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 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.