Part 4 (the last) of a series
by Phil Johnson
he New Age movement began to ferment in pop culture in the 1970s, an offshoot of 1960s counterculture. As we have noted, it was introduced to millions at the end of the 60s by means of a popular song heralding the dawning of the age of Aquarius. Belief in the New Age grew quickly and somewhat quietly in the 1970s to become a major force by the end of the decade.
The movement first seemed to catch the attention of the major mass media in America when actress Shirley MacLaine stepped forward at the end of 1983 to become its best-known and most colorful proponent with the release of her book Out on a Limb. The book (dramatized in a 1987 television miniseries starring the actress herself) chronicled Ms. MacLaine's quest for New Age enlightenment and self-discovery, as she dabbled in the occult arts, had an out-of-body experience, attempted communication with spiritual and extraterrestrial beings, and explored various new-age fads such as crystals and channeling. She described how in one of these channeling experiments a being who identified himself as "John," who said he had lived on earth in the time of Christ, told her through a medium, "You are God. You know you are divine" [Ibid., 209]. MacLaine believed the message. In a book two years later, delving even more deeply into her New Age interests, she wrote, "I am God, because all energy is plugged in to the same source. We are each aspects of that source. We are all part of God. We are individualized reflections of the God source. God is us and we are God." [Shirley McLaine, Dancing in the Light (New York: Bantam, 1985), 339.] "I am God in Light" was the mantra she said she chanted during her yoga exercises. [Shirley MacLaine, Going Within (New York: Bantam, 1989), 57.]
MacLaine may have done more than any other single celebrity in the 1980s to popularize the New Age movement, but her eccentricities and her apparent willingness to believe almost any superstition also helped spark something of a popular backlash against the culture of the New Age. The expression New Age when used in popular media and entertainment began to take on negative connotations of gullibility and shallowness. The trendiness of New Age culture became the brunt of derisive comedy sketches and the luster faded from the movement.
Meanwhile, a steady stream of books from both evangelical and secular critics attacked New Age ideas as unbiblical, unsound, dangerous, and sometimes just plain ridiculous. Constance Cumbey's The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow: The New Age Movement and Our Coming Age of Barbarism [Shreveport: Huntington House, 1985] was one of the first books to critique the New Age movement from an evangelical perspective. Cumbey (an attorney and an evangelical Baptist) portrayed the New Age movement as a vast and well-organized conspiracy—ultimately a plot to bring the Antichrist to power. Her sensational claims appealed to many, and a few writers, including Dave Hunt, [Understanding the New Age Movement (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988)] echoed Cumbey's conspiracy theory.
Several more sober Christian apologists who took on the New Age movement were highly critical of Cumbey's conspiracy theory. These included Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary [Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1986)]and Elliot Miller of the Christian Research Institute [A Crash Course on the New Age Movement: Describing and Evaluating a Growing Social Force (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989)]. These authors pointed out that there is scant credible evidence of any highly organized, centrally-coordinated plot for the New Age movement as an organized entity to take over governments or destroy established religious structures. Christians should oppose New-Age ideologies, but they need to do it on spiritual and biblical grounds. Because the conspiracy-theory mentality itself demands such a high level of blind credulity, it may in fact be a hindrance to effective apologetics work, they pointed out.
Influential secular books analyzing the New Age movement included Marilyn Ferguson's The Aquarian Conspiracy. [Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1980] Despite the impression given by the title, this book is nothing like Cumbey's treatment. Ferguson was wholly sympathetic to most of the ideals of the New Age, and the kind of "conspiracy" she described was open and more or less coincidental, rather than the sort of clandestine and dark scheme Cumbey envisioned. The Aquarian Conspiracy was nonetheless one of the first popular volumes to reveal the widespread influence of New Age ideas, and its title may have inadvertently raised some alarms about the aims and intentions of the burgeoning movement.
Another important (and more recent) book on the subject from a non-evangelical perspective is The New Age Movement: Religion, Culture and Society in the Age of Post Modernity, by Paul Heelas [Oxford: Blackwell, 1996]. Heelas gives a careful and dispassionate history of the growth and development of New Age spirituality in a critical but academic context. A still more recent scholarly book worth mentioning from a non-evangelical perspective is Steve Sutcliffe's Children of the New Age, [Oxford: Routledge, 2003] in which New Age spirituality and terminology are subjected to thorough deconstruction in vigorous postmodern fashion.
Evangelical publishers, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s were producing critiques of the New Age movement at a rate faster than most people could possibly read, have turned for the most part to different genres of books. In the wake of the astonishing success of a few mega-bestsellers like The Prayer of Jabez, Wild at Heart, and The Purpose-Driven Life, Christian publishing has seemed to favor books that are non-polemical. Furthermore, with the Emerging Church movement lately becoming the focus of so much dialogue and debate within the evangelical movement, the New Age movement seems to have all but faded from the agenda.
Is The New Age Just Old News?
Some Evangelicals might be tempted to think interest in New Age spirituality is waning—that the movement itself is on the decline. But that would be a mistake. According to data published by George Barna, people holding New Age beliefs already outnumbered evangelical Christians a decade ago. Survey data released in 1996 showed that 20 percent of American adults followed New Age teachings. About half that number could be classified (even in the broadest possible terms) as biblical Christians.
ReligiousTolerance.org, an Ontario-based nonsectarian website that collects and publishes survey data regarding religious trends of all kinds, says that today, "Interest in new religious movements (e.g. New Age, Neopaganism) is growing rapidly. In particular, Wiccans are doubling in numbers about every 30 months" ["Trends Among Christians in the U.S."].
The New Age movement is by no means a dying influence. If anything, many New Age beliefs have simply become so mainstream that they no longer seem as unconventional or as spiritually menacing as they once did. Both the language and the ideology of the New Age have gradually become so familiar in the culture of American religion that evangelicals simply don't pay much attention to the New Age anymore. The whole subject has the feel of yesterday's news.
Meanwhile, the Emerging Church movement and other postmodern streams of influence within the evangelical movement are challenging historic evangelical convictions with the same kind of epistemic deconstruction that gave rise to the New Age movement in the first place. The Emerging Church movement has raised the serious question of whether certainty of any kind is warranted by Christian belief. The authority of Scripture, the importance of doctrinal clarity, the exclusivity of Christ, the reality of divine wrath against sin, and the objectivity of revealed truth have all recently come under fire within evangelicalism in the context of "the Emerging Conversation."
Few would deny that the evangelical movement itself has grown increasingly superficial and pragmatic while moving away from its historic doctrinal moorings. Evangelical churches today are often more concerned about their philosophies of ministry than about their statements of faith. [cf. Elmer L. Towns, An Inside Look at 10 of today's Most Innovative Churches (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1990), 249] Unfortunately, evangelicals too often follow the trends of secular society rather than confronting the culture.
As a result, the contemporary evangelical movement has become more susceptible to mysticism, relativism, and subjectivity. Evangelicals are more likely than ever to regard intuition as divine guidance, and less certain than ever that Scripture is authoritative and objectively true. As these trends, together with streams of feminist and postmodern influences, gain more and more momentum in evangelical circles, the evangelical drift actually seems headed in exactly the same direction as the New Age movement.
George Barna noted in 1996 that as American religion becomes more diverse and syncretic, many people are seeking "a new perception of religion: a personalized, customized form of faith views which meet personal needs, minimize rules and absolutes, and bear little resemblance to the 'pure' form of any of the world's major religions" [Barna, 130]. That very thing now appears to be happening at an accelerating pace within evangelicalism. Evangelicals have shown a willingness to embrace and absorb almost any trend from popular culture, while casting off their historic distinctives. The evangelical movement appears to be abandoning every safeguard against the tide of New Age influences.
In a 1992 symposium titled New Age spirituality: An Assessment, Andrew Canale wrote,
[New Age author David Spangler] suggests that it is possible to have inclusive visions that value all people and strive to bring them to community and hope. His is a "high road" view of the New Age, a longing for a compassionate world in which hunger and poverty are alleviated, creativity is invited, deep change allowed to unfold, and exclusivity rejected. None of these values is inconsistent with Christianity. In fact, Christianity at its best lives by the same principles. Viewed in this light, Christianity and the New Age movement need not compete. Rather, they need to cooperate with each other for the sake of the desperate ones. ["The Cry of the Desperate: Christianity's Offer of a New Age," in Duncan S. Ferguson, ed., New Age Spirituality: An Assessment (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 6.]
Evangelicals accustomed to the postmodern climate of today may very well find it hard to resist an argument such as that. The appeal for dialogue, the quest for common ground, and the plea for peace with New Age spirituality are all perfectly consistent with the approach to handling religious differences many evangelicals have already begun to favor.
But those committed to biblical authority and historic evangelical principles will likely see things differently, and remain vigilant.