New Books in New Religious Movements, 2015-2018

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon

By Courtney Applewhite

3 October 2018

Much of the study of NRMs is based in ethnographic work, but with older groups, scholars often turn to textual sources for analysis. The books on NRMs received at Reading Religion from 2015 through 2018 reflect a diversity in groups studied and methodology, but many of the books are focused on Mormonism, NRMs in the contemporary United States, and groups that are derivative from Abrahamic traditions. Here I have categorized these books as introductions and definitions; NRMs derived from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; Mormonism; United States 1960s New Age traditions; NRMs in contemporary North America; NRMs in Europe; NRMs in Latin America; non-Western NRMs; environmental NRMs; pagan, occult, and witchcraft movements; experience and spirituality; and interreligious dialogue with NRMs. 

Introduction and Definition—What is an NRM?

Because of the media coverage of the more sensational NRMs, their study is often predicated with definitions. Both comprehensive introductions and comparative works help clarify what is considered an NRM and some of the implications related to their study. 

W. Michael Ashcraft’s A Historical Introduction to the Study of New Religious Movements has a unique format that progresses chronologically, drawing attention to both the key people in the study of NRMs and the history and development of the anticult movement and the emergent study of NRMs in the 20th century. Ashcraft highlights themes in the study of NRMs such as violence, gender, and reflective ethnography. Reviewer Elijah Siegler advises that “this book is not intended as essential reading for undergraduates or for the general public. But it is an absolute must-read for any graduate student preparing for a field exam in NRMs, or sociology of religion more generally, as well as for anyone preparing to teach a course on NRMs.”

Editors George D. Chryssides and Benjamin E. Zeller bring together twenty-nine scholars to assemble The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, another large introductory text that covers topics including charismatic leadership, conversion and brainwashing, African new religions, and UFO religions. Beyond its wide array of groups and themes, reviewer Eugene V. Gallagher also highlights the “nearly forty-five pages of bibliography, a boon to both beginning students and more advanced researchers.”

Although not offering comprehensive guides, Amanda van Eck Duymaer van Twist and Laura Vance look at NRMs through specific lenses. Van Twist examines children born into fringe or new religious movements (Scientology, the Bruderhof, The Family International, ISKCON, and the Unification Church) in Perfect Children: Growing up on the Religious FringeThis study is based on around fifty interviews with current and former second-generation members, parents, teachers, and spiritual leaders, and has been reviewed by Susan J. Palmer. Vance’s Women in New Religions provides a study of evolving expectations and roles for women in Mormonism, Seventh-day Adventism, The Family International, and Wicca. Although offering contextualization for women’s ideals in the development of these groups, reviewer Samuel Wagar notes that “Vance generally minimizes theory.” 

Moving into new methodological approaches, Renewing Philosophy of Religion: Exploratory Essays, edited by Paul Draper and J. L. Schellenberg, contains essays that each address ways to refresh and reinvigorate the philosophy of religion. With grave concern that philosophy of religion has been reduced to theology and Christian apologetics, the authors propose new approaches that can draw philosophy of religion back into the conversation of religion writ large. Eric Steinhart’s essay points to naturalism, aligned with several NRMs, as an area with potential for philosophical reflection. This book has been reviewed by Kevin Schilbrack. 

Religion, Gender, and Family Violence: When Prayers Are Not Enough, edited by Catherine Holtmann and Nancy Nason-Clark, brings together scholars from sociology, religious studies, and law to examine the similarities and differences in how people cope with family violence in different traditions. For the study of NRMs, look at Susan J. Palmer’s chapter on “guru pedophiles,” neo-polygamists, and predatory prophets in which she examines sex scandals and abuse allegations in “cults.” A review is available from V. Jacquette Rhoades.

 

NRMs derived from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Although not necessarily “new,” many groups have split away from or emerged out of the three Abrahamic traditions and continue to do so today. 

Judaism

In Hasidism: A New History, authors including David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński provide a comprehensive history of Hasidism, which emerged in southeastern Poland in the 18th century. The history is divided into three parts, with the final section addressing the impact of the Holocaust on the movement and its subsequent increase in popularity worldwide as communities expanded beyond Europe. This book has been reviewed by Morris M. Faierstein. 

Christianity

Massimo Faggioli, author of Sorting Out Catholicism: A Brief History of the New Ecclesial Movements, provides a historical account of ecclesial movements of the Catholic Church including Focolare, Community of Sant'Egidio, Neocatechumenal Way, Legionaries of Christ, Communion and Liberation, and Opus Dei. Providing both historical accounts of the movements and the ways in which popes have engaged them offers “a distinctly populist dimension that is lacking in many histories of Catholicism which focus only on official social teachings or papal encyclicals” according to reviewer Myles Werntz.

The Life of Luigi Giussani, written by Alberto Savorana, is a 1415-page exploration of the life and legacy of Luigi Giussani (1922-2005), founder of the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation in Italy, which has hundreds of thousands of adherents around the globe. Although not deeply contextualized, Savorana uses Giussani’s lectures, dialogues, notes, and writings to provide a nearly autobiographical perspective on his life and the movement he founded. This book has been reviewed by Alessandro Rovati. 

In A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans, author Emily Suzanne Clark examines a fascinating group of African-descended men who practiced Spiritualism in New Orleans in the 19th century—the Cercle Harmonique. Unlike Spiritualists in the Northeast, members of the Cercle Harmonique were largely from Catholic backgrounds and their seances often featured Catholic saints and priests. Reviewer Elizabeth Lowry highlights the book’s primarily argument, that “the Brotherhood helped disseminate powerful political ideas that played an essential social role in Afro-Creole culture—and in the civil rights movement—during that period.” 

With a history spanning the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, Jehovah’s Witnesses are the topic of Zoe Knox’s Jehovah's Witnesses and the Secular World: From the 1870s to the Present. The book examines the interactions between the Jehovah’s Witnesses and government authorities, civic organizations, established churches, and the broader public. Knox makes the argument that Jehovah’s Witnesses have had a defining influence on the conceptions of religious tolerance in the modern world. This book is available for review here.

In Prolepticism: The Futurist Theology of Ted Peters, Lauri T. Jäntii explains the futurist theological thinking of Ted Peters, called Proleptic theology. Proleptic theology is based on the idea that we can see the future where it intersects with the present before it occurs. As an example, the publisher’s description of the book says that “the most important prolepsis is the work and resurrection of Christ as an anticipation of the future kingdom of God.” Discussing proleptic theology as a blend of theology, science, and ethics, Jäntii describes the belief system as a comprehensive eschatology. A review is forthcoming from John B. King. 

Islam

There is undoubtedly much scholarship on NRMs that have emerged from Islam in languages other than English, but Reading Religionhas only received Christianity, Islam, and Orisa-Religion: Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction, written by J. D. Y. Peel. This book offers a comparative study of the three primary religious traditions of the Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria. Peel examines not only the importation of Christianity and Islam into Yoruba culture, but the exportation of their indigenous Orisa tradition to the New World through the slave trade. This book is available for review here

 

Mormonism

The largest heading within NRMs is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) or Mormonism. Due to the large amount of primary source materials available, there is a mix of analyses of these primary texts as well as commentary the issues of race and gender with the LDS church.  

Although we could debate how Mormonism remains an NRM despite its centuries-old history and large membership, the publisher’s description of Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis points out that author Terryl L. Givens “reminds us that Mormonism remains the most enduring-and thriving-product of the nineteenth-century's religious upheavals and innovations,” which helps to justify its inclusion as an NRM. This is Givens’s second volume tracing the development of Mormon practice from Joseph Smith to the present.

It is not often that scholars are afforded primary documents that provide the conversations and thoughts of nascent religious traditions. But the 2016 publication of The Joseph Smith Papers: Administrative Records, Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844 - January 1846 contains the minutes from the Council of Fifty, presided over by Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith. Editors Matthew J. Grow, Ronald K. Esplin, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Jeffrey D. Mahas, Matthew C. Godfreyeds, and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat provide notes and commentary to help further situate the minutes in the historical context in which they were recorded. This volume has been reviewed by Taylor Kirby. In the same series, Reading Religionhas received The Joseph Smith Papers Documents, Volume 5: October 1835 - January 1838The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 6: February 1838 - August 1839, and The Joseph Smith Papers Documents, Volume 7: September 1839 - January 1841, all reviewed by Janiece Johnson. These volumes contain the letters, minutes, and other texts that document the period between Smith’s departure from Ohio to his escape from prison and eventual arrival in Utah. 

Another textual account, A Voice in the Wilderness: The 1888-1930 General Conference Sermons of Mormon Historian Andrew Jenson, edited by Reid L Neilson and Scott D. Marianno, presents the twenty-eight general conference sermons given by Andrew Jenson. With introductions to each and annotations throughout, the book traces Andrew Jenson’s forty-two-year career as an Assistant Church Historian for the LDS church. This book is available for review here

To speak to these primary source accounts, Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources, edited by Mark Ashurst-McGee, Robin S. Jensen, and Sharalyn D. Howcroft, provides case studies from leaders in the field of Mormon studies on the sources most often used by historians who are studying early Mormonism, including the Joseph Smith papers. The volume aims to better situate the primary documents in their historical context and “shows us,” as Matthew Bowman writes in his review, this “movement’s self-creation through its production of documents.”

Moving toward general overviews and analysis rather than commentary on primary documents, editors Reid L. Neilson and Nathan N. Waite provide the historical, religious, and environmental contexts for the fourteen general epistles sent out from the First Presidency in Settling the Valley, Proclaiming the Gospel: The General Epistles of the Mormon First Presidency. An insight into the early Mormon’s church struggle for survival in the newly-inhabited Utah and its strong missionary focus, this book is available for review here.

Patrick Q. Mason’s What is Mormonism?: A Student's Introduction is a short, informative overview of the Mormon tradition designed for undergraduate religious studies and history students. Mason provides a history of the LDS church while also examining Mormon beliefs and practices drawn from primary and secondary sources. This book has been reviewed by Steven Shisley. Mormonism: The Basics, co-authored by John Charles Duffy and David J. Howlett, introduces the teachings, practices, evolution, and internal splits within the Church of Latter-day Saints. Although presented as an introduction, Mormonism teases out the nuances of three strains of Mormons: the mainstream LDS church, the liberalized Reorganized LDS, and the polygamous Fundamentalists. Reviewer Matthew Bowman appreciates the authors’ address of these different groups, saying, “the comparative method throws not only each tradition into sharp relief, but also illuminates the broader contours and boundaries of American religious history.”

One major strain of scholarship within Mormon studies is the role of women within the church. At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-Day Saint Women, edited by Jennifer Reeder and Kate Holbrook, contains fifty-four discourses that showcase the words spoken by Mormon women within the Church of Latter-Day Saints throughout its history. Contextualized in the wider history of American Christian women’s discourse, this work comes at a time when the movement is facing criticism for its apparent exclusion of women from church leadership. While a valuable resource to uncover women’s voices in the Mormon church, reviewer Taylor Kerby raises the question, “is this work merely the attempt to assert women’s voices in the history of a movement that contemporarily excludes them?”

Mormon Women's History: Beyond Biography is another example of a resurgence of interest in the women of the LDS Church and how their roles evolved. However, true to the subtitle Beyond Biographyeditors Rachel Cope, Amy Easton-Flake, Keith A. Erekson, and Lisa Olsen Tait also aim to show how Mormon women’s history can inform larger historical narratives. Reviewer Sasha Coles points to how, in preceding literature, “Mormon women are often relegated to a feminized, flattened periphery.” This work attempts to show new paths forward in the scholarship. 

Within the study of women in the LDS church, the issue of polygamy looms large. Two works, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women's Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870 and Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the End of Poverty, seek to reexamine “plural marriage” within the church. A House Full of Females author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich offers a novel perspective on the women involved in the earliest days of “plural marriage” within the Church of Latter-day Saints. Using both written letters and diaries and material goods left by first-generation Mormons, she constructs the lives of women who have previously been left without a story, despite their “sex radicalism.” This book has been reviewed by Janet Farrell Brodie. In Sister Saints, Colleen McDannell also argues for a new lens through which to view polygamy. Tracing the history of Mormon women, McDannell argues that the women’s movement of the 1970s also sparked a new Mormon feminism, dividing the women of the church. She believes that we are on the verge of an era in which Mormon women will have more significant roles within the LDS church. A review is forthcoming by Cristina Rosetti. 

Another key issue within the LDS church is the controversy over race. W. Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness begins, as reviewer Alexandra Griffin says, with a riddle: “How is it that Mormons, who Americans see as almost ‘too white’ today, were in the nineteenth century regarded as closer to non-white by virtue of their unusual beliefs and practices?” Using a wealth of primary sources, Reeve attempts to show how Mormon racial perceptions were shaped by the Protestant narrative that denied Mormon whiteness in a time in which whiteness was required to hold status. 

In Race and the Making of the Mormon People, Max Perry Mueller recovers the voices of some black and Native American Mormons who wrote themselves into the church’s archive. He argues that the Book of Mormon is key to understanding how Mormons aligned with and departed from the antebellum concept of race. Quincy D. Newell has reviewed this book and Kirsten Boles interviewed the author. In the interview, Mueller says, “Part of the reason why racial injustice and inequality have been so hard to overcome today is because we have forgotten their theological roots. Even though we don’t remember the theology of race, it operates in our collective consciousness.”

Three examples of comparison, Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-Making HeresyA Pentecostal Reads the Book of Mormon: A Literary and Theological Introduction, and Religious Humor in Evangelical Christian and Mormon Culture demonstrate how NRMs can benefit the larger academic conversation in religious studies. In Irenaeus, Adam J. Powell uses the examples of 2nd-century Christianity and 19th-century Mormonism to reconfigure the definition of heresy. His sociological approach provides a novel comparison of these two new religious movements. A review by Anne Kreps is forthcoming. In A Pentecostal Reads the Book of Mormon, John Christopher Thomas uses narrative analysis to offer a new critical reading of the Book of Mormon. In the final sections of the book, Pentecostalism and Mormonism are put in dialogue, prompting reviewer Alan J. Clarke to describe the book as “brimming with topics to be discussed between interlocuters” and ultimately “a work of interfaith dialogue.”Religious Humor, written by Elisha McIntyre, surveys the stand-ups, comics, movies, cartoons, and other comedic materials that make evangelical Christians and Mormons laugh. McIntyre delves into the crosshairs of religion and humor and offers a different kind of perspective on these two emergent Christian traditions. This book has been reviewed by Andrew T. Coates.

American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940 by Thomas W. Simpson approaches the advent of modern Mormonism through the increase in the number of Mormons pursuing education at the leading universities. Although not the first to trace an educational history, Simpson “may be the first to forge a narrative that ties education into the larger story of Mormonism’s rebirth into American culture,” according to reviewer Christopher James Blythe. 

Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, edited by Blair G. Van Dyke and Loyd Isao Ericson, and The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology, authored by Jonathan Stapley, both reflect on Mormon theology. Perspectives on Mormon Theology is an exploration of Mormon apologetics. The contributors to the volume approach the topic from multiple perspectives, revealing differences in theological and ideological foundations within the Mormon church. A review is forthcoming from Kimberly Berkey. The Power of Godliness delves into Mormon liturgical history, focusing his study on the conception of priesthood within the LDS church. Reviewer Gavin Feller writes that “Stapley does not offer a new interpretation of Smith’s visionary goals; instead, he provides a fresh framework for analyzing how religious authority, cultural practices, and technologies transform each other.”

In thinking about Mormonism outside of the United States, Mormonism and the Making of a British Zion, by Matthew L. Rasmussen, traces the enduring influence of Mormonism in England and how certain places in England have remained significant for the Mormon church. Rasmussen presents British Mormonism as a case study of a lasting new religious movement that emerged from a time when many other religious movements failed. A review by Philippa Juliet Meek is forthcoming. 

Moving further east, Julie K. Allen’s Danish but Not Lutheran: The Impact of Mormonism on Danish Culture Identity, 1850-1920 offers the first extended study of one of the largest European religious out-migrations in history. When Mormon missionaries had great success in converting newly-religiously-free Danes, the question of how you could be Danish and not Lutheran arose. Allen’s work provides a fresh take on this subsection of the Mormon community and the question of identity in conversion. 

 

United States 1960s New Age traditions

The 1960s American counterculture and the rise of modern sensibilities of spirituality is more stereotypically associated with NRMs. Reading Religionhas received two titles in this area. 

First, in The New Age in the Modern West: Counterculture, Utopia and Prophecy from the Late Eighteenth Century to the Present Day, Nicholas Campion problematizes situating the New Age in the 1960s counterculture, instead turning to the foundations of Western philosophy to build his study. Reviewer Amanda Lucia traces Campion’s history as moving “from Galileo to Newton, Voltaire, Hegel, Emanuel Swedenborg, Constantin François Volney, Helena Blavatsky, and Alice Bailey and similarly throughout the decades all the way to Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, and Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, and José Argüelles.” 

Morgan Shipley gives us Psychedelic Mysticism: Transforming Consciousness, Religious Experiences, and Voluntary Peasants in Postwar America, tracing the history of 1960s psychedelic mysticism that originated in the writings of Aldous Huxley. Reviewer G. William Barnard explains that “Shipley goes on to describe how key figures in psychedelic mysticism such as Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Ralph Metzner, and Alan Watts recognized the ways in which the ‘set’ (the total gestalt of a person’s psychological and cultural background, as well as her or his intentions when taking psychedelics) and ‘setting’ (the environment in which psychedelics are taken) dramatically influenced an individual’s psychedelic experience.”

 

NRMs in contemporary North America

More recent NRMs situated in North America constitute another large area of research. The books available through Reading Religionrange from the 19th century Kiowas to the “nones” shaking up voting blocks. While most of these books are situated in the United States, there is one that examines the current religious climate of Quebec. 

Benjamin R. Kracht’s Religious Revitalization among the Kiowas: The Ghost Dance, Peyote, and Christianity examines changes in the Kiowas’ belief system in the late 19th century. Prior Kiowa beliefs were rooted in daudau, a force permeating the universe that was accessible through vision quests. Following the Southern Plains wars in 1875, the Kiowas were forced to watch the extinction of their sacred bison herds. When prophets failed to restore the herds, their belief system collapsed. Kracht traces how the Kiowas shifted and merged with other traditions yielding an emergent religious tradition. A review by Angela Tarango is forthcoming. 

Oneida Utopia: A Community Searching for Human Happiness and Prosperity, written by Anthony Wonderley, offers insights into the Oneida Community of upstate New York, begun in the mid-19th century. Wonderley’s insider perspective, having curated the Oneida Community’s Mansion House, gives the reader a new sense of the daily life of the group. According to reviewer Timothy Miller, Wonderley concludes that “Oneida…brought equity into the workplace, with nearly equal pay for men and women. It developed an early model of welfare capitalism, offering benefits to all, not only the managers.”

One of the most interesting emergent religious traditions of the 20th century, the Bahá’ís are the subject of Mike McMullen’s The Bahá’ís of America: The Growth of a Religious Movement. In the book he showcases the remarkable growth and diffusion of the Bahá’í community from its roots in Iran. Following its history in the United States from 1963 to 2013, McMullen draws on historical sources and personal interviews to provide an overview of the development of this group. This book has been reviewed by Christopher Buck. 

Another well-known NRM, although in some respects more notorious, is the subject of The Handbook of Scientology, edited by James R. Lewis and Kjersti Hellesøy. The book is the fourteenth volume in the series of Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion. In twenty-four essays that draw on interviews, church materials, and media archives, the contributors touch on Scientology’s history, Scientology and “marketplace religion,” controversy, media treatments, sex and gender, disaffiliation and schisms, and the legacy of Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. One of the most widely-recognized NRMs in the contemporary United States, the book offers new and comprehensive information about this historically secretive group. This book has been reviewed by Eugene V. Gallagher. 

Two recent works have revisited The Peoples Temple with its tragic end in Jonestown. The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple is the product of Jeff Guinn’s thorough examination of thousands of pages of FBI files, interviews with Jones’s hometown neighbors, and a visit to the Jonestown site with the pilot who flew to the location on the day that Congressman Leo Ryan was murdered. Part biography of Jim Jones and part history of the Peoples Temple as a whole, The Road to Jonestown contextualizes the group’s formation and its gruesome end in the American cultural and religious life of the late 20th century. In his review, Kristian Klippenstein states, “Guinn’s work represents a partial ‘opening’ of the canon, sharpening—but not significantly altering—widely-accepted stories of Jones’s movement,” which also reinforces other works that have emerged with new perspectives in the past several years.

In Revisiting Jonestown: An Interdisciplinary Study of Cults, Domenico A. Nesci provides a different kind of account of the life of Jim Jones and the story of the Peoples Temple. Stylized as a psycho-biography of Jim Jones from the new perspective of prenatal psychology and transgenerational trauma, Nesci examines Jones’s childhood, and his relationship with his mother in particular, to draw out hints that may have been precursors to his eventual end. In the latter half of the book, Nesci sketches a pattern of collective suicide, hoping to use psychological approaches to prevent its repetition. A review by Rebecca Moore is forthcoming. 

In another example of NRMs’ connection with charismatic leadership, Debby Schriver’s Whispering in the Daylight: The Children of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and Their Journey to Freedom features personal interviews with Tony Alamo himself, second- and third-generation children involved in the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, and current members to weave together a narrative not only of the group itself but the ramifications for those who have left. As Cynthia Eller writes in her review, “though Schriver provides history and context for the Alamo ministry, helpfully accompanied with numerous timelines and pictures, her principal aim is to tell the story of the children who ran away from the compounds in which they grew up, or who were taken from their parents by the FBI and moved into foster homes.” Eller also points out that ultimately, Whispering in the Daylight is less a study of a NRM as a religion, but rather the story of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries as it is colored by FBI raids and ex-member PTSD.

Pamala Leong’s Religion, Flesh, and Blood: The Convergence of HIV/AIDS, Black Sexual Expression, and Therapeutic Religion provides a case study of one congregation within the Unity Fellowship Church Movement. A representative of emerging therapeutic religion, Unity Fellowship Church offers a space for LGBT and other marginalized groups. A review is forthcoming from Darias Bost. 

Often NRMs are also politically as well as religiously motivated. In Living Sustainably: What Intentional Communities Can Teach Us about Democracy, Simplicity, and Nonviolence, A. Whitney Sanford discusses her field research that took place between 2011 and 2015 during which time she visited more than twenty communities that strive for change. Each of these communities organized itself around shared values—nonviolent living, voluntary simplicity, or participatory democracy. Reviewer Albertina Nugteren aptly points out, “At first glance, the reader finds little or no explicit religion in this book. But the literally down-to-earth engagement of the interviewees tells of intimate connections between humans and their habitat and thus actually offers a re-reading of religion.”

Many NRMs are not as cohesive as The Peoples Temple or the Unity Fellowship Church Movement. In UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age: Millennial Conspiracism, David G. Robertson uses discourse analysis and ethnographic field work to examine the role of UFOs in both conspiratorial and New Age beliefs, particularly from the 1960s to 2000s. In his review, Benjamin E. Zeller says, “I hope this book is read by more than just specialists in these fields, since Robertson is fundamentally correct: we should take millennial conspiracism seriously as a form of religious discourse.” 

Also nebulous, the “spiritual but not religious” movement (SBNRM) touted in Pew Reports is the subject of much study. Being Spiritual but Not Religious: Past, Present, Future(s), edited by William B. Parsons, grew out of a conference hosted at Rice University on this topic. Perhaps one of the most recognizable movements in the last several years, the SBNRM has been in the news as everything from an emergent voting block to a cause of the decline in church attendance. In the volume’s essays, scholars reflect on the roots of this religious movement and new ways to approach its study. With contributing scholars from religious studies, sociology, and psychology, the volume is a comprehensive and diverse examination of the SBNRM. This book is available for review here.

Often subscribers to the SBNRM, “nones” include other groups of nonbelievers as well. The Nones are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between by Kaya Oakes discusses the self-described “nones” from the perspective of Catholicism. Reviewer Lori Beaman points out that “the author has chosen to forego any significant discussion of the sociological, anthropological, or religious studies literature in favor of giving greater voice to the people she interviews, resulting in a volume that is dialogue-rich but limited in theoretical framework or analysis.”

Finally, editor Hillary Kaell has assembled the first English-language volume on religion in contemporary Quebec with Everyday Sacred: Religion in Contemporary Quebec. The many contributors speak to contemporary groups issues in Quebec ranging from African Pentecostal congregations and Tewehikan drumming in Wemotaci to debates on regulation of the hijab and the presence of wayside crosses. Section 3 of the book is dedicated specifically to new and emerging movements, examining in two chapters individualized religion and sociality among Montreal Spiritualists and transhumanism, (secular) religion, and the biotech age. This book has been reviewed by Denis Fortin. 

 

NRMs in Europe

While the United States seems to be the hotbed for the study of NRMs, there are a few examples of historical and ethnographic studies of groups in Europe. From the 18th century, The Siblys of London: A Family on the Esoteric Fringes of Georgian England, written by Susan Sommers, is a microhistory of Ebenezer and Manoah Sibly. Ebenezer, a quack doctor, plagiarist, and masonic ritualist was known for his Dr. Sibly's Reanimating Solar Tincture, which claimed to restore the newly dead to life. Unfortunately, when he died at fifty he was not restored and his brother, Manoah, was so shocked by the contents of his will that he resigned as executor. This book is available for review here

Moving to the European continent, in Hitler's Religion: The Twisted Beliefs that Drove the Third Reich, Richard Weikart engages with the controversial topic of Adolf Hitler’s religious beliefs. Arguing against Christians, atheists, occultists, and others—all of whom argue that Hitler belongs to the other group—Weikart makes the argument that Hitler was most likely a scientific pantheist, equating nature with God and emphasizing the determinism of natural law. Due to these beliefs, Weikart points to the implications that Donald A. Yerxa summarizes: “The dictator subscribed to an aggressive, Aryan-oriented social Darwinist position whereby anything that advanced the Nordic race was morally good and whatever led to biological degeneration was reprehensible.” These implications led to the horrific consequences with which we are all familiar. 

Farther north, editors Siv Ellen Craft, Trude Fonneland, and James R. Lewis examine modern neoshamanisms. Nordic Neoshamanisms includes several examples of how neoshamanism is becoming more personally significant to people in Nordic countries. Reviewer Ethan Doyle White highlights that “as a result of its diffuse, eclectic nature, neoshamanism can intersect and blend with various other religious, spiritual, and esoteric milieus.” This volume offers a much-needed explication of an emerging “neoshamanic milieu.”

 

NRMs in Latin America

The only book received by Reading Religionon NRMs in Latin America is New Age in Latin America: Popular Variations and Ethnic Appropriations, This book offers an interesting study only available to English readers through translation. Editors Renée de la Torre, Cristina Gutiérrez Zúñiga, and Nahayeilli Juárez Huet propose a framework for a new field of study in anthropology. The essays focus less on specific movements and more on the processes of reinterpretation and appropriation that are common in the study of Latin American religious traditions. In his review, Brett Hendrickson sees that “this volume also has the salutary effect of demonstrating that New Age traditions should not be understood merely as a European and North American phenomenon,” which is a critical development in the study of the New Age. 

 

Non-Western NRMs 

Many NRMs, including several of those that animated the 1960s counter culture in the United States, emerge from Eastern traditions. However, in exciting new scholarship we learn not only how Eastern traditions transform when they reach the United States or Europe, but also of NRMs that have arisen in other spots on the globe. 

Edited by Lukas Pokorny and Franz Winter, Handbook of East Asian New Religious Movements is the sixteenth volume in the Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion. The volume contains a description of twenty-five NRMs from Japan, North and South Korea, China/Taiwan, and Vietnam. It is an excellent resource for Anglophones as an introduction to these emergent traditions in East Asia. A review has been written by Hoàng Vān Chung.

Conjuring Asia: Magic, Orientalism and the Making of the Modern World, written by Chris Goto-Jones, reframes a Western view of Orientalism as a kind of magic by taking the reader on a magical mystery tour around India, China, and Japan. Although he begins with stage magic in modern Western Europe and North America, Goto-Jones connects these magicians to Theosophists and ritual magicians who sought knowledge from ancient Eastern rites. Reviewer Michael D. Bailey says that, “they saw Eastern traditions (which here means those of India, China, and Japan) as sources of new (to Western audiences) tricks and mechanisms of performance.”

Zooming in more closely on a single tradition, Peter Lambertz’s Seekers and Things: Spiritual Movements and Aesthetic Difference in Kinshasa is an ethnographic study of Sekai Kyûseikyô, a Japanese new religionthat has arisen in the densely populated and primarily Christian environment of Kinshasa (DR Congo). In particular, Lambertz examines the line often drawn between non-Christian religious minorities and the Christian public sphere that comes with fears of “magic” and “superstition.” This book is available for review here

Two titles look at how the intersection of East and West sometimes results in NRMs. In Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement, Hugh B. Urban provides a comprehensive overview of the life and teachings of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, known in his later years as Osho (1931–1990). Osho’s reputation as the “sex guru” and “Rolls Royce guru” are usually his most notable accolades, but Urban uses extensive ethnographic and archival research to argue that his movement embodied much of the spiritual and economic currents in the late 20th century. Osho has regained popularity, reviewer Joshua Leach says, “due to the hit Netflix documentary series, Wild, Wild Country: a compelling portrayal of a community’s descent into violence.” Similarly, Paul Oliver, author of Hinduism and the 1960s: The Rise of a Counter-Culture, analyzes the relationship between Hinduism and the West from the 1950s Beat movement to the youth counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s. This book has been reviewed by Ramdas Lamb. 

 

Environmental NRMs

Like politically-motivated or inclusion-motivated NRMs, there is a growing number of NRMs that prioritize environmental issues. In For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism, author Sarah M. Pike engages with radical environmental and animal-rights activists to discover how their beliefs and commitments have developed, especially through their experiences in childhood. Many of those interviewed self-identified as Pagan, and Pike tries to identify the “activists’ perception of the other-than-human world, as well as the ways in which these experiences inform their struggle to protect nonhuman animals and the natural world” (from the review by Shai Feraro). 

Eco-Alchemy-Anthroposophy and the History and Future of Environmentalism, written by Dan McKanan, examines the impact anthroposophy and its founder, Rudolf Steiner, has had on growing environmentalist movements. Scholars have previously situated this movement somewhere in the realm of NRMs as an offshoot of Western esotericism. Steiner and his followers disagree, asserting their uniqueness. Eco-Alchemy-Anthroposophy offers an interesting, first-hand account of the movement, but, as reviewer Peter Staudenmaier points out, McKanan is “clearly sympathetic to his subject” and “parts of the book lack sufficient critical assessment or contextualization.”

 

Pagan, Occult, and Witchcraft movements

There are both historical accounts and modern incarnations of paganism, occult practices, and witchcraft (or Wicca) movements. They harken back to a remote past, but also blend in new spiritual practices. 

Spirit Matters: Occult Beliefs, Alternative Religions, and the Crisis of Faith in Victorian Britain, written by J. Jeffrey Franklin, examines beliefs resulting from the influence of modernity, science, and globalization. Franklin explores the way in which people in England tried to hold onto their Christian faith or combined it with Spiritualism, Buddhism, occultism, or scientific naturalism. He then ties this diversity to the emergence of hybrid religions and the rise of New Age traditions in the 20th century. This book has been reviewed by Ethan Doyle White. More broadly, Modernism and the Occult, written by John Bramble, offers a sketch of the development of modernism from the late 19th to mid-20th century through the lens of occult movements and art movements. Although less clearly grouped with NRMs, Bramble addresses several emergent groups including Nazism and Zen Buddhism. This book has been reviewed by Della Campion. 

Also tied into Spiritualism and the interactions with science and rationalism, Mesmerism arose in France but was soon exported to the United States. In Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism, Emily Ogden traces this history. Mesmerism involved practices of mind control, spirit travel, and clairvoyance, despite many of these being debunked before their resurgence in the United States. Reviewer Leigh E. Schmidt explains, mesmerists “saw enchantment as a tool—the calculated use of which established their own standing as agents of secular modernity. Their ability to hold the credulous in their thrall, to incite obedience from their entranced subjects, was the sign of their own superior rationality and technical expertise.” 

Edited by Kathryn Rountree, Contemporary Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Europe: Colonialist and Nationalist Impulses aims to provide a useful comparison between the Pagan movements of Britain and North America and those arising across Europe. In particular, Rountree highlights the presence of neo-nationalistic and neo-colonialist impulses at play. With contributors from scholars of religion, anthropology, folklore, and cultural psychology who specialize in different regions across the continent, this work is a valuable comparative resource. It has been reviewed by Shai Feraro. 

Reading Religionhas reviewed two recent works on Satanism. Ruben van Luijk, author of Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism, draws on his background as a novelist to provide a historical and literary account of the precursors to and the modern form of Satanism. Reviewer Cimminnee Holt points to how Luijk divides the discourse into two categories: “attribution, which is imposing a Satanist accusation or label unto another; and identification or appropriation, which are self-adopting labels for either a practicing or sympathizing Satanist.” Many of the more modern forms of Satanism fall into the latter group. Meanwhile, Satanism: A Social History, by Massimo Introvigne, is another impressive work from a scholar who is well-established in the field of NRMs. In Satanism, Introvigne integrates the work of previous scholars with his own novel sources to provide a wide overview of Satanic belief in history and the modern era. Comparing this work to van Luijk’s Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism, reviewer Per Faxneld reflects,“If you want to read only one book to get a general grasp of what Satanism is all about, Satanism: A Social History should be the go-to option, with van Luijk’s impressive tome as a close contender. The latter is a little stronger in the portions dealing with Satanism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whereas Introvigne shines when it comes to present-day figures and groups—especially with regard to his international scope.”

Wicca is an NRM that can now count hundreds of thousands of adherents worldwide. Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, written by Ethan Doyle White, offers a comprehensive overview not only of the history, but also the beliefs, practices, and daily life of Wiccans from both academic and insider perspectives. This book has been reviewed by Nicolas Pierre Boissière. 

 

Religious experience and spirituality

Many NRMs center on the ideas of experience and renewed spirituality or connectedness. The books in this section, although not always specifically related to NRMs, engage with things like miracles, other dimensions, and ecstasy that are often important to NRMs. 

Ann Taves’s Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths, however, does examine movements generally considered to be NRMs: Mormonism, Alcoholics Anonymous, and A Course in Miracles. Each of these cases—spanning from the early 1800s to the 1970s—exemplifies the emergence of new spiritual paths. Taves highlights the human processes that undergird transformative encounters and experiences, offering new insights into the interaction between a creative founder and an initial set of collaborators. Taylor Dean’s review is forthcoming.

Also related to experience, June McDaniel’s Lost Ecstasy: Its Decline and Transformation in Religion points to how ecstatic experience has been suppressed in both academic discourse and religious life in the modern West. She explores how the search for ecstatic experience has morphed into war, terrorism, transgression, sexuality, drug use, and anti-institutional forms of spirituality and calls for religious studies and theology scholars to take these experiences seriously. A review is forthcoming by Samuel Wagar. 

Miracles can often catalyze an NRM. In The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Seven Types of Everyday Miracle, Donald A. Crosby examines the natural world to show how events that humans deem miracles are often ongoing beneath the surface of everyday existence. This work is grounded in Crosby’s religious naturalism, which he terms “Religion of Nature.” In this framework, there is nothing supernatural beyond or underlying the natural world. A review by Holly Folk is forthcoming. 

In a historical approach, Sign or Symptom?: Exceptional Corporeal Phenomena in Religion and Medicine in the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Tine van Osselaer, Henk de Smaele, and Kaat Wils, presents several case studies of what boil down to ontological differences. From the famous Lourdes case of the bones of Pierre de Rudder, in which he was miraculously healed, to a discussion of the lack of miracles in modern American Catholicism, this volume digs into the issue of “exceptional corporeal phenomena.” A review by Michael Grosso is available. 

In Other Worlds: Spirituality and the Search for Invisible Dimensions, Christopher G. White draws from the realms of science, religion, literature, and art to construct an image of how people have used the idea of invisible dimensions to justify things from ghosts to miracles. In her review, Mary-Jane Rubenstein points to how “these cultural producers [e.g., mathematicians, artists, architects, televangelists, science fiction authors, and playground designers]…have become far more significant generators of enchanted worldviews and practices than traditional theologians.” 

 

Interreligious dialogue including NRMs

Another thread of scholarship in the study of NRMs is how, with their growing number and intermingling with established religious traditions, everyone can cooperate and reach mutual understanding. 

Edited by David William Kim, Religious Encounters in Transcultural Society: Collision, Alteration, and Transmission is a collection of essays that examine three areas in which there are religious encounters in transcultural societies: Islamic encounters with regional religions, East Asian religious encounters, and alternative religious encounters. Within this third section, the various authors describe hybridization theory in the case of “Jewish-Buddhists,” the Egyptian gnostic community in the Tchacos Codex, Rastafarianism, and Chinese rites. This book is available for review here

Also concerned with religious encounters, Learning from Other Religious Traditions: Leaving Room for Holy Envy, edited by Hans Gustafson, brings together practitioner/scholars of various traditions to reflect on the beauty they find in other traditions. Traditions represented include Ásatrú Heathenism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Evangelical Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, LDS Mormonism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Sikhism, Sufism, Western Buddhism, and Zen Mahāyāna Buddhism. Rather than a handbook on how to conduct interreligious dialogue, this volume aims to reveal a sense of cooperation and mutual learning. A review from Andrew Massena is forthcoming. 

Finally, Ken Wilber introduces a new path for re-envisioning a religious future that harkens to our spiritual past while acknowledging the evolution of humanity in The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions--More Inclusive, More Comprehensive, More Complete. Almost an NRM founder in himself, Wilber blends together the meditative and spiritual roots of many of the great religions in the world with our updated knowledge of the brain and human development. Wilber also offers ways to incorporate this blended belief system into our own spiritual practice. A review is forthcoming Julius-Kei Kato. 

 

Conclusion

Scholarship in NRMs is important because it offers new case studies and data sets to better understand religious studies as a whole. Tracking the progression of an emergent movement provides insights into how more established traditions may have developed. Furthermore, as fringe traditions become more popular, particularly in the West as people drift away from organized religious traditions, understanding these groups will be important.

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Add comment

Log in to post comments