Many critics of new religious movements (NRMs) have usually viewed these upstart faiths (or “cults”) as having an authoritarian nature under charismatic leaders, who brook few challenges to a fixed body of teachings and practices.
But the case studies in the new book Revisionism and Diversification in New Religious Movements (Ashgate, $35.96), edited by Eileen Barker, suggests that many NRMs are in a constant state of adaptation and even transformation in their theology and practices. As Barker explains in the introduction, many NRMs do start out with a number of “univocal statements,” not only about theology but also behaviors for followers, but in a short period of time they can start revising teachings and practices. As the contributors show, these changes are not only the expected shifts that happen when a group becomes more institutionalized as the original charismatic founder passes from the scene, but also significant departures from foundational teachings — coming from followers as well as leaders — that can set a NRM on a radically different course.
The book covers both historical and contemporary cases of well known and obscure NRMs, as well as those that are offshoots of major traditions, such as the Hare Krishna and the radical Muslim Hizb ut Tahrir, and those that are freestanding, such as the Unification Church, Scientology and Falungong. The more dramatic cases of diversification and revisionism include: the group Hikari no Wa, which has tried to rehabilitate and revise the teachings of the Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo (infamous for the Tokyo subway attacks in 1995) by eliminating its prophecies and the need for a charismatic leader; the struggles in the family of the late Sun Myung Moon for successors in Unificationism; the break from Marian and apocalyptic Christianity and the adoption of the ancient Cathar religion by the Russian-based Orthodox Church of the Sovereign Mother of God; and even the anti-cult movement’s shift away from a “cult-fighting” mentality to a more nuanced position and dialogue both with some NRMs and the researchers studying them.
But most striking is the rapid transformation of the Family International, formerly known as the Children of God, from a counter-cultural, communal and quasi-evangelical movement to one that stresses individualism, non-confrontational mission work, and re-joining and cooperating with the secular world and established churches. Writing in Nova Religio (November), the journal of alternative and new religions, Gary Shepherd and Gordon Shepherd characterize the changes in TFI as so radical that it has left long-time members disoriented and bitter — threatening to push the movement to the “threshold of dissolution.” In the early years of the new millennium, TFI already had made a shift from the authoritarian rule of founder David “Moses” Berg (who had died in 1994) that was marked by allegations of emotional and sexual abuse to a more democratic, if still regimented, style of leadership by second-generation members.
The leaders, known as Peter and Maria, made prophecy (based on what were considered revelations from Jesus and other supernatural entities) the mechanism for change, which was encouraged at all levels of the movement. It was in 2009 that Peter and Maria inaugurated a “reboot” of the movement that has changed TFI beyond recognition. TFI communal homes were broken up, under the belief that they stifle creativity and turned off potential converts; the controversial practice of “sexual sharing” between couples, a source of allegations of sexual abuse, was sidelined; there has been a downsizing and disbanding of key organizational units; and a new encouragement of secular work and schooling.
Some TFI members have joined churches in their local community, including some seeking to become pastors of small, independent churches. Beliefs have likewise been modified, such as Berg’s position as the key prophet and the group’s end-times teachings. The alienation among long-time members from these changes has caused a “substantial loss of people who continue to identify as TFI members,” dropping from 6,000 to about 3,500 in two years (with finances also decreasing), according to the authors. TFI is investing heavily in web-based technology for its evangelistic efforts and internal communications, but it remains to be seen whether such individualization can sustain the movement.
(Nova Religio, http://goo.gl/UoS0Fv).