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Book Review - Perspectives on the New Age

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1993, Volume 10, Number 1, pages 78-79. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Perspectives on the New Age. 

Edited by James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1992, 352 pages.

For scholars in religious studies, the New Age is like an unusual primitive tribe for anthropologists. They describe it from various vantage points dispassionately, withholding critical judgments; they analyze, categorize, define, and identify major features. In this edited paperback, the 19 authors address such topics as defining characteristics of the New Age and its historical roots; the relationship of the New Age to the counterculture movement, baby boomers, and evangelism; and the influence of Hinduism, theosophy, and 19th-century American and English spiritualism. They consider channeling, neopagan witchcraft, feminist spirituality, and astrology. International dimensions include reports from Nigeria, Japan, South Africa, and Italy. Editors Lewis and Melton, who have published extensively in the field of new religious movements, have succeeded in assembling an interesting variety of perspectives which are uniformly balanced, objective, well-documented, and carefully researched. I found it mildly irritating, however, that some authors included references in addition to Notes. (Scholarly overkill?)

Among a very large, eclectic collection of New Age groups, the authors mention Scientology, Eckankar, est, Esalen, Hare Krishna, the human potential movement, humanist psychology, Lifespring, Transcendental Meditation, Unification Church, and Unitarianism. Rajneesh, Ram Dass, Werner Erhard, and L. Ron Hubbard appear briefly along with Helena Blavatsky, Abraham Maslow, Shirley MacLaine, and dozens more. In my estimate, these scholars tend to neglect "perhaps because of space limitations" specific, in-depth consideration of particular theologies, their leaders, and their modes of operation. Nor do most authors distinguish the benign from the dangerous. A welcome exception is Glenn A. Rupert's chapter, "Employing the New Age: Training Seminars." Rupert makes the point effectively that the benefits of business seminars offered by est, Lifespring, the Forum, the Church of Scientology, and Insight may not be worth their long-range cost.

In the eyes of these specialists, what are the essential characteristics of the New Age? This significant social and spiritual movement is diverse, eclectic, nonhierarchical, fluid, tolerant, and optimistic. New Agers share beliefs in a coming era of great happiness, in the occult, magic, in helpful spirits, and in reincarnation. They revel in mysteries, special rites, and private languages. In the introduction, Lewis writes:

One of the traits of the New Age is that major subjects of interest vary from time to time, so that, particularly to the outside observer, this subculture appears to go through transformation after transformation. The movement away from the prominence of Eastern spiritual teachers (particularly characteristic of the seventies) to an emphasis on channeled entities (in the eighties) is an example of one such transformation. In a similar manner, the interest in channeling seems to be waning as we move into the nineties, and the new emphasis appears to be shamanism and Native American spirituality.

Religious studies specialists "like many of their peers in sociology and psychology departments and research institutes" strive to be scientific and academically correct; they quite properly reject journalistic sensationalism, strong personal opinions, and proselytizing. But in the service of these values, consider what most of the authors neglect or omit entirely: the destructive and exploitative practices of some (not all) New Age groups; their misuse of sex, power, and money; their criminal records; and their commercial scams. There is slight mention in this volume either of deceptive recruiting, coercive persuasion, and value inversion, or of the efforts of the anti-cult movement to educate and inform (for example, there are no citations of the Cultic Studies Journal).

I wish a chapter or two had been added on how New Age language and philosophies are used unscrupulously by con artists to entrap and exploit gullible counterculture seekers. It is as though a team of anthropologists documented the habits of a newly discovered primitive tribe but failed to notice the tribe's partiality for human flesh!

Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus of Education

University of Pennsylvania

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1993