It is difficult to know where to begin when discussing Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. As a student of religion I early found myself drawn to the question of where religions begin. In the case of many religions we have an identifiable founder. Frequently that founder ends up being a god him (or more rarely) herself. In order for any putatively revealed religion to attain any credibility, the ultimate source must come from on high; God himself. So it is that we look askance at any religion that has appeared in the last couple of centuries, when, as we knew at the time, the earth was no longer the center of the universe and science had taught us to know better than to accept the old-timey stories of a god in the clouds. We can accept the ancient, time-honored stories, venerated as they are by centuries. If someone today tells us that God has spoken to him or her, we refer them to psychiatrists first, and then to the mind-altering drugs.
Jenkins, writing in the shadow of the tragedy of the Branch Davidians at Waco and the ritual suicide among the members of Heaven’s Gate (one of the members’ sons was one time a student of mine in seminary), tries to demonstrate that such groups are part of the fabric of religion. What is new in such movements is not the fact that they suddenly come into existence, or that society reacts violently to them, but that we now have a concept of “cult” to label them. Jenkins convincingly illustrates that fear of new religions stretches back for centuries. Even in the seventeenth century people experimented with new religions. When they survive, they become “churches.” Consider the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Pentecostals. They all began as “cults” and are today considered just another variety of Christianity. Most adherents to religions do not inquire too closely as to the origins of their brand. Historically we know that the three denominations mentioned above are well under two hundred years old.
In a fascinating twist, Jenkins describes how the Zeitgeist of the early twentieth century was ripe for such developments. One of the sources, ironically, was the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. His weird stories often invoked cult-like groups devoted to unusual practices that sometimes turned deadly. Also during that same time period, Christian Fundamentalism began as an effort to sort out what was “fundamental” to Christianity that set it apart from the cults (including Pentecostalism, now one of the most dominant Fundamentalist sects). As Jenkins points out, when these new sects become mainstream, they vehemently seek to destroy all new comers. Christianity began as a cult in the eyes of both Jews and Romans.
Religions are inherently conservative. As we will see in the approaching election, the religious background of a candidate plays a major role in public acceptability. We enjoy freedom of religion in the United States, but only to a point. Jenkins should be required reading for every religious believer. Tolerance would be the only proper and reasonable response.
Posted in Bibliolatry, Books, Current Events, Posts, Religious Origins, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged Branch Davidians, cults, Fundamentalism, H P Lovecraft, Heaven's Gate, Mormons, Mystics and Messiahs, Pentecostals, Philip Jenkins, psychiatry, Seventh-Day Adventists
A number of 40-year commemorations of the Manson Family murders have brought these gruesome events of my childhood years back to memory. I was really too young to understand what all the fuss was about then, and now that I am old enough, I’m not sure I want to. Nevertheless, I have committed myself to exploring sects and violence in a religious setting, and the Manson murders have prongs of both phenomena. While recently refreshing my memory on these horrific events on a gray and rainy day, I noticed something I had not seen before.
Looks like someone's been on the yellow submarine a little too long
Charles Manson was (probably still is) a believer in hidden codes. He allegedly cracked a code in the Beatles’ White Album that led him to the belief in an apocalyptic battle that he was determined to begin. I wondered why the Manson Family tends not to be listed among other apocalyptic groups such as the Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate. They all share several traits, and although Manson’s revelations came from the Fab Four rather than the Holy Trinity, a revelation from on high spurred him into actions that had a tragic outcome, just as David Koresh or Marshall Applewhite.
The whole Helter Skelter code also reminded me of another, equally bogus pawning of randomness as divine messages: Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code. When I read this bestselling bit of intellectual dry rot a few years ago, I was amazed that anyone could possibly take it seriously. God writing hidden messages in a holy book like some hormone enraged high schooler? And figuring out that a singular genius would figure it out just before the apocalyptic end without realizing that it is possible to read messages back into any media after they occur? It seemed all too much for a rational mind to take. In one of my courses at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh I gave students the option of reading it for a secondary project. To my chagrin, when I had the papers in one particularly tear-stained paper wailed (seriously) that the writer wished she had been warned sooner! This book changed her life! Everyone must know! Unfortunately I left Oshkosh without finding out what became of her.
God may not play dice, but apparently he likes crosswords!
I felt bad for introducing an undergrad to such “academic” sleight of hand; some college students just haven’t developed the critical facilities to see through the remarks of Balaam’s various sidekicks. Come to think of it, Manson’s followers accepted his revelations uncritically as well. Maybe the real lesson in all of this is that we must examine very closely those who claim special revelation, whether it be from Lenin, McCarthy, Starr, and Harrington, or just from God Almighty.
Posted in Books, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Rock-n-Roll, Sects
Tagged Bible Code, Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate, Helter Skelter, Manson Family, The Beatles