New Religions: A Guide. Christopher Partridge. Oxford University Press. $40. 466 pp.
One group says it’s cloned a human. Another blends environmentalism with feminism. Still others aren’t around anymore: The members killed themselves.
So many religious and spiritual movements have sprung up in the past few decades, you’d need an encyclopedia to learn about them all. Luckily, one just came out.
It’s New Religions: A Guide, a sweeping overview of the spiritual explosion from Wicca to feng shui to Soka Gakkai to Santeria to The Celestine Prophecy. The book is a fine, fact-packed, though not flawless, resource.
For a British reference work — more than half of the 64 sources are from England — New Religions is surprisingly unstuffy. The text is broken up with nice, black subheads and beautiful color photos. Longer feature articles are set apart with colored pages. It’s almost like an encyclopedia disguised as a mini coffee-table book.
And the information is truly encyclopedic. It offers concise looks at all those groups you’ve heard about, and some you may have never imagined. There’s Heaven’s Gate and the Order of the Solar Temple, whose members committed mass suicide. There’s Falun Gong, outlawed in its Chinese homeland. There’s the Raelian religion, whose adherents claim they’ve successfully cloned humans.
Editor Christopher Partridge helpfully sorts the religions by parent faith — separating, for instance, India-based groups such as the Krishnamurti Foundation from East Asian faiths such as the Vietnam-based Cao Dai. He astutely gathers neopagan groups — Norse, Egyptian, Druidic and such — with revivals of African and native American religions.
A section offers little-known facts on the Masons, the Rosicrucians, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and other esoteric groups. Also absorbing are the interweaving threads among the movements — and even the personalities themselves, like theosophist Helena Blavatsky and mystical teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff.
Some facts are bound to raise eyebrows. One article adroitly connects the Christian Word of Faith movement with the non-Christian metaphysics of New Thought. Another tries to explain why environmentalism blends so well with goddess worship. Still another looks for spirituality in martial arts like kendo and kung-fu.
The book is more than catalog; it helps explain the topic in general.
American scholar J. Gordon Melton says new religions are still incompletely formed; “they change rapidly and mature slowly.”
Partridge himself observes that religions are always evolving: facing revivals, social and mystical tides, responding to social and historical challenges. More accepted religions, like Methodism and Pentecostalism, began as breakaway sects. In fact, sects often package themselves as a return to the pure forms of their parent faiths.
A fascinating look at “modern Western cultures” scans contemporary equivalents of religion. Here you’ll get Elvis and Princess Diana in “celebrity spirituality.” You’ll also be asked to consider “implicit religion” in dance raves and soccer playoffs. And you’ll find out how psychologists like Jung and Maslow affected religious thinking.
Like most books with multiple sources, New Religions makes a few errors. One article calls aikido, a Japanese martial art, a “human potential” therapy like Rolfing or shiatsu. Another labels Calvary Chapels as fundamentalist; they’re really neo-evangelical.
Other items are sheer judgment calls. Can the medieval Nichiren Shoshu and the 19th century Mormon church be called new religions? Is neuro-linguistic programming spiritual? And is “Thee Church ov MOO” — a self-mocking Internet group — the best example of online religion?
New Religions, then, is a good guide, but not an infallible one. Best to examine its claims with a respectful but questioning attitude. Like religions themselves.
Aug. 8, 2004
James D. Davis, Religion Editor