Book Review - A Guide to New Religious Movements

Cultic Studies Review, 4(3), 2005, 

A Guide to New Religious Movements

Ronald Enroth, Editor

Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2005. ISBN: 0830823816 (paperback), 220 pages, $15.00

Reviewed by the Reverend Richard L. Dowhower, D.D.

Ronald M. Enroth, Ph.D., has published ten books to date; and this is the fourth of his that I have read. This well-known writer has been professor of sociology at evangelical Christian Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California for the past forty years, a contributor to the Cult Observer, Cultic Studies Journal, a member of the Cultic Studies Review Editorial Board, and a presenter and participant in conferences of the former American Family Foundation (AFF), now the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA).

Dr. Enroth and I share a passionate concern with the truth claims made by new religious movements (NRMs) that challenge and contradict orthodox biblical Christianity. His career and mine have taken place within faith communities that name Jesus as Lord and have the intentional mission of respectfully inviting others to Jesus. Furthermore, I have been fascinated for decades by his specialty, the sociology of religion.

It is no surprise that all ten of Dr. Enroth’s books over the past thirty-one years have been printed by religious publishers. This book is his third with InterVarsity, “…the book publishing division of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, a student movement active on hundreds of universities, colleges and schools of nursing in the United States of America and a member of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.” This book appears to mark the second time Ronald Enroth has edited a collection designed to facilitate the evangelization of members of NRMs. His list of publications includes a 1990 book by Servant publications entitled Evangelizing the Cults, with which I am not familiar and therefore not able to compare with this one.

The subtitle of A Guide to New Religious Movements reflects its focus: “The Beliefs and Appeal of Astral Religion and the New Age, the Baha’i, the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-Day Saints, the Nation of Islam, Neopaganism, the Unification Church, and More” [Yoga and Hinduism]. How did Enroth choose the movements he included and the authors who wrote about them? All of the movements are currently active in North America, he states. Enroth defends the choices of Buddhism and Hinduism in his introductory essay “What is a New Religious Movement?”, but he tells little of his criteria for selecting the others. Most conspicuous by their absence are the Church of Scientology and the other “psychotechnologies,” as they have called themselves. The only Islamic inclusion is the chapter titled “The Nation of Islam,” the book’s one reprint from another publication.

“All the contributors to this volume are evangelical Christians,” Enroth writes. “…they are committed to helping average Christians understand the various manifestations of religiosity in today’s world so they can effectively communicate the evangel—the gospel—to people they care about.”

From the book’s brief “List of Contributors,” one observes that its twelve authors are highly educated, with most having doctorates in theology and related Christian disciplines. The writers are professionally engaged in careers that lend themselves to knowledge of the movement under consideration. The writers are presented alphabetically in the list: Francis J. Beckwith; James Beverly; Robert M. Bowman, Jr.; Enroth; Craig S. Keener; Vishal Mangalwadi; LaVonne Neff; John Peck; Ron Rhodes; Charles Strohmer; James C. Stephens; and Glen Usry. Only Mangalwadi and Stephens seem to have an insider’s or ex-member’s experience.

Dr. Enroth seeks to include insights from the social and behavioral sciences. To identify the shared distinguishing features of NRMs, he draws upon the writings of Eileen Barker. The final essay, and the only one written by a woman (LaVonne Neff), is entitled “Evaluating New Religious Movements.”

Distancing himself and his writers from the “constricted fundamentalist mentality,” Enroth articulates three purposes for the book: (1) to provide compassionate understanding of the movements and their appeal, (2) to apply God’s Word, the Bible, as “the only baseline for comparison when ascertaining truth and error,” and (3) to “...equip them (serious, caring Christians) to introduce people in those groups to Jesus our Lord.” I shall attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of the book’s nine essays on specific movements by these three criteria.

In my mind, each essay scores very high marks in the information it provides about the movement under study, and in its identification of the contemporary needs to which each movement appeals. The information consists of brief historical accounts, succinct definitions of major teachings, and the identification of influential personalities, issues, and idiosyncrasies. In three cases—Hinduism, New Age, and Neopaganism—the authors integrate several known groups into a single classification.

None of the NRMs was unknown to me previously, and I learned even more from each essay. But when it came to the other two categories—i.e., the application of the truth of the Bible and orthodoxy, and specific coaching to equip Christians to introduce Jesus to movement members—the writers were inconsistent and frequently failed to meet Enroth’s purposes.

In the specific application of orthodox Biblical truth, four of nine authors do admirably: Rhodes and Bowman each cite more than 100 identified Biblical references. Ron Rhodes writes about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ronald M. Bowman, Jr., about the Latter-Day Saints. Only two writers recall the historic heresy of Gnosticism: James C. Stephens writes about the Dalai Lama and Buddhism, and John Peck about Neopaganism. Because Kevin Garvey and others have for years attacked the truth claims of NRMs for the gnostic heresy, I was surprised that not more of these doctors of philosophy and theology make the association.

Three writings are weak on the application of Biblical truth: those about Yoga and Hinduism by Vishal Mangalwadi, and the one about Baha’I by Francis J. Beckwith. In two others, James Beverly’s chapter on the Unification Church and Charles Strohmer’s on the New Age, the topic is nonexistent.

When it comes to specific suggestions about how to lead movement members to faith in Jesus, the first essayist, Ron Rhodes, offers seven clearly stated ways to reach Jehovah’s Witnesses. Essayists Bowman and Beckwith, writing on the Latter-Day Saints and Baha’is, respectively, try but fall short. The other writers do not address the issue.

A similar inconsistency also marks the supportive materials: bibliography, glossary, and footnotes. Only one writer provides a glossary, and one provides a bibliography that includes NRM Websites. Footnotes vary from a single note to as many as 111. The only appendix or index is the “List of Contributors.”

In a work so preoccupied with truth claims, I was comforted to find that LaVonne Neff’s concluding chapter, “Evaluating New Religious Movements,” includes a second priority, “how the group affects people’s lives.” Her reference to Jesus’ teaching that “You shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16) had been playing frequently in the back of my mind during my reading. I never have been able to divorce truth claims from practices.

In announcing his purposes, Enroth raised questions for me about how he understands the discipline known as Christian Apologetics. In aspiring to his higher priority, outreach and evangelization, he writes, “It [this book] is not aimed primarily at the Christian cult-watchers who are engaged in commendable apologetic and educational ministries.” He closes his introductory essay by quoting one of the key New Testament texts that supports apologetics, I Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

I understand Christian Apologetics to be an indispensable technique in efforts of evangelical outreach, especially to ones already committed to an alternative teaching. Lecturing to his students at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in the spring of 1953, Paul Tillich defined the apologetic method as (a) establishing a common basis for meaningful conversation with mutually acceptable ideas, (b) showing the defects of paganism to pagans, and (3) showing that Christianity is the fulfillment of what is longed for and desired in paganism, answering the existential question. (A HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN THOUGHT, by Paul Tillich, Recorded and Edited by Peter H. John 1953) That one of the writers is listed as the founder and director of a Center for Biblical Apologetics further confused me.

If the writers had been more intentional in practicing the apologetic method, they might have done a better job fulfilling Enroth’s second and third purposes. InterVarsity and other evangelists would be well advised to recognize the NRM tendency to an “ethic of holy deception” by which apologists for some of the new movements are encouraged and justified to engage in intentional fraud, lies, and misrepresentation to further the ends of the movement. Such a technique of deception makes honest dialog difficult, if not impossible.

Despite the inadequacies of A Guide to New Religions Movements in meeting all of the editor’s goals, its publication says it meets InterVarsity’s purposes. For my part, I shall be forever grateful for Ronald Enroth’s contributions, especially his Churches That Abuse and Recovery from Churches That Abuse. Many of my colleagues and I have distributed lots of copies of those books!