Book Review - Scientology in Popular Culture
International Journal of Cultic Studies, 9, 2018, pages 76-78
Scientology in Popular Culture: Influences and Struggles for Legitimacy
Stephen A. Kent and Susan Raine (Editors)
Reviewed by Sarah Lonelodge
Westport, CT: Praeger. 2017. ISBN-10: 1440832498; ISBN13: 978-1440832499 (hardcover). 373 pages. $58.00 (Amazon.com; barnesandnoble.com); $46.40, Kindle (Amazon.com).
A resonating examination of The Church of Scientology’s contemporary religious impact, Scientology in Popular Culture: Influences and Struggles for Legitimacy, edited by Stephen A. Kent and Susan Raine, provides an in-depth analysis of the modern impacts of the Church of Scientology. This complex and extensive compilation invites questions on Scientology’s validity and rise to prominence but also moves beyond these questions to consider the complex relationship between this organization and modern society. As such, scholars from a wide range of fields and readers beyond the academy will likely find the discussions illuminating as each chapter works to unravel a few of the intricacies and eccentricities of Scientology’s garnering for validity in contemporary culture.
To explicate this notion, nine authors provide readers with 12 distinct chapters that delve into the relationship of Scientology and popular culture through discussions of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s science-fiction writing; the role and impact of celebrity Scientologists; the media’s complicated relationship with Scientology; and, in a new area of analysis, the art and music associated with the Church of Scientology.
Hubbard’s Science Fiction
The first three chapters, written by Susan Raine, Hugh B. Urban, and Stefano Bigliardi, respectively, center on Hubbard the science-fiction writer. Each author carefully unfolds a piece of the Scientology tapestry to reveal an intricately laid foundation. Raine discusses Hubbard’s reciprocating relationship with science fiction and how these concepts streamed into his larger ideologies by analyzing the “connections between ‘real world’ masculinity, religion, and empire, their subsequent usage in the SF genre, and their incorporations in both forms into Hubbard’s ideologies” (p. 18). Thus, Raine guides readers through Hubbard’s “colonial aims” regarding “terra incognita”—or his goal of voyaging into the “unexplored territory” (p. 1) of the human mind that allowed him to establish the individual footholds of an empire.
Urban’s chapter extends the discussion of Scientology foundations through an intensive look at broader contextualizations of Scientology mythology, noting that “Hubbard compared the author of fiction to a godlike being who can create myriad new universes out of his imagination, manipulating them at will” (p. 34). Urban’s discussion leads to a “deeper understanding of the links between Hubbard’s fiction and his Scientology writings” (p. 35) and offers new perspectives on common questions surrounding Hubbard’s own beliefs in his created mythology.
Bigliardi also delves into the mythology of Scientology in the chapter that follows, through an intensive analysis of Hubbard’s book Battlefield Earth and novel series Mission Earth. Bigliardi’s discussion focuses on how worldviews are articulated in the books through his analysis of how knowledge and technology “are conceptualized in their narratives and how they are related to the power relationships among characters” (p. 54). The first three chapters, then, present the audience with an in-depth, objective, yet critical reading of Hubbard’s science fiction as a central aspect for the foundation of Scientology mythology.
Following this discussion, Kent offers three chapters himself on the relationship between the Church of Scientology and celebrities. First, Kent discusses how celebrities are recruited by examining “the actual Scientology policies and procedures that Hubbard and others formulated, applied, and modified regarding celebrity recruitment and deployment” (p. 81), including Scientologists being encouraged to select a celebrity from a list to recruit, a practice that, as Kent writes, “sound[s] uncomfortably like stalking” (p. 84), and the creation of the “Celebrity Centre International,” (p. 88) and leads this into a discussion of the public-relations work that celebrities do on Scientology’s behalf (p. 92). The discussion flows seamlessly into the next chapter, which focuses on the “impressive commitment on the part of talented members to further the successes of the organization to which they belong, often suggesting sacrifices of considerable time, wealth, and talent” (p. 104). Kent then moves on to celebrity exits from Scientology, providing an in-depth discussion of four notable celebrity ex-Scientologists: William Burroughs, Jason Beghe, Paul Haggis, and Leah Remini, who are selected because “extensive evidence exists concerning their very public departures from Scientology” (p. 150). Kent explores these partings and discusses various reasons for “deconversion” such as “moral doubts,” namely hypocrisy, and “weakened social bonds” (p. 150), often from policies within the Church calling for members to cease communicating with outsiders, among other reasons. With significant detail and depth of evidence, these three chapters trace celebrity Scientologists from initial recruitment policies and actions, to their role within the Church, to instances of celebrity departures and provides a coherent, thorough analysis of the important influence of celebrities within this organization.
The Media and The Church of Scientology
Following the discussion of celebrities, the book turns to the media’s complex relationship with the Church. Tami M. Bereska offers an insightful look at “media representations … explicitly or implicitly directed toward the Church of Scientology” (p. 191) and addresses “particular frames govern[ing] the Scientology narrative, a narrative that is, at its core, a story of fraudulent leaders, meaningless doctrine, and well-orchestrated money-making scams” (p. 191). Bereska claims that fictionalized portrayals of Scientology in the media causes “what is fact and what is fiction [to become] somewhat ambiguous” and affects the “larger cultural stock of knowledge” (p. 206) about the Church, allowing “real characteristics and events” to “overlap” (p. 207) with media.
In the following chapter, Bereska goes on to discuss Scientology interview strategies, described as the “deviance dance” (p. 230); she considers that “a new television strategy appears to have emerged for Scientology, one that serves to manage the public’s impression of the celebrity and of the organization” (p. 231).
As an expansion on this idea, Terra Manca follows with a chapter that, rather than specifically relying on interviews, explores the larger news coverage of Scientology through a set of particular stories that appeared between 1974 and 2009. Manca discusses several themes that “recurred” (p. throughout these pieces, including “costs, commitments, and training” (p. 249), the Sea Organization, FBI raids, and “ongoing controversies involving Scientology,” among others. Manca considers the role of news media on new religious movements and on Scientology in particular.
The focus on the media culminates with Max Halupka’s chapter in which he offers an analysis of Scientology and the Internet with regard to the Church’s “contemporary approach to perception management” (p. 280) in contrast with strategies used by the Church previously. Halupka’s discussion includes an interesting overview of the Church’s struggle with online entities, including Wikipedia, the “decentralized virtual community Anonymous,” Google, and WikiLeaks. Through these situations, Halupka highlights the idea that Scientology’s “fevered quest for content censorship served to undermine its operations as it brought about the Streisand Effect” (p. 295). Together, these four chapters on Scientology’s relationship with the media serve to, as Halupka writes, “[present] a unique opportunity to witness firsthand how new religions adapt to significant societal change … [and] how new faiths strive for public legitimacy and the normalization of belief and practice” (p. 295).
Scientology’s Art and Music
The final two chapters of the book focus on new areas of analysis—Scientology art and music. George Shaw and Susan Raine focus on the artwork commissioned by Hubbard for book-cover redesigns. These new covers, such as the erupting volcano on redesigned covers of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, “were meant to act as powerful symbolic reminders of past events” (p 305) in Scientology mythology. Shaw and Raine discuss Hubbard’s goal of using these artistic book covers as “tools of persuasion” (p. 311) that he claimed would, for example, help members get past customs agents by “subliminally sway[ing]” (p. 312) these agents if the covers were displayed. Further developing and deepening their analysis, the authors also, for example, examine Hubbard’s interest in “subliminal manipulation in advertising” (p. 313) as exemplified by his use of Christian symbols to form a kind of “symbiotic relationship” (p. 315) between the two religious organizations.
In the final chapter, Mark Evans presents a unique view of Hubbard in that he is discussed as a failure. Evans provides an overview of Scientology’s musical ventures including Hubbard’s “textbook-like proclamations about how music works” (p. 336), the Sea Organization house band and recording artists The Apollo Stars, and an album written and composed by Hubbard entitled The Road to Freedom. However, Evans contends that these ventures into the realm of music fell short: “We have music speaking to—preaching at—its audience, in the hope that some of the messages will sink in. They didn’t. Hubbard’s successes in other creative fields were not to be replicated in music” (p. 347). Both chapters offer a critical view on new areas of focus that readers will surely find intriguing as unexplored subjects within Scientology, and also perhaps as underexplored areas in general.
This focused rather than comprehensive study on the Church of Scientology will likely be quite beneficial to scholars in a variety of fields and also those outside of academia. Though the reader may need some familiarity with Scientology because this book is not intended to provide a history nor an introduction to the organization, the concepts are easily comprehended, grounded in the evidence presented, and backed by thorough analysis. In addition, Susan Raine provides a clear and concise introduction that functions as an educative, contextual overview of Scientology and as a preliminary guide to the chapters included in the book, and that would certainly aid readers who are unfamiliar with this organization.
Separately, each chapter stands alone, rife with interwoven analysis and insight. Considered together, the chapters speak to and build upon one another to offer a new and deeper understanding of Scientology and its role in popular culture. As a well-written and timely volume, readers will be drawn to its multifaceted discussion of Scientology and its relationship with popular culture.
About the Reviewer
Sarah Lonelodge is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the English Department at Oklahoma State University. Her research interests include religious rhetoric and propaganda, rhetorical theory, religion and politics, writing program administration, and composition pedagogy.