Cult followings: Mesmerising the believers
I became a Christian in Sacramento, California. For those who do not know, that is where the current television drama ‘The Mentalist’ is supposed to take place, and to be sure every once in awhile there are images from around Sacramento that I recognise. For instance, recently I watched an episode and there was a shot taken from above the Tower Bridge, looking down the mall towards the capital building, which is modelled after the capital building in Washington, DC.
Not too far down the road from Sacramento is Berkeley, California. I don’t think there is a television show filmed there, but I used to live there also, and it was a melting pot of intelligent people. One of the organisations that arose there was called The Spiritual Counterfeits Project, and they did a lot of work identifying and explaining various cults. Recently, in thinking about some people I know, I was reminded of the need for such an organisation.
Wikipedia defines a cult as follows:
“The word cult in current popular usage is a pejorative term for a new religious movement or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre by the larger society.”
Thus, any given “cult” is identified and defined in respect of a given and established religious perspective. In the time of Jesus, for instance, early Christianity was considered a Jewish cult, and the zealous Jews of the time were bent on eradicating it. Thus, a cult is not simply another religion, it is considered to be an aberrant offshoot of a given religion. A new book published by the American Psychological Association proposes that the term “charismatic group” applies to the intense cohesiveness with an ideological commitment to transcendence. Meanwhile, it says a “cult” can be considered a subgroup of this latter phenomenon, defined by the common charismatic culture as alien and deviant on the basis of values within that culture. I think it is a long-winded way of confirming what Wikipedia said.
What is it that distinguishes a cult from simply one of several various branches of the main religion of Christianity? In other words, if charismatic Christians (often associated with the “prophetic ministry” and evident among several congregations in Bermuda) are not members of cults, what makes for a cult? If theologically ultra conservative congregations are not cults, then what makes for a cult? If liberal congregations bent on helping people socially are not cults, then what makes for a cult?
Here are some landmarks by which a person might distinguish a cultic landscape:
1. A spirit of antichrist
2. A body of esoteric knowledge
3. A centralised authority
Various people have written many things about cults, but when I think of them, this is the kind of thing I have encountered in my life so far:
First and foremost, to me a cult is decidedly antichrist. In the pop media the antichrist has become a bad guy in a horror flick, but the term signifies more than that. Let me unpack it. In Greek the preposition “anti” means “instead of”. Thus, the term anti-Christ means something or someone put in place of Christ. The term is personified in a person of apocalyptic and prophetic literature who would come at the last days and deceive people, taking the place of the messiah, or Christ, but anything such as a philosophical or religious system that supplants the role and place of Jesus in a person’s life is “instead of” Jesus. Many have felt that the human potential movement, or the new age with its interest in forces and energies that people can tap into to make themselves complete or successful, approaches the spirit of antichrist.
Cults rely on esoteric, special knowledge. It is often claimed that it is akin to the mystical light of ancient sages. Gnosticism is based on the idea of the gnosis as the enlightenment that frees a person from earthly and material pursuits. Obviously, then, dispensers of such enlightenment become crucial and attain to the level of gurus or enlightened masters.
That leads to the third feature of cults, which is a centralised authority. People are not encouraged to think critically or to think for themselves. They are told what to think, or they are told what they had been thinking is wrong. They are told what the scriptures mean, and as far as that goes, often the cult has manufactured its own set of authoritative writings that supplant or significantly distort the scriptures.
Cults are notoriously rigid and legalistic. Any church group can be cult-like in this respect. When a performance-based economy pushes aside a grace-based approach to spirituality, it is cultish.
Finally, cults are like dysfunctional families. They don’t like people looking into their “family secrets”. Thus, cults tend to isolate from the mainstream and to reduce the number of influences that might compete for the minds of their devotees.
In a cult all these features are working at the same time, and they tend to reinforce one another. Any church can have strong and charismatic leaders. Any church can have a dogmatic understanding of the scriptures. Any church can develop an us-and-them attitude in which, oddly enough, outsiders are not welcome. Any church can discourage its members from thinking for themselves, and any church can replace the gospel of the kingdom and salvation through faith in the work of Christ with another message and emphasis prosperity, success, saving the planet, stopping sex-trafficking, restoring the strength of a nation, dominating as a political party or philosophy, stopping abortion, or achieving the sanctity of heterosexual marriage for example. A cult, however, has all these things working and reinforcing one another, and it also has other features not described here.
Finally, cults are populated by the blind and the deceived. If it were not so, how could a person like Jim Jones get hundreds of people to feed poison to their children and then to “drink the Kool-Aid” themselves? Drinking the Kool-Aid has become a humorous way of telling someone he or she is gullible. Gullibility is a mundane and relatively harmless version of what I am referring to however. I am thinking of people who simply cannot see; they cannot grasp. No matter how well you phrase it, not matter how persuasively you frame it, they do not understand. It’s as if you are standing in front of the Mona Lisa and all they can say is, “What’s the big deal? She’s not all that sexy.”
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