Saturday, August 18, 2012

JAM Review: All You Want to Know About Religions, Cults and Popular Beliefs

My review to appear in the October 2012 edition of the Journal of Asian Mission.

Jessica L. T. Devega and Christine Ortega Gaurkee, All You Want to Know But Didn’t Think You Could Ask: Religions, Cults, and Popular Beliefs (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2012). Paper, 316 pp., ISBN: 978-1-4185-4917-6, US$19.99. The contemporary evangelical way of understanding various new religious movements came out of the late 1960s with the counterculture movement, and the increased awareness of these religious groups that came as a result. Two major responses arose, one by the secular world that took issue with allegations of mind control and coercion, forming what came to be known as the anti-cult movement. Another approach arose within evangelicalism that was concerned more with doctrinal issues, and with heretical deviations from conceptions of orthodoxy. This approach came to be known as the counter-cult movement.

The most influential figure to arise out of the counter-cult movement was Walter Martin, who founded one of the largest and oldest organizations devoted to an evangelical analysis and refutation of “the cults.” He is best known for his book The Kingdom of the Cults, which was first published in 1965 and which is still in print, having gone through various publication versions. Martin’s framework was theologically comparative and apologetic, drawing a contrast with certain doctrines in Christianity and corresponding concerns in the new religions, coupled with an apologetic refutation of doctrines and worldviews viewed as heretical. This volume continues to exert enormous influence not only on the counter-cult community’s understanding of new religions, but also that of larger evangelicalism as well.

Although the counter-cult community is not as influential in shaping evangelical attitudes toward new religions and world religions as in the past, perhaps reaching its peak in the 1980s, it continues to make its presence felt in the evangelical subculture. It is against this religio-cultural backdrop that contemporary analyses of religion for popular evangelicalism must be evaluated.  

All You Want to Know But Didn’t Think You Could Ask: Religions, Cults, and Popular Beliefs, attempts to provide an introduction to various expressions of religion for an evangelical audience. It is organized by World Traditions (those religions with larger populations and influence in the world, usually referred to as world religions), Religions of Place (defined as nature-based or indigenous religions), Uniquely American Religions, Pop-Culture Based Religions and Beliefs (such as those which draw inspiration from horror, fantasy, and science fiction in entertainment), Nonreligious Beliefs (such as atheism and agnosticism), and Extremism (which includes an exploration of various forms of fundamentalism and violence inspired by religion). The authors of this book describe their aim as attempting to provide a “concise, general, introductory overview of a wide range of belief systems” that also takes into account “common stereotypes and misconceptions” (8). Their approach that discusses not only the world religions and new religions, but also those new spiritualities and social identities that have arisen out of popular culture, is an admirable one, but one that is not without its difficulties. Categorizing religions is always difficult, and while the authors are aware of tensions within their classification system, it is curious to see certain religions classified by place (whether indigenous or uniquely American) when many of these are now found throughout the world, even if not in numbers as large as the world religions. In addition, many have had strong influences in popular culture even without significant numbers of adherents.

The author’s approach to each group or belief begins with an introduction, followed by a brief history, and then a discussion of beliefs, sacred texts, rituals, and demographic considerations. While this approach is very common, particularly in popular evangelical treatments of religion, it is also a very Western and Protestant way of approaching the topic where priority is given to beliefs as the major defining characteristic. Many religions begin with praxis rather than belief, and while the two are certainly related, an emphasis on belief in a religious tradition where such considerations are not primary can result in misunderstanding and reification of religion. Following the analysis of a given group this book also includes recommendations for further reading for many of the entries. But curiously, while some entries include bibliographical recommendations, many do not (e.g., Hinduism), and some of the suggestions demonstrate a lack of familiarity with some of the best academic treatments available. As the final element of their analytical approach, each chapter also includes comparative charts that involve contrast with Christianity.

This book demonstrates a more positive tone than many works designed for an evangelical audience on religion. As mentioned above, it also casts a wider net in terms of the number and types of religious and spiritual phenomena that the authors are willing to take seriously, and describe for their readers. In particular, this volume is an improvement over much of the material produced with reference to counter-cult frames of reference. Even so, the volume is not without its shortcomings.

As an initial example, in the discussion of terminology, the authors recognize the problems associated with the pejorative label “cult,” and the tendency in academic circles to substitute the more neutral term “new religious movement.” Even so, they draw upon cult nomenclature and concepts informed by problematic popular media definitions and stereotype of “cults.” In so doing they accept “cultic” definitional concepts related to charismatic leadership, and high levels of commitment in certain groups that could be applied to many mainstream religious groups, including Christianity (10).

Other shortcomings of this volume can be cited. In the chapter on Neopaganism, Wicca, and Druidism, the history section connects these traditions to antiquity and early pre-modern expressions of paganism, but no discussion is given to the modern origins of Neopaganism through influential writers like Gerald Gardner. Viewing Neopaganism through an evangelical lens also demonstrates problems here as this chapter begins its discussion by way of beliefs, whereas Neopaganism is better understood as praxis-oriented. The demographic considerations of this section are also lacking in that they do not take into consideration the recent Pew Survey or American Religious Identification Survey data. Despite this omission, thankfully this book does not include alarmist statistics of growth frequently found in evangelical treatments of Neopaganism.

 In the chapter on Mormonism there is a reference to Joseph Smith starting the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints movement.” Historically, Smith gave rise to what would later splinter into a broader Restorationist movement, originally founding a group referred to as the Church of Christ, but later by the name of the church now familiar to Mormonism. This misspelling of the official name of the church (perhaps a typo), “Latter Day Saints” as opposed to “Latter-day Saints,” is found in two places in this entry. In the analysis of Mormonism it too begins with belief, but again, a case can be made that Mormonism has other priorities and emphases, including ethics (“choose the right”), sacred narrative (The Plan of Salvation, and First Vision), and ritual over doctrine (in local ward and temple). In addition, this chapter makes the mistaken claim that Mormons “view themselves as Protestant Christians” (193). In fact, while they self-identify as Christian, they do so in ways that are not Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, but in a sense of a restored Christianity free of creedal influence and apostasy. Other problems in this chapter are also evident, including confusion of the Mormon priesthood with the “community of Mormons” (194), a curious use of lowercase “g” in reference to Mormon conceptions of deity (again, perhaps a typo), and the claim that within Mormonism a priesthood of believers may be found (which downplays the significance of priesthood authority within this tradition). Finally, this entry concludes with mention of the controversial views of blacks and the priesthood prior to 1978, which would have been more appropriate in the history section of analysis. Its presence in this section hints at sensationalism.

Many entries in this volume are very brief, in fact, so brief that it would have been better not to have included them at all. The limited discussion on some groups makes it difficult to accurately represent the groups under consideration. In addition, there is a question as to why certain groups were included in this volume, and chosen in the category of indigenous beliefs. These include Scientology, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (popularly known and included in this volume as “Hare Krishnas”), and the Nation of Islam. These new religions are not large or influential, but have been of concern to evangelicals since the early years of the “cult controversy” of the late 1960s. Their inclusion in this volume raises the possibility that this book incorporates the lingering influence of evangelical concerns over “the cults,” and the focus of the evangelical counter-cult.

As mentioned previously, the authors of this volume are to be commended for including a section on popular culture. This segment of the book would have made more sense to readers, and would have been strengthened, with an introduction on the significance of popular culture and imaginative narratives in entertainment from which so many are forming personal identities and finding inspiration in the formation of new concepts of the sacred.

One of the segments on popular culture includes a consideration of vampirism. Here the authors refer to it as new religious movement, but recent scholarship has argued that a more accurate conception of vampirism is that of a social identity, which may or may not include reference to the sacred. The authors also correctly describe pranic vampires who feed on energy, but then include them in the sanguinarian typology (those who feed on blood) rather than the psychic category where they are appropriately classified. Here familiarity with additional research sources would have strengthened the section, including bibliographic recommendations such as Joseph Laycock’s Vampires Today, and the research archives of the Atlanta Vampire Alliance.

 Another group considered in this section is Jediism, the hyper-real or fiction-based spirituality informed by the Star Wars mythology. This entry helps raise awareness of the new forms of spirituality that are arising out of popular culture, but it would have been strengthened by interaction with Adam Possamai’s work in this area, and inclusion of it in the bibliographic recommendations.

This volume also includes a section on divining, astrology, tarot cards, and New Age. Unfortunately, this chapter is far too brief, it folds multiple items together without sufficient consideration of any of them, and in particular, the cultural and religious significance of the New Age or the New Spirituality. No mention is made of Western esotericism as a significant tradition in this regard, an unfortunate omission given that scholars like J. Gordon Melton consider it to be the third largest religious tradition in America. Finally, this entry also shows its bibliographical shortcomings, with a lack of any sampling of academic works on New Age.

This volume should also earn praise for its willingness to consider the paranormal, an area often missed in contemporary religious analyses. But again, this entry is too brief, and no mention is made of the most recent demographic surveys or the new academic treatments of the paranormal.

In the entry on Fandom, the authors recognize the religious or spiritual potential for these subcultures to draw upon aspects of the sacred. Future writers might broaden this discussion to mention various transformational festivals, such as science fiction and fantasy conventions, and the power of imaginative narratives in popular culture functioning as sacred narratives.

This volume also includes a segment on Apocalypticism. The chapter might have demonstrated some self-critical reflection for evangelical readers by way of thoughts on Protestant fundamentalist and evangelical Dispensational pre-tribulationism and its influence not only in these subcultures, but also broader popular culture as well.

I commend these authors for a different approach to religions, new religions, and popular beliefs. They use a tone and demonstrate an openness to a broader palette for consideration in contemporary religious expression. Although it is not completely free of the limitations of counter-cult volumes of the past, and can benefit from a greater interaction with the academic literature dealing with the subject matter, there is much to build on for future volumes for the evangelical subculture.

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