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New Age, Heaven’s Gate reflect ‘pampered’ society, expert says

DALLAS (BP)–New Age religion is “intellectual Velcro dragged across the great religions traditions of the world picking up odd bits of theological lint as it goes,” Mark Thames, a Dallas interfaith witness speaker, said.

Thames, pastor of Lower Greenville Baptist Community in Dallas, voiced a number of observations stemming from the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in late March.

Thirty-nine members of the cult, including founder and leader Marshall Applewhite, committed mass suicide so they could “shed their earthly containers” and move to a higher level of existence aboard a spaceship following the Hale-Bopp comet.

According to news reports, the group had a idiosyncratic, syncretistic religion made up of odd bits of Christianity, Judaism, Gnosticism, New Age religion and belief in UFOs and aliens.

Thames said he has heard the Heaven’s Gate cult referred to as the “dark side of the New Age movement,” but commented “it is not so much that as it is the dark side of the entertainment-oriented, consumer-style Christianity so prevalent in America today.” Heaven’s Gate actually is more an outgrowth of a “very American phenomenon, consumer market religion,” the expert on New Age religion said.

Thames, a certified interfaith witness associate of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, said the consumer approach to religion “means that we have sitting out on the shelf bits and pieces of all the different beliefs there are in the world. Some are in packets, but you can buy them separately, too.

“You can pick up a bit off the Christian shelf, and some off the Judaism shelf, and another part off the Hindu shelf. You can make your own package to suit yourself, depending on your personal preference, whether it be Celestine Prophecy, miracles, angels, nature, bits and pieces of the Bible,” he said.

New Age, he added, is “America’s global position married to a consumer market mentality, married to postmodernism, which is the intellectual position that says no source of information has a privileged status, but that no source of information is excluded from consideration, either.

“In other words, any source of information may be truth, but no source of information is a privileged source of truth.”

Thames quoted G.K. Chesterton, the British Christian author of the last century: “The problem when people don’t believe in God is not that they don’t believe in anything, but that they will believe in anything.”

America today, he explained, is a market, and Americans tend to think in market terms. “Americans think of themselves as consumers, and they are consumers … and religious services, religious ideas are just like other commodities.

“Many Americans today think of churches as religious services providers, and that is why the mega-churches are so popular. People like them for the same reasons they like Sam’s (Clubs). They are big warehouses and they offer lots of services under one roof for people to pick from.”

In times past, he explained, people had a “grid from their upbringing that helped them determine that some things are obviously nutso and some things are clearly true. But the churches got lazy in their teaching function and we raised several generations of not only biblically illiterate but doctrinally illiterate people. Many of them cannot tell the counterfeit from the real bill.

“That is why our people are prey to anyone who comes along with a coherent, persuasive presentation of ideas. Our churches are highly susceptible to novelty, partly because we have never made tradition very interesting.

“In our day, we have done very superficial things like entertainment-oriented ‘worship’ services and canned education. The church also has been very flabby intellectually, too,” he said.

“In our day, the church has been so preoccupied with minor distinctions within and among themselves that they have not adequately articulated the difference between us and the larger culture,” Thames added and noted he believes America is a mission field.

“We are not a mission field because Sri Lankans and Indonesians and Guatemalans are coming to America. We are a mission field because American culture is not Christian.”

With the collapse of the national consensus, Christendom as the commonly accepted authority collapsed, too, and people are left rudderless, unable to even know what criteria to use in assessing whether something is true or false, good or bad, dangerous or benign, Thames said.

Churches without a doctrinal sense or a biblical base contribute to the growth of New Age beliefs, he said, particularly when they offer courses in the Celestine Prophecy, miracles, pop psychology, angels and other such themes.

The problem is not so much that there are people out there like Applewhite with strange beliefs, but there are so many people in the churches who have no doctrinal moorings or biblical base to provide an anchor of authority for them, Thames said. The problem is there are many people in the churches with syncretistic, idiosyncratic belief systems picked and chosen in bits and pieces from the shelves of America’s consumer market of religious belief, he said.

Thames added the New Age movement “is a very American phenomenon. New Age religion can exist only in America or a society very much like it. Real New Age has a difficult time in Europe because New Age religion is built on a positive, success view of life that comes out of American economic and political successes.

“For the rest of the world, New Age is not appealing because evil is so obvious in much of the world. For them, governments are corrupt in ways Americans can’t imagine in their worst complaints. In those countries, poverty is so prevalent it would appall the most impoverished people in America.

“The New Age is a spoiled and pampered way of looking at life, and it can only exist in a spoiled and pampered society,” he said, noting the New Age also can be seen as the downside of America’s position as the world leader.
“We are having the same things happen to us that happened in England 100 years ago, or France 200 years ago or Spain 300 years ago or Rome 2,000 years ago. We are world leaders and multiculturalism comes with world domination.

“We are having enormous difficulty absorbing that. It is not so much that we are having difficulty absorbing the immigrants; we are, but that is fairly trivial. Our problem is having a conceptual framework for absorbing the world’s imported ideas.”

Thames offered a more serious definition of New Age religion by noting it is “simply a label for multicultural religious options available in a pluralistic America.”

Despite the downside of New Age, there are “tremendous opportunities if we will construct a postmodern Christianity that blends science, mystery, history, philosophy and all of those things in an exciting way” which will touch the lives of people, Thames said.

For people who are rudderless, adrift in a sea of ideas, unsure of whether to even believe there is a magnetic field, Christians have the opportunity to tell them there is, indeed, a magnetic field, and we have the compass, Jesus, Thames said.

“We have an opportunity we haven’t had in decades to talk about sin, the Bible, God and Jesus,” Thames said.

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  • Dan Martin