Conversations with the Counterfeit
There are many Christian leaders and secular writers who are describing the state of decline of our culture. The popular term used to describe this state is postmodernism. Briefly, postmodernism represents a growing rejection of rational empiricism, science, and Christian absolutes, or any objective truth. Relativism and one's experience or feelings as the basis of personal "truth," characterize postmodernism.
This cultural trend serves as a greenhouse for the beliefs and practices of the New Age Movement to flourish. The religious philosophy of the New Age generally rejects God as a personal eternal Being who created, rules over, and defines the limits and boundaries of His creation (Acts 17:24-26). Hundreds of expressions of the New Age Movement basically teach that mankind is individually and collectively God, and therefore creates his own reality and truth.
God-realization is reached through a process of reincarnation and enlightenment. The process can involve Transcendental Meditation, channeled messages through mediums, and other occult practices or "spiritual technologies."
There is much evidence that proves that this trend is steadily growing and infecting our culture. Recent Gallup polls <www.gallup.com> and Barna research <www.barna.org> corroborate one another in their findings. Barna writes, "America appears to be drowning in a sea of relativistic, non-biblical theology. At the same time our rejection of orthodox Christian beliefs, coupled with a relativistic culture, has led millions of adults to embrace a worldview totally at odds with the faith they allegedly embrace."
Indeed, according to these surveys 86% of Americans claim to be "Christian," yet 72% reject the notion of absolute truth, 20% claim to be part of the New Age Movement, at least 61% reject a literal Satan or hell, 40% believe a New Age (pantheistic) view of God, 30% believe in reincarnation, 26% believe that astrology is scientific, and 56% believe that good people can earn their way into heaven (which is approximately the average for mainline Protestant denominational members - 92% for Roman Catholics).
Another serious indicator of people's search for "spirituality," meaning, and transcendence is reflected by the amazing popularity of New Age and occult books that have sold millions in recent years. Titles such as Embraced by the Light, Simple Abundance, A Book of Angels, Chicken Soup for the Soul series, Saved by the Light, The Celestine Prophecy, The Tenth Insight, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, and the many works of Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil, have been riding high, consistently, on the New York Times and Publisher's Weekly "non-fiction" best-selling charts.
Two of the more blatantly bizarre books, Talking to Heaven by James Van Praagh and Conversations with God, Book 1, by Neale Donald Walsch, have both enjoyed number one status and as of June 14th, have appeared on the New York Times best-seller list 23 and 78 weeks respectively. Walsch also has released Conversations, Book 2.
While the two books have some surface differences, their underlying themes and messages are similarly very much in the New Age/occult vein. Walsch's books purport to be a transcription of a dialogue between God and himself, giving answers about life's meaning and purpose.
Van Praagh's book alleges communications with spirits of deceased people in heaven, and gives ostensibly divine pronouncements about Life's meaning and purpose.
How does one test the validity of a claim of divine communication, and, if necessary, expose its deception? The Christian has the clear advantage because the Bible is the point of reference and discernment. The process of testing involves: (1) understanding the actual message or content of the claims; (2) comparing the source and the message with biblical truth; (3) demonstrating the internal contradictions or irrationality of the message; (4) if necessary, examining the history or reputation of the messenger or medium.
And finally, the Christian must not neglect to consider what are the implications for individual Christians, and for the Body of Christ. Christians should ask what is going wrong in the culture when there is rampant interest in, and gullibility toward, occult and metaphysical teaching and phenomena.
Van Praagh is a 39-year-old former stagehand and television screenwriter, turned spirit-medium. His popularity has been reinforced by appearances on Larry King Live, Good Morning America, Oprah, CNBC's Charles Grodin, Politically Incorrect, and ABC's 20/20.
According to Van Praagh he was raised in a strict Roman Catholic family but "found the Catholic view of God to be too limited and unrealistic" (Talking to Heaven, p. 6). He was "plagued" by various issues that probably trouble everyone at one time or another: the existence or reality of God, the reliability of the Bible, and obtaining a "personal experience" of God (Ibid., pp. 6-7).
These questions or "prayers" for proof were supposedly answered for Van Praagh when he was eight years old, as he experienced a mystical, "clairvoyant" encounter with a glowing white hand, which gave him "an overwhelming sense of peace, love, and joy." He interpreted this vision as God, and proof that He (it) existed (Ibid., p. 7).
This led him into a fascination with the concept of death and the hereafter. His belief in spirit contact was reinforced at age twelve, through mystical experiences he had working with a Magic Eight Ball, Ouija boards, and finally in a séance (Ibid., pp. 8-9).
Van Praagh introduces the concepts of universalism and spirituality over and against "religion" early in his book. He recounts personal abuse, and observing a severe lifestyle among priests and nuns, which resulted in much hypocrisy. He described another transcendent encounter using the word "felt" seven times in three paragraphs, and arrived at an enlightened conclusion that God was in everything and everybody (he refers to God as "It," three times). He uses the same mantra as Deepak Chopra and Shirley MacLaine, in stating that religions politicize, pursue power, and distort and confine God (pp. 17-19).
To Van Praagh, God is "love and nonjudgement, understanding and compassion." (p. 19). He introduces his postmodern relativism: "Life is ever-changing and evolving. What was true for our ancestors may no longer apply to us" (p.17). He stereotypes and caricatures the church as "encumbered by" outdated rules and mythology (p. 20).
Van Praagh goes on to detail the development of his psychic powers of mediumship. He then relates many alleged anecdotal stories, which would be amazing if true. These are stories of séances with people who are seeking contact with lost loved ones. According to Van Praagh, he is able to relate amazing details, known only to the family member, supposedly validating his supernatural ability.
It is easy to make those kinds of claims in a book without identifying the subjects, yet what happened when he was on live television? Transcripts from his guest television appearances and a revealing story in Newsweek magazine (March 16, 1998, pp. 64-65), demonstrated a very fallible James Van Praagh.
Skeptics Society director Michael Shermer, a debunker of "scientific and religious hoaxes" (Newsweek, p.65), was invited by 20/20 to examine Van Praagh's methodology and interaction with his subjects. Shermer demonstrated that Van Praagh had "far more misses than hits," and that he uses the common techniques of a stage mentalist or con man (20/20, April 3, 1998, transcript on file).
The first technique is to ask a lot of fishing or leading type questions. Second, keep the questions general, and third, use visual cues for feedback (Ibid.).
Shermer was able to demonstrate many examples of Van Praagh's utilization of these techniques. The Newsweek article additionally pointed out not only the misses by Van Praagh, but the contradictions he made as well.
For example, "Spirits, Van Praagh confidently asserted to Larry King, don't have food or sex, but later in the same broadcast he assured a caller that her departed mother was now able to eat again and was busy baking for other spirits" (p. 65).
Secular skeptics are at a loss to explain the occasions where those like Van Praagh do give correct information, but Christians realize that Satan and his principalities are aware of information and can pass it on to their human agents.
Other examples of Van Praagh's contradictions are found in his messages on life's meaning and purpose. He positively asserts the New Age philosophy, including an immutable law of Karma, reincarnation, and the realization of Godself or divine Self-awareness as man's ultimate goal (pp. 27, 68-69, 120-121). Yet he also refers to God's predetermined plan and the "grace of God" (pp. 69, 100, 112, 120). Neale Donald Walsch, (pardon, God), says in Conversations with God, Book 1, essentially the same thing - that man's goal on earth is to remember who he is, was and always will be - God, "a divine part of the divine whole." (p. 28). Walsch (God) sometimes teaches the concept of Pantheism, that all is God and God is all (p. 200), and sometimes Panentheism, that God is in process of becoming, gaining in knowledge and dominion (p. 197, 36).
Walsch, too, promotes aspects of Taoism's concept of yin-yang (pp. 24-25); Buddhism's renunciation life (p. 100), magick or witchcraft (p. 74), reincarnation (p. 193), and the existence of extra-terrestrials (pp. 208-209). Walsch also teaches that Jesus was just another master teacher like Krishna or Buddha and that Jesus was not perfect (pp. 86, 192). Both Van Praagh and Walsch, typical of New Age teachers, frequently twist Scripture (which they say can't be trusted in the first place), to make it fit their own concepts.
A common thread in both books is the overriding goal of attaining love. The concept of "love" remains somewhat amorphous. Walsch describes love as the "purest joy and the highest ecstasy" which is embodied in giving and receiving sex, which he advises us to experience indiscriminately (pp. 205-207).
In both books, the concept most often used to describe the way of arriving at truth is through "feelings." The self-seeking, experiential, relativistic pulse of postmodernism is clearly exposed here. As Walsch (God) writes, "Simply live it. Experience it. Then live whatever other paradigm you want to construct. Afterward, look to your experience to find your truth" (p. 109, cf. pp. 39, 8).
This is the message of the New Age. Recently T.M. leader Deepak Chopra appeared on a cable TV talk show, America Talking, and proclaimed that in any given moment one is faced with an infinite amount of choices, but only one choice will be karmicly correct. When host Carol Martin asked how one knows which is correct, Chopra replied, "it is the one that brings joy and fulfillment to me.I ask my heart, not my brain." He goes on to say that the correct choice can be ascertained by a feeling of comfort from the heart area (video tape on file).
In fact, Walsch (God) teaches that his best and most common form of communication is feelings. "God" also uses thought, images, pictures and experiences. "Words," he says, "are really the least effective communicator.. They are [mere] symbols.. They are not Truth. They are not the real thing" (pp. 3-4).
This is a crucial point of engagement for Christians to point out the irrationality of Walsch and any New Age teacher. If words are "the least effective communicators" and they "are not the real thing" or "not truth," then why should anyone invest time in reading the book? Why does God, in Walsch's book, use so many words as the vehicle for communicating truth if words are such inferior and untrustworthy devices? Christians should ask how is one supposed to know to trust his feelings and bypass the mind. Is this conceptnot learned from teachers who are communicating with words?
Scripture clearly teaches a world-view in direct conflict with that taught in these books. The Bible expressly condemns participation in spiritism, divination, necromancy, witchcraft, astrology, and universalism (Deuteronomy 18:9-15; Isaiah 47:8-15; Acts 4:12; John 10:1-18, 14:6). The Bible teaches resurrection and judgement, not reincarnation (1 Corinthians 15:12-49; John 11:25-26; Hebrews 9:27-28).
In the end, Christians must conclude that, indeed, a significant number of people in the western world are desperate to find hope, comfort, answers and assurances in a world that offers little. The popularity of this genre of books reflects lack of theological discernment, gullibility- thus a diminishing of "common sense" - and hunger for transcendent meaning and spiritual solace.
"Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth laborers unto his harvest" (Luke 10:2).
"For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat..But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Hebrews 5:12, 14).