A Rare “Television” Entertainment Series about Religion: “The Path” (On Hulu)
I subscribed to the internet-based streaming service Hulu to watch the mini-series based on my favorite Stephen King book 11-22-63 which is about a man who travels into the past to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I loved the book; I hated the mini-series. But I stuck with it to the bitter end in spite of so many plot changes from the book. One thing that intrigued me about the book was the town the main character settled in—“Jody, Texas.” By piecing together numerous references to its distance from Dallas and Fort Worth (where the character also lived while he waited to foil the assassination) I discerned that it was probably based on a real town in central Texas and possibly even the town where I live. The movie, however, moved it closer to the “Metroplex” (DFW area). So I still don’t know what town, if any, it is based on in the book. But it was fun to try to guess.
Then, in the middle of the series, Hulu began promoting its coming attraction—a mini-series called “The Path” about a small, alternative religious movement many outsiders call a “cult” much to its adherents’ consternation. I could tell from the trailer and teasers that some writer for the series had done his or her homework and invented a realistic New Age-style alternative religion. I was mostly interested in trying to figure out what religion(s) “Meyerism” is based on. As it turns out, after watching about eight episodes and reading interviews with some of the actors, Meyerism is an invented, eclectic religion. The show’s writers threw everything into it but the proverbial kitchen sink: meditation, an impersonal supreme reality (“the Light”), apocalyptic fear (of “the Future”), shunning of close relationships with outsiders, a charismatic leader and a struggle for leadership and control of the group, a spiritual technique (“climbing the ladder”), various kinds of mind control including severe punishments for dissenters and ex-members, etc. They have even thrown in something like biofeedback as a spiritual technique.
Obviously the show’s creators have done a lot of homework studying alternative religions, “cults,” and religious psychology. Now and then I recognize some aspect of Meyerism, a belief or practice, as so close to that of a real alternative religion that it can’t be a coincidence. Some of them, including some incidents such as a standoff with law enforcement, are clichéd.
For me, someone who has spent years studying alternative religious movements in America, the show is fascinating—a study in how a passionate religious movement could simply be invented and sane, intelligent, normal people be drawn into it. In the most recent episodes (which become available every Wednesday on Hulu) it becomes clear that Meyerism is indeed an invented religion; a person very close to the founder admits it and suffers the consequences—from a second rung leader who simply wants to lead the movement because he is a narcissist. The main character of the show, or one of two or three, has come to suspect the same, as has his son. But he and his son struggle with whether to leave the movement, which would mean being cut off from all contact with their wife and mother, and daughter and sister (and extended family) or convince themselves to live in a lie. On the other hand…unsurprisingly, this invented religion, the movement based on it, does much good for many people.I keep trying to decide about the writers’ intentions. Is this just entertainment? I don’t think so. Is it also commentary on human nature/psychology and religion, especially cult-like religion? I think it must be. Is it an attempted retrospective explanation of the cult events of the 1970s through the 1990s in America: The People’s Temple, the Koreshite Branch Davidians, Solar Temple, etc.? I have heard one explicit reference to “Waco”—uttered by a leading member of the Meyerist compound when law enforcement besieged it. Is it a cautionary tale about power and desperate people giving their lives over to total control by a religious leader? Or is it all that and more?
One thing the series clearly does, whether intentionally or not, is normalize members of cults; it shows most of them as ordinary human beings, not monsters or robots or crazy people. They are victims, in some sense, whether they realize it or not, but they are relatively normal people who, searching for a higher meaning and purpose, joined an intense and high demand religious group to find it. In the process, they gradually permitted themselves to be manipulated into submission to a narcissistic control freak who himself is both a victim and victimizer.
I have to applaud the creators of the show for their diligence in at least attempting a realistic portrayal of an invented religious movement. I have had close encounters with several of them myself. And, as I have suggested here before, I believe I was on the “inside” of a cult-like religious organization (a college) for four years. I taught college-level courses on cults and new, alternative religions in America for seventeen years. I conducted original research on one when almost no one else did. And I wrote a chapter about it in a university press-published edited volume on American’s cults and new religions. It was a fascinating journey. I interviewed several ordinary members as well as one of the top leaders and found the ordinary members to be normal people with extremely unusual beliefs and practices that I discerned were, in my opinion, simply invented by the founder in the 1960s.
I do not recommend “The Path” to children or even teens or to people who are easily upset or offended by scenes of violence and explicit sexuality. And I actually don’t recommend it to people for their sheer entertainment. It may be entertaining to some people, but that is not its main value for me. It is a study in human nature, the human condition, American religious entrepreneurship, “toxic religion,” spiritual abuse, gullibility, abuse of power, and the power of self-delusion and the danger of delivering control of one’s life to a narcissist who isn’t obviously one.