The advent of a new way of thinking has paved the way for the Age of Aquarius.
“I just love Shirley MacLaine. She says it all. It’s what I’ve always believed. What courses do you teach that will help me come to a greater knowledge of the truth? I really believe I’ve lived before. Do you teach past-life regression? My parents are members of the Baptist church and I’m a Christian, but you can be a Christian and believe in reincarnation, can’t you?”
The student paused. We quickly assured her that we did not teach past-life regression and that, although we do teach a course dealing with cults and new religions, she would not find us saying the sorts of things Shirley MacLaine proclaims with zeal. Fortunately, our negative response did not put this particular student off.
About a month later she turned in an essay in which she recanted all the views she had so enthusiastically espoused only a few weeks before. Reading Doug Groothuis’s Unmasking the New Age (InterVarsity), in conjunction with George Mosses The Crisis of the German Ideology (Fertig), cured her of her illusions about the so-called New Age and gave her the courage to renounce them publicly.
“If I hadn’t taken your course and read those books, I’d have left my church by now,” she told us several weeks later. “I knew something was wrong [with the New Age], but all my friends at the university told me that my Christianity was old-fashioned. And Shirley MacLaine did make a big impression on me. Now I see how I was drawn into another religion without realizing what was happening. It’s so clever. You accept one belief and then another, and before you know it you no longer feel comfortable with Christian beliefs. No wonder so many people I know cease to be Christian altogether.”
That story reflects the experience of hundreds of people we interviewed while collecting material for our book Understanding Cults and New Religions (Eerdmans). It is indicative of the subtle, yet real, influence of a belief system whose mythological basis has often unwittingly become more accepted by non-Christians and Christians alike. While evangelical Christians have done some excellent work exposing the New Age movement, they have failed to recognize the mythological basis upon which it is built.
Myths: True And False
Evangelical Christianity’s failure to deal adequately with the mythological basis of the New Age is not surprising, given the antipathy of Christians to any mention of “myth.” Correctly defined, a myth is a narrative (true or false) that seeks to express in imaginative form beliefs about human beings, the world, and God or gods that cannot be adequately expressed in simple propositions. While a myth is a story, it is not simply a story told for entertainment. It has culturally formative power. In other words, a myth is a story that affects the way an individual, group, or society lives.
Thus, stories about King Arthur, for example, which contain little historical truth, served as myths in Elizabethan England to legitimize the monarchy. Stories about the Great Trek in South Africa, which are historically true, function today as myths in Afrikaner society to legitimize apartheid.
When we come to Christianity, we understand the stories of the Gospels to be historically true accounts of the life of Jesus. But we also recognize that in the development of Western society they have functioned as myths—individuals, groups, and entire nations having accepted the gospel stories and changed their ways of living accordingly. Therefore, to speak about a “Christian mythology” is not to question the truth of the New Testament. It is simply to make an observation about the way true stories have shaped people’s lives.
Since at least the Middle Ages, Christianity has provided the basic myths that direct Western society. Stories like the confrontation between the prophet Nathan and King David after the murder of Uriah have taught Western peoples that their rulers are not above the law, and like everyone else are responsible to God.
But during the nineteenth century, things began to change. Christianity came under severe attack from rationalists. As a result, the Christian mythology was rejected by the educated elite, and a new mythology of science was generally accepted. Instead of merely understanding science and the scientific method, people came to believe in science. Science thus functioned as a myth, rather than a method.
This mythic function can be seen easily today, for example, in television advertising. Again and again products are promoted because they contain ingredient “X,” the “latest scientific discovery.” Instead of explaining how and why “X” works, we are asked to believe in it in the name of science. Recognizing such an approach goes a long way toward explaining the growth of the New Mythology.
Preparing The Way For The New Mythology
As a result of the growing acceptance of science and technology early in the nineteenth century, people began to look for alternative mythologies to the stories of the Bible. The results of one such search can be seen in the Book of Mormon and the rise of Mormonism. As Joseph Smith developed his new religion, he incorporated many contemporary stories and speculations, such as ideas about life on other planets, the pre-existence of souls, and an explanation for the native American ruins of New England. All of this made Smith’s religion look modern, while traditional Christianity seemed outdated.
Many other people created new religions, few of which survive today. An important exception is Theosophy, invented in the 1880s by a Russian spiritualist medium, Madame Helena Blavatsky. Unlike Joseph Smith, Madame Blavatsky did not build on the Bible for her basic religion. Instead, she went to half-understood and greatly confused versions of Buddhism and Hinduism. The result was a strange mix: Stories of Atlantis, ancient Egypt, and a variety of other “lost civilizations” were mingled with religious doctrines derived from Eastern religions.
Initially, Theosophy was very successful among a small group of upper middle-class people. And though its influence waned as the twentieth century progressed, its basic ideas were popularized by many writers, such as the best-selling Lopsang Rampa in the 1950s and 1960s. According to the British press, Rampa was a plumber from Bradford, England. But he managed to market himself as a Tibetan lama who had acquired immense wisdom through the opening of his “third eye.” In fact, most of his books are simply a modernized and simplified version of Madame Blavatsky’s teachings.
Until the appearance of Lopsang Rampa, new mythologies were contained in the confines of religious movements. Mormonism had its new myths, as did Theosophy. Yet Western culture at large remained loyal to the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the 1960s, however, the new mythology developed a life of its own apart from specific religious groups and began to take the form in which we know it today.
Getting The Whole Picture
A quick visit to any bookstore, newsstand, or supermarket check-out counter will provide ample evidence of the New Age movement. But anyone examining the growth of the New Age at such a “micro” level is bound to miss the complexity and overall coherence of its myths. Stories of UFOS, hauntings, predictions, premonitions, ghosts, mysterious happenings, psychic powers, and ESP appear to be a disjointed collection of stories and ideas that serve no particular purpose. Yet to look only at these individual stories is like looking at a Rembrandt with one’s nose touching the canvas. Only by standing back can the whole picture be appreciated.
The New Mythology’s argument is, in fact, circular. But the circle is so large that most people are unaware of its fallacious nature.
Seen as a whole, the New Age rag bag of ideas displays an amazing unity. It is not a deliberately created system, but rather a pattern that is reinforced by sheer repetition.
The result is that most people begin to accept elements of the New Mythology without realizing they are doing so. Some latch on to the idea of reincarnation. Others are fascinated by UFOS. Healings and distant miracles attract more people, until a critical mass is reached and the general ideas of the New Mythology find vague social acceptance.
Only when prominent people like Shirley MacLaine begin to expound the New Mythology do most people take notice. Her books and films gain credibility because in them she is not expounding new ideas, but simply giving voice to things many people already believe. More important, she is taking isolated myths and weaving them into a pattern which, once seen, makes sense to the believer. “Why didn’t I see it before?” is a common response, like the reaction of our student who said MacLaine was teaching things she had “always believed.”
Themes Of The New Age
Three main themes make up the New Mythology: decline beliefs; New Age beliefs; and other civilization beliefs.
Decline beliefs were particularly important during the 1960s and expressed a general pessimism about the future. Arising out of fears of atomic war and ecological collapse, they predict the imminent destruction of modern society.
Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and earlier articles about doomsday in the Plain Truth and The Watch-tower added theological fuel to these beliefs, convincing many people that “the Bible says the world is soon coming to an end.”
A more secular approach was to be found in the “prophecies” of Nostradamus. The publication of Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in the early 1970s added an apparently scientific certainty to these ideas and further increased their secular appeal.
Despite the apparent novelty of these views, doom-and-gloom mongers have been around for a long time and seem to have a revival every 50 years or so. Old editions of Harper’s or the Saturday Review of Literature reveal there is nothing new in predicting doomsday. What was new in the early 1970s was the convergence of apparently theological and scientific justifications. Separated, neither made much sense. But together they scared many people.
The fact that the Club of Rome’s computer simulations were thoroughly discredited and the Global 2000 Report to the President (commissioned by Jimmy Carter) was shown to be equally flawed missed popular attention. Many other intelligent critiques failed to reach a broad public, and a general belief in the approach of doomsday permeated the popular imagination.
New Age beliefs are the reverse of decline beliefs, representing both hope and optimism in an otherwise gloomy world view. The principal New Age belief concerns the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Though not as popular today as in the 1960s, it is still an important element in the mythology and lies at the root of many other beliefs.
The Return Of “Christ”
From the beginning, New Age beliefs have been closely linked with teachings about the return of Christ. Here Christians need to be particularly careful, because New Age terminology does not mean what Christians normally mean by the return of Christ.
Some New Age advocates clearly expect the physical return of Jesus of Nazareth and are clearly influenced by orthodox teachings at this point. But most mean something quite different from the biblical teachings that Christians accept. Some expect a new charismatic leader to emerge who can be identified with Christ. In many ways, the Unification Church represents this outlook. For others, “Christ” means a “spiritual force” or “cosmic influence” they can identify with “the spirit of Christ.”
If ideas about Christ’s return are unclear, there is general agreement about what his return will involve. Christ is coming to change the world: to make it good. Judgment seems implicit in all versions of beliefs about the return of Christ. But it is not the biblical idea of judgment. Rather, the judgment will be a vindication of New Agers and their beliefs against an unbelieving world.
However, Christ is not the only figure involved in New Age expectations. In the late sixties, some American hippies actually believed in the return of Gandalf, the fictitious character from Tolkein’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings. British contemporaries developed beliefs about the return of King Arthur. And more recently, figures like Ramtha, Seth, and a host of other entities contacted by so-called trans-channelers often assume the role of a Christ figure. Indeed, some even claim to be a new incarnation of Jesus.
All these beliefs express the same desire for a world free of toil and care—a world where justice reigns and death, evil, and sorrow will be overcome by a perfect harmony based on a holistic approach to life and the world. These beliefs are, in fact, expressions of archetypal values and longings deeply lodged in the hyman psyche.
The idea of a “new age” was first hinted at in Theosophical circles around the turn of the century. The first complete exposition of these beliefs is found in the writings of the Afrikaner “prophet” Johanna Brandt. Her books, from The Millennium (published in 1916) to The Paraclete or Coming World Mother (published in 1936), emphasize the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” South Africa may seem a long way from the counterculture of the sixties, but somehow Brandt’s ideas managed to appear in the United States.
With the success of the musical Hair, the “Age of Aquarius” became a popular myth. The idea itself is rooted in the astrological theory known as “mundane astrology.” According to proponents of this theory, there exist “star ages” during which the Earth and its inhabitants are exposed to certain astral influences that mold social and cultural life.
Believers in this theory, including Brandt, argue that for the past 2,000 years the Earth has been influenced by the sign of Pisces, the fish. This sign is identified with Christianity because the symbol of the fish was one of the marks of identification adopted by the early church. Astrologers say the Piscean Age was a “watery” one in which occult knowledge was undervalued and occult powers were in decline.
But now we stand on the threshold of the Age of Aquarius. Exactly when a new star age begins is difficult to predict. Each is supposed to last 2,200 years, and the best guess astrologers can give is plus or minus 100 years. So, based on astrological theory, all we can really say is that we are on the verge of the Aquarian Age. Shirley MacLaine and many others believe that the Aquarian Age has already begun.
According to the astrologers, the Aquarian Age will be one of humanism, brotherhood, and occult happenings. For believers, the promise of this new age helps mitigate the depressing influence of decline beliefs and gives them a great source of confidence, as can be seen from MacLaine’s recent books. The true believer now becomes both the herald of the New Age and a participant in it.
Looking For Atlantis
Other civilization beliefs form an essential link between the pessimism of decline beliefs and New Age beliefs. They bring together fears about the misuse of scientific knowledge with a basic faith in science. These beliefs, drawn from numerous sources, are concerned either with lost civilizations or extraterrestrial ones. They usually involve the suggestion, popularized by Erich Von Daniken, that people in the remote past had contact with extraterrestrial beings. There is also usually some link between civilizations of Earth’s past and UFO encounters today, suggesting that the survivors of our lost civilizations took to space and will surely return to save mankind.
These beliefs often concern a past golden age (or series of golden ages) before recorded history, from which the human race has fallen. Men and women are said to have lived during these ages in harmony with nature, using only natural forces in a grand cosmic design. But because of pride and the misuse of science, the human race lost its mystical powers and a long decline began, leading to our present predicament.
To support such claims, many stories are told about Atlantis, Stonehenge, the pyramids of Egypt, South American ruins, and a host of other ancient artifacts. The purpose of these stories is to provide a powerful apologetic that links the meditative practices of New Age believers with apparent evidence that what they believe is true.
Their argument is, in fact, circular. But the circle is so large that most people are unaware of its fallacious nature. Thus, beliefs about the end of the world are linked with the hope of a new age, which is said to be proven by accepting the evidence of ancient ruins. These ruins in turn come alive when the believer meditates in them and, like Shirley MacLaine herself, experiences contact with mystic or extraterrestrial entities in their vicinity.
By themselves, encounters with beings from another reality would be easily dismissed as imaginary if it were not for the visual reality of the ancient ruins, interpreted as evidence within the mythology of the New Age. Similarly, the basis of hope in the face of a prevailing pessimism would seem absurd without the “reality” of mystic encounters. So a circle is forged, which becomes self-authenticating by providing a comprehensive mythological interpretation of life.
Evolution: The Central Myth
“I believe in UFOS because I know we simply can’t be alone in the universe,” a young student declared during a class discussion on new religions. Once she had broken the ice, several others quickly supported her point. All of them argued that the “facts of evolution” point to life on other planets. Indeed for these folks, evolution “proved” that UFOS must exist. And once the existence of UFOS was established, it didn’t take long to get around to Atlantis and a host of occult-related beliefs.
To appreciate the impact of the New Mythology, we have to understand the role of a belief in evolution as the central myth of the New Mythology. Without the idea of evolution, the New Mythology would not be able to provide its believers with sufficient integrating elements to make it hold together. But the myth of evolution creates a comprehensive system that can embrace the entire mythology in all its diversity. Apart from all the debates about evolution as good or bad science, evolution exists as a mythology.
Evolution plays a central role in the mythologies of almost all religious movements that have come into existence during the past 150 years. From Mormonism to Theosophy, from modern Westernized forms of Vedanta to German National Socialism, evolution has provided an essential, integrative element.
As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his essay “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” the scientific theory deals with development, while the myth deals with improvements. It is the idea of spiritual improvement reaching to godhood that inspires new religions, from the established theologies of Latter-day Saints to the fragmented insights of Shirley MacLaine.
New Age myths need not be systematic or logically connected, provided they can tie into the grand myth of evolution and so become supporting elements in a greater whole.
A Christian Response
Once Christians realize that the New Age movement draws its strength and inspiration from the myths of the New Age, they can begin to counter the propaganda of the New Age believers at the source. This means Christians will become sensitive to a host of issues they have previously ignored.
When electronic and print media promote the occult by featuring stories about UFOS, ghosts, dreams, visions, prophecies, miraculous healings, and other New Age fads, they should be challenged to prove their case. Our media are full of stories that help create the new mythology but that are, in fact, totally false.
A helpful book for Christians to read is Curtis D. MacDougall’s Superstition and the Press (Prometheus). Written by a skeptic, it debunks hundreds of press stories and shows how easily our media promote irrationalism. MacDougall repeatedly illustrates how a story is initially reported in banner headlines as an example of some “strange” occurence. Later a natural explanation, often simple dishonesty and deception, is discovered. But the explanation is downplayed or ignored.
Another valuable source of assistance is The Skeptical Inquirer, a journal published by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Although The Skeptical Inquirer is highly critical of Christian orthodoxy, it nevertheless contains valuable exposés of alleged occult encounters, New Age healings, and other stories that promote paganism. Christians ought to make common cause with its authors to share what is true, presenting a Christian alternative when needed.
Finally, Christians need to recognize the theological impetus behind the myths of the New Age: a basic faith in science. Real knowledge of how science works has been replaced by blind, baseless faith, which must be exposed for what it is: a leap in the dark and nothing more.
The Question Of Origins
We also need to realize that talk about lost civilizations and extraterrestrial visitors to Earth simply defers the question of origins. These stories are a response to the popular way evolution is taught. Most people find it impossible to conceive of mankind evolving from an amoeba over millions of years. A belief in space people who “originally populated the Earth” removes that barrier, while avoiding a return to biblical truth.
At the same time, an eschatological element is introduced: If space people originated life on Earth, surely they must have continued to guide its development. That means we are not alone. And however threatening our situation is in the final analysis, our creators are going to intervene to save us. Hence, we have the common belief that space people are seeking to communicate with mankind and that their actions will avert atomic war or ecological collapse.
Belief in space people also serves as an extension of popular belief in evolution. If mankind evolved on Earth, then surely other creatures have evolved on other planets. And once the notion of an infinite number of worlds and life forms is accepted, any number of beings can possibly exist. In reality, this apparently scientific way of thinking is a return to the prescientific, medieval world view in modified form.
The theory of evolution has created a new “scientific” version of the ancient notion of plenitude—the fullness of being—which originated the medieval belief in the Great Chain of Being. This explains why so many New Age thinkers are hostile to the Reformation: It was the Reformation that rejected a hierarchical view of the universe, positing instead God’s direct rule of his creation through his law. Belief in law, rather than personified messengers as God’s agents in creation, made modern science possible. But the New Age mythology returns to a world inhabited by fauns and spirits, who control both nature and human destinies.
With the New Mythology, old superstitions have returned in a scientific guise. They must be stripped of their scientific trappings and exposed for what they are: crass superstitions unworthy of serious consideration. Only when Christians begin to meet these challenges can they possibly hope to see a return to biblical faith and the decline of the New Age movement.
In the early church, Christians faced similar challenges. Classics like Augustine’s City of God show how Christians responded to those challenges and met head-on the superstitions of their day. We must do the same. And that means, like the early church, we must outthink as well as outlive our opponents. As Christians we have no need to fear the truth, because “it is the truth that sets us free.”
Karla Poewe-Hexham is professor of anthropology at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where her husband, Irving Hexham, is associate professor of religious studies. They are the authors and editors of nine books, and joint authors of Understanding Cults and New Religions (Eerdmans).
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