Gods Within: A Critical Guide to the New AgeWritten by Michael Perry Reviewed By John Drane
Michael Perry is Archdeacon of Durham, England, and editor of the Christian Parapsychologist, the journal of the (British) Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies. His previous work includes a book on life after death, and his widely acclaimed 1987 study entitled Deliverance. His approach to the New Age naturally begins from his own personal concerns and expertise in these particular areas.
After a brief introduction describing the present crisis in western culture, the reader is introduced to ‘Mantic Methods’ (astrology, tarot, dowsing, etc.), crystal healing, near-death experiences, the channeling of spirit guides, goddess worship, Wicca, and the environment—followed up by a survey of selected Christian attitudes towards it all, together with suggestions about an appropriate Christian response.
The sub-title (‘A Critical Guide to the New Age’) fairly sums up the approach. Readers are warned about the danger of ouija boards (p. 47), crystal healers are derided for ‘pinning their hopes on a power that does not exist’ (p. 55), channeling is dismissed as ‘stereotypical psycho-babble’ (p. 127), and belief in reincarnation is considered a sophisticated form of self-indulgence (p. 105). There are discussions on whether Christians ought to ban Halloween (p. 69) and whether Christians can sometimes make common cause with New Agers (p. 75), while the church itself is chastised for being ‘embarrassed by religious experience’ (p. 154). Perry insists that ‘Christian faith is the answer to the spiritual search of the New Age movement’ (p. 160), though he tends to focus on broad generalizations rather than describing in any detail exactly what Christians would actually need to do in order to get this message across.
The best chapter is on Wicca, which is surprising. There is undoubtedly a pagan revival in the west, but not all neo-pagans are witches, and very few of those who are would call themselves New Agers. I also found the discussion of reincarnation unsatisfactory. Much of it is a re-run of Perry’s 1984 book, claiming that reincarnation is a way of side-stepping personal responsibility by blaming karma from a previous lifetime. But this is precisely what New Agers are not saying: in the New Age (as distinct from Hinduism), you choose your own karma. Who you are now is not the result of some cosmic accident, but of specific personal choice. This combination of eastern mysticism with western individualism is a more persuasive belief system than Perry allows, and cannot be dismissed with the arguments used here.
The chapter on Channeling also left me with questions. New Agers channel cosmic wisdom from amazingly diverse sources (ranging from whales and dolphins to Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles). Perry plays down (perhaps too much) connections between this and traditional medium ship and spiritualism (p. 116)—yet almost half the chapter is taken up with a history of spiritualism, while many of the psychological aspects of the contemporary channeling phenomenon are scarcely mentioned.
The book has an evangelizing purpose: ‘I want to bring them [New Agers] to a knowledge of Jesus …’ (p. 7). But few New Agers are likely to be convinced by it. Most New Agers have not ‘forsaken’ or ‘abandoned’ Christianity (p. 4). The majority are kids of the sixties who have never known Christianity, and who when faced with a crisis (whether personal or environmental/global) know only two places to look for answers: either within themselves or (almost the same thing) to a pluralist amalgam of mystical world views. To relate Christianity to their needs, we will need more than just an admission that the church has got it wrong, and an assurance that if they give us a second chance we will try to get it right next time.
There will never be such a thing as a definitive book on the New Age, for the whole phenomenon is changing all the time. But this book is a reliable introduction for those who know little or nothing about the subject. Perry usually manages to avoid the specialized vocabulary that can mystify the uninitiated (though I had to consult the dictionary on what it means to ‘relax and become more bicameral—ambicephalous …’, p. 12!). Inevitably, there are some omissions: most notably on New Age management courses (which is where many people first encounter it) and its connections with esoteric Christianity (e.g. Gnosticism). But one of the book’s strengths is its comprehensive bibliography (here again with omissions—e.g. on the New Age side, serious writers like Fritjof Capra or J.L. Simmons; on the Christian side, Ted Peters’ important book. The Cosmic Self). No book can include everything, and this one communicates well, while identifying other resources. That in itself is enough reason to commend it warmly.
University of Aberdeen