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.


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).

Guest Blog (Grant Taylor): A Book Review of “God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology”

[Editor’s Note: Jim Hamilton’s fine book, “God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology” has been a topic of interest on our campus this semester, having been discussed in PhD seminars and Master’s level courses. For this reason, we invited Grant Taylor to compose a brief review of the book. Grant is a Ph. D. Candidate in Biblical Theology.]

Biblical theology (BT) is a discipline with a harried history and uncertain future (like most theological disciplines). Yet BT properly explained and presented by Christian scholars is essential for the building up of the saints for ministry. Enter the recent work by James M. Hamilton, Jr. (Associate Professor of Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Crossway, 2010). This review will outline the contents of the book and interact with his proposed “center” of biblical theology.

In chapter 1, Hamilton discusses the practice of BT for the renewal of the church (p. 39) and seeks to define the center of BT. For Hamilton “the center of biblical theology will be the theme that is prevalent, even pervasive, in all parts of the Bible” (p. 49). Following a brief review of the recent history of BT, Hamilton proposes the main theme, his center, of the Bible: God’s glory in salvation through judgment, which reflects the character of God (see Ex. 34:6-7) recounted across the storyline of the Bible (pp. 53-59).

In chapters 2-4 Hamilton traces this “center” through the Hebrew order of the Old Testament: Torah, Prophets, and Writings (pp. 67-353). By way of this “canonical approach” (p. 64), each major section is summarized as a whole and book-by-book. According to Hamilton, each book itself and each major section provides “God’s glory in salvation through judgment” as the major theme, or center, of that unit (see pp. 132-33, 267, 350-51). Thus, the story of the OT is the story of God’s glory in salvation through judgment (p. 352).

Chapters 5-7 continue tracing this center into the Gospels and Acts, Letters, and Revelation. As in the OT, each NT book and major section is about the center Hamilton has proposed (see pp. 439-40, 537-38, 549). For Hamilton, the NT continues the storyline begun in the OT: new exodus (see pp. 201-210) is fulfilled in the cross of Jesus Christ (see ch. 5) and return from exile (see pp. 75-82, 140) is finally fulfilled at the coming of New Jerusalem (see pp. 546-49). Between these events the NT narrates a “cosmic metanarrative” with God’s glory at the center of this story (pp. 358-59). Like the OT, the story of the NT is the story of God’s glory in salvation through judgment (p. 550).

In chapter 8 Hamilton addresses objections, mainly from I. Howard Marshall, to his methodology and proposal for the center of BT. Hamilton sees his center as defensible because it aligns with God’s ultimate purpose: to glorify himself (560-63; cf. 47-49). Chapter 9 concludes the book with a welcome argument for the necessity of BT in ministry. Evangelism, discipleship, corrective church discipline, Bible reading, and prayer stand to deepen in rigor, devotion, and wisdom if BT is applied to the corporate and personal lives of Christians. This chapter reveals Hamilton’s solid motives for doing BT, and invites more work to be done in this area by both scholars and pastors.

God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment is a welcome addition to the field of BT. Hamilton demonstrates his wide knowledge of the storyline of Scripture, across both Testaments. Numerous charts and tables illumine his rigorous exegesis and point the reader to further lines of study on a given text and/or theme (e.g., Gen. 3:14-19; pp. 75-89). Key components of BT, such as typology (see p. 42, n. 28), weave through the book to advance his argument, especially in the Gospels and Acts. Furthermore, the book is very well written and should receive high marks for its accessibility. Hamilton eschews complex prose, opting instead for clear language that indeed seeks to build up the church by consistently arguing his thesis.

Despite these and other strengths, one wonders if Hamilton’s thesis has been argued too well. Hamilton’s center, and title, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, crisply captures the character of God revealed in the Bible (Ex. 34:6-7) and running through salvation history. God’s glory is without a doubt the ultimate concern of his action in saving Israel from Egypt, exiling then rescuing Israel from exile, and promising and giving his Messiah for the redemption of humanity and all creation. Many biblical authors explicitly make these points (see e.g., Exodus, Isaiah, Ezekiel, John, Romans, Revelation). Yet, do all biblical authors make this point in what they write, and (even if so) do they make it in the same way?

For instance, the Writings stress what it looks like to live as a God-fearer in a world that does not fear him. Proverbs instructs one where true knowledge comes from (Prov. 1:7) and what it looks like to live out that knowledge. Hamilton agrees and argues that each section of Proverbs thus describes God’s glory in salvation through judgment (pp. 290-301). Yet, by arguing this point in this way, readers may think that the author of Proverbs makes this point in all proverbs in the same way. Perhaps clarifying the terms “salvation” and “judgment” when dealing with this specific genre would explain how the various proverbs demonstrate an explanatory center of Proverbs, however that center is conceived.

For another example, we can bring in the Gospel of John. John deals greatly with the glory/glorification of God in Christ (e.g., John 1:14; 2:11; 12:43; 17:24). Yet, John also tells us why he writes in John 20:31, “… these things are written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name.” How does John’s purpose statement, which is a function of his writing a Gospel, relate to God’s glory in salvation through judgment? It does, but does it do so in the same way as Exodus, Proverbs, Romans, or Hebrews?

My critique here is one of reckoning with the genre of biblical writings in doing biblical theology. Genre is the combination of what biblical authors write and how they write it. The various biblical genres thus give us guides, frameworks, as to how to find the themes and perhaps even the theme of biblical books. Kevin Vanhoozer states,

The diverse literary forms are like different kinds of maps, maps that have been collected together in a unified atlas: the Bible. As with maps, so with the forms of biblical discourse: each renders reality selectively, according to its own ‘scale’ and ‘key.’ The biblical stories, commands, promises, songs, prophecies, and didactic discourse all mediate God’s communicative action, but not all in the same way. What they share, however, is the same basic orientation.[1]

In God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, Hamilton stresses the same basic orientation in all the books of Scripture: all bear witness to God’s character and action, his glory in salvation through judgment. Yet by summarizing all sections and genres of the canon as about God’s glory in salvation through judgment, Hamilton’s approach may treat each genre of the Bible as the same kind of map. There is biblical unity in the theology of God’s glory, for sure. Yet as Vanhoozer states, “it is possible to view canonical diversity not as a problem to be solved but as a blessing to be received with thanks.”[2] The biblical authors use various ways with words to bear witness to God, indeed glorifying him as they do. Such ways with words, then, should guide us to think and speak about life in Christ in similar ways. Other readers will want to wrestle with these issues as they work through the book to see if this critique has any merit.

Hamilton has done us a service by stressing the character of God and his action, his glory in salvation through judgment, throughout the Bible. Its accessibility and readability makes this book a great resource for seminary students, for instance, in becoming more familiar with individual biblical books and the theological and narrative unity between those books. These sacred books indeed point us to the ultimate end of reality-God-and also show us how to live by faith in light of that reality. As Hamilton states, “The biblical authors not only tell us particular truths, but they also model for us how to interpret the Bible and how to communicate God’s truth. We will never exhaust what the Bible has to teach us on these three fronts” (p. 560). Agreed.

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 297. For more on the significance of genre in relation to the canon, see Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 211-220, 272-275, 282-285. See also Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 335-350, on the way genres function as literary “covenants,” guiding one’s interpretation.

[2] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 275.