Understanding the New Age, by Russell Chandler (Word, 359 pp.; $16.99, hardcover); A Crash Course on the New Age Movement, by Elliot Miller (Baker, 260 pp.; $10.95, paper). Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, author of Unmasking the New Age and Confronting the New Age.

In a fallen world, bad books tend to outsell and outlast the good—with the Bible, of course, being a blessed exception. Many Christian books tackling the New Age movement have sold in multiple thousands while suffering from multiple problems. The genre of choice is what could be called “Fundamentalist Apocalypticism,” a rhetorical stance chronicling impending global doom at the hands of New Age conspirators. In this genre, the present world is seen as beyond reform or revival. Renewal awaits the eschaton; history is spent. Thus the significance of the New Age movement is exhausted by correlating its advances with prophecies concerning the Great Decay.

Although these idiosyncratic, and often intellectually shallow, books may dominate the market, they do not monopolize it. Two new books present a well-balanced and well-reasoned response to the challenge of the New Age.

New Age Primers

In Understanding the New Age, Russ Chandler, veteran religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, touches on virtually every facet of New Age interest—from acupuncture to the zodiac—in a readable and thoughtful manner. Drawing on both extensive research and many interviews, Chandler covers the landscape with tact, skill, and humor. He is fair in dealing with the more exotic New Age ideas and practices (such as crystal consciousness), while at the same time challenging the reader to evaluate critically the phenomena.

Chandler’s reader is not left with a journalistic hodgepodge of unrelated oddness, because the author is careful to place the New Age in its historical, philosophical, and theological context.

He takes issue with the “Fundamentalist Apocalypticism” of popular anti-New Age author Constance Cumbey and others in a chapter critical of conspiracy theories. Chandler correctly sees New Age infiltration as substantial but not total; neither is it the result of a well-orchestrated master plan.

In the final two sections, Chandler moves from his critically objective stance to a more openly apologetic and evangelistic one. He dissects the New Age world view, finding it wanting in reality and incompatible with Christianity: The self makes a poor God; ethical relativism—“we create our own reality”—is dangerous and unsatisfying; pantheism has no adequate explanation for, or solution to, the problem of evil. The final chapter, “The Man for All Ages,” winsomely presents Christ as the alternative to New Age error. A helpful glossary is also included.

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In A Crash Course on the New Age, Elliot Miller covers a bit less ground than Chandler, yet tends to delve more deeply into specific issues such as channeling, New Age science, and Cumbey’s conspiracy theory. (Chandler, though, deals more thoroughly with the important issue of reincarnation.) If Chandler writes as a thoughtful journalist, Miller writes as a readable scholar.

Miller is a cult researcher with the Christian Research Institute (CRI), a respected countercult ministry. His book is almost entirely drawn from a long series of articles that first appeared in CRI publications over the past few years. Despite the title, the book is anything but a crash course; it is rather a reflective and substantial look at a diverse social movement. The task includes an extensive bibliography and index, both missing from Chandler’s.

Of the two books, Chandler’s seems better suited for giving to someone involved in the New Age. His journalistic flair and easily digestible format of many brief chapters serve as a good format for a “crossover book.” Miller’s effort would prove intellectually challenging to motivated New Age readers, but seems better suited to the thoughtful Christian.

An Eastern Guru

Although both books cover much ground admirably, they lack argumentative clout in two key areas; First, New Agers often practice “esoteric interpretations” of biblical texts—through allegorizing, redefining terms, and so on—in order to derive decidedly unbiblical conclusions. In so doing they attempt to certify their paganism as “Christian” (as did the Gnostics before them). An argument for sound biblical interpretation is the needed antidote to this esoteric revisionism. Second, New Agers also appeal to exotic nonbiblical documents to redefine the person and work of Jesus. A strong historical apologetic for the veracity of the Jesus of Scripture is required to silence such historical revisionism.

Despite these omissions, both books will help offset a flood of less-deserving efforts. The New Age movement, though often misunderstood, is a surging social force that deserves careful attention. We can only hope that in this case, these two good books will help drive out the bad.

Phoebe Palmer: Her Life and Thought, by Harold E. Raser (Edwin Mellen, 389 pp.; $59.95, hardcover); The Beauty of Holiness: Phoebe Palmer as Theologian, Revivalist, Feminist, and Humanitarian, by Charles Edward White (Zondervan, xiv + 330 pp.; $16.95, hardcover); Phoebe Palmer: Selected Writings, edited by Thomas C. Oden (Paulist, 364 pp.; $24.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Grant Wacker, associate professor of religious studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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If the nineteenth-century holiness movement sprang from the union of evangelical revivalism and Wesleyan perfectionism, there are good reasons to believe that Phoebe Palmer, more than anyone, presided over the wedding. No one knows, of course, exactly how many thousands of men and women experienced conversion and entire sanctification under her ministry. But it is clear that for some 35 years Palmer loomed as one of the most influential and persistently visible figures on the American religious landscape.

Of Palmer’s 18 books, undoubtedly the best known was The Way of Holiness, which sold extremely well for the time and, after its publication in 1845, went through 52 editions. Palmer’s The Promise of the Father, a series of arguments for the public ministry of women, seems not to have been widely read in its own day, but recently has been reprinted as a landmark in the struggle for equality in the church. (In their Sources of American Spirituality series, Paulist Press has recently reintroduced some of Palmer’s work with the release of Phoebe Palmer: Selected Writings. Editor Thomas Oden has put together portions of Palmer’s letters, diaries, and published material that provide a good introduction into her thought and activity.)

From 1839 until her death in 1874, Palmer hosted in her New York City home the famous Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness, which attracted both notables and common folk.

Throughout the last decade of her life, Palmer and her wealthy physician husband, Walter, owned and edited the Guide to Holiness, which soon boasted a circulation of 37,000 and easily ranked as the premier holiness periodical of the century. Besides bearing six children, three of whom survived to adulthood (including the well-known hymn writer Phoebe Knapp), Palmer somehow found time to help found the Five Points Mission in New York, as well as a prison ministry in the city’s Tombs, an orphanage, a Methodist mission board for China, and various efforts for the conversion of Jews.

Consecration, Belief, Testimony

Palmer’s influence persisted long after her death. Two of the most prominent women of the later nineteenth century, Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army and Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, both acknowledged Palmer’s impact on their thinking. Whole denominations such as the Wesleyan Methodists, the Free Methodists, the Church of the Nazarene, and the Pentecostal Holiness Church, eventually felt the force of her personality. In fact, it would be difficult to find a holiness or Pentecostal body today that does not bear the imprint of her distinctive theological convictions.

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Exactly what those convictions were, and how they took shape in the American environment, is an important story in itself. Besides Wesley himself, Palmer heavily drew on “classical” Wesleyan sources John Fletcher and Adam Clark, as well as popular writers in that tradition, such as Mary Bonsanquet, Hester Ann Rogers, and William Carvosso. But Palmer interpreted—some would say boldly reinterpreted—the Wesleyan heritage to fit her own experience and religious vision.

She was not a systematic theologian, perhaps not a theologian at all, but essentially a devotional writer deeply concerned with the nature of Christian holiness and the means for obtaining and keeping it. Possibly because of an inability to feel the soothing assurance of a definable sanctification experience in her own life, Palmer concluded that that event had nothing to do with feelings. Rather, it depended on three distinct steps: consecration, belief, and testimony.

Those notions seem conventional enough, but Palmer gave them a special twist. Consecration entailed typical evangelical prohibitions such as Sunday sports or alcoholic drinks; it also entailed some rather unusual ones such as not buying glass flowers or not loving one’s child or spouse too much.

The second step was belief, and that entailed a naked determination to do just that: believe, without a shred of assuring emotional evidence, that God would in fact entirely sanctify anyone who claimed the biblical promise of a sinless heart.

Public testimony, finally, was necessary to keep one’s sanctification, and that applied equally to reticent females and to aggressive males fearful for their business reputations.

In most respects, Palmer’s social philosophy was more conservative than not. She had nothing to say about slavery, and she judged that the central moral lesson to be learned from Lincoln’s assassination was the inappropriateness of his being in a theater in the first place.

Her view of the proper public and domestic role of women, however, was considerably more complex. She refused to endorse the women’s rights movement, and sidestepped the question of female ordination. But both through personal example and through an arsenal of skillfully articulated arguments, Palmer denounced the church’s perennially shortsighted policy of restricting the witness of women. How can the church rise, she demanded, “while the gifts of three-fourths of her membership are sepulchred in her midst?”

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Discovering A Usable Past

By any reasonable measure of such things, Palmer stands out as one of the most important figures of nineteenth-century Protestantism. Yet remarkably little has been written about her. Although some historians have devoted perceptive essays to her impact, until now the only full-length “biography” has been Richard Wheatley’s The Life and Letters of Mrs. Phoebe Palmer (1881), which is little more than a compilation of her papers, liberally salted with pious and admiring comments.

These biographies by Harold Raser, who teaches at Nazarene Theological Seminary, and by Charles White, who teaches at Spring Arbor College, go a long way toward filling the gap. Originally doctoral dissertations, both works are thoughtfully argued, yet move along at a lively clip.

Of the two, Raser’s is both more scholarly and more critical. He carefully situates Palmer in the social and theological context of the times. He is not defensive about her theological innovations nor the coldly mechanical way she often seemed to portray the logic of grace. White’s work, on the other hand, emerges as more vibrant. It is studded with anecdotes of Palmer’s life and animated by White’s own roundhouse embrace of Palmer’s theological legacy.

Much work remains to be done. Neither scholar draws on the insights that the social sciences in general, and pyschohistory in particular, might have offered. Palmer’s personality begs for such analysis.

One of many examples was Palmer’s assertion that God allowed her infant daughter to die in a crib fire in order to purge Palmer of her earthly loves and desires. Only an exceptional ego, to put it mildly, could have construed such a tragedy in such self-centered terms. Another example was Palmer’s repeated claim that she suffered no doubts about her calling (despite long absences from home, children, and husband), nor about the certainty of her sanctification.

All in all, these biographies offer reassurance that younger historians are continuing to seek an ever-clearer reading of nineteenth-century religious history—a reading that draws important but heretofore obscure figures like Palmer into the central plot of the story. They are demonstrating that evangelicals already own an eminently usable past. A rich legacy of all stripes and varieties—and both sexes—has been sitting here under our proverbial noses all along.

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Saint Owen

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (William Morrow, 543 pp; $19.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Terry Christlieb, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana.

John Irving’s latest best-selling novel explores the legitimacy of Christian belief and practice. Two themes are especially prominent: What basis is sufficient to produce faith? and, What lifestyle does faith produce?

Regarding the first theme, Irving, the author of The World According to Garp, said on one of the network morning shows that Owen Meany is a reflection on what it would take for him to come to faith. His answer seems to be that faith could result from witnessing a pattern of events too unusual and significant to be attributed to natural coincidence.

John Wheelwright, the narrator, tells the reader about such a pattern of events, a pattern he has seen unfold in the life of his childhood friend, Owen Meany. Seeing this pattern has caused Wheelwright to become a Christian, just as Owen was from the outset. The book is in this way like one of the Gospels, with John Wheelwright serving as a latter-day John the apostle, testifying to what he knows of the life of his friend and mentor, Owen Meany.

Functioning as a “Christ figure,” Owen lives on a completely different plane from the other religious people in the novel. His bottomless, unfluctuating conviction of God’s reality and control over all that happens (even when he accidentally kills John’s mother with a foul ball) is what sets him apart.

But it is not just the example of Owen’s own unshakable faith that produces John’s faith. Owen has great faith, but as he tries to live out that faith, remarkable things happen around him and to him, and those events convince John of the movement of a Hand too great to be that of any mere mortal.

With respect to the second theme, Irving offers the following epigraph: “Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.” Despite having more than his fair share of mortal handicaps—diminutive physique, an irritating, screechy voice, and an undistinguished and even unhealthy family—Owen does become a hero, several times and in several ways.

The book is not without flaws; after a strong opening chapter it bogs down, and only after the halfway mark does the pace accelerate toward a series of culminating shocks. But as a whole, it is an enjoyable read, and many of the images will return to the reader’s mind for a long time to come. As an in-depth meditation on important themes, it deserves our attention.

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