Sunday, July 25, 2004

Communities of Dissent

Stephen J. Stein, Communities of Dissent

The history of religion is usually told from a majoritarian perspective; small heresies receive only a passing mention, as foils for dominant creeds. Stein's brief synopsis is an attempt to take the minority view, treating fringe groups as not only worthy of study, but typical of American idealism and cranky independent-mindedness. The book could have woven twin strands of humor and pathos into a brilliantly-textured polemic, but sadly, in the name of objectivity, it becomes dull, a collection of historical bits livened only by descriptions of outlandish behavior and direct quotes from primary sources. Consider a typical example of a "New Religious Movement," the Vermont Pilgrims.
Sometimes they wore coarse sackcloth instead of bearskins. They fasted constantly. The central item in their diet was gruel, or mush.... They rarely ate meat and rejected other basic practices of Western civilization, declaring them sinful inventions. They gave up, for example, the use of knives and forks as well as conventional furniture, preferring to suck their food from a common bowl through cane stalks while standing....[T]hey neither bathed nor cut their hair.... Sometimes they rolled in the dust as an act of humility and repentance. They also chanted strange refrains, such as: "My God, my God, my God, my God, What wouldst thou have me do? Mummyjum, mummyjum, mummyjum, mummyjum" (3).
Stein's main tactic is summarize-rinse-repeat; the end of each chapter is a concise recapitulation of the main points, which is fine for a time, but becomes numbing. His deliberately unbiased reading means that there is little critical analysis of NRMs' often wacky claims. Also missing is explanation of the vituperation and persecution by "insiders." Was it a tit-for-tat response to charges of stagnation and decline by foaming prophets, or an irrational outpouring of fear? Did the government look away or participate?

Communities of Dissent is a decent introduction to the history of American cults and sects, but its most valuable resource is its "Further Reading" list.


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