Friday, August 28, 2009

Alternative American Religions

Alternative American Religions
© 2000 Stephen J. Stein
156 pages

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Maurice: Pastor Richards, as a human being, I have to say I find your philosophy or cult or whatever it is utterly and completely appalling.

Richards: Why thank you! I knew you'd understand.

Maurice: I mean, you seem to want to build a religion around yourself and some 1950's vision of America. It's the 1980's, man! And one man worship-me cults are not allowed, my friend! (Maurice Chavez, VCPR, GTA: Vice City.)

Curious about marginalized religious movements, particularly those of the pacifistic brand, I decided to check this book out. The book is a straightforward and very brief history of cults, sects, new religious movements, and similarily-labelled movements, beginning with the Pilgrims and ending with the demise of the Heaven's Gate cult. The chapters are arranged thematically, with plenty of chronologlical overlap, but the end of every successive chapter brings us closer to the present. Movements mentioned include the obvious (Scientology) and the obscure ("The Vermont Pilgrims", a band of asectics who ate nothing but wheat and flower gruel and never bathed) -- including the sect in which I was raised*, the United Pentecostal Church International. The book's beginning is stronger than its end: there are fewer movements to mention, so they get more attention and thus stick in the reader's imagination more. The movements toward the end of the movement get a paragraph or two if they're fortunate. Despite how quickly the book moved, I was able to learn more about various religious movements I've heard about but knew little of.

The book is suitable for most readers: strangely curious children could read through it with ease. My general ignorance makes it difficult for me to comment on the book's factual worth, but given the starkness it's not as if there's much to debate: there are no interpretations here. All is very straightforward. I did notice he referred to the Flavor Aid used by Jonestown's late inhabitants as "Kool-Aid", but I don't know if that says more about the author or me, frankly.

* But which I left in 2005 after discovering the Association of Former Pentecostals and subsequently realizing that I was no longer trapped. If you want a slightly less sterile take on the UPCI than the Religious Tolerance page, I describe its doctrines and practices here.

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