Saturday, March 17, 2012

Book Review: Mitch Horowitz- Occult America

This book is different from the kind of book I normally review on this site. I usually read two books at a time in addition to my normal Bible reading and study. Typically one is related to the Bible or Christianity that I hope will be useful for personal growth or for teaching and ministry. It is this group of books that I typically draw from when I post reviews on the site. If I find something helpful, interesting, or if it is a new book I try and share a few brief insights for those who may be interested. The other group of books is not explicitly Christian and tends to be books of history, literature, philosophy, or some other subject that happens to catch my attention. Occasionally I read a book from the second category that turns out to be interesting with regard to the first category. Mitch Horowitz’s book Occult America is an example of that kind of book.

Horowitz is certainly not an Evangelical author. In fact, he is a publisher of esoteric and occult literature. It is evident throughout this book that Horowitz is writing with a sympathetic eye toward the arcane and occult personalities and doctrines that his book discusses. There is a soft apologetic undertone and appeal to respectability for occult doctrines woven throughout the narratives that Horowitz shares. Despite this, however, it is evident that he has spent a great deal of time in his research and he opens up to the reader an important and all too often ignored undercurrent to American spiritual life. Horowitz demonstrates in a very readable style the sometimes complex and multifaceted interplay between concepts from esoteric and occult spiritual traditions and mainstream “public religion” in the United States.

Horowitz weaves his historical narrative by using a series of short biographical sketches of people who have been influential in advancing occult ideologies in American culture. As he tells the story he demonstrates how the foundational ideas of Americanism along with its unique social, economic, and political landscape facilitated a type of melting pot of ideas where concepts that had their origins in occult circles entered into the public consciousness. As a result various institutions as divergent as white supremacy groups, mental health practitioners, and Christian churches were influenced by ideas that were originally taught in esoteric literature and traditions.

The book is well researched but is also easy to read. Horowitz tells the story in a way that is interesting and keeps the reader’s mind active. Although he is a capable and well researched writer a couple of weaknesses were notable. First, although the book contains a lot of notes the documentation system was frustrating. Perhaps Horowitz wanted to avoid the look and feel of a heavily footnoted academic work. Whatever the reason for the choice, I would have preferred a traditional system of notation. Second, the book leads the reader to assume a type of simple continuity that the author controls through the selection of individuals and events to focus on. As a result some of the historical conclusions are a bit strained. For example, Horowitz assumes that a development such as local churches counseling people on finances, addictions, etc. is necessarily linked to similar commitments within occult groups simply because they were advocated earlier. This leads to an oversimplified conclusion about the relationship between historical events thus underemphasizing the impetus (and precedent) for such developments within Christian history and theology and overemphasizing the contribution of those ideas from occult sources. There are often various historical threads and trajectories that combine to lead to certain social, economic, and political changes in any community. Horowitz rightly points out that occult ideology has been one of them but by isolating that particular thread in his narrative the historical causality becomes a bit oversimplified.

Despite this, Horowitz does a good job of tracing a number of important and influential developments that anyone who has a concern with the spiritual culture of our country and our communities should be aware of. Too often Christians make the same kind of mistake in oversimplifying their own tradition’s contributions to historical and cultural developments and tend to think of U.S. history as basically Christian history with a few other ideas thrown in. The truth, as Horowitz shows, is far more complex. Public culture and even religious culture in the United States has been shaped by a number of ideas that many people are not aware of. Although the author is writing from a perspective sympathetic to unbiblical views he is touching on an important historical truth that Christians should be aware of.

It is of vital importance that as Christians we understand the ideas of those around us. We need to be conscious of their influence in our own thinking and in our churches. We are commanded in the Bible to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” but we cannot do this if we are not evaluating every thought by Christ’s standard. There are many ideas even being taught in our Churches that do not originate in the Scriptures but are instead a synthesis of Biblical ideas with other philosophies. One does not have to listen for very long to the “Word of Faith” teachers so prominently displayed on cable T.V. before recognizing a direct line between their doctrines and those of the mystical mind-power teachers that Horowitz discusses in his book. There is a direct and recognizable trajectory between the teachings of the new thought movement and its antecedents not only in secular motivational literature such as Dale Carnegie but also, largely through the influence of Norman Vincent Peale, in many Christian Churches.

Horowitz points out that many occult and mystical ideas have weaved their way into our social consciousness so that they do not appear to us to be esoteric at all. In fact, as I am typing this article in the background there is a well known medical doctor who has a mystical teacher as a guest on his T.V. show teaching transcendental meditation as a way to relieve stress. I wonder how many Christians will recognize that these techniques have a theological basis in a worldview that is fundamentally different from the one taught in the Bible. It is an excellent example of what Horowitz (from the other side of the issue) is pointing out about our culture.

As Christians we must understand the influence of all sorts of ideas that are shaping our culture and pressuring our Churches so that we might adequately present the Gospel and make clear the differences between the doctrines of God and those of men. Doing so begins with a commitment to know the Scriptures so that we can make discerning comparisons between the Truth found there and all other ideas. Although Horowitz is writing from a perspective sympathetic to the occult he does the Church a service in making us aware of the varied influences that other mystical traditions have had on the culture around us and even in our own Churches. I recommend the book be read with discernment by anyone interested in the influence of religion on our culture. 

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