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The Kingdom of the Cult-Watchers
Heaven's Gate and the flurry of media commentary surrounding it reminded us again, if only for a few days, that the potential for violence and human tragedy is present in any group whose leaders are able to command unconditional obedience and total allegiance. It is a pattern that has recurred with unsettling regularity throughout history.
In the aftermath of the People's Temple horror, I remember responding to a question frequently asked by reporters: "Can this kind of tragedy happen again?" Following the fiery finale at Waco, I was asked the same question. Then, Heaven's Gate.
Once again I replied, "Yes, it can happen again." And it probably will—especially as we approach the end of a millennium and witness a surge of end-times speculation and craziness. Knowledge of cult dynamics, therefore, could provide clues for what may be just down the road.
Both these volumes are intended to provide what is suggested by the title of Fr. John Saliba's book, Understanding New Religious Movements. Both reflect an interdisciplinary perspective, and both are extremely critical of what Hexham and Poewe call "the Great Anti-Cult Crusade." In fact, all three authors, but especially Saliba, frame their discussion in the context of what Saliba describes as the "irreconcilable opinions" characterizing those within and outside the academic community who have been studying cults and new religious movements (NRMS).
Understanding New Religious Movements
By John A. Saliba
240 pp.; $18, paper
New Religions as Global Cultures
By Irving Hexham
and Karla Poewe
194 pp.; $18.95, paper
As I see it, the value of these two contributions to an already crowded body of literature derives not only from insights concerning new religions but also from what is said about the people who research and write about NRMS. Taken together, these books confirm that there are indeed irreconcilable differences in research methodologies, disciplinary approaches, conceptual frameworks, and modes of understanding ...