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Book Review - Top Secret The Truth Behind Today’s Pop Mysticisms

Top Secret: The Truth Behind Today’s Pop Mysticisms

Robert M. Price

Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008. ISBN-10: 1591026083; ISBN-13: 978-1-59102-608-2 (hardcover), $24.95 ($16.47 Amazon.com). 370 pages.

Reviewed by Joe Szimhart

Top Secret is a facetious title for an ambitious book about a somewhat inscrutable topic. Robert Price challenges the reader to ride along with him through relatively popular realms of neo-spirituality—the kind you might experience by watching an Oprah Winfrey program or a Sunday morning mega-church televangelist. Listed on the book’s cover are “The Secret and New Thought; A Course In Miracles and Marianne Williamson; The Celestine Prophecy; Joel Osteen’s Prosperity Gospel; Madonna’s Kabbalah; Deepak Chopra; [and] Dierdre Blomfeld-Brown, aka Pema Chödrön.” But there is more. Price also includes chapters about modern Gnostics Carl Jung and Stephan A. Hoeller, Oprah’s latest favorite guru Eckhart Tolle, and authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, who wrote The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? Seemingly out of place and for no obvious reason, the author adds appendixes containing around thirty-five pages about the cult problem, deprogramming, and how best to understand and relate to cults.

Price has written other books that deconstruct Christian teaching and traditions, but this is the first title by him that I have read. After finishing this provocative volume, I was curious: Just who is Robert Price? I found that the author’s career path alone is a study in postmodern spirituality. The book jacket tells us that he is a professor of scriptural studies at Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary (located at the Universal Truth Center in Miami, Florida). Johnnie Colemon, named after a woman who was a minister of Unity Church in the 1950s but by 1974 established her own branch of New Thought spirituality, states its mission as “training of women and men for the ministries of the New Thought Christian Movement.”[1] Today, Robert Price lives in North Carolina with his family, according to http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/. Price was born in 1954 in Mississippi and studied Christian apologetics in college while he lived in New Jersey, where he also became pastor of a Baptist church. By the late 1970s, he had reassessed his faith and adopted a more liberal, anthropological view in the camps of Paul Tillich and Robert Bultmann. Price got his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Drew University in 1981. Still, this was not enough for the intellectually restless Price. I will let the author’s Website speak for him:

Price soon enrolled in a second doctoral program at Drew, receiving the Ph.D. in New Testament in 1993. These studies, together with his encounter with the writings of Don Cupitt, Jacques Derrida, and the New Testament critics of the Nineteenth Century, rapidly eroded his liberal Christian stance, and Price resigned his pastorate in 1994. A brief flirtation with Unitarian Universalism disenchanted him even with this liberal extreme of institutional religion. For six years, Bob and Carol [author’s wife] led a living room church called The Grail. Now, back in North Carolina, he attends the Episcopal Church and keeps his mouth shut.[2]

As another indication of just how far the author has moved from the Christian fundamentalism of his youth, secular humanist Paul Kurtz hired Price to work for the Center for Inquiry and for The Jesus Project as Professor of Biblical Criticism.[3] Price and his skeptical colleagues argue that a man named Jesus may have lived 2,000 years ago, but that evidence for the historical Jesus is sorely lacking. Price argues that the Gospel of Jesus is a story cobbled together from ancient Jewish and pagan prototypes. He indicates that even if there was a super prophet named Jesus of Nazareth, the Gospel tradition is based on a mythic version of him, so all we have today is the myth. In this view, Price is radical because even most atheist scholars of religion agree that a real Jesus did live, teach, and die, if not exactly as described in the Gospels. Answering critics, Price states:

As to how it feels to be beyond the fringe, I can only say it is exhilarating to pursue new paradigms and see where they lead, instructed by great scholars of the past and present but in no way obliged to swallow all their conclusions. I certainly do not ask anyone else to swallow mine, as if they were some kind of catechism. I am content to pursue my own ideas and to provide stimulation for others to think of possibilities they hadn’t before. They will come up with their own syntheses, and I hope they do it soon enough that I may read and learn from them.[4] 

Now, let us get back to his book, Top Secret.

Apparently, Price has not kept his “mouth shut.” Top Secret represents a collection of new topics the author has written about since 2000. The book’s title is a spin on the mega-seller The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (2006). As I mentioned, I knew nothing of Price’s background when I first read his book, but I found it odd that he would so readily point out Byrne’s simple-minded magical ideas and ridicule A Course in Miracles as “A Course in Malarkey,” yet defend meaningful concepts from the New Thought basis of those and other subjects covered in the book. Price helps the reader along by describing New Thought ideas based on its origins in the 19th century. He also offers a useful brief on Gnosticism (chapter 9, “Know-It-Alls”) and its influences on New Age and New Thought religious ideas.

His defense of New Thought proper goes something like this:

The Secret has invited a storm of justified criticism because of its embrace of, indeed its harping on, bogus physics to make what is essentially a sound and clever psychological point. If only Byrne and her adherents would drop the pseudoscience! All this talk of “frequencies” and “sensing out vibrations” must be recognized, and thus be respected, as metaphor. (47)

I agree partially with this keen insight by Price. New Age-infected spirituality tends to be fundamentalist in that “energies” or relational qualities such as love, judgment, and harmony are taken literally as quantifiable entities. In other words, you can store up and send more love or healing power by meditating or using a specific ritual, affirmation, or mantra. Think witches casting spells, Harry Potter waving his wand, or Papa Smurf making magic invocations. Price repeats this insight over and again as he critiques the nonsense science taught by the narcissistic post-TMer Deepak Chopra, the muddle-headed psycho-spirituality behind A Course in Miracles, the hackneyed New Age magic in The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, and the vapid grandiosity of our latest celebrity guru, Eckhart Tolle (pronounced TOH-lee).

I agree only partially with Price because I have less sympathy for New Thought or New Thought religion (Church of Religious Science, Science of the Mind, Christian Science, Scientology, Unity) than he does. New Thought as metaphor still does not work for me. Homeopathy or chiropractic might qualify as useful medical metaphors under Price’s view, but such pseudo remedies involve a lot of waste of time and money, if not health. The real cost is not a metaphor. And I would have to ask, “What is New Thought without belief in supernatural forces and magical thinking?” Price seems to believe there would be something left to it. As I have gotten to know them over the years, New Thought practitioners are particularly vulnerable to the “alternative” healing modalities. This is not to say that my Christian or Jewish cousins avoid alternatives (I am Roman Catholic).

Despite my personal reservations, I think Top Secret is both a penetrating criticism of the topics and gurus covered and a subtle apologetic for the goals of the New Thought theological seminary that the author teaches for (at this writing). As an example of what I call his New Thought apologetic, Price finds some value in the advice of the neo-Kabbalah guru Rabbi Michael Berg, or “Madonna’s Guru” (252):

In sharp contrast, I think, to the earlier advice to read the Hebrew text uncomprehendingly, comes Rabbi Berg’s suggestion that individual scripture passages be memorized for meditation as odd moments through the day permit. It is like chanting a mantra, but it has nothing to do with belief in magical invocation. It is rather a technique to launder the inner speech of the mind. All day long one is incessantly engaged in random chatter anyway, much of it negative and critical. Why not run some detergent through the machine instead? Why not think upon edifying texts, and thus alter one’s pattern of thinking and one’s attitudes? ... If that sounds like the mental techniques of New Thought, the similarity does not stop there. Rabbi Berg believes that the habits of giving and sharing we must inculcate in order to stretch ourselves for spiritual growth will, almost as a side effect, bring them worldly compensations too. (263)

In other words, good thoughts with related good behavior can bring good results whether you believe in a magical universe or not. What Price argues against is making this neo-Kabbalah religion into a “science” as if thoughts were quanta in the physical realms. He is also against the implied blame-the-victim approaches endemic in many New Age/New Thought cults: If the affirmation brings bad luck or you get sick and die, you must have bad karma. It’s your fault. You create your own reality. New Thought properly applied, Price surmises, is a practical psychology and a social psychology, not a religious science. If this strips New Thought of its magical elements, so be it, says Price, because it “may be backed up by recourse to more mundane, psychological conditions” (37).  Price rightfully takes a host of pop-gurus to task over this same misapplication of sympathetic magic (law of attraction in The Secret) and they include Wayne Dyer and Shakti Gawain, as well as “team Secret” Berg, Chopra, Tolle, and Chödrön.

Through Price we learn that Joel Osteen falls into the New Thought milieu as an heir to the preaching of Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and more recently Reverend Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life). Price does a remarkably good job exposing Osteen’s message for what it is: New Thought recycled, cosmetically theological, ornamentally scriptural, dubiously anecdotal as to evidence, inconsistent, and superstitious. Of all the chapters, this one finds Price reaching his stride best as scholar and social scientist. Price’s theology-geek humor spills out (I thought it was funny) when he shows how Osteen the Bible preacher in Your Best Life Now was “scripturally accurate.” Osteen inadvertently reflects a passage that Price says is found nowhere in the Bible but is found in the Buddhist Dhammapada. (283)

I said earlier that the topic of Top Secret was inscrutable, meaning that when human beings mine transcendental territory, they often come back with fools’ gold. It is not so much what they find as what they pretend to find. Mystical experience is what it is, whatever it is; but whenever human beings dumb it down into familiar images or native language, the result can seem lofty or bizarre. We may sometimes find elegant poetry (Dante, Lao Tze, perhaps Blake), but more often we have confused, simple-minded utterances (Tolle), delusional identification with a god (Schucman in ACIM) or worse—self-serving fabrication (Smith in Book of Mormon). I think that Price more or less agrees with me.

I agree with Price that Tolle’s insight influenced by A Course in Miracles (ACIM) is “malarkey,” but I would go further. I spent years trying to analyze ACIM after it came out in 1975, especially after I baled from a New Age cult in 1980,[5] and I now see it as pure mind-(bleep)ing psychobabble. ACIM could be dangerous if any of its devotees ever figured out how to apply its cloud of inscrutable directions. The pure ACIM devotee would have to stop all movement and breathing forever to demonstrate its truth to remain in the “holy instant.” Rocks do a super job of remaining in the holy instant. Also, ACIM is an odd, new example of the old, Gnostic how to avoid-the-real-world shuffle. But that’s just me talking. Price says,

Oh, and one more thing: the book (ACIM) never once defines miracles nor is it at all clear even by implication. One thing Schucman seem (sic) not to mean is miracles as traditionally defined supernatural feats. So what does she mean? Some course in miracles. Is the tuition refundable? (153-54)

Price only hints that after all his deconstruction and seeking that he “knows” something of truth. Price is compelling in his arguments but does not play guru, and I like him for that. However, he delivers nothing that is “top secret” either, and that is why I call his effort here facetious. He was obviously punning because all the commercial gurus covered in his book claim to have found the Top Secret. Price argues for a path to self-realization through science and reason—that is his Top Secret, as far as I can tell.

The book contains a few errors that a rewrite might correct someday. For example, Price calls the 2004 religious docudrama What the Bleep Do We Know? a “TM [Transcendental Meditation] production” (51). What the Bleep... was produced by Ramtha School of Enlightenment operatives, although it had a significant TM sympathizer in it. In chapter 5, “A Course in Malarkey,” Prices misses an important New Thought connection for Helen Schucman, who channeled the “voice” that generated A Course... from 1965 to 1972. Schucman was a psychologist and not a psychiatrist, as Price states (131). She worked under Bill Thetford’s mental health clinic at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital at the time of writing A Course. She shared her “voice” musings almost daily with Thetford over seven years. Thetford (1943–1988) encouraged her from the start because she was a reluctant prophet, at least initially. Price does not mention Thetford or his early family influence from Christian Science, something Thetford may have rejected formally but not philosophically. Thetford’s continued enthusiasm over ACIM is the evidence for his continued belief in New Thought principles.

With Price and his polemic (in The Jesus Project) against faith-based claims of evangelical Christianity, we may have an echo of the classic clash between the scholastic Pierre Abelard (1079–1142) and the visionary St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153). Bernard charged Abelard with heresy because the certain faith of the saint felt threatened by and opposed the brilliance of the rational scholastic. Abelard’s reported last words at his death were “I don’t know.” I think God may have found that refreshing. And as much as I find flaws in Price’s work, I find him refreshingly if not compellingly skeptical.

This Is a Deprogrammer?

Now I come to the appendixes, in which Price gives us his take on the cult problem. Here, he is in my territory—I have been a cult critic and “deprogrammer” since the early 1980s. I mentioned above that this last section seems out of place. It is nowhere mentioned on the jacket notes and not indicated in the subtitle. But a quick Internet search of Price’s writings reveals a fictional piece he called The Deprogrammer (2004).[6] He definitely exhibits a keen interest in the topic of cults. After reading this entertaining story and looking over the Appendixes in Top Secret, I have the impression that Price relied on limited and dated, if not biased, sources. His model of a deprogrammer and cults seems greatly influenced by the controversial career and behaviors of Ted Patrick (Let Our Children Go, 1976) and perhaps by early 1980s movies about deprogramming (Split Image, Ticket to Heaven). More recently, Holy Smoke (1999), a film by Jane Campion, continues this stereotyping narrative about abusive shock tactics in deprogramming. These movies and Patrick’s career as described in Let Our Children Go do not represent my extensive experience with the field.

Other sources seem to be a specialized group of social scientists who have a significant reaction to what they call the “Anti-Cult Network.” One book referenced by Price, The New Vigilantes: Deprogrammers, Anti-Cultists, and New Religions, by David Bromley and Anson Shupe, Jr. (1980), typifies the scholars I am referring to. Other scholars referenced and in that camp are James R. Lewis, J. Gordon Melton, and James Richardson. Price does list one book co-edited by sociologist Benjamin Zablocki, who is more in line with how I see the problem. The anti-anti-cult network scholars assert that there is no such thing as “brainwashing” (as anti-cultists mean it). They argue that “new religious movements” are vilified mainly because they are new and/or foreign, misunderstood, and upstart alternatives to established religions. I do not entirely disagree with this argument as far as it goes, but getting one of these specialized scholars to admit that controversial cults might fully deserve the criticism by ex-members is like pulling wisdom teeth without a numbing agent. I have tried. Many of them develop brain-lock when an ex-member speaks out. All they seem to hear are “atrocity tales” with doubtful content. Price inherits the same brain-lock, as evidenced in this passage, for example:

We need to keep in mind what Peter Berger describes as “nihilation strategies.” When someone embraces a new set of beliefs or a new allegiance, diametrically opposed to his former ones, he seeks to make sense of the old allegiance in terms of the new… One simply cannot deal with the chagrin of having been a “kooky cultist,” and it becomes in mighty handy to deny that one’s choice for the previous state was voluntary. “I only joined up because they brainwashed me!” This is another way of saying, “You know, I must have been crazy to have joined that group!” Only it is no longer hyperbole. You are seeking to slough off the responsibility for a decision you now find embarrassing. I suspect the same thing happened in the early 1980s when the porn star Linda Lovelace abandoned her film career and claimed, not that she had repented of her sins, but that she escaped from the slavery and brainwashing at the hands of her evil manager, who forced her to degrade herself in pornographic moviemaking. She was ashamed now of having done it, so ashamed that she could not imagine she had ever chosen to do it. Her story was a nihilation strategy to save face. And one suspects the atrocity tales of ex-cultists partake of the same. (313)

So, what is Price inferring here? Do all deprogrammed or walk-away ex-cultists identify with what Linda Lovelace supposedly claimed? Linda Lovelace is somehow a paradigm for ex-members now when she says, “The manager made me do it”? Do ex-members accept no responsibility? Is it all brainwashing, as if brainwashing creates a kind of robotic automaton? I admit that I have run into a few folks who blame it all on the cult when they should take more responsibility, but I can assure Professor Price that, by far, most of the thousands of ex-members I have personally encountered would be chuckling at his stilted depiction.

I recall once in 1992 having to defend myself in a civil suit by a large martial arts cult (John C. Kim schools at the time) that did not like that I had accused them, in writing, of using “coercive persuasion” to manipulate potential instructors into signing huge contracts—like $30,000 and $125,000. The Texas judge threw out the complaint after I testified and after our lawyer with my help cross-examined their witnesses and their “expert.” I felt sorry for her. Out of sympathy for their middle-aged “expert” psychologist (she studied martial arts at one of the schools), I wrote to her to try to help her understand my position. I ran into brain-lock (not unusual for a true believer) with her after two exchanges. She said I had a “reaction formation” to cults because I was an ex-member, implying that there was something seriously wrong with my recovery. As I indicated above, I got deeply involved with a large New Age cult from 1979-1980.

Now I am not arguing that a “reaction formation” was not part of my “nihilation strategy” after rejecting the Summit Lighthouse, but I emphasize it was only a small part. What I am arguing is that, by labeling my defection story and recovery as “nihilation strategy,” my critic brain-locks into seeing no further. So it seems to me that both she and Price do exactly what they feel deprogrammers and anti-cultists do; namely, resort to simplistic jargon to sustain a bias, or what Price calls a “plausibility structure.” Robert J. Lifton, in his fine study on brainwashing in Communist China, called this “loading the language.”[7] Lifton quoted Lionel Trilling, who calls this the “language of non-thought.”

Price also seems to ignore the fact that “nihilation strategies” might include scholarly refutation of false beliefs, exposure of actual misbehavior by gurus, analysis of group dynamics that can undermine or compromise individual choice, and learning strategies that accelerate recovery from psychological harm. It is as if Price is saying that ex-members are merely utilizing a nihilation strategy to avoid personal responsibility. What I see here is equivocation in Price’s argument. A nihilation strategy does not equal an atrocity tale (as if an atrocity tale excludes accuracy, reason, and intelligent choice with in depth self-analysis). Furthermore, I challenge Price to produce a real person who remotely resembles his caricature in The Deprogramming. If he does, I would like to have a discussion with that person in Price’s presence.

I want to comment on another equivocation. Price wrote:

If one has abandoned one’s former membership through a deprogrammer, one has in effect been through a “deconversion” experience fully as powerful as the original conversion whereby one entered the cult in the first place. One rejoices in a new identity. (313)

Oh? That is news to me. I have participated in a wide variety of deprogramming interventions, easily many hundreds. Most, and exclusively since 1992, were noncoercive “exit counselings” that lasted from three to five days. Most of those were “successes.” By successes I mean cult members who rejected the cult in my presence during the intervention, and not months or years after. I can assure Professor Price and that clique of scholars that influence his ideas that a deconversion during intervention and the conversion process are not the same “experience,” nor does deconversion have the same “power.” Price seems to mean intervention while confining a cult member against his will when he refers to what a deprogrammer does. In either case, confined or not, cult members who “abandoned” their group or belief system after going through intervention emerge feeling relieved of a spurious role and useless burden. If they rejoice, it is because their identity has been freed from a false or overvalued belief and not because they found a “new identity.”

There is no “new identity” as a result of deprogramming. Early anti-cultists sometimes used terms like “pseudo-identity” or “cult self” to describe the personality of a devoted group member in a self-sealing social system. I prefer to call it an “affected identity” conditioned by specialized self-directed and other-directed manipulations but we need not discuss that here. When a person emerges from the “rabbit hole” during an exit intervention (to me, the process amounts to an educational approach once it gets going), no new identity emerges. It is the same person, but one with new insight, new memories, improved (hopefully) perspectives and prospects, broader discursive interests, and renewed relationships that were cut off for whatever reason during the cult experience. Rejecting cult affiliation, however, is only the start of a longer adjustment process of integrating the exit experience with a life thereafter. The ex-member does not “rejoice in a new identity.” The cult identity never wholly leaves one; no more than having once been married, incarcerated, or part of a military campaign ever disappear from one’s history.

I wish Price had been more specific about cults that utilize New Thought ideas. He never actually accuses any of his main targets in Top Secret of running such a cult. If he had, his appendixes would make more sense. For example, A Course in Miracles has attained “cult” status as a book, but I say this with no intent to demean its tens of thousands of scattered devotees, most of whom, I daresay, are no more “in” a cult (as self-sealing, manipulative system) than the average Lutheran! If we mean “cult” in the sense of a controversial group with a charismatic leader and highly manipulative behaviors, then Price could have pointed to Church of the Full Endeavor (a.k.a. Endeavor Academy).[8] This “Academy” is based on ACIM and has had a series of ex-members who accuse it of cult behaviors.[9] I have exit counseled people out of Endeavor, and it does conform to the model of harmful group behaviors that would attract my services. Without clear examples, the reader will find it hard to apply just what Price means by cult.

And what does he mean? He titled his first appendix “What Is a Cult?” (291). He starts out well by dismissing the practically useless “new religious movement” used by that same group of social scientists I mentioned above. Price states that cult is a perfectly fine word when we use it as defined in the dictionary, despite its often pejorative intent by ignorant people. “Cult” has layers of meaning. Good for Price. But then he goes off into sociologese by citing Max Weber’s classifications of church, sect, and cult. A sect in Weber’s typology is a breakaway or reformation movement within an established church. A cult, Price surmises within Weber’s view, has two defining traits: 1. “A small group of zealous believers all completely devoted to a single charismatic leader..” 2. “…a foreign transplant from an alien religion.” Personally, I find Weber’s typology wanting because cult formation can occur within or without a sect or church.

There are layers of nuance about cult experience that Price does not ignore. For example, Price discusses “plausibility structure” within a “cognitive universe,” citing research by Berger and Luckman (The Social Construction of Reality):

The believer is like a submarine sailor surrounded by thousands of tons of water pressure. He had better have thick walls between him and that water! The plausibility structure provides them, and he must do his best to internalize the cognitive universe before he departs for the outer world of everyday society. (303)

Nowhere does Price mention that Eckhart Tolle devotees (if not Tolle himself) maintain plausibility structures to sustain belief in Tolle-ism. Of course, they have to, if one takes seriously what Price says about Tolle or any of the other pop gurus examined in Top Secret. What Price misses completely is that maintaining a plausibility structure is tantamount to what deprogrammers call mind control (self-policing one’s thoughts to comply with a belief system) or brainwashing (thoughts and behaviors as manipulated by another’s ideas, suggestions, and directives). A thicket by any other name is still a thicket. So there you have it from a deprogrammer.

Endnotes

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 8, No. 3, 2009, Page


[1] http://www.jctseminary.org/portaljcts/Catalog/History/tabid/71/Default.aspx

[2] http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/bio.htm

[3] http://www.centerforinquiry.net/cser/index.html

[4] http://www.theologyweb.com/campus/showthread.php?t=114065&page=3

[5] Church Universal and Triumphant, a.k.a. Summit Lighthouse.

[6] http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/fic_deprog.htm

[7] Robert J. Lifton (1961), Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.

[8] http://www.themiracletimes.com/ACIMI/ Endeavor-Academy.htm

[9] http://www.rickross.com/reference/eacademy/eacademy1.html; http://www.freedomofmind.com/resourcecenter/groups/e/endeavor/

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