The Black Helicopter

Random ramblings

The psychohistory of Mystics and Messiahs

with 5 comments

It has been a while. I wanted to blog on the movie 9, but I couldn’t get my head around it – strange post-apocalyptic imagery, a rather conventional narrative and allusions (and direct references) to Paracelsus and esoteric conceptions of body, soul and spirit, combined with a somewhat gnostic metanarrative. Great movie, anyway.

Instead, I put my energy into closing my re-reading of Philip Jenkins’ historical beauty, Mystics and Messiahs. Cults and New Religions in American History (OUP 2000). I slated it for re-assimilation (with a pen this time) because of two things. Firstly Manly Palmer Hall; Sahagun made a few references to it, and it seemed natural to move from close to distanced analysis of the cultic milieu in space and time. Secondly I skimmed D. Frankfurter’s Evil Incarnate (Princeton 2006) and Jenkins’ short piece on Satanism in J. Lewis’ Oxford Handbook on NRMs (2004) when I wrote an article on Satanism, violence and transgression; this made me recall how valuable his analysis was, especially for another article on Satanism, popular culture and the use of H. P . Lovecraft (the violence piece will be published by OUP in the book Violence and New Religions, the second one in a book from Brill, although I am all too late).

In a sense, Mystics and Messiahs is gray and patiently documentary as we move through the cycles of cultic innovation, societal reaction, moral panic, temperance and new innovation. Understandably, this is very entertaining anecdote-wise. The period covered is about 1800 to 2000, where the wheel turns at least 4 times – panics arose around 1830, 1870, 1930 and 1980 with “awakenings” around 1800, 1850, 1880, 1920 and 1960 – although the book concentrates on the parallels between the interwar years and the cult scares of the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless the value of Jenkins’ analysis is not in the details provided, although they are many, but in the scope of his analysis, the observed pattern and the attention to popular culture and occulture.

Regarding scope, I really like books that synthesize a lot of information; that makes my own synthesizing a lot easier. Jenkins is well read and covers important as well as striking groups and individuals with small vignette-like discussions, while frequently backtracking and connecting rhetorical tropes and specific trajectories. I got a real sense of the importance of California, the “cult milieu” and the rise of tabloid media through his chronological treatment. Theoretically, Jenkins lies between the more economic and market-oriented analyses of eg. Stark and Bainbridge (The Future of Religion, 1985 is a good collection) and the more discourse-oriented milieu-centric analyses offered by C. Campbell, Roy Wallis and later Chris Partridge (read The Re-Enchantment of the West, vol. 1-2, 2004-5).

On that note, I never liked the definitions of “cult” and “sect” provided by Stark and Bainbridge; connection to “established” religious institutions and recognizability seems too theological to me. On the other hand, their distinction between “audience cult” (one to many, mediatized), “client cult” (one to one, privatized) and “cult movement” (imploded) is brilliant, specifically when combined with the cultic milieu as background. Roy Wallis’ criteria of epistemological authority and societal tension are much more useful, because groups designated as cults and sects are able to evolve within the conceptual scheme of cult, sect, denomination and church. In essence, Stark and Bainbridge make a theological evaluation, while Wallis makes an organizational one. With Wallis, “cult” and “sect” are polar opposites on a scale, but they can evolve into each other; with Stark and Bainbridge, “cult” and “sect” are logical opposites because of their relation to mainstream society and origins. Thus, a cult can become a church and produce sects, but cannot become a sect in itself, as a cult is produced by fission, innovation or “sporulation”, and a sect by schism.

So both use Campbell’s “cultic milieu”, but in very different ways. Stark and Bainbridge concentrate on religious vitality in the west; when traditional religion is strong, sects are prolific; when traditional religion is weak, cults form. Apparently cults cannot imply schism (although a break from the cultic milieu itself is common – look at the rhetoric on Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan after 1975, for example). In contrast, Wallis looks at new religious movements and categorize them according to internal and external criteria: If totalitarian and leadership-prone, sect; if tolerant and individualistic, cult. Both form from established organizations and the cultic milieu.

Luckily, they can be selectively combined, and I do so in my classes on new religions as a market-perspective, with practitioners, participants, audiences, clients, shops, confidentials and fairs; a milieu-perspective, with tourists, seekers, entrepeneurs, submilieus and occulture; and an organizational perspective, with NRMs, apostates, leaders, devotees and so on. Here, Stark and Bainbridge grows out of Wallis’ initial demarcation, and it seems to work. No textbook in the typewriter yet, though.

All of this is somewhat irrelevant for Mystics and Messiahs, but it felt good to get it out. And a good thing is that Jenkins also selects quite irreverently from sociological theory. He doesn’t care about distinguishing cult and sect (p. 12-18 and note 16 and 18 in ch. 1), and it doesn’t matter until the last chapter, where I feel his future suggestions “towards respectability” is strictly about sects (p. 227-30) and the discussion about  mainstreaming in “oddity and orthodoxy” is about cults and the cultic milieu (p. 230-36). The “cult(ic) milieu” (p. 6, 8-10) and Stark and Bainbridge’s tripartite cult-categorization works fine together with a moderate constructivism, especially regarding anti-cult rhetorics on social problems.

This takes me to the second value of Mystics and Messiahs, namely the suggested pattern or “eternal return” of cult emergence and anti-cult reaction (see p. 13 for the basic model). One funny thing about prognostication is sitting in the future and reading about it – Jenkins suggests a new peak in cult emergence around 2010 (p. 20). If so, I have a job. On a less silly note, there is something really cool, almost psychohistorical about this sociological model. Even if hard-line nomothetical interpretations are discarded, there still remains a cycle of innovation and reaction, where new turns both ignore and selectively appropriate earlier cycles, which is brilliant for prognosis.

On the one hand, memory is preciously short-ranged – a generation or so. Apart from a few historians, sociologists and movie-buffs, nobody remembers the shudder invoked by “voodoo cults” in the 1930s and 40s. When I teach about NRMs, no student knows who the Moonies are and how terrifying they seemed to “regular folks”. The pattern and the recurrence of rhetorical claims of anti-cult activists are thus a colossal blind spot in both media and policy making, as well as for people at large.

On the other hand, there is a selective appropriation of material from earlier periods, both in cultic innovation and in anti-cult rhetoric. For example, the claims of voodoo cults, human sacrifice and ritual murder in 1940s pulp fiction are reproduced in the 1980s Satanism scare literature (p. 135-48, 214-15), and the theory of the cultic milieu specifically targets the wider “cultic memory reservoir” from which cults and sects construct and disseminate their discourse and practices (as well as recruit members). The whole point of proposing occulture in a cultic milieu is to call attention to what lies beneath individual cults and seekers. As such, the book’s extended scope that reaches back to the 1600s facilitates a backtracking which shows the limits of human imagination quite nicely; atrocity catalogues are rather narrowly defined, as are most occultural ideas and practices. For example, Thomas Edwards Gangraena (1646) anticipates most modern cult beliefs and practices as well as anti-cult claims – and yes, he equates heresy to gangrene.

Now we arrive at popular culture and occulture, the third aspect of the book worth mentioning. In contrast to other studies of cults and anti-cult movements, moral panics and demonologies, sociology takes a back-seat to historical reflection of mediatized networks. It is still sociology, but of a more ideographic kind. Good examples are the chapters “Black Gods” and “The Cult Racket: Anticult Campaigns, 1920-40”, which gives the reader a very interesting background for the present-day worries through a detailed analysis of charges: Confidence tricks, sexual perversion, insanity, primitivism and murder. The material spans anti-cult literature, pulp fiction and newspaper exposés, and provides us with a much more comprehensive catalogue of “cultural paths” into the rhetoric of the “killer cult” through re-interpretations of cults from exotic other to local threat.

For example, when Marines were killed in the American occupation of Haiti 1915-44, it was “solely for the sake of the cooking pot” (p. 114, quoting R. Loederer, 1935). The same Loederer remarked that

“only at dead of night could they gather together in the secret places of the forest and celebrate their ancient rituals. On these occasions, the primitive instincts of the blacks were given free rein, and the monotonous rumble of the tom-toms inspired demoniacal dances, mad drinking orgies, and sexual frenzies.” (p. 115)

The same combination of racism and sex is invoked in Fred Miller’s 1913 tract Fighting Modern Evils that Destroy Our Homes:

This as illustrated by the tale of “how lovely Mrs. Prince was fascinated, the fell – a victim to the sad voice, the unctious [sic] personality and the seductive smile of a pagan priest lover from a tropic land where heathen lust-gods rule.” Mrs. Prince fell victim to one of “these swarthy, black-eyed, magnetic, and persuasive priests from the far East”. Miller warned of these “unclean abominations” and exposed (…) “How some of our fairest women listen to the voice of the fire-eyed Oriental and lose honor’s precious jewel.” (p. 129)

This view is promoted by popular movies, journals and books. As today, you do not have to be a fundamentalist Christian cop, worried social worker or daring reporter to be influenced by anti-cult claims; rather than actively seeking information, we are passively “primed” by it, as it is disseminated in popular culture.

This aspect also infuses Jenkins’ discussion of the cultic milieu; for example, the chapter “The First New Age” illustrate the fermentation in the cultic milieu 1870-1920, both through material from the spokespersons themselves and from popular receptions and reinterpretations. As with the biography on Manly Palmer Hall, we get important genealogical trajectories of religious imagination from historical studies such as these, as well as a much more contextual understanding of “conversion” and “recruitment” (or “fit” and “priming”). Esoteric and alternative currents have been here for hundreds of years and they have been popularized for at least 150 years by both adherents and sensationalists.

An interesting dimension is that both NRMs, anti-cult groups and the general public actively and passively engages in what Michael Barkun calls “fact-fiction reversal” (see A Culture of Conspiracy, 2003). In conspiracy culture, he writes, fictional narratives are consistently read as fact (as true accounts of motives, subtle indoctrination or desperate attempts at disclosure), while academic knowledge in general, and especially factual intervention, is considered fictional (as cover-ups or misdirection).

This can be translated into a general strategy in the cultic milieu; H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, for example, and the Cthulhu mythos around it, is used both naively and reflexively as a “true” esoteric current to be used as philosophical literature, symbolic thinking or ritual components.  Al Azif and the Necronomicon has been published several times, and the Cthulhu mythos figures in rationalist Satanism (see A. LaVey’s Satanic Rituals, 1972, p. 175ff and Barton’s The Secret Life of a Satanist, 1990, p. 159ff), esoteric Satanism (see M. Aquino’s The Church of Satan (p. 177ff, 617-19, 654-57, 691-710) and Temple of Set (351ff) e-books or the website of the Satanic Reds here and here for good examples), Left Hand path ritual magic and Chaos Magick (Stephen Sennitt’s The Infernal Texts: Nox and Liber Koth, 1997, includes texts from “The Nameless Sodality” on Cthulhu mythos) etc etc. The frequent appeals to EOD (Esoteric Order of Dagon), The Starry Wisdom Sect and other Lovecraftian groups are also, aside from the obvious appeals to tradition, curious fact-fiction reversals, as new groups with these names substitute fiction with social fact.

As a side note: Although most groups (eg. the Church of Satan) sharply differentiate outer reality and the imaginings of the ritual room and thus retains some sort of genre specificity, some unaffiliated seekers, especially younger ones, go beyond play and into delusion. That is no problem in itself (all religion is willing delusion, so to speak), but it becomes a problem when some invisible line is crossed. The same can be said about the frequent appropriations of traditionalism, fascist aesthetics and nazi occulture; there is “play with gray” and there is unhealthy political leanings. An interesting socio-psychological study could be made on these crossings – perhaps Keith Kahn-Harris’ reflexive anti-reflexivity is a starting point? And on a discursive level: when is play with nazi trappings fun or educational (esoterically speaking) as transgression and deconditioning, and when is it a smoke-screen for political idiocy?

To get back to fact-fiction reversals: Parallel to occultural appropriations, however, Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, alongside William Seabrook and Zora Neale Hurston, for example, keeps alive notions of racial atavism, primitive backwater cults with “tom tom pounding” and human sacrifice, and subversive forces in the shadows. In other words, what I enjoy as brilliant horror literature (and the occasional role-playing evening) and what religious practitioners use (seriously or not) as magical tradition and ritual symbols, can be embedded in other rhetorical contexts outside the cultic milieu, namely anti-cult fears and moral panics. Whether these fact-fiction reversals are conscious or not, they supply viable stereotypes and powerful atrocities that works in a media context. These, in turn, can find their way back into the cultic milieu and supply additional material or even legitimation as they are re-embedded into yet other discourses.


Written by Jesper

April 30, 2010 at 15:06

5 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Social Psych. […]


    May 1, 2010 at 21:49

  2. Good discussion and cool reminder of a book I really like. And it’s interesting you should address the topic of fact-fiction reversal and its broad uses – I was just planning to blog about that myself, inspired by Tumminia’s When Prophecy Never Fails.

    I think there may be some varieties of use there, with possibly interesting differences between conspiracy culture’s use in othering, and e.g. Unarius etc as inspiration to memory and identity. But I need to try to reason that out on paper first.

    Asbjørn Dyrendal

    May 2, 2010 at 15:17

    • Thanks! Looking forward to more on fact-fiction – as a “hermeneutic strategy” or “appropriation tactic”, perhaps?


      May 2, 2010 at 15:45

  3. The question of the circulation of ideas between ficition and non-fictional ideologies, and the strange circularity of the process, are very interesting! You introduced me to the fact-fiction reversal, Zizek’s notion of “Over-Identification” for the band Laibach comes to mind, and I guess. Debord’s Détournement/Récuperation too.


    September 15, 2012 at 20:35

    • Yeah, I have been working on detournement and recuperation in relation to Satanism and transgression, so I defintely think some connection can be established. What I like about fact-fiction reversals is that the concept ties into religion and popular culture, but also epistemology in general.


      September 17, 2012 at 12:29

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