The first thing that this reviewer noticed when going through the pages of the newly-published Encyclopedia of New Religions was the excellent choice of illustrations. This may seem like a minor issue, but it is not: instead of selecting illustrations already used in many previous publications, the publishers have to a large extent succeeded in choosing pictures that have rarely been used before in similar volumes.
And this is actually representative of the content of the volume in general. Quite often, dictionary-style entries on religious movements are more or less bound to repeat in a marginally different way what has already been presented in other volumes. This is not the case here: although it is by no way a simple accomplishment in a one- or two-page entry, the contributors have often succeeded in presenting religious movements in a fresh way. Most entries are adequate and provide precise and reliable information on such movements.
The expression “new religions” should not lead one to believe that the book only deals with movements born in the last fifty years. The book’s sub-title describes it better: “new religious movements, sects and alternative spiritualities”. As it is often the case, “new religions” are not defined too precisely: the expression appears to some extent to be a convenient way for avoiding the loaded word cults. In his introduction, Christopher Partridge remarks that the expression “new religions” “carries essentially the same meaning as the terms ‘new religious movements’ (NRMs), ‘fringe religions’ and ‘alternative religions'” (p. 16). One could therefore say that the book deals with the “religiously other” in the West, i.e. those groups that belong neither to the Christian mainstream nor to ancient religious traditions imported from other cultures. One should not forget, as J. Gordon Melton reminds us in his foreword, that “most new religions are presenting old religions in a new context and to a new audience” (p. 10).
Some of the “new religions” listed in the book are not very new in chronological terms, since they include the New Church (Swedenborgians), which emerged in the late 18th century, as well as groups such as the Exclusive Brethren or the Christadelphians, which appeared in the 19th century. Let me mention here that entries on such movements, written by Nigel Scotland, offer excellent summaries of the histories and fundamental beliefs of such groups.
While the Encyclopedia has been written primarily with a Western, English-speaking (even British) audience in mind, one is delighted to see that the focus is a much wider one: for instance, there is a good, seven-page general introduction to the phenomenon of African independent churches, as well as entries on several of them. Entries do not only offer general information on these churches, but also report on controversial issues: for instance, the two-page article on Kimbanguism by Richard Hoskins explains how the “role and place of Simon Kimbangu (1887–1951) and his successors has sparked some controversy”, since it was clear that Kimbangu was “something more than a prophet for many believers”, and that the Church has come to describe him as “the Holy Spirit made flesh”, while his second successor (and one of his sons), Papa Diulangana (1916–2001), moved the date of Christmas to 25 May, “which happened to be his [Diulangana’s] own birthday” (p. 59).
While the book could obviously not report on the current divisions within Kimbanguism (most entries were completed months or even years before the book was published, as is usual in such a collective work requiring complex co-ordination), the entries appear to be well-informed about recent developments. Some of them, however, do not entirely reflect the beliefs of recent years in groups that have been undergoing rapid developments: for instance, while the entry on the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) (founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, 1892–1986) correctly reports that the Church has modified many beliefs it was still clinging to ten or fifteen years ago, it does not make it entirely clear that since 1995 the WCG has no longer been teaching doctrines such as the identification of the Anglo-Saxon people with the “lost tribes” of Israel. In the entry on Osho (Rajneesh), one could have wished at least for a mention of the flourishing post-Osho legacy, i.e. the “Satsang movement”, remarkably described by Liselotte Friesk in an article published in 2002 in Nova Religio – but this may be due to delays between delivery of the articles and publication of the book. Much more embarrassingly, the entry on Ananda Marga presents the founder as if he were still alive (“He is the head of a hierarchical leadership …”, p. 182) and seems to ignore the fact that Anandamurti (P.B. Sarkar, b. 1921) actually passed away in 1990.
The encyclopedia is organized not in a dictionary style, but according to major religious traditions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Indian religions, religions of East Asia, indigenous and pagan traditions, Western esoteric and New Age traditions, and modern Western cultures. Beside entries, there are longer chapters presenting the context of different traditions, as well as specific currents within these traditions. For instance, since the book was published primarily with a British audience in mind, it was definitely a welcome idea to include a four-page introduction on “Celtic Christian Spirituality” (pp. 81–84). While inserts of several pages sometimes cut an entry in two, the use of a slightly different background colour makes it easy to differentiate. And these additional chapters are always quite welcome: having a three-page presentation of “Prosperity Spirituality” (pp. 91–93) definitely helps to put into context those (Pentecostal) movements based upon such beliefs.
While Roman Catholic dissent is missing from the chapter on Christianity, there is at least a very good five-page introduction (by Dutch scholar Peter-Jan Margry) on the “Global network of divergent Marian devotion” (pp. 98–102) – a strange expression on first appearance, but actually a quite accurate description of the groups under consideration.
While there have been many scholars interested in new religions from India, literature on NRMs is less rich on modern Jewish movements. The chapter on Judaism offers welcome insights on several of them, ranging from Gush Emunim to Humanistic Judaism. The entry on the Meshihistim, i.e. the followers of the late (Hasidic) Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994) summarizes a fascinating case of sect formation in contemporary Judaism, due to the messianic claims around the late Rabbi, although reactions in other Jewish groups also seem to reflect a level of embarrassment regarding how to deal with his followers: “Few in the Orthodox world have openly voiced opposition to the popular messianic trend within the Lubavitch movement” (p. 121).
One could have wished, however, for separate entries on some of the neo-Kabbalah groups mentioned at the end of the chapter on Kabbalism (pp. 111–115), as well as for a chapter on that other interesting phenomenon: Messianic Judaism (i.e. Jews claiming to recognize Jesus as the Messiah without forfeiting their Jewish identity and some Jewish rituals).
The part devoted to Islam especially focuses on some Sufi or neo-Sufi groups active in the West, as well as on a few offshoots of Islam, such as the (African–American) Nation of Islam or the Baha’i Faith. Obviously, more thinking should still be given to what are NRMs in Islam – insofar as this label should be applied to such movements, and to the extent it can describe realities partly similar to those understood by this term in the West.
Even if this part only includes three movements, it was a good idea to
include NRMs with roots in Zoroastrianism. Although Mazdaznan was a quite significant, prototypical NRM, it is often forgotten by scholars working in the field. Reading the entry on it makes clear once again how desirable a good monograph on Mazdaznan would be: much is left to explore here, and our knowledge of this group and others like it is insufficient.
The chapter on Indian movements includes a representative selection of most of the well-known and most important groups. A chapter on Indian movements cannot be more than an adequately representative selection, due to the sheer number of well-known and lesser-known gurus with followers in the West. It was a good idea to also include an entry on a movement of Western origin with roots in Indian movements, Eckankar. Even although it is less than two pages long (pp. 189–190), James Lewis’ entry offers a good update on the history and recent developments of the group. More perplexing is the entry on the Muttapan Teyyam (pp. 180–181), which simply does not fit in with the rest of the content, since it deals with a local cult from Kerala, which has spread to other parts of India and even apparently among diaspora Hindus in Singapore, but which is just one of the many cults in India, with no clear reason why it should be given an entry (although it is worth the read) in the Encyclopedia of New Religions.
There is a good general introduction and good entries on new Japanese religions – including a welcome one on Reiki, although it is not perceived by most of its practitioners as a religion, but rather “as part of the range of alternative techniques for healing, and for spiritual and self-development” (p. 233).
Extremely welcome is Edward Irons’ six-page introduction to “Chinese New Religions” (pp. 239–244). Several scholars have for years been of the opinion that NRMs from China might be the next phenomenon on the international religious scene. But relatively little is known about them, since there are very few Sinologists or people exploring the Chinese diaspora among researchers working in the field of emergent religions. Edward Irons, who has become a frequent contributor to conferences on NRMs in recent years, has had the good idea of dividing his contribution between a general description and short presentations of several Chinese NRMs proscribed by the Chinese government (in a 2001 list), mostly Christian ones, but also a few with non-Christian backgrounds. Reading the few lines on each of them makes obvious how much research will be needed in this field – but speaking Chinese would be an obvious prerequisite! There are also a few separate entries on individual groups, including Suma Ching Hai and, of course, Falun Gong.
The section on contemporary paganism has chosen to approach this as a global phenomenon, instead of focusing only on the Wicca or other Western forms of “indigenous” beliefs. This is a stimulating idea indeed, and it allows the inclusion of chapters on Melanesian cargo cults, as well as African neo-traditional religions, neo-druids, etc. While one might dispute the presence of Kardecism in this chapter, it had obviously to be mentioned in order to make Umbanda and other Brazilian currents influenced by Kardec’s theories understandable.
The section on esoteric and New Age movements offers entries and chapters on an adequate selection of groups and topics – although one would have wished for individual entries on various Rosicrucian groups rather than just a short general entry. Despite a common Rosicrucian reference, the AMORC, the Rosicrucian Fellowship and the Lectorium Rosicrucianum are indeed quite different types of movements, both doctrinally and organizationally. The section also contains entries on groups that, until now, have not often found their way into similar encyclopedias, such as Jasmuheen and the Breatharians, which claim that it is possible to exist “solely on ‘pranic nourishment’ (living on Light), without having to eat food” (p. 354). Even if the origins of the group are in Australia, Jasmuheen has been travelling around the world in order to spread her message, and Lynne Hume’s description provides informative material on the background of these beliefs in alternative spiritualities.
The most intriguing section for many readers will be the final one, devoted to groups and beliefs with roots in modern Western cultures. The variety of groups included is wide, covering – as one could have expected – Scientology, Urantia and groups who believe in UFO-based messages. But it also deals with “celebrity-centric spirituality” (illustrated by a picture of Princess Diana), postmodern spirituality, transpersonal psychologies, feminist and eco-feminist spirituality and implicit religion, without forgetting general introductions to apocalypticism and fundamentalism. This means that the final section of the Encyclopedia actually provides an opportunity for reflecting about the status and manifestations of beliefs in the modern Western world – which indeed provides an appropriate conclusion.
With books like this on the various newly-appearing religious groups, there is always a risk: that one comes to see it as a gathering of the “bizarre”, or as a lumping together of the “deviant”. However, this was not the feeling that this reviewer derived from going through the passages in the volume edited by Christopher Partridge. Instead, probably due to an adequate contextualization within major religious traditions, the many groups presented in the Encyclopedia appear as an illustration of the religious diversity within the modern world.
It is unlikely that many readers will read this 400-page volume from cover to cover – most will rather explore a few entries or chapters, returning to it for further references on other topics at a later date. Nonetheless, one can describe the Encyclopedia of New Religions as a welcome and refreshing addition to the literature on this topic. It will be a useful and informative tool for people with no previous knowledge on the subject (the attractive presentation will make it easy for non-academics to read), while it will also be of use to scholars with an interest in the field. In itself, the ability of such a book to be attractive for both these audiences can be considered as a significant achievement.
Christopher Partrige (ed.), Encyclopedia of New Religions: New Religious Movements, Sects and Alternative Spiritualities, Oxford, Lion, 2004, 446 pp. If you would like to know its current price and want to order it from our partner Amazon, just click on the title.
The book is distributed in the USA under the title: New Religions: A Guide. If you reside in North America and wish to order this book, click on the second link for faster service.