originally published July 19, 2014
And so it was said in the First Epistle to the Corinthians (known as much for their spiritual pluck as their fine leather upholstery) that a woman’s body belongs not to her, but was purchased by Jesus through the sacrifice of his crucifixion. Which is shocking, because as a Jew you’d think Jesus could have finagled himself a better deal.
Next we turn to Matthew 4:19, when Jesus said unto a pair of fishermen that he would make them “fishers of men”. This was the Biblical snippet passed on to the women of the Children of God, a.k.a. The Family International, a cultish bastard-child spin-off of Christianity in which women were at one time encouraged to seduce men into the faith, using their charm, their guile, and their humptastic bedroom skills. They called it ‘Flirty Fishing’, and their pimps – sorry, their mostly male spiritual leaders – claimed it worked.
The Children of God parlayed the hippie sensibility for metaphysical exploration, along with the cultural acceptance of free-form boning of the Sexual Revolution, into a twisted garble of quasi-religious teachings. And somehow they have been able to pull this off and stay viable for over 45 years.
David Berg, also known as Moses David because it looks better on a cult leader’s business card, hooked up with Karen Zerby in 1968 to form the Children of God. They boasted the flavors of the day: free love, communal living and a rejection of authoritarian rhetoric. But members also needed to souse their snouts in the primordial goop of religion, subscribing not only to the most finger-wagging tenets of Christianity – along with a healthy sprinkling of apocalyptic doom – but also to the teachings of Moses David and his spouse.
According to the rules of the clubhouse, the teachings in the Bible are holy truths, but the allocutions from Moses David’s pen – which were graciously bequeathed to members in the form of over 3,000 “Mo Letters” written by David himself – were equally worthy of reverence. In fact, when the two would contradict one another (which was undoubtedly rare, but at times… necessary), the word of Mo’ David would trump that of scripture. After all, Dave was the modern prophet – Jesus Mark II. And he knew how to build a posse.
David’s early followers meandered like fruit-flies through city streets, passing out literature and proselytizing the words of both God and Dave to anyone who’d pretend to listen. As the 1970’s deflated the hippie balloon and forced a moderate adjustment to the group’s strategy, David adapted. He changed the name to the Family of Love (because that somehow sounds… less hippy-ish?), and sought to expand his reach to more countries, luring more desperate souls into a slight reframing of their Christian faith. A slight reframing that positioned him upon the altar, where all the fun was.
It was around this time that Dave concocted his own gateway to salvation, the practice known as Flirty Fishing. Female devotees would crank up their womanly charms in the presence of men who appeared vulnerable and ultimately susceptible to a seduction involving not only sex, but Jesus. When this tactic was unveiled to the masses of Children of God believers, it caused quite a rift. But offering sex as a gateway to religious conversion is akin to offering a free toaster oven for sitting through a timeshare presentation: you’ll get a lot of interested parties through the door and some small percentage of them will buy in.
Scoping out singles bars and… I don’t know, key parties, or whatever guys did in the 70’s to get laid, wasn’t going to be enough. The women – and these were often some cult member’s wife or girlfriend – would sign up through escort agencies in some cities. In this sense they were truly prostitutes, looking to bring in some revenue for the church (that 10% tithe rule for members wasn’t hauling in the dough Dave had hoped for) as well as some converts.
Not all Flirty Fishers would take their marks to bed. Some could lure men into the church’s folds through the promise of true love, or at least some future fellatio. But the ones who allowed their marks to penetrate that pious pink portal earned a higher level of respect in Dave’s twisted little world. Members were encouraged to keep meticulous records of their sacred skronking, and it’s believed that over 223,000 men had been seduced by Flirty Fisherwomen over a 13-year span. Pregnancies from such unions were encouraged; within the first five years, over 300 babies were born this way. The official name for the children conceived through this method was ‘Jesus Babies’.
One of those Jesus Babies belonged to Karen Zerby, Moses Dave’s wife. In 1974, Karen Flirty Fished a hotel employee in the Canary Islands in hopes of swaying him over to the cause. Nine months later, Ricky Rodriguez was born, unofficially adopted as Dave’s own son. No word on whether or not the room service guy took the bait.
It should be noted that 30 years later, in the opening act of a grizzly murder-suicide, Ricky repeatedly stabbed a woman who had molested him as a child. The church has had to untangle an hawk’s nest of sexual abuse cases, as well as kidnapping charges to keep children away from parents looking to leave the Family International, as they came to be called. It was this legal mephitis – along with fears of contracting AIDS into the free-loving multitudes – that led to the official discontinuation of Flirty Fishing in 1987.
The Family’s take on sex remains open to scrutiny by us ‘normies’ who tend to live by the boring code of societal standards. Marriage should in no way restrict one’s access to a myriad of partners. Women can certainly say no to sex, however a number of former Family members claim they were coerced into it, or threatened with being branded as unloving and selfish if they refused. Homosexuality is fiercely forbidden (it’s a sin, you know), although girl-on-girl action is just groovy, provided the girls involved are doing it for fun, and still devote most of their fun-sexy-time to men.
Sounds like the perfect community, if devised by a misogynist sleaze-bag, doesn’t it?
Everyone in the church is expected to have a loving relationship with Jesus. Not to be confused with standard Christianity’s take on getting cozy with the Big Guy – no, we’re talking about loving. Members are encouraged to imagine Jesus joining them during intercourse and masturbation (that’s right – no self-respecting free-love religion is going to view floggin’ one’s own flesh-potato as a sin!). It’s recommended that men imagine themselves as women – that way they won’t be engaging in gay sex with Jesus. I’m not making this up. They are actually taught this.
Look, I’m not going to preach against someone’s faith. Provided you aren’t strapping an explosive to your torso and wandering into your local KFC, I don’t care what you believe. And I admit, there’s a part of me that admires a belief structure that exalts not only angels but also departed friends, loved ones, spiritual leaders and even celebrities (the Family counts Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon among their Spirit Helpers). But I’m not sold on these kooks.
John and Arlyn Bottom were members of the group for years, finally disembarking from the cult in 1978 along with their five kids: River, Rain, Leaf, Liberty and Summer. They changed their last name to Phoenix to represent their rise from the ashes of weirdness. Leaf changed his name back to Joaquin at age 15, and both he and River became well-known actors. Actress Rose McGowan also grew up in the misty murk of this cult. None of these children of Children of God have anything nice to say about their distant past today.
I think they’re just happy to be free.