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Book Review - New Age Almanac.
J. Gordon Melton. Visible Ink Press, 1999, $16.95.
The New Age Almanac could more aptly be named the New Age Encyclopedia. Gordon Melton, who has become a chronicler of religious movements of the 20th century, attempts to do the same for the so-called New Age movement. The book was originally published in 1991 following the Reagan-era, a decade that saw tremendous focus on materialism in our country. The New Age movement probably reached its peak in the 1980’s as a backlash to the “greed is good” theme of that decade. As such the book must be viewed in that context because there have been tremendous changes in cults, sects, and new age groups in the last nine years.
The first part of the book contains extensive biographical data on early mediums of the occult/spiritualism movement of the Victorian era. From the “spiritual intermediaries” of the late 1800’s came separate sects with self-proclaimed leaders who asserted that they had become the “chosen ones” to receive special communications from the “masters” of these “spirit worlds.” All kinds of strife ensued as each proclaimed some special connection to these “spiritual gods” and their omnipotent messages for the “cosmic plan of humankind.” In the forefront of that movement were such teachers as: Alice Bailey, Guy Warren Ballard, Annie Besant, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Robert Crosbie and Rudolph Steiner. Each developed his/her own following in this new spiritualism with varying degrees of success.
The historical and biographical information in Chapter 1 is very interesting, but it might have been more interesting if Melton had examined how the notions of the “Great White Brotherhood” and the theory of the one great master race might have played a significant role in the early development of the Third Reich and what eventually became Nazi Germany. Certainly, some of the roots of Adolph Hitler's philosophy came out of the spiritual movement of these early teachers/mediums.
Also remiss in Melton’s book is an analysis of how the spiritualism movement, characterized by “mediums” who ostensibly helped people communicate with the dead, made a quantum leap to “prophets and chosen teachers” or emissaries of “cosmic masters.” Such a leap in turn gave rise to new age groups at high risk of abuse because they required no accountability from group leaders for personal behavior, ethics, financial payoffs, sexual demands, psychological abuse, etc. The new age movement, while it has interesting roots in social and psychological changes in our society, is not always the benign sociological/philosophical movement that Melton portrays it to be. In this reviewer's opinion, a number of the groups mentioned in his book could be called cults or could be accused of coercing followers into conforming to the dictates of the leader(s).
Melton’s Chapter 2, “Altered States,” journeys into the realm of different states of consciousness, covering everything from meditation to channeling to past life regression. He focuses extensively on the notion of people searching for new experiences in consciousness and ways in which this can be achieved. In Chapter 3, “Mystery Theater,” Melton highlights new age topics ranging from alien abductions, to historical perspective on Lemuria and Atlantis, to a rundown of the major arcana in the Tarot cards and their symbolic meanings.
Perhaps the most useful chapters in the entire book are chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4, “On The Road to Samadi,” touches on a wide variety of different types of yoga and meditation techniques. Chapter 5, “Positive States,” is devoted to homeopathic and naturopathic healing techniques. Among the techniques Melton writes about are: chiropractic, applied kinesiology, acupuncture, Bach flower remedies, biorhythms, Chinese medicine, Rolfing, reflexology, cleansing, and herbal treatments. For anyone wishing to understand more about natural healing techniques and their origins, this section of the book might be useful.
Chapter 6, “Star Karma,” and Chapter 7, “Temple of Cosmic Wisdom,” are devoted to the new age activities of Hollywood stars and emerging new age groups. Among the new age groups he includes in Chapter 7 are: the Aquarian Movement, Dianetics (aka Scientology), the Great White Brotherhood, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, est, Wicca, Baba Ram Dass and Zen Master Rama. Again, Melton doesn’t scrutinize questionable activities that have taken place in some of these groups. Also, because the book was originally published in 1991 new age groups that emerged later in the 1990’s such as Heaven’s Gate are not included in the book, as well as the demise of “Zen Master Rama” (aka Fred Lenz) who committed suicide in 1998. One problem with documenting the activities of new age groups in a book like this is that these groups are ever changing and reinventing themselves. Unlike Melton’s documentation of diff
erent religions of the world which have more stable foundations and doctrines, new age groups change their modus operandi, doctrine, and public masks so regularly that it becomes difficult to say what they are about or what their agendas might be.
Chapter 8, “Worldview,” concludes with a new look at the changing sociological and political landscape of the times as influenced possibly by the new age. We read about communities and organizations that define the “new age social vision”: The Farm, Findhorn Community, Windstar Foundation, Bear Tribe, and Greenpeace. Melton finishes by discussing the idea that man is moving toward raising consciousness in the social sense as well as the personal sense, and that this in turn will lead to changes in planetary consciousness in the new age.
Melton's New Age Almanac is a samplinga smorgasbordof new age ideas, movements, teachers, and methods. The book works best as a reference guide only. Because the scope of the book is so enormous, most of it seems rather superficial. We get a snapshot of the founder of a movement and where it started, not what a group stands for, where it is now, or if it is still around at all. The book needs to be taken with a grain of salt because so-called new age groups change and evolve according to the whims of the leader(s), and as such they are always dynamic.
As a chronicle of new social and spiritual movements, Melton’s book is an exhaustive attempt at documenting the ever-changing world of new age groups. His bibliography of suggested reading is 36 pages long and will be useful to anyone who seeks to study this area in depth. This book could be handy as a reference tool, but, because it was published before the Internet became accessible to the common person, its utility is limited. Before I would use this book for a reference tool, I would use the Internet to obtain current information about a group.
The book's utility is further limited because it failed to advise spiritual consumers about the potential risks new groups might pose for them. Unfortunately, New Age Almanac remains merely a cafeteria of new age samplings -- interesting, but lacking in depth and insight.
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 17, 2000