The Moon Is Down (“Rev. Moon,” That is)

Today I had lunch with five young colleagues–all in their twenties. I mentioned to them that I was going to blog about “Rev. Moon.” Only two of them expressed awareness of who he was. Jump back with me thirty years. “Rev. Moon” was all the talk–in the media, in religious circles, in Christian “anti-cult” organizations, etc. He was by all accounts a religious celebrity even if a very controversial one. He died the other day at age 92.

John Steinbeck fans will recognize the title of this blog post: “The Moon Is Down.” It’s one of my favorite Steinbeck novels–a historical novel based in WW2 Norway under Nazi occupation. One of Steinbeck’s least known novels, but a very good one. (My favorite Steinbeck novels tended to his lesser known ones. I also liked The Pearl and The Winter of Our Discontent better than, say, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men.)

“Rev. Moon” was a messianic religious leader from Korea whose followers launched an evangelistic effort across the U.S. in the 1970s. Most of them were of Asian descent, but soon many North Americans joined their campaign to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. The essence of their teaching was/is that “Rev. Moon” (Sun Myung Moon) was raised up by God to complete the unfinished work of Jesus Christ–to marry and have pure children free of Satanic influence to become the nucleus of the Kingdom of God on earth.

“Rev. Moon’s” church is called The Unification Church or The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. The “Bible” is The Divine Principle–a book of Moon’s teachings considered essential for a correct understanding of the Bible itself. (I once owned a copy and read it. It wasn’t supposed to be owned or read by outsiders, but an ex-”Moonie” gave it to me. I found it interesting, to say the least.) Nobody knows the exact size of the church. Scholars estimate it has around 10,000 hard core members in the U.S. and maybe 100,000 world wide (although the church claims to be much larger).

I once had an interesting encounter with the Unification Church and almost with Moon himself. For years I taught a course called America’s Cults and New Religions. It was inspired by a course I co-taught at Rice University during my doctoral studies called Deity, Mysticism and the Occult. I advertised my course (an elective) as “Unsafe Sects” to attract students. The administration wouldn’t put that in the catalog for some reason.

Every year I invited the local leader of the Unification Church to speak to my class. After a few years of this he called me and invited me to give the invocation before Moon’s public speech at a local university campus. I gently declined and he was surprised. He said I was so nice to him, he thought I was sympathetic to their cause. Boy, was that wrong. (After he left class I always taught the students what is in The Divine Principle that he, the Unification Church pastor, didn’t reveal.)

I took my class to see and hear “Rev. Moon” in person. The auditorium was packed with a very racially diverse audience–mostly Asian students and African-Americans. (The Unification Church promoted itself as anti-racist.) I was shocked when an African-American Baptist pastor from our city stood up and delivered the invocation asking God to bless “your prophet from Korea, Reverend Moon.” I was embarrassed for him.

Many “Moonies” thought of “Rev. Moon” as “The Lord of the Second Advent.” I wonder what they think now?

Some of you older readers will remember that the Imperials, a crossover singing group from southern gospel to contemporary Christian in the 1970s, popularized a song including the line “We’re going to see the Son, not Rev. Moon.”

So what’s the lesson of “Rev. Moon?” At the end of today’s lunch one of my colleagues mentioned the gullibility of people when it comes to religion. I had thought of that yesterday as my wife was flipping channels and we happened to land on a mega-church pastor’s “sermon” to his “congregation” of about 15,000 people in a former basketball arena. (We took our daughter to the Barnum & Bailey Brothers Circus in that arena many years ago. I’m tempted to say now another kind of circus is happening there.)

America has become a mission field. “Rev. Moon” was one of the first missionaries from another culture to us. Many have followed in his footsteps. It’s not that we’re not religious; we have many religions and are, like the ancient Romans, increasingly open to anything and everything. It doesn’t have to make sense or be rooted in any great tradition of belief. If it feels good, adopt it. Add it to the pantheon of new gods and religions.

The question it raises is where has traditional Christianity gone wrong that so many odd religions could come here, be accepted and gain a foothold? (The Unification Church owns a major daily newspaper in a major American city.) Of course, many “new religions” have been born here as well.

The answer is obvious. Traditional Christianity has failed. Failed to be so attractive (and by that I don’t mean entertaining) that new religions have no space to gain a foothold. Traditional Christianity has failed to be so reasonable that irrational religions have no ground to stand on. Traditional Christianity has failed to be so unified (I don’t mean institutionally, but spiritually) that diverse religions can’t find a crack to wedge into.

Why would a Baptist minister agree to deliver the invocation at “Rev. Moon’s” public speech? Something is seriously wrong there. Why would so many university educated young Jewish and Christian men and women flock to “Rev. Moon’s” movement? Why, how would so many obviously invented religions (here I’m not speaking of the Unification Church) that exist only to make money for their founders and leaders flourish among sophisticated, worldly wise Americans?

So, someone might answer “Satanic deception!” But then my question is about spiritual warfare. How did American Christians let that become so strong? Where and when did we fail to oppose it with truth, beauty and goodness?

In my humble opinion, for what it’s worth, the plurality of novel religious messiahs and movements, many of them totally lacking in anything resembling truth, beauty and goodness, flourishing in America is evidence of a failure of traditional, orthodox Christianity–Catholic and Protestant. We have become captivated by our own culture, consumerism. We have watered down the gospel to powerless “spirituality” or turned it into an ideology. We have fought with each other so vehemently, demonizing each other, that outsiders want nothing to do with us or or our Christianity.

“Rev. Moon” may be dead, but would-be religious messiahs of all kinds are alive and well. They are drawing people away from anything resembling orthodox, vital Christianity by the millions.

I recently attended (sneaked into) a national convention of a certain new religion. It’s what I call an invented religion. I’ve studied it thoroughly, even going so far as to interview it’s leaders. (No other religion scholar has done that.) There I witnessed many thousands of average Americans of all walks of life chanting mantras and listening to their “master” talk about his communications with previous world masters in a spiritual realm of reality. Most people I’ve asked about this have no idea of this religion’s existence. I know for a fact that many of this religion’s followers think they are Christians but they relegate Jesus to the status of a spiritual master along with many others throughout history.

“Rev. Moon” may be dead, but there are others of his ilk. How many Christians are aware of them or even care? I’m not demonizing them; I’m calling them what they are–alternative messiahs to Jesus Christ. How many Christian churches even talk about them or teach their people how to avoid being sucked in by them (e.g., their high school graduates going off to college or university where they’ll be invited to their meetings)?

Are we gradually turning Christianity into another religion among many and an old one at that? Are we relying on contemporary worship to rescue us from the dust of irrelevance? (Forget it.) What has happened to Christianity’s claims to truth? Is that something we leave to fundamentalists?

Next month I will be driving over 100 miles to speak to a group of about 100 Christian lay people who gather at their church one Friday evening every month to learn about Christian theology. I’d say that’s a rarity. When I speak about Christian doctrine/theology at my church (usually on a Wednesday evening) I’m lucky if five people show up.

The thing most lacking in contemporary American Christianity is any sense of the importance of truth–truth in the classical sense of what is revealed as real and is a matter of life and death. It’s the only thing that will begin to inoculate Christians against cults and new religions and secular ideologies.

  • Josh

    There definitely are few that are really interested in learning about theology in any deep or academic sense. For some reason many have the idea it’s not useful or something. Unfortunately, most of the people I run across that do have a sense of the need to study theology are Calvinists and many part of the Young, Restless, Reformed group.

  • http://thoughtsonbiblicalsubjects.blogspot.com/ Bruce K. Oyen

    Dr. Olson, this posting was thought-provoking. You almost could be mistaken for a fundamentalist! (It takes one to know one.) But to my main points: 1.) The absence of theological/Biblical teaching in contemporary evangelical churches is pervasive and pathetic. But it is partly rooted in contemporary evangelicalism’s quest of large churches. That is, if you want a large church, you don’t major on theological Bible teaching. You major on leser things, such as what makes listeners feel good, and what helps them get along with others. A good example of this is Joel Osteen. He is a master at taking Biblcal statements out of context, as his book “It’s Your Time” clearly reveals. But the Biblically-ignorant public wrongly assumes that if the Bible is quoted in a sermon, the sermon must be Biblical. But a sermon is Biblical only if it is true to what the Bible says in a given text/context. 2) I think one major reason why cult groups make progress is because, as the Lord himself said, “men loved darknes, rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19) Therefore, they will accept substitutes for Biblical truth. Jesus Christ lived the truth he proclaimed, and it got him crucified. Some of the apostles were murdered, even though their lives adorned the Gospel message. My point is, Christians cannot be faulted for someone’s willful rejection of the truth.
    On a different, but related, subject, let me encourage your readers to open-mindedly read your book called “Against Calvinism,” and your book “Arminian Theology: Myths And Realities.” I have profitably read both books two times.

  • David Rogers

    The great band Daniel Amos had a song on their 1980 Horrendous Disc album titled “Man in the Moon” about Rev. Moon.

    Man in the Moon

    • rogereolson

      I deleted the lyrics to avoid any legal problems with the copyright owner. Readers here can easily find them by googling the song.

      • David Rogers

        Perfectly understandable.
        One can go to danielamos.com

  • J.E. Edwards

    Now that’s what I call a great post and a great challenge to us all. I chuckled at this thought…” What has happened to Christianity’s claims to truth? Is that something we leave to fundamentalists?” I guess it’s a backhanded complement:)

  • Daniel W

    Roger,

    How far back in history do you think this watering down of Christian orthodoxy in America began? I get the impression that you are talking about a phenomenon that arose sometime during the mid-twentieth century. As someone who has taught a course on New Religious Movements, you should know that such “strange” movements have been popping up in the US since the mid-19th century at least, which brings us almost all the way back to our nation’s founding! For one prime example, take a look at Robert Matthews, who proclaimed himself to be God the Father incarnate in the 1830s. For an early 20th century example, look at the Moorish Science Temple.
    Do you really think that American Christianity has been lacking “any sense of the importance of truth–truth in the classical sense of what is revealed as real and is a matter of life and death” since the mid-19th century? You seem to be describing a post-modern attitude.
    American Christianity most certainly has its deeply disturbing flaws, but the power and appeal of New Religious Movements and cults in the US may derive from something much less sinister, such as the strong religious freedom established in our society early on, especially when compared to that found in European nations during the 18th and 19th centuries.

    • Daniel W

      And just to clarify, Robert Matthews’ group is not just an anomaly. Many similar “strange” or cult-like groups arose in the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening.

      • rogereolson

        I will go out on a limb and suggest that in the 19th century people who joined New Thought movements (and other new religious movements) knew that what they were joining was not orthodox Christianity. My experience throughout my life of studying cults and new religions and teaching about them is that many people seem completely unaware that what they are joining is not orthodox Christianity.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Have you heard of the “Australian Jesus?” He doesn’t seem to have quite the following at the Rev. Moon, but its still pretty scary, in my opinion:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/16/alan-john-miller-mary-suzanne-luck-jesus-mary-magdalene_n_862384.html

    • rogereolson

      I think one thing that helped “Rev. Moon” grow his movement was that he did not publicly claim to be Jesus Christ or even the Lord of the Second Advent. He left it to his followers to figure that out.

  • Steve Rogers

    Roger, while it is certainly true that there is widespread ignorance of historic traditions and orthodoxy among American Christians, I’m not sure sitting in theology classes is the answer. In my experience, the more one thinks he knows the more readily he engages in polemics. This does not lend itself to unity or charity. At some point it is a genuine, life applied love that is the transformative power we all long for. One can be ignorant and unlearned, as were most of the apostles, and still be a force for cultural change. One should learn and one should love, but the greatest of these is love.

    • Percival

      Please don’t set love and piety against knowledge. Love and knowledge are closely paired throughout Paul’s letters. The apostles were not ignorant; they spent years studying, discussing, and memorizing the teachings of the greatest theologian in history. The fact that they were not “lettered” refers to their lack of credentials and training in rhetoric under a recognized school. Of course, sitting in a theology classes is not the ‘the answer,’ but neither is an embrace of ignorance because knowledge might lead to conflict. Love is meaningless if it never has to face conflict.

      Maybe you did not mean to imply all the things I have laid at your feet. Maybe you just want us to keep our priorities straight, but your comment taken alone seems quite imbalanced. ‘The more on thinks he knows, the more readily he engages in polemics’ seems to be a way of saying either, 1) more knowledge in the hands of plebes is dangerous, or 2) true knowledge is not possible and we can never know anything, or 3) people who chase knowledge are the same kinds of people who are divisive. I think we should reject all three premises, but if your intent was an option 4) I would love to hear it.

  • John Metz

    Roger,
    As soon as I started reading your post and your description of mentioning Moon to your students, I was struck with the thought, “We are really getting old.” Sorry.

    Unfortunately, I think your analysis of today’s Christendom rings true. I once asked a friend if those in his congregation could site 10 verses on the Trinity and say what element of the Triune God each verse featured. He looked at me incredulously and said that if I had limited it to three verses he would still say no. Not only is theology missing, but the real, biblical experience of the Triune God and of Christ as our life is missing as well. My statement, as well as your analysis, is, of course, a generality.

    I know of a then young Jewish seeker who went to hear Moon speak in a large city in the early 1970s. Afterward, he was sitting outside the auditorium on a wall in despair and confusion, wondering what to make of it all. At that time, some dear ones came to him with the gospel of Jesus Christ. He received the gospel and has served the Lord since.

  • AJG

    [Fundamentalist preachers, names deleted] were both supporters of Moon and the Unification Church. Moon provided a great deal of funding for [A fundamentalist] University and for [fundamentalist] ministries. I never understood how two men who claimed to be followers of Christ would befriend a man claiming to be the real Christ who supplanted the original one that failed. Bizarre.

    • rogereolson

      I’ve deleted the names because I don’t have proof. I’ve got to be very careful not to allow my blog to be a place for throwing around names with accusations that I don’t know to be true. However, I agree that I also read (in the 1980s and 1990s) that Rev. Moon’s organizations (he had many) gave monetary support to some conservative evangelical causes, especially ones associated with the Religious Right. I remember also being shocked that the recipients apparently received the funds (or so it was reported). I don’t know if any strings were attached. Something else I remember, and this is public knowledge, is that “Rev. Moon” went to federal prison for a while for tax evasion and that several Christian organizations came to his defense because they felt the case against him infringed on separation of church and state.

  • http://shaneblackshear.com/blog Shane

    Great post!

    “What has happened to Christianity’s claims to truth? Is that something we leave to fundamentalists?” -this touches on a great point. Too often we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. We’ve run from some fundamentalist practices for good reason, but we’ve thrown some important things out in the process.

  • David Martinez

    Where will you be speaking at next month? Is it open to anybody? Can I go?

    • rogereolson

      Austin, Texas October 5. See http://midsouth.ecclesianet.org

      • David Martinez

        Great!

        I might fly from New York City to Austin just to hear you in person (you’re a hero of mine and I pray for you often). But before I purchase any tickets let me make sure that there aren’t any upcoming events where you’ll be speaking more than one time. Are there?

        • rogereolson

          I’ll be speaking at Houghton College in Houghton, NY November 12 (twice that day). I appreciate your prayers.


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