"Sins of the Father" - Book Review

When Phil Cooper fled the ultraconservative religious community led by his father Neville Cooper, aka Hopeful Christian, in 1989, it was the safety and wellbeing of his five children that was uppermost in his mind. So some months later, he executed a carefully-planned operation to remove them from the Springbank compound in north Canterbury, New Zealand. "Sins of the Father: the long shadow of a religious cult," authored by well-known Kiwi author Fleur Beale, is his story of making a new life for himself and his family in Australia. The book's title refers to the obvious patriarch, Neville Cooper, who still runs the community (now based in Westland) with an autocratic hand and a distorted version of evangelical Christianity. But it also points more subtly to Phil's own guilt and uncertainty as to whether he did the right thing in abducting his kids, for he sees in himself many of his father's character flaws. However in the last chapter the author records his children's reassurance on this matter.

I have been interested in the "Cooperite" community since watching investigative journalists pursue the story on several occasions in the nineties. I am intrigued by the phenomenon of a church morphing into a cult, and feel that stories like this - "Not without my Sister" by Kristina Jones is a similar saga - pose a sober warning to faith communities and their leaders. Watch yourself Brian Tamaki. When the church began about 35 years ago, Neville Cooper was simply known as a strong Christian leader who set demanding standards of dress and behaviour for his congregation. Over time however, his group became progressively more narrow and reclusive, marked by dictatorial leadership and extreme teachings. The book tells how some members of Phil Cooper's family will never be free of "Hopeful Christian's" control.

I read this story over the holidays; it's a riveting tale of family heartbreak. In 1981 Philip Cooper, who worked in a family business on the church’s communal farm, married Sandra Benjamin and they began to raise a large family together. By 1989, he was experiencing deep concerns about the community, and one of his married sisters had already left the compound. Their father is a strict leader imposing harsh rules; those who don’t conform are subjected to coercive interrogation and marginalisation and any who leave are shunned, ie treated as "dead." Sexual abuse of young people (under the pretence of "openness") became a feature, and Cooper eventually spent time in prison for sexual assault. It was these increasingly sinister practices , affecting even his own marriage, that led Phil Cooper to run away from the enclosed community, and return later to snatch his children. He saw his father’s influence as dangerous, and wanted his kids to have a normal life.
His wife Sandy – by now known as Prayer Darling - did not agree with his decision. Family outside pleaded with her to escape. They even tried abducting her so she could receive counselling from experts in mind control. But each time she opted to return, often with a new baby on the way. Cooper Senior’s power over her is unassailable, and she still lives there on the West Coast with 400 others, separated from her husband and her widowed mother, and five of her seven children. In a newspaper article in 2006, Phil Cooper’s sister explained what keeps people there. 90% of the church’s practices are good, she said, but community life is marred by the tight controls on members, the lack of free will and the fear of eternal damnation if a member leaves. Cooper is still highly regarded by his people, and Sandy passionately believes she has made the right choice in staying. This earnest Christian mother has been persuaded that salvation is only to be found within the confines of the Cooperite community.

Sadly, she has missed the whole point of the gospel, which is that righteousness is the result not the cause of our salvation. Obedience is the response of a redeemed people, not a ladder up which we climb to earn God's favour. In reading Philippians 3 for sermon preparation this week, I noted the passionate commitment of St Paul to his Christian faith, so that he says he regards everything else as garbage (literally dog dung). In refusing to leave her charismatic but deviant father in law, Prayer Darling is consigning her flesh and blood family to the rubbish bin.