The word cult used to mean just about any religious gathering. But eventually it came to refer to small, strange religious groups that held unhealthy sway over followers and that sometimes degenerated into violence -- including the violence of self-annihilation.
That's a bit of background to what seems to be happening today, as this lengthy Pacific Standard article describes it. NRMs increasingly have become the focus of well-researched books as well as TV shows and films. Interest in NRMs, in short, is booming.
"Over the past three years," the story reports, "there has been a resurgence in stories about NRMs that empathetically examine why societal outsiders might be motivated to organize alternative societies."
There can be danger in simply labeling NRMs crazy cults. A good example of that: the Branch Davidians, who for decades had lived in the Waco, Texas, area before a disastrous run-in with local and federal agencies led to 51-day standoff that ended with the fiery deaths of nearly 80 people.
I went to Waco a year later and did a series of analytical articles for The Kansas City Star (the series can be found in my book, A Gift of Meaning) in which I concluded that the disaster could have been avoided if law enforcement authorities had bothered to spend as little as half an hour learning about the Davidians from religious studies experts from nearby Baylor University.
Instead, government authorities simply thought of the Davidians as religious nuts, and the result of that misguided, straight-line thinking was catastrophic.
So if, as the Pacific Standard piece reports, there's a broader effort nowadays to understand NRMs and their followers in more nuanced detail, that should be seen as a good improvement over previous approaches. Each NRM is different and each NRM's adherents have different reasons for joining. To lump all NRMs and their followers into a single pile is to court not just misunderstanding but also possible disaster.
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THE 'FINITE' NATURE OF GOD?
Over this past weekend here on the blog, I reviewed a book that asked whether God was, in the end, incomprehensible and inscrutable. Here is a different question but one that's equally intriguing: Is God finite? That's what this piece asks. I like strange questions like that. It opens up new avenues of thinking, and that's rarely a bad idea.