Tag Archives: Christian Historical Theology

New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Mary Farrell Bednarowski.

Bednarowski New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America

In this monograph Mary Ferrell Bednarowski examines a half-dozen religions of variously “alternative” status, inquiring into their different conclusions regarding traditional theological topics such as the character of the divine, the nature of humanity, human existence after death, and the cornerstones of ethical reflection. Her six example religions are carefully chosen, not only to illustrate a profound variety, but also to demonstrate some parallels: three originated in the 19th century and three in the 20th, and she sets the triads up so that each has a match in the neighboring century. The result is as follows: 

19th Century : 20th Century ::
LDS (Mormons) : Unification Church (“Moonies”) ::
Christian Science : Scientology ::
Theosophy : New Age Movement

In the case of the first pair, there is an emphasis on the finitude and anthropic qualities of God, along with the need for human participation in an ongoing historical process of redemption. Both place emphasis on families and marriage as the critical locus of society, and both have engaged alternative notions about marriage in contrast to American mainstream culture. 

At first I thought the second pair seemed more alike in name than substance, but it turns out that the early establishment of Christian Science under Mary Baker Eddy was marked by organizational secrecy and centralization to the point of paranoia, quite reminiscent of the Hubbard-Miscavige institution. The similarity of name betrays a shared emphasis on a formalized knowledge that the evident material world is an inaccurate reflection of mental-spiritual reality, which is the real locus of power. 

The chief problem here is with the third pairing: the New Age Movement doubtless appeared to have more durable substance in 1989 than it has since demonstrated. But more importantly, it’s not clear that the Theosophy and the New Age Movement are significantly different entities for theological study, since the Theosophical Society and its organizational progeny are reliable entries in any list of groups contributing to the New Age Movement. Bednarowski does show some appreciation for this weakness, but I think she could have still made a respectable case for her larger thesis by substituting Neopaganism for the New Age Movement. In that case, both would emphasize the recovery of wisdom from non-Christian sources, and both include a “magic-positive” outlook that includes the possibility of esoteric initiation. “Theosophy”–taken as a broader milieu than orthodox Blavatskianism–comprehends a considerable range of theologies and organizational approaches comparable to the amplitude of Neopaganism in the late 20th century.

So, while I had been fairly skeptical at the outset, I ended up impressed with the gist of Bednarowski’s pairings. The upshot is that since there is no direct doctrinal influence of Mormonism on the Unification Church, or of Christian Science on Scientology (or, in my proposed revision, of Theosophy on Neopaganism), she has identified three distinct–though not necessarily exhaustive–varieties or types of “theological imagination” among “new” religions. 

Curiously, she doesn’t name these three species. I was reflecting on how I might reference them, when it struck me.

Theosophy/Neopaganism : CCXX Chapter I ::
Christian Science/Scientology : CCXX Chapter II ::
Mormonism/Unificationism : CCXX Chapter III !


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Revelation: The Way it Happened [Amazon, Local Library] by Lee Harmon

Harmon Revelation

Revelation: The Way It Happened labors under two main defects. The first is that the author seems to be under the mistaken impression that he is the reader’s pastor. His sometimes chummy tone is often a mismatch for the material, and he clearly presumes that all of his readers are his Christian co-religionists. He often asserts a reading without explaining or justifying it, as if the mere fact that he’s writing a book gives him all the credibility he needs. All of this surprised me a little, in that the imprint doesn’t seem to be a sectarian publisher, and the lead blurb on the cover is from a professor of “Humanities and Religious Studies.” The autobiographical postscript assures us that Harmon has left behind the scriptural inerrantism of his childhood, at any rate, and he protests that he is “no longer very good at believing” (312). And yet he often refers to “our scriptures” and “our Lord,” not to mention “the real throne of God.” (169) 

The second big problem with the book is the way in which it is structured. Harmon provides a fictional late-first-century conversation in which a father instructs his son in the contents and significance of the Johannine vision. Within this dialogue he inserts full quotations of the (NIV) Bible (eventually covering nearly the whole of Revelation), other fictions to illustrate the state of affairs in antiquity, and comments in his own 21st-century voice on all of the above. He uses multiple fonts to keep these various textual registers straight, but the effect of this attempt at synthesizing fiction with historical and textual research is one of confusion rather than clarity. As a Biblical exegesis, it is convoluted. As a novel, it is flat and distracted. And there seems to be a contradiction between organizing the book around an imaginary conversation and titling the resulting volume The Way It Happened!

Harmon has clearly worked hard to appreciate the context in which he believes the book of Revelation to have been written, and he provides a fairly insightful exoteric reading with a number of unusual features. Most notably, he presents a collaborative rivalry between John of Patmos (whom he collapses unimpressively with John the Apostle, and somewhat more convincingly with John of Gischala) and Flavius Josephus. The latter of these is the second beast from Revelation 13:11-15, according to Harmon. In general, Harmon takes the Apocalypse to have been penned a few years after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 e.v., and he understands John’s visions to cover the events of that war, as well as near-future eschatological anticipation. Despite its late and contentious entry into the Biblical canon, Harmon advances Revelation as one of the three earliest documents of the Christian scriptural tradition, along with the Gospel of Mark and the “genuine” Pauline epistles. 

To his credit, Harmon seems to take pains to provide evidence contradicting his own favored hypotheses in many instances. Despite the obvious labor and detail involved with the book, though, Harmon does not provide a scholarly apparatus to support his claims beyond a list of eighteen titles for “further reading” and a tiny handful of footnotes, and he occasionally makes obvious errors. His notion about the extensive circulation of the doctrine of original sin in the first century (287) contradicts the ideas I have formed reading more persuasive authors like Elaine Pagels. 

Harmon refers to his own reconstruction of the first-century reception of Revelation as a “plausible fiction” (86), while skating over the fact that the object of his study actually presents an incredible myth. A full understanding of the Apocalyptic text takes more than knowledge of the period in which it was (may have been?) written, with attention to its events and personalities. It requires some familiarity with the “vision state” taken for granted by Harmon (74), as well as the sort of realization of the story’s symbolic power demonstrated in such studies as Jung’s Answer to Job and D. H. Lawrence’s Apocalypse.