Modern Cultic Tendencies

Modern Cultic Tendencies

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 Deeply exegetical and theological sermons have become an endangered species, having been replaced by vacuous therapeutic messages and mindless pop-psychology.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” (Hos. 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.

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