The phone call from a pastor colleague changed my life. Would I, he asked, see a parishioner whose daughter had joined some strange Bible group? When the mother arrived, she exploded with emotion—hurt, fear, anger, embarrassment. She asked for the name of a deprogrammer. Her daughter had joined one of the “new religions,” and the shock of this unexpected turn in her daughter’s life had been intensified by the discovery that her daughter was soliciting family friends for funds to underwrite her attendance at the group’s Bible college.

I spent almost a year with this mother as she struggled with her feelings and situation. I helped her create a plan of action, and eventually her daughter (who was then in her mid-20s) left the group.

I had spent all of my adult life researching nonconventional religions, but this incident had pushed me where I did not want to go—into the midst of the “cult wars,” that violent conflict between the high-demand, first-generation religions and a new militant anticult movement. This mother forced me to deal with the pain of a parent whose daughter had joined such a group and who had lived in the fear and in the worry of the possible negative consequences.

I had found little identification with the cults. But anticultism presented an equal, if not greater, source of concern. Deprogramming ran counter to all the freedoms for which we evangelicals had fought when we were society’s “cults.” The popular anticult text. Snapping, identified all born-again Christians as culticly diseased and in need of coercive deconversion, and I broke completely with anticultism.

Rejection of anticultism left me without a framework within which to understand the cult phenomenon. Cults were significant and far from merely the aberrations of a few misguided Bible students, or the bizarre world of a few people on the edge of culture. Rather, the data suggested that cults are the most visible sign of a major shift in American religious pluralism. The 1970s saw the establishment of major world religions in middle America. Their rapid growth was ensured by the annual immigration of tens of thousands of Asians.

The cults accelerated the change in America from a society dominated by one faith—Protestant Christianity—to one of extreme multiplicity, in which over 800 Christian denominations (from Greek Orthodoxy to Sacred Name Adventism) competed with all the non-Christian faiths and unfamiliar brands of Christianity influenced by Eastern perspectives (Unificationism).

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The “cults” are here to stay, and we as pastors and lay people will continue to encounter the pain occasioned by individuals leaving the faith of their families. That pain will be sharp, whether the conversion is of a Catholic to the Baptist faith, a Jew to Christian, or a Congregationalist to the Hare Krishna movement.

As we adjust to this new situation, some new aids will assist our developing ministry. For basic orientation you cannot beat Strange Gods, by sociologists David G. Bromley and Anson D. Shupe. Jr. (Beacon, 249 pp., $13.50). Strange Godssummarizes in nontechnical language all that social scientists have discovered about the cult phenomenon. Bromley and Shupe strip away many false and simplistic stereotypes of cults and substitute a straightforward view of their corporate life, finances, recruitment processes, and programs. Uniquely, Strange Gods also puts modern anticultism under the spotlight and explores its manipulation of the negative cult images in an attempt to arouse public opinion and influence legislation.

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna (Grove, 224 pp., $7.95) takes a single cult body and examines it in depth from the perspective of five religious historians who have made a lengthy firsthand study of the Hare Krishna movement. Written in a conversational style. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna takes the reader inside this strangely disturbing group to explain the inner logic of otherwise normal adults who adopt a devotion to the statues of foreign deities, don strange dress, live communally, and engage in abrasive fund raising at airports.

In sharp contrast. Cults in America, by Willa Appel (Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 204 pp., $15.95), will be of little help. While claiming to be, like Strange Gods, an objective overview of the cult phenomenon, it turns out to be little more than a compilation of current opinions of the anticult movement. Appel confesses to doing no firsthand study of cults and seems content to ignore the mass of social science material on cults, even that from her own discipline (anthropology). She relies entirely on the papers of anticult activists such as John Clark and Margaret Singer.

Life In The Cults

Two recent additions to the personal accounts of lives interrupted by a cult’s presence rise above the common fare of hastily written volumes by deprogrammed ex-cultists. One book offers a moving portrait of a family during a member’s months in a different religion, and the other the story of a man raised in a “cult.”

The Snare of the Fowler, by Frankie Fonde Brogan (Chosen Books, 198 pp., $11.95), tells the story of the author’s son who joins the Children of God. But what for many is merely a painful period to be endured becomes a spiritual pilgrimage in which Brogan discovers a new relationship to God. For example, she learned in that pilgrimage from nominal church member to dedicated Christian to love the man she most despised, David Berg. One evening she returned from an anticult meeting at which the leader of the Children of God had been angrily denounced by speaker after speaker. Suddenly Brogan found herself on her knees praying, overwhelmed with compassion for that same man. In those moments she gained a new perspective on her situation and found anew the One who had so long ago told his disciples to pray for those who would despitefully use them.

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The son finally chose to leave, as he had chosen to join. But in the end, three people—a mother, a father, and a son—became three different people because of their experiences and because they allowed Christ to walk in the midst of their lives.

Cult Handbooks

The emergence of so many unfamiliar new religions challenges writers to report accurately on them. Unfortunately, most recent writers have not done their homework. Poorly researched and hastily written volumes, riddled with errors and misperceptions, distort the theology and piety of the groups they attempt to describe. Such books are more a hindrance than a help in our witnessing to cult members, who use them to ridicule the quality of Christian scholarship. In my interaction with cult members, I have frequently had to spend an hour separating myself from such books and establishing a trust in Christian veracity before I could begin to share what Christ meant to me.

An exception to such a trend will be found in A Guide to Cults and New Religions, by Ron Enroth and others (Inter-Varsity Press, 215 pp., $5.95). Most chapters, written by someone who has done an in-depth study of a particular group, formerly appeared as separate booklets, and have been brought together with additional chapters on “What Is A Cult?” and “Evaluating the New Religions.” The chapters manifest a notable attempt to understand what a group teaches before evaluating it in the light of orthodox faith. The opening chapter does engage in a futile attempt to find common characteristics of the cults; in this case Enroth comes up with a list that applies as closely to conservative Christian churches as it does to cults. That minor flaw should not keep you away from an otherwise worthy volume, however.

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Responding To The Cults

Having learned about the cults, how do we respond? You might begin with the advice in Harold Bussell’s Unholy Devotion (Zondervan, 128 pp., $4.95), a book for all evangelicals, whether concerned directly with cults or not. Bussell draws upon our common wisdom. Before beginning a ministry, do some self-examination. Look at the churches: they help create cultists by their discouragement of critical thinking, their creating of unrealistic expectations for Christian fellowship, and their lack of sensitivity to young seekers. People who join cults have begun a quest for God, a loving fellowship, and a deep spiritual experience.

Unholy Devotion is an important book in that it reminds us of what we evangelicals have in common with the cults. While cult teachings vary from evangelical faith. we can so concentrate upon attacking cults that we miss the very human members who seek the same spiritual reality we have found. Militant anticultism can easily lead to self-righteousness and a forgetfulness of our prime directive: to preach the gospel of the Lord of love.

Reviewed by J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, Evanston, Illinois.

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