated and loyal to the ministry. Edge also had to raise money so that she could join The Way Corps. Naturally, that experience bonded her more to the ministry and its followers. She found friends and, at least at first, the church gave her what she needed. But it wasn’t long before that sense of belonging turned into a form of slavery.

Based on Edge’s story, I got the sense that joining The Way Corps was the kind of thing the die hard cult members did. She legitimately worked for the organization and was paid about $30,000 a year– enough to live on, but not enough to save much of, particularly after she married her first husband, Ed, who was also a cult member. Edge writes that she and Ed were not all that compatible in 1973, when they married. They just felt it was what God wanted them to do. Soon, they had a daughter named Rachel, but she didn’t bring them closer together.

Charlene Edge becomes trapped in The Way…

For seventeen years, Charlene Edge was a devoted employee and follower of The Way. However, she didn’t seem very happy in the religion. Little things bothered her– lies she was told and asked to promote. But she’d put her concerns aside, believing that following the tenets set by The Way was truly the best way to live life. She diligently did all that the church asked her to do, ignoring the cognitive dissonance.

The church’s founder, Dr. Victor Wierwille, was called “Doctor” by everyone. He had German Shorthaired Pointer dogs and basically made himself the king of the compound. Like all good cult members, Edge listened to her leader and did what he commanded. When Wierwille warned of a potential government attack against the church, Charlene prepared to live off the grid. As her charismatic leader grew ever more abusive and paranoid, and increasingly asked his followers to do more and more bizarre things, Edge continued to ignore the signs that she was deeply entrenched in a cult. Wierwille denied the Holocaust and began promoting his personal false interpretations of the Bible as truth.

Meanwhile, Charlene’s marriage was continuing to decay. Ed was drinking more and more, and he was unfaithful to his wife and daughter. They were constantly trying to make ends meet with the meager compensation they got from the church. There was never time to make plans, to think straight, or to enact changes that would get them out of the predicament they were in. Although it was clear that the couple wasn’t happy together and the marriage wasn’t working, they stayed married for 18 years, finally divorcing in 1991.

The shelf collapses…

One day, Charlene heard something that might have seemed banal to her colleagues. Wierwille was trying to put out literature about a Bible verse of which he didn’t agree with the official interpretation. He wanted his researchers to ignore what the Bible verse actually said and promote Wierwille’s false interpretation as the truth. Although she had been able to ignore Wierwille’s crazy shenanigans for years, for some reason, on that day, Charlene Edge suddenly gained awareness. And it happened when one of her colleagues leaned over to her and whispered that he liked Wierwille, but “sometimes his Greek isn’t so good.” Somehow, that simple comment– so mundane and trivial– had made Charlene realize that her leader wasn’t sent by God. He was a simple, narcissistic, power-hungry, greedy man, who had taken them all for a ride and swindled them out of everything from money to their precious youth. Later, toward the end of her time in the sect, Edge discovered that Wierwille had a sex ring, and female church members were stroking more than his ego.

Then, in 1985, “Doctor” died, supposedly of a stroke. Later, Edge found out that Wierwille’s death had actually been caused by cancer. He’d never let it be known that he had cancer, since he had told his followers that cancer was caused by the Devil. This was just another lie that Charlene Edge could not reconcile. She soon noticed other deceptions that she could no longer ignore… and each lie that unfolded made her angrier and less supportive of The Way’s teachings. And yet, she had to keep up the facade, because her livelihood depended on appearing to be faithful to the church… as did her housing, at one point. She had rented a house that belonged to a member of the ministry who had let her have it at a discount.

My thoughts

I have read a whole lot of books about people who have escaped cults and abusive religious organizations. Much to my surprise, The Way International is not among the worst of the religions I’ve read about. I don’t, for instance, think The Way is worse than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members of The Way aren’t encouraged to shun their family members who aren’t involved. They aren’t told what they can drink, not to smoke or use drugs, or have to wear special underwear.

The Way International does have a “missionary-esque” organization in The Way Corps, but it doesn’t sound to me like it’s akin to what the Mormons do. I don’t think The Way is as extreme as Scientology or the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Scientists. It’s promoted as a research based religion, but as Charlene Edge discovered, some of the research was shoddy, and the inner circle of researchers were pressured to ignore facts and promoted untruths that propped up Wierwille’s (and subsequent leaders’) egos.

Edge’s writing is jam packed with similes and metaphors. Sometimes, they were clever, but after awhile they became noticeable and somewhat annoying to me. She often would describe people in animal terms, writing things like “He paced like a caged dog.”, then turning around and using another animal simile to describe someone or something else. On the other hand, her style does have a pleasant flow to it, which made getting through all 475 pages somewhat easier. I do think some of the manuscript could have been pared down a little bit. There seems to be a lot of minutiae slipped into her story that made getting through it tougher going, although another positive is that Charlene includes a lot of photos.

I still don’t feel like I know as much as I would like to know about The Way International, even though Undertow is so long. Again, there’s a lot of mundane information about Charlene Edge’s life that could have been exchanged for information about what the ministry believes and how it recruits members. I think I would have enjoyed reading more about the organization as a whole. For example, Edge only mentions the music groups in passing, but as you can see from the above videos, they do have a musical ministry that is no doubt intended to lure new members and entertain existing ones. She could have added that information and deleted about 100 pages of the minutiae, and I think the book would have been better.

Charlene Edge mentions that she lost a lot to the “cult”. She joined at such a young age, which caused her to delay her education, lose precious years of her youth and time with friends and family members who weren’t involved in the cult, and hamper her own aspirations for her life. However, I would suggest to Edge that she did get something out of those years. She got her book, which has no doubt had an impact on many readers in some way. For instance, I know more about The Way International than I did a couple of weeks ago. That counts for something. I see from reviews on Amazon that her book has been well-received by others, too.

As I was describing Undertow to Bill this morning, I was reminded of Elizabeth Smart. Before she was kidnapped in 2002, Elizabeth Smart was on her way to becoming the perfect Mormon “Molly”. She majored in music at Brigham Young University, which I suppose would have led her to doing work with the LDS church’s music ministry. Or maybe it wouldn’t have. My point is, Elizabeth Smart’s life’s work is toward activism and the prevention of children being abducted and abused the way she was. If she had not been a victim of a deranged man who had warped ideas about religion, she would not be doing the important work she’s doing. She probably would have been Mormon royalty, living a posh family life in Utah instead. I’m certainly not saying I’m *glad* Elizabeth Smart was victimized. What I am saying is that she’s chosen to turn that ordeal into something that benefits people all over the world, and if not for her personal experience, I doubt she would have chosen her activist career path on her own.

Likewise, in her own way, Charlene Edge has turned her negative experiences into something positive and beneficial for other people. Yes, it’s unfortunate that Charlene paid such a high price to gain this knowledge. She fell victim to the predatory methods of a cult, who swept her up when she was young, naive, and heartbroken. It happens to a lot of people. Bill joined the LDS church when his marriage was failing, thinking it might help him save his family. All it did was make things worse… and cause his life to be much busier and more complicated than it needed to be. I think the same thing happened to Charlene Edge.

Anyway… I’m glad Charlene Edge has found her own way… and gotten out of The Way of her own success. I would give this book a rating of four stars out of five.

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