Since the nineteenth century, the U.S. has proven to have a cultural soil that is particularly well-suited to the growth and spread of diverse cultic movements. The nineteenth century alone witnessed the rise of numerous small cults as well as several significant ones, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons. A number of factors — discussed in another article in this issue of Tabletalk — help us to understand why this happened when it did. But what of our own era? Is there anything in our contemporary way of thinking, or way of living, that is similarly conducive to the proliferation of cults and cult-like tendencies?
On the one hand, several aspects of nineteenth-century culture and religion that contributed to the rise of numerous cults continue to this day. We remain a hyper-individualistic culture that is attracted to populist ideals. We have retained our deep suspicion of all traditional authorities, including the church and her creeds. Within the church, the cry “No creed but Christ” (which, ironically, is itself a creed) has not lost any of its emotional appeal. Overly pietistic tendencies in the church continue to encourage the idea of a conflict between the heart and the mind resulting in antagonism toward anything doctrinal or intellectual. These basic misunderstandings led to a severe lack of discernment in the nineteenth century, and to the degree that the same misunderstandings continue today, so too do the same dangers.
The anti-intellectual trend that existed in the nineteenth century picked up steam in the twentieth. We have witnessed the “dumbing down” of our culture. The advent of television, as Neil Postman explains, by itself contributed greatly to the transition from an “Age of Exposition” to the “Age of Show Business” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, Penguin Books, 1985, p. 64). The dumbing down of the culture has been followed by the dumbing down of the church. Sadly, many churches have surrendered to the standards of contemporary culture and become places of entertainment rather than places of worship. Deeply exegetical and theological sermons have become an endangered species, having been replaced by vacuous therapeutic messages and mindless pop-psychology. In the eighth century B.C., the prophet Hosea declared the word of the Lord to Israel, saying: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:6). Such a lament is not inappropriate in today’s anti-intellectual climate in which many Christians have lost the ability to think.
The antipathy and antagonism toward theology that began to gain ground in the nineteenth century also strengthened during the twentieth century. Some continued to argue that theology was detrimental to true “heart religion,” while others began to argue that language about God was simply impossible. Gradually theology moved from the center to the periphery of the church’s life. Christians are no longer regularly taught the foundational truths of the Christian faith and are therefore left vulnerable to cultists and others who cleverly twist Scripture.
As David F. Wells has observed, there is no place for theology where there is no place for truth, and one aspect of contemporary culture in which there is certainly no place for truth is what has been termed “postmodernism.” Postmodernism is difficult to define briefly, but it involves a number of movements in art, architecture, literature, and such that are identified by their rejection of modernism, or “the Enlightenment project,” and its appeals to universal norms. “The animating spirit of postmodernism,” as Gertrude Himmelfarb has observed, “is radical individualism and skepticism that rejects any idea of truth, knowledge, or objectivity.” Obviously, those who reject the idea of objective truth will not be able to discern truth from error. The extreme relativism and irrationalism of post-modern culture is found throughout the church today.
It is important to take into account not only important intellectual realities, but also technological innovations that have dramatically altered our cultural landscape. One such important technological advance is the Internet. In the nineteenth century, if a person wanted to propagate his teachings, he could find places to speak, or he could attempt to have them published and distributed more widely. Without radio or recording devices, the audience for public speaking was normally limited to those actually present (that is, unless someone transcribed the spoken message). If one desired to publish his teachings, he generally had to find a publisher willing to publish his work. In other words, the fact that a person had something he wanted to say to as many people as possible did not mean that he would be able to do so.
Not so today. The Internet has given a printing press to everyone with access to a computer. With the Internet, there are no publishers or editors who decide what will and will not be published. On the one hand, this has provided numerous opportunities for those with good and substantive material to make that material available to a wider audience. But it also provides a way for any cult to propagate falsehood. And the Internet does not discriminate. One can find the works of a Calvin or a Warfield on the same computer that one finds the works of a Joseph Smith or a John Shelby Spong. The user of the Internet alone must discern truth from error, but in the current relativistic and anti-intellectual climate, such discernment is rare.
The Internet has made it far easier for cult leaders, schismatics, and theological mavericks to spread their message. Those with hyper-individualistic and cultic tendencies can set up shop on the Web and spread their messages around the world. Today, older cults such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have professionally-designed web sites. Theological mavericks of every stripe have set up web sites of varying quality espousing their mutually contradictory interpretations of Scripture. Many of these schismatics use their web sites to set themselves up autonomously as little cyber-popes, regularly pronouncing anathemas on any and all who would dare disagree with any of their idiosyncratic and unbiblical opinions.
There have always been wolves in sheep’s clothing. However, the anti-intellectual and anti-theological climate in today’s world has made it more difficult for the sheep to tell the difference between wolves and other sheep, and technological advances such as the Internet have made it much easier for the wolves to infiltrate and harm the flock.
In order to counter these realities, the church must first be aware of the dangers. The church must then work to change the patterns of thought that contribute to the spread of cults and cultic tendencies. The church must reject irrational anti-intellectualism and embrace the God whose word is truth. Christians must regain both the desire and the ability to think — loving God with all of their heart and mind. Christians must reject the idea that theology is unimportant, for those who share this opinion are easy targets for cults and other forms of falsehood. Christians must reject the hyper-individualism that has run rampant in the church for centuries. The church is a communion of saints, not an army of one. Apart from the church and its doctrine, its prayer, its worship, and its sacraments, we are easy prey. As members of Christ’s body, the church, we must prayerfully support one another and grow in discernment in order that we may recognize the subtle deceptions of the enemy whenever and wherever those deceptions may be found.