Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A review of I Fired God: My Life Inside---and Escape From---the Secret World of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Cult by Jocelyn Zichterman

For the last ten years or so, I've been very curious about the Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) Church.  It's not because I've ever wanted to be a fundie.  It's more because I'm fascinated that people allow themselves to be sucked into such restrictive belief systems.  As restrictive belief systems go, the IFB church is among the most legalistic in the western world.  I happened to find Jocelyn Zichterman's book I Fired God: My Life Inside---and Escape From---the Secret World of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Cult yesterday and had trouble sleeping last night.  I started reading it and hours later, I've finished.  It's quite a page turner.

Jocelyn Zichterman was born Jocelyn Janz, daughter of Bart and Sandy Janz in Wisconsin.  She was their third child and first daughter.  Zichterman writes that her parents had been raised Catholic, but they both eventually left the Catholic church.  One day, Sandy Janz decided to attend an IFB church and found it agreeable.  She convinced a reluctant Bart Janz to attend and pretty soon the whole family was involved in this very strict religion that required followers to live by extremely rigid rules.

Besides being involved with the IFB church, Jocelyn Zichterman writes that her father was sadistic.  At the beginning of the book, she recounts a horrible anecdote about how her father violently killed her sister's pet cat with a pitchfork.  He'd show young boys how to kill pigeons with their bare hands and would abuse any animal that happened to upset him.  Janz was also abusive to his children.  Zichterman recounts many incidents when her father would force her or her siblings to strip and beat her bloody with her a belt, a wooden dowel, or a paddle.

Because of her family's religious beliefs, Zichterman was educated in church run schools or, for one terrible year, at home.  Her family's entire life surrounded the IFB church.  IFB children were taught to obey "immediately, completely, reverently, and sweetly."  They sang songs about obedience… frankly, this song reminds me of something that might be taught in North Korea.

Little girls in church would sing songs like "I Want To Marry Daddy When I Grow Up"…

"I Want To Marry Daddy When I Grow Up"...

Women were expected to be meek, submissive, and prepared to be a "helpmeet".  Families read To Train Up A Child by Michael Pearl which compared raising children to training a dog and advocated spankings.  Pearl suggested using plumbing line as the best spanking implement, though Bart Janz seemed most impressed with wooden dowels.  Zichterman even includes an illustration of what size dowel was appropriate for what age child, according to Pearl.

Zichterman suffered a great deal as a child, both at the hands of her abusive father and at the hands of her two older brothers, who apparently had a penchant for molestation.  Like most good IFB girls, Zichterman was also expected to let her father choose the boys she should date.  He chose a basketball star at their Christian high school who was much more worldly than Jocelyn was.  He took liberties with her, but she was the one who paid for it.  The church authorities forced her to repent publicly and she was disgraced even when she started college at Northland International University, an IFB college in Wisconsin.

Jocelyn Zichterman eventually transferred to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina.  I was interested in this part of the book, since about ten years ago, I learned quite a lot about BJU through a Web site hosted by a guy who called himself nobojo as well as this Web site, which took a favorable view of the school.  I learned a lot about the school, as well as Pensacola Christian College, which in the early 2000s had a fascinating forum where former students discussed their experiences.  A lot of the people on the forum were people who had been kicked out of the school for any number of infractions.  I was also interested in Jocelyn's thoughts about BJU because I spent three years in South Carolina and knew about BJU just from living there.

After Jocelyn and her husband married, they started having kids…  there were eight of them before they were finished.  Joseph Zichterman was well-educated, but all of his degrees were from IFB schools, which were not regionally accredited.  Consequently, his job choices were somewhat limited.  As the wife of an IFB leader, Jocelyn Zichterman was required to maintain a meticulous house, obey all of the church's rules about what she wore, and do a lot of work for the church for free.  It was exhausting and soul crushing and everything the couple did was observed by church leaders, who ruled their flock with an iron fist.  Zichterman was pressured to stay thin and beautiful, despite having so many kids.  While eight kids seems like a lot, Zichterman writes that she had planned to have even more before she left the IFB in 2006.

When the Zichtermans finally left the church, Jocelyn even spoke to former FLDS cult member, Carolyn Jessop, who escaped Warren Jeffs.  Jessop convinced Zichterman was she had been a member of a cult.  In the midst of everything else, Jocelyn developed a brain tumor as well.

This book is basically about how Zichterman's father terrorized Jocelyn and, once her husband came around, her husband.  Bart Janz did everything in his power to ruin the couple and he enlisted powerful men in the church to help him.  But besides that, Zichterman highlights other issues within the church.  It was quite timely that I read this book this week, given all I have written about international adoptions.  Zichterman writes about Hana Grace Rose Williams, a beautiful Ethiopian girl who was adopted ate age 10.  Three years later, she was dead of hypothermia when her adoptive parents forced her stay outside all night.  Zichterman also writes about the dreaded purity balls, which I ranted about not too long ago…  The Duggars get a mention, too.

At the end of the book, she writes about Tina Anderson, a young woman from Concord, New Hampshire who was raped and impregnated by an IFB church official.  Tina Anderson's story was featured on 20/20 in 2011.  Zichterman was also featured on that show.

This episode of 20/20 is well worth watching.  It'll probably blow your mind.

I Fired God is an outrageous book, but sadly, it's entirely believable.  I found some parts of it uncomfortable to read, especially the parts about the animal and child abuse, which Zichterman describes in somewhat graphic detail.  Her church experiences have made her understandably angry and toward the end of the book, there is some profanity.  I think the profanity is justified, but it will offend anyone who can't take swear words.  And naturally, some people think that the author is just very bitter and needs to forgive.  Of course, I don't hold that view myself.  I think Jocelyn Zichterman has every right to be angry about what she and other people have experienced.

Life as a whistle blower has not been easy for Zichterman.  She and her husband were unable to sell the house they owned in Wisconsin and were forced to abandon it after they left the church.  They have to pay mortgage on that house and for where they live now because no one in the tiny town where it's located will buy it.  They have eight kids and Joseph Zichterman's degrees were pretty much worthless, so he ended up going back to school.  The Zichtermans are still religious and have learned to look at God in a different way.  To her credit, Zichterman also proposes changes that need to be made in order to protect children from abusive belief systems.

I think this is an important book, though I know it makes many people angry.  I'm grateful I wasn't unfortunate enough to be born into a cult.


  1. That is one freaky story. These people are so different from me it seems like I'm reading about another species. Thank God I'm an atheist.

    1. Parts of this book made me sick to my stomach.

  2. My family and I lived/worked alongside Jocelyn and her family during the years that she gave birth to 6 of her 8 children. We went to garage sales together, and I was in a women's lunch group with her. She doesn't mention her magazine that she published that allowed her a voice to preach her fanatical beliefs. She probably recants all of it now, but give her a little while, she'll change her story again. Everyone that knew Jocelyn took what she said and did "with a grain of salt." She was always on a tangent, taking things to an extreme. This book may be a "good read" or a "page turner", but it's also 90% fiction. She's a bitter woman spinning yarns to hurt others...and she's making a lot of money doing it. Congrats, you just fell for it!

    1. This sounds like hearsay and I don't know you or the author, so I can only take your comment with a grain of salt. But thanks for reading and commenting anyway.

    2. Lisa, obviously you havent read the book because Jocelyn does describe the magazine and what she contributed to the IFB in the book. She also regrets having been so naive and advocating the oppression of women. Thankfully she has opened her eyes to the much better and larger world outside of the IFB. You sound as if you are very much still stuck there. I hope you to can find a way out someday. Peace

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  4. What you and the previous commenter have written may be true. I don't doubt that Jocelyn has her detractors, especially given the nature of her book. But I don't know you or what your angle is, nor do I know Jocelyn.

    I'm not sure why random strangers feel the need to imply that I've been duped because I read and related to someone's book. It's just my opinion and you're free to take it or leave it. At the same time, I have the same freedom to make up my own mind.

    What I've written is a book review. It's not a review of Jocelyn's character. We aren't friends, so I'm not in a position to know about her dealings with friends and family, other than the perspective she writes of in her book. If you and the other commenter have personal issues with Jocelyn, that's your affair. It has nothing to do with my opinion of the book.

  5. I belong to s fundamental Independant Baptist church and have never experienced anything such as what Jocelyn depicts. I'm sure there are individual churches out there that are cult-like, but it's not because they are fundamental. It is because they are legalistic. Our church women and men wear what they please to church and otherwise. We try to encourage dressing modestly, but would not shun someone who doesn't. We try our best to live biblically, and usually fail miserably. We still encourage each other in our walk with God. I wish that because Jocelyn has had bad experiences throughout her life, she would not taint all fundamental Christians.

    1. Hi marilou. Thanks for the comment. I'm glad to read that your church is not as legalistic as other fundamental IFB churches are. I think that's the best way to treat people. I also appreciate your even handed tone. These types of posts often encourage people to respond with emotion rather than reason.

      I'm sure it makes some Christians uncomfortable when a book like this comes out because they fear other people will be less accepting of them and their beliefs. On the other hand, while you may fear other people unfairly judging you because of what Jocelyn has written, aren't you also unfairly judging the public by assuming they can't keep an open mind about your religion? Granted, I have formed my own opinions about legalistic belief systems and, really, religion in general, but that doesn't mean everyone is like me. In fact, it also doesn't mean that I think all fundamentalist Christians are the same. There are many types of Christians and they all think they're right.

      I think it's valuable when people share their stories, even if they aren't particularly flattering. That's how people learn new things and it often leads to further study and even better understanding. It sounds like you have had good experiences in your church, but is it fair to assume everyone has? And if someone hasn't had a good experience, shouldn't they be as free to express themselves about their negative experiences as you are about your positive ones? Just something to think about.

      In any case, I appreciate your comment and the reminder that not all IFB churches are the same. I wish you luck in your walk with God and hope you continue to experience happiness and satisfaction with your belief system.

  6. I'm one of the people that Jocelyn hurt a few years ago, but after reading the book (and being asked by her editor to review it), I'd say that at least 90% of it is TRUE. Far more voices that Jocelyn's have remarked that her father, Bart Janz, was a cruel father. And her previous Christian high school, Silver State Christian School (a ministry of Red Rocks Baptist Church) has been in the news over sex abuse claims in the school and accounts by both students and parents that the school used expulsion to retaliate against students who voiced complaints about the evident abuses from school administrators. I do doubt some aspects of the book, but the reason that Fundamentalist pastors have not rallied to refute it is that it is factual when it addresses the teachings and practices of Christian Fundamentalism (the IFB). Just an FYI, Jocelyn and her husband are now divorced. And while it is true that not all IFB churches are the same, I have been documenting sexual abuse of children by Christian Fundamentalist pastors, deacons, and church officers for over a decade, and I have never seen one IFB church step up to correct, address, or even admit to the scandals and corruption in the IFB network.

    1. Hi Jeri. Thanks for the comment. It's pretty clear to me based on the comments I've gotten that Jocelyn is not entirely innocent. As I wrote before, I don't know her personally. I've only read the book and seen her interviewed on 20/20. I have read other accounts of people involved in the IFB and her account was somewhat similar to some of what they wrote. Granted, what I read was written by people who didn't have a good experience, with the exception of Troy and Jessica from BJU. And some have said BJU isn't even IFB, so now I'm really confused.

      I'm probably in the audience that Jocelyn was hoping to reach, since I'm not too keen on religion anyway. I don't care if other people are, as long as they don't try to turn their religious beliefs into laws for everybody.

      I appreciate the comment, especially since you shed some light on what the situation is now with Jocelyn. I think people have the right be concerned.

  7. Thank you for keeping an open mind when it comes to things like this issue, Knotty. Many people tend to question the author's integrity because of how much ridicule her book gets from current IFB members. Although I can agree that the author is, for lack of a better word, bitter towards her situation, that does not mean what she wrote isn't true. In fact, because I lived alongside her my entire life, I've encountered a lot of the church's and Bart's abuse myself. Bart is a mental, physical and sexual abuser, and this is from my personal experience. And because the author shared her experience and created a voice for IFB cult survivors, she was able to save lives like Tina Anderson and convict abusers. I think that was and always will be her ultimate goal. My mom is not a saint, but she didn't slander anyone's good name. All she did was try and share her story.
    Sandra Zichterman

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sandra. I did find your mom's book fascinating reading. Obviously, I am not the only one. When I wrote this review, I had no idea I'd get so many comments from people. That's one fascinating thing about writing a blog, though. You end up running interacting with all sorts of people. And, as I have also found out, writing requires bravery because you never know how people will take your words. I think your mom was very brave to write about her experience.

      And, for whatever it's worth, I don't blame your mom for being "bitter" and angry. It's not a sin to be angry, especially when the anger is totally justified. Being abused by someone, especially a parent, is certainly just cause for being angry. Anger can be very empowering and motivating, especially if it's directed in the right way.

      Thanks for commenting!

    2. Exactly, my mother was brave to speak up, it's something many people don't have the guts to do and I'm so proud of that. For her anger though, I feel the need to apologize because although everything she has written is true, she has focused her anger onto God. That bitter feeling is justified but still heartbreaking.

      If you're interested on the subject of the IFB, I started a blog a couple weeks ago. The blog certainly won't be as colorful and entertaining as my mom's story because she experienced so much more than I have. However, the content might intrigue you. My blog is aconservativelibertarian.wordpress.com. Feel free to check it out as I hope to share a little bit of my experiences as well as my thoughts on the IFB church's doctrine.
      Best regards,
      Sandra Zichterman

    3. Thanks for the link! I will check out your blog!

      I don't think you should feel responsible for your mother's feelings. You can't control how she feels. But I understand feeling saddened that she no longer holds God dear since that was something I'm assuming you shared with her.

      If you read this blog, you may notice I write a lot about Mormonism. I am not LDS, but my husband was Mormon for awhile. He eventually left the church and his kids disowned him, in part, because he lost his faith. I am sure that even if Mormonism had not been part of the equation, his kids would have disowned him. Their Mormon beliefs just made ditching him easier to justify.

      I think religion can be very polarizing. I don't claim to be an atheist, but I can see why so many people are embracing atheism now. Many people are hurt by religion. Personally, I separate religion from a belief in God. I think God is separate from manmade belief systems.

    4. Knotty, I think that maybe you misunderstand what atheism is. The way that you phrase it your making it sound like another religion. It couldn't be further from that. Start with the word Atheist itself. The word theist means someone that believes in a deity or supernatural being. The "A" in atheist stands for a lack of or "non". An atheist is someone who lacks belief in a god or supernatural deity. Why do we lack belief? Because of the lack of evidence to believe in one. I do not want to go into the vast amounts of evidence against theology but I will give you just a few of the biggest clues against it and I will use the christian religion/god to start.
      1. The Bible has been proven to be riddled with thousands of man made errors, contradictions, and fallacies.
      2. Evolution has been proven thanks to DNA and genetics.
      3. Countless deities have been worshipped and dropped for millennia. We know Zuess does not bring the thunder why do so many still believe that a god wills disasters such as the Haitian earthquake and hurricane Katrina? Especially when we have sciences like meteorology that show us the cause of such disasters.

      I am not trying to be condescending or patronizing in any way. I really wanted to clarify. Atheists use logic, reason, and evidences such as Science, archeology, and astronomy to bring them to their conclusions that all evidence points to no god.

      For many people it is a very long process that starts with lots of questions and finding unsatisfactory answers either from their clergy, fellow believers or holy books. Like Jocelyn Zichterman who was raised to never question and only submit. Religions dont have room for critical thinking/ers. The dogma and indoctrination causes so many to keep believing along with the fear factor. Once you break free you realize how crazy it all is and the mounds of knowledge you have been missing out on.

      I have read her book and I she has taken the first steps in deconversion. Im not talking about from one religion to another but a deconversion from religion and god all together. The more she learns the more she may start to realize that there is no god to be mad at. Maybe not... but I think she is on her way to true freedom when she admits there is no god. Even if she doesn't she will always be a heroic woman to me. She survived and kept her intelligent mind intact. She had the courage to fight those that wronged her and now the courage to tell the world! Bravo Jocelyn!

      For a good understanding of the deconversion process here are some excellent books: "godless" (g is purposely not capitalized) by Dan Barker. "Why I Believed" by Kenneth W. Daniels "Infidel" and "Heretic" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
      For some plain ole "sinful" atheist books check out "Damnation by Probability" by I.M.Probulous, "Nonsense from the Bible" by Brian Baker,

    5. Thanks for the comment. Don't worry. I understand what atheism is.

  8. What an amazing find this is. I've just gotten I FIRED GOD fun my library. It scares me because some of it is similar to the church of God of prophecy which I attended in Canada until age 12. It was a USA church based in Tennessee. There was no child abuse but definitely brain washing and very similar ideologies about hell fire and separation from the world. It may have been a 60s phenomena. I think she's brave to have written this book.

  9. I knew Bart & Sandy, and all the kids, Jeremy, Jason, Jocelyn, Melissa & Megan, and even babysat them when I was a young woman in their church in Green Bay. This is truly heartbreaking. I'm sorry, girls.


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