Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Evangelicals and the New McCarthyism?

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

A few years ago when I read Gordon Melton's characterization of evangelical approaches to new religions among the counter-cult as "amateurish" (Missiology Vol. 28, no. 1 [Jan. 2000]: 85-98) I took exception to it. I was only part way through my reassessment of counter-cult methodologies and had not yet experienced a paradigm shift. But the more I observe many of the folks in this community the more I think Melton was correct in his assessment.

I recently had an exchange with a member of the counter-cult on the topic of Mormonism and I came away from that encounter with two images stuck in my mind. The first is a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the scene where a group of medieval townspeople bring a woman forward with allegations of witchcraft. If you haven't seen this film you can view this scene on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yp_l5ntikaU. This scene came to mind not only in terms of the questionable means of assessment and understandings that many (but not all) evangelicals have of new religions, but also with the glee exhibited in the townspeople over the hopeful burning of the witch, a glee that I see reflected in many an evangelical as they denounce religious others that they claim to care about.

The other image that came to mind, and one far more disturbing, is that of McCarthyism. I recall watching newsreel footage of the political "witch hunts" this country experienced in its zeal to weed out communism, a zeal that often times saw communists in the ranks of fellow Americans that were not there. This image came to mind as I had just experienced a similar zeal on the part of a segment of the counter-cult intent on labeling myself and others as divisive and dangerous to the church. With these kinds of judgments it seems as if at least one segment of the counter-cult is launching a new form of McCarthyism in the church, and demonstrating theological and missiological naivette in the process.

For now I'm be content to chuckle at the "expert" mob that brings forward alleged heretics. Let's just hope that they remain small and marginalized.


Matt Stone said...

John, one of my favourite movie scenes of all time, not far behind the "we're all individual" scene in Life of Brian. Being only an external observer of the counter-cult I can only imagine what it's like from the inside but from the outside the analogy certainly seems apt.

Mike Tea said...

I confess that I have some sympathy for the views you express in relation to parts of the counter-cult community and would extend my concerns to the wider Christian community. I should explain that I am a former Mormon, have been a Christian for over twenty years, and am actively involved in the counter-cult work whose approach and attitude you question. I have seen what you have seen and deplore the ‘witch hunt’ attitude more than most, having once been on the receiving end of it.

That being said, I have found much to be thankful for in the counter-cult community and have had dealings and formed friendships with many caring, patient and truly Christian people.

It seems that there are two extremes of behaviour and attitude that must be avoided. The first is the one you identify in which the cult member is regarded as having no intrinsic worth unless and until they convert. Before that happens they are fair prey for anyone who fancies chancing their arm at a bit of witnessing, that witnessing usually involving a lot of shouting, finger pointing, denouncing, ridiculing and casting out. It is the sort of conduct that, I understand, can be witnessed at Temple Square in Salt Lake City around conference time and I deplore it. It is something I see myself from time-to-time and it always embarrasses and angers me.

The other extreme is as bad, if not worse, however. It is that liberal attitude that ‘respects’ other faiths, new religions etc. such that there are no meaningful differences between them. There is no objective truth, no way to be lost, no way to be saved, no faith for which to contend. In short no light in the darkness just a bunch of people scrambling around in the dark politely repeating, ‘after you’, ‘no, after you’ as they defer to one another all the way down to hell.

What is the answer? Surely it is in the words of Peter:

In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15-16)

Christians have a hope and it is uniquely founded upon Jesus Christ. There is one hope and one reason for that hope. We are to tell of that hope and that reason. There is a clear injunction to evangelise those without this hope. But it is to be done with gentleness and respect for others and care for the good name of the One on whom that hope is founded.

My experience of the two extremes has seen some so bent on telling the reason that they fail to model hope and forget their responsibility for the reputation of Christ. They turn nasty and vindictive and cherish the idea of Mormons vilified, embarrassed and burning in an especially hot part of hell.

Others, however, are so determined to nurture a good reputation (usually their own is uppermost in their thinking, “see how enlightened I am?”) that they dare not risk offence even though the Bible makes clear that the Cross is an offence to those that are dying. These take every opportunity to find the good in Mormonism, downplay differences as experimental rather than fundamental, and reinforce in Mormons the false notion that they really are part of the wider Christian community and have something positive to offer. Such an approach would have robbed me of my salvation and I do not appreciate it.

John W. Morehead said...

Mike, I am happy to post your comments for consideration and reflection in response to my post. I offer the following that came to mind as I read your comments.

First, it is refreshing to find someone within the counter-cult who recognizes that there are often problems with how members of this community engage others. I hope your concerns find a hearing.

Second, I agree that the church needs to be educated as to the teacings of Christianity in relation to new religions, and that appropriate forms of apologetic argument need to be utilized and imparted as well. While some in the counter-cult have misunderstood those of us in the new paradigm as articulating an either-or approach of missions vs. apologetics, this is not the case. We have always argued for a blending of both with contextualized apologetics serving an ancillary function in the service of cross-cultural missions.

Third, with the second point in mind, I believe that the counter-cult often confuses an "in house" boundary maintenance approach with an external evangelistic approach, and this misses the mark. The result is that we often end up preaching to the choir when we think we are connecting evangelistically. We might consider contextual missiology in cross-cultural contexts and how this might inform counter-cult interactions with new religions.

Fourth, I would also disagree with various extremes in approaches, from those who denounce in Pharisaical fashion, to those who may not point out important differences between religions and spiritualities thus not being fair in representation to the religious systems in question and not fair in presenting the gospel. However, I have not been engaged in either of these extremes, and my concern is that some in the counter-cult have accused myself and others of laying the Scriptures aside and pursuing cultural considerations at the expense of Scripture resulting in compromise. This allegation cannot be substantiated in any of my writings or recorded presentations on the topic, and if the counter-cult wants to be taken seriously they will have to be fair in their analysis and respectful in how they describe and interact with those they disagree with, including evangelicals.

I hope these comments help clarify my perspective on this matter. Thanks again for sharing.

Mike Tea said...


Thank you for posting my comments and for taking the time to graciously comment on them. There are those among my friends that share my concerns and, although I don’t always feel people are listening, nevertheless I feel the work is worthwhile and fruitful. I always remind myself that there is wheat and there are tares and it will be so until the harvest.

The situation you describe when you write about ‘boundary maintenance’ is familiar I think. There are those who insist on staying in Jerusalem stoning adulterers while condemning others who are prepared to walk right into Samaria and have a civilised chat with ‘sinners’. Sadly, it is my experience that this is too typical of the wider church and that some in counter cult work simply look more culpable because they are ‘out there’ (granted also, of course, that all the true idiots have not been identified). Maybe counter cult work in itself isn’t the culprit, since at its best it is honourable and godly. Perhaps it simply gives too many Christians the opportunity to show to excess what some are really like, insecure, uncertain and ill prepared and, therefore, disfunctional.

I do find that healthy involvement in the right sort of apologetics/mission work can equip and prepare, lend confidence and achieve real growth for the average Christian. That is why it is so important to do as you say and contextualize apologetics in a framework of mission and service. After all, truth is ultimately contextualized in a person not a concept and that person is love. The church needs to be educated indeed and it falls to those who see the need to stand in the gap.

Several problems present themselves to my mind. I am aware of the emerging church phenomenon and the impact of post-modern thinking on the Christian community. I have much to learn and need more time to observe but I can see that it is exciting to consider the new ways of connecting and exploring this New World and the Old World in a new way. The problem is that recent generations of Christians have seen so many changes in principle and praxis, paradigm shifts, and ‘happening’ developments I can see how it might frighten the pants off some. Christian pioneers have to bring as many with them as they can otherwise what is the point? Where would Brigham Young be if he had arrived in Salt Lake Valley alone? We must bring people with us because they are the church and not our ideas no matter how wonderful. That being the case patience becomes more than a virtue, it is a necessity.

A related problem is the question of which world view/theology/interpretation/age of development are we offering the concerned cult member? If Christians are troubled and confused by the fast changes in the Christian world what hope for the cultist convert? We need to step outside Jerusalem, break the boundaries in answering the mission call, but there must still be a Jerusalem otherwise what are we bringing people to?

These are the questions that trouble many we might regard as reactionary yet they are genuine concerns and need addressing. On the other hand, the concerns we began discussing are as real and as urgent. How are we to pioneer mission in a post-modern society, making the gospel relevant and significant, while bringing the Lord’s people with us and not diluting or compromising the truth? How do we dispel the fear and instil confidence such that Christians will not fear to understand, to meet with and evangelise in today’s world? If we are misunderstood then that goes with the territory but if we are leaders we will understand and strive to answer the genuine concerns of those we lead, dismiss the paranoia of the Pharisees and learn to tell the difference.

If we can help each other in that then we fulfil the greatest commission in our lives.

Thanks again for taking the time.

Steve Hayes said...

Have you come across the Rev John Brown? He's been posting stuff in the Nurel (New Religious Movements) list about proposed new terms to "cult researchers". I suggested that he shoudl perhaps start by defining "cult".

John W. Morehead said...

I'll have to start reading some of these NUREL posts more closely Steve. I would agree that defining "cult" is an appropriate starting place, and would go further in arguing that "cult" is so widely and ill-defined, and considered pejorative by those in the new religions, that it has lost its effectiveness and appropriateness as a term. Nevertheless, counter-cult folks will retain it, as will secular anti-cultists, in that they are more concerned, in my view, with appyling a label that provides for stark contrast (and perhaps immediate negative perceptions and connotations) rather than appropriate definitional terminology.

Mike Tea said...

You raise an issue that has been a concern of mine for some time. You are right in saying that, ‘"cult" is so widely and ill-defined, and considered pejorative by those in the new religions, that it has lost its effectiveness and appropriateness as a term.’ I would go further and point out that cult in some cultures and religions carries positive connotations. Catholicism is the most obvious example with the cult of Mary and the cults surrounding her various purported appearances illustrating this. Throughout history cultures have had no difficulty in applying the term to various religious practices and the primary dictionary definition gives us:

"A system of religious beliefs and ritual, or the body of adherents to one"

However, the dictionary goes on to give a secondary definition of:

"A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious, or the body of adherents to one"

(The New Penguin English Dictionary)

This last definition illustrates a common understanding of cults as spurious and/or unorthodox. This being a common understanding it is both serviceable as well as open to abuse. Tom Wolfe cynically defined a cult as ‘a religion without political power.’ That definition might go some way to explaining why Mormonism is perceived by an increasing number of people as mainstream Christian.

The problem I have always had is that on the one hand I am uncomfortable with using the word for the reasons you give and especially because it is too vague and ill defined as well as provocative. It also encourages Christians to react rather than think and respond.

On the other hand the ‘NRM’ definitions seem too weak and compromising. After all, no matter how much we might wish to avoid pejorative language if our approach is missiological we are, by definition, bringing critical appraisal and an earnest call to conversion. Paul on Mars Hill is a classic example of a Christian missionary understanding and being sensitive to his audience while uncompromisingly offering a message of ‘the one true God’. How do we do that?

We can avoid specific definitions as Paul did but there comes a time when we feel it necessary to give a name to what we are dealing with. ‘New religions’ is appropriate in some contexts but can give the impression that we are saying religions of all kinds are of equal value, surely not a tenable position for a Christian. Shouldn’t there be a further step that defines the nature of these new religions and how a Christian should approach and evaluate them?

On another note a good friend who left the Mormon Church to become an Evangelical believer declared her determination to witness to her former friends avoiding all the unhelpful language usually attendant to such witnessing. I applauded her ideals but assured her that she would end up in the same place in relation to the Mormon Church. She is the sweetest and inoffensive person who doesn’t accuse, dismiss or deride. She simply chats and asks questions. Sure enough in time she was labelled ‘anti-Mormon’ and declared persona non grata. I have rarely been so sorry to be right about something, she was so hurt.

My point is that, as much as we might – and should - try and respect people and protect them from the worse excesses of inappropriate witnessing there is another side to the story. Those in the ‘cults’ have no compunction in labelling honest critics in a pejorative way, believing that the world is divided between irrational, vindictive criticism, no matter how reasonably stated, and enlightened accord. While this is no excuse for Christians behaving the same way nevertheless we should not feel quite so anxious about a robust approach in dealing with error.

John W. Morehead said...

Thanks for your further thoughts, Mike.

I prefer the term "new religious movement" as adopted by the academic community. Of course, this is not without its definitional difficulties and shortcomings, as all use of language is, but it is a functional term that is able to serve an appropriate referential term for analysis of certain religious groups and movements. It also has the advantage of avoiding the pejorative connotations of those in the new religions. It also serves my cross-cultural missiological paradigm well. Hence my use of it and my comments here.

Hope this helps.

Steve Hayes said...

I personally believe that the word "cult" is "skunked" -- that is, it is no longer usable for communication because it has so many different and contradictory meanings that it needs to be defined each time one uses it.

I believe that when it is applied to a group of people it is misused. One can find an analogous misuse among Roman Catholics in the way they sometimes use "rite" to refer to a group of people. One can see how it happens, and as long as they confine it to their own internal jargon there is no great hatm done, but when they start using it externally, it distorts the meaning of the word and leads to miscommunication.

I think it is perhaps still legitimate to refer to the cult of Che Guevara, or of self-esteem, or of Elvis, or of Mary and the Saints. But when the primary reference of "cult" is to a group of people, then it is skunked.

I have also encountered, for the first time, in the last couple of days, and only in this blog, the use of "countercult" in the same way. I believe that is equally illegitimate, and actually exacerbates the problem.

I think it is legitimate to refer to the "countercult movement " - groups of people who have a common purpose to act against some form of religious worship that they don't like. But to speak of "countercult" as a thing raises the same objections as those I see to "cult" used to refer to groups of people.

Jeff said...

I prefer the term "new religious movement" as adopted by the academic community. Of course, this is not without its definitional difficulties and shortcomings, as all use of language is...

I'm glad you point this out. The point you and others make regarding the term cult and one of the reasons for abandoning it (verity of definitions)...should be abandoned.

John W. Morehead said...

Jeff, perhaps your comment indicates that you are open to new terminology, and who knows, maybe even a new paradigm one day. :)

The fact that the term NRMs has its own difficulties does not mean they are as great as those associated with "cult," nor that therefore the term "cult" should be retained and all academic arguments against it should be dropped. One would think that the pejorative aspects of it should cause counter-cultists to want to abandon it if they are interested in a positive hearing from their audience.

Mike Tea said...

I cannot agree that all efforts at finding more meaningful and less pejorative ways to communicate the gospel should be abandoned simply because it is a challenge. I understand and share the concern of many that 'neutral' terms can themselves present problems and I think I have said as much. Surely, however, the injunction of Scripture is to communicate with love and respect.

If we can get passed labels we can move on to the discussion we so yearn to have with people. If we can't see past labels then neither will those with whom we wish to discuss the gospel and we will be labelled in turn as bigoted.

I note that the label 'counter-cult' itself seems to carry in some circles a certain pejorative quality. The truth is that it is not possible to sum up and convey our beliefs in simple labels.

If I think you do some things wrong a label may well convey the erronious idea that I think you do everything wrong. But that is not the case. In which case we need to come together and talk not stand off labelling and dismissing one another.