Briefly Noted: Diane Johnson on Scientology

Scientology is one of the most significant new religions in the world. Poor world. Or, so says Diane Johnson, in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books. Johnson reviews Lawrence Wright’s recent book on Scientiology, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf). She remarks that Wright’s book is “not to be read home alone on a stormy night” because it is a “true horror story” (p. 48). In her view, Going Clear is an intricate, careful, and ultimately damning journalistic analysis of the “religion” that is Scientology.

Johnson also incorporates into her review a recent memoir by Jenna Miscavige Hill, Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape (William Morrow). Ms. Miscavige Hill is the niece of David Miscavige, the mysterious and controversial leader of the Church of Scientology. Drawing upon Wright’s and Hill’s book, Johnson considers the story of Scientology to be a horror of a religion, being as dangerous as it is rich.

And rich it is. Johnson found that “according to Wright [the Church of Scientology] has at least $1 billion in liquid assets . . . and property estimated at about the same amount, making it among the richer world religions . . .” (p. 48). This is astonishing considering that the exact number of Scientologists (thus donors) is unknown, and, more significantly, that L. Ron Hubbard may have actually “founded” the religion on a bet (see Johnson, p. 48). Hubbard was a prominent sci-fi author whose book Dianetics suddenly made him a sort of new age prophet.

Hubbard was born in 1911 in Nebraska and developed into an adventurous, talented writer who devolved “as charismatic leaders do” into a man who was “sleezy, manipulative, cynical, and alcoholic” (p. 48). Aside from his personal character, his ideas have no doubt impacted many people. Johnson notes that Wright’s outline of Scientology or the contents of Hubbard’s Dianetics (1950), which spawned the religion, are not “particularly alarming or enlightening either.” In general, Hubbard appeared to be simply mixing the intellectual cards around, “devising an ontology from scratch, with the help of Will and Ariel Durant and the entries for Newton, Buddha, and John Stuart Mill in an old edition of Encyclopedia Britannica” (p. 48).

Scientology first gained interest and increased in appeal because of its novel approach to psychotherapy. It is, in sum, a “speeded-up process of psychotherapy by which a follower or ‘preclear,’ ‘audited’ by another, ‘trained Scientologist’ moves toward an eventual goal of becoming ‘clear’ of hangups by digging up traumatic events of the past, abetted by holding a ‘cylindrical electrode’ in each hand through which the preclear’s reactions register on a meter (called an ‘E-meter’)” (p. 48) The vocabulary is unique. But the process is akin to intense, prolonged, provocative hypnosis. Hubbard is cited (p. 49) as noting, “it takes about fifteen hours to bring a person into a completely relaxed and Self-Determined state of mind regarding orders.”

This approach to psychotherapy is built upon an elaborate, mythical theory of human origins. For the purpose of “going clear” involves first reaching one’s operating thetan (OT I) level. “Thetans are what we are in essence, independent of our present bodies according to an elaborate sci-fi mythology of human origins,” writes Johnson. One can later move on to levels OT II, III, IV on a “bridge toward enlightenment” (p. 49). Yet this is not a system based only on one’s hard work. It is also based on the client’s financial contributions. Members get bonuses for recruiting others and many have bankrupted themselves financing their walk across the bridge. “Beside conviction,” Johnson writes, “there’s a financial incentive to serve the group” (p. 49). One of the other purported incentives is career advancement and success in one’s personal life: “clearness is supposed to lead to professional success as well as personal contentment” (p. 50). A scientologist such as Cruise can, one supposes, get a couch jump on one’s peers by adhering to the religion’s tenets.

Wright further notes that Scientology creates a totalistic and totalitarian environment, not unlike Chinese and Russian communism. Scientologists have used techniques such as solitary confinement, enforced loyalty, sleep deprivation, and confession” in order to help their members advance. Wright tells of an FBI raid in 1977 of Scientology’s “punishment quarters,” of higher-up Scientologists beating lower members, of myriad counts of physical and mental breakdown, and of suicides among members and former members” (p. 50). Wright also tells of support groups which exist to help ex-Scientologists heal and of the fact that ex-Scientologists rarely hide their bitterness toward leader David Miscavige. Johnson refers to the Hill memoir, among others of the same ilk (p. 50), for corroboration.

And yet, Wright avers, the Church of Scientology seeks to polish its own reputation with Machiavellian vigor. “Lawsuits, in Wright’s account, are Scientology’s principal weapons against its outside critics, designed to ‘harass and discourage rather than win’” (p. 51; Wright’s careful research, always substantiated or hedged, may indicate the litigious character of this religion). Take, for example, Scientology’s lawsuit against the IRS. After the IRS in 1993 sent a bill to Scientology for $1 billion in back taxes, Scientology fired back with over “two thousand legal actions” and thus got its bill reduced to $12.5 million and won, through more intimidation, its long-standing request for recognition as an officially tax-exempt religion. Scientology’s power-plays extend to government agencies such as the American Medical Association and the Better Business Bureau (p. 51). Thus the horror story told by Wright is not only one of personal intimidation and sorrow but also of institutional infiltration and legal harassment. Such is the ethic and polity of the religion called Scientology.

In response, let us note that the United States (with its fondness for individual autonomy, consumerism, and religious relativism) provides a lush environment for newly minted religions and cults. In light of this teeming ecosystem of false religions, and of Scientology in particular, we will also note a few of Scientology’s false beliefs, and providing the briefest of biblical rejoinders.

In relation to belief in God, L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, asserted that “there are gods above all other gods, and gods beyond the gods of the universes,” but the God of the Scriptures affirms, “besides me there is no other God” (Is 44:6). In relation to Christ, Hubbard further stated that “Neither Lord Buddha nor Jesus Christ were OTs [Operating Thetans, those who form the highest level in Scientology] according to evidence. They were just a shade above clear [a lower level in Scientology,” but Scripture teaches that Christ is Creator and Lord over all things (Col 1:13-23). In relation to repentance and belief, Hubbard also argues that “it is despicable and utterly beneath contempt to tell a man he must repent, that he is evil,” but Scripture makes clear that Christ came to save repentant sinners (Lk 19:10).

In conclusion, Scientology is one of a number of religions invented by self-designated American prophets (e.g. Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, Mary Baker Eddy). Although Christians have not given it the same level of attention as they have other new religions (e.g. Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness-ism, Christian Scientism), the Christian community should consider giving it increased attention in light of its famous Hollywood proponents and some of the concerns listed above.


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Briefly Noted: Was Hitler Ill?

Was Hitler ill? You bet he was, but not in any sense that would exonerate him or make him less responsible for his actions. In a recent edition of London Review of Books, Richard J. Evans reviews Was Hitler Ill? by Hans-Joachim Neumann and Henrik Eberle.[1] Neumann and Eberle survey the various explanations offered as the reason(s) for Hitler’s violent reign over the Third Reich (and extermination of over 6 million Jews and dissenters), but focus on the “mental illness” explanation which has been one of the most popular. They conclude that Hitler was sane “according to any reasonable definition of the term, and fully responsible for his actions.”

Evans recounts the possible explanations for Hitler’s actions. Explanations for his anti-Semitism include: that he had Jewish ancestry (and presumably was ashamed of this); he had a bad Jewish doctor who had overcharged his family; he once visited a Jewish prostitute; and he was a sadomasochist, and in Freudian manner, “projected his sexual perversions onto a world stage.” Numerous biographers have argued that Hitler was homosexual and the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 was a means to cover up (to that point), by murder, any with knowledge of his forays.

His heterosexual relationship with Eva Braun was for Hitler likely a public relations move to protect his public persona and health (per his doctor, Theo Morell). Evans provides a laundry list of health problems Hitler experienced: chronic hoarseness from speechmaking, dysentery, irritable bowel syndrome, a tremor in his left arm that many began to notice in 1941, and bad teeth. His health declined and never fully recovered after the injuries he suffered in the unsuccessful assassination attempt of 1944. During all this Hitler’s doctor, Morell, prescribed at least 82 drugs taken by Hitler, according to Neumann and Eberle.

Kudos if you already feel a sense of irony. For as Evans states, “the contrast with his regime’s obsessive drive to breed a race of healthy Aryans . . . was striking.” By cataloging Hitler’s health (or lack thereof) Neumann and Eberle, then, firmly answer the question of their book Was Hitler Ill? The answer is “a resounding no; or, to put it more accurately, he was no more so than everyone is at one time or other. He wasn’t mentally ill; whether his beliefs were rational is an entirely different matter.” Most would rightly argue his beliefs were not rational, rather they were the basis of his racist, perverse, and evil thoughts manifested in political control and violence.

In response to the authors’ fine point that Hitler was responsible for his actions, and cannot be exonerated on the basis of “mental illness,” I’ll make only one point, albeit an extended one: Hitler was indeed sick. He was sick unto death, and as such, was sick not only physically, but more important spiritually, and his spiritual sickness affected him in all of his capacities: moral, rational, creative, relational, affective, and so forth. For sin is a multi-faceted horror that affects the whole human being; it is a vandalism of the shalom God intended for his human imagers.

As Cornelius Plantinga outlines in Not the Way Its Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, sin vandalizes shalom in at least nine ways.[2] Those nine ways shed light on Hitler’s sickness unto death. Sin is a corruption, in that it both blurs distinctions and destroys unions. This can be seen in Hitler’s destruction of the union God intends for the human race (e.g. Jew and non-Jew).  Sin is a perversion, in that it twists God’s creation toward unworthy or wrong ends. This can be seen in the way Hitler turned his own loyalties, energies, and desires away from God and toward building his own kingdom with a jerry-rigged ideology that sought to justify the diversion. Sin is a pollution, in that it brings together what ought to remain apart. It is a disintegration, in that it divides that which ought to be together. It is a progressive corruption, in that one sin leads to another. Like a cancer, it not only kills but reproduces itself. One notes the progressive corruption taking place over the course of Hitler’s life.

Sin is both a privation and a parasite. It is not normal. It is an alien intruder, party-crashing God’s good creation. C. S. Lewis writes, ““Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness.” Evil must draw upon God’s good creation in order to attack God’s good creation. “The smartest blows against shalom,” writes Plantinga, “are struck by people and movements of impressive resourcefulness, strength, and intelligence – that is to say, by people and movements gifted by the very God and with the very goodness that their sin attacks.” And again, “…rebellion borrows boldness, imagination, and creativity from the very God it attacks.” Precisely because God had created Hitler in his image and gifted him greatly, Hitler was able to draw upon those gifts to attack his fellow imagers and vandalize God’s shalom.

Sin is a masquerade, in that it pretends to be what it is not. “To do its worst,” Plantinga writes, “evil needs to look its best. Evil has to spend a lot on makeup. . . . Vices have to masquerade as virtues – lust as love, thinly veiled sadism as military discipline, envy as righteous indignation, domestic tyranny as parental concern.” Hitler’s Aryan philosophy did exactly this, making his Aryan agenda appear attractive to the German people. But sin is also a great folly, in that it goes against the grain of the universe. It flouts wisdom, and at no point moreso than its desire to worship something or somebody more than God.

Finally, sin is addictive. God created us to long for him, but sin is taps into this longing and siphons its energies into false gods who strangle life rather than giving life. Hitler, an addict like the rest of us, needed to face the truth about his addiction, tearing away the layers of denial and self-deception that have “protected his supply.” In fact, as Plantinga writes, “Addicts are…tragic figures whose fall is often owed to a combination of factors so numerous, so complex, and elusive that only a proud and foolish therapist would propose a neat taxonomy of them.”

Hitler’s evil life arose from numerous and complex factors which we cannot firmly or comprehensively discern, so it would be proud and foolish of us to propose a neat taxonomy of them. The one thing we can affirm, taking our cue from Paul in the book of Romans, is that Hitler was an idolater whose suppression of the truth led him on a downward and evil spiral in which his thoughts were futile and his foolish heart was darkened, in which he did evil deeds and approved of others who did them also (Rom 1:18-32).  Hitler was sick unto death.

[1] Richard J. Evans, “Thank you, Dr Morrell” in London Review of Books (Feb. 21, 2013): p. 37; Hans-Joachim Neumann and Henrik Eberle, Was Hitler Ill? (Polity Press: 2012).

[2] Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).

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Book Notice: “Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of The Pioneer American Missionary”

This year marks the bicentennial anniversary for Adoiram and Ann Judson’s departure from America to Burma (now Myanmar). For this reason Jason Duesing has presented the world with an edited volume, Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of The Pioneer American Missionary (B&H, 2012). In this volume, Duesing reflects upon the significance of Judson’s life and ministry and holds hope that the Baptist and evangelical world will continue in Judson’s tradition. The structure of the book, included below, guides the reader through learning from Judson and inspires one to follow Judson’s lead in living a life fully devoted to Jesus Christ. Included among the contributors to this volume are SEBTS’ very own President, Danny Akin, and brilliant historian Nathan A. Finn.

Here is the outline of the book:

Introduction – “From Judson’s Prison to the Ends of the Earth” by Paige Patterson

Historical Foundation

Chapter 1 – “Just Before Judson: The Significance of William Carey’s Life, Thought, and Ministry” by Michael A.G. Haykin

Chapter 2 – “New England’s New Divinity and the Age of Judson’s Preparation” by Robert Caldwell

Biographical Presentation

Chapter 3 – “Ambition Overthrown: The Conversion, Consecration, and Commission of Adoniram Judson, 1788–1812” by Jason G. Duesing

Chapter 4 – “‘Until All Burma Worships the Eternal God’: Adoniram Judson, the Missionary, 1812–50” by Nathan A. Finn

Chapter 5 – “So That The World May Know: The Legacy of Adoniram Judson’s Wives” by Candi Finch

Missiological and Theological Evaluation

Chapter 6 – “The Enduring Legacy of Adoniram Judson’s Missiological Precepts and Practices” by Keith E. Eitel

Chapter 7 – “From Congregationalist to Baptist: Judson and Baptism” by Gregory A. Wills

Homiletical Interpretation

Chapter 8 – “Marked for Death, Messengers of Life: Adoniram and Ann Judson” by Daniel L. Akin

Conclusion – “Please Come and Dig” by Jason G. Duesing

In my endorsement for the book, I wrote “Jason Duesing’s Adoniram Judson is a book of historical, theological, missiological, and pastoral consequence. The all-star ensemble of authors for this edited volume provides essays that appreciate Judson’s monumental life and work, but do so in an appropriately critical manner, avoiding the hagiography often present in missionary biographies. In this book, the reader is provided with an excellent and concise biographical treatment of Judson in historical context, followed by a theological and missiological evaluation of his life and ministry, and finally concluding with a homiletical interpretation of Judson. I highly recommend this book.” I stick with the endorsement, and add to it an encouragement for our readers to buy the book, read it, and allow the lessons from Judson’s life to instruct and encourage.