An Old Error in a New Package

One of the best places to catch a glimpse of celebrities in Los Angeles is inside an old church in Beverly Hills. There, "A-list" celebrities like Demi Moore, Britney Spears, and Madonna sing hymns at "pep-rally tempo" and shout hearty "Amens!" Has the long-prayed-for revival finally broken out in the entertainment industry? Not quite. When I described the church as being "old," I mean "former." And, while there is a revival of sorts, it's a revival of an old error: Gnosticism. The meeting I just described is held every Friday night in a former church, L.A.'s Kabbalah Center. Kabbalah is a medieval form of Jewish mysticism. According to Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, the "preoccupation" of Kabbalah is "understanding and ending humanity's exile from God." Ending this exile entails not only meditation but also keeping the commandments of Judaism which help to "sanctify" the material world. If you're having difficulty imagining movie stars keeping the moral and ethical demands of the Old Testament, you're not alone. As Halevi tells us, what's going on at the Kabbalah Center has more in common with other California-based religions like Scientology than with medieval Judaism. What's being taught to the celebrities "doesn't merely trivialize Kabbalah; it inverts its intention." Whereas, traditionally the goal of meditation is to "annihilate the ego, not reinforce it," in L.A., "the spiritual quest isn't about God, but the seeker." Even when people are encouraged to give to others, it's for selfish reasons. As one "disciple" told Halevi, respecting the dignity of another person "has nothing to do with being a good person. It's about not hurting myself. Not because God told me to be nice to others, but because my life becomes better . . . " Most Jewish scholars consider the Kabbalah Center to be, at best, oversimplifying an important mystical tradition and, at worst, a fraud. What's definitely true is that it's only the latest example of the attraction Gnosticism holds for many Americans. Gnosticism, which has plagued Christianity since before the ink of the Scriptures was dry, teaches, among other things, that secret and esoteric knowledge holds the key to salvation. In his book, The American Religion, Yale professor Harold Bloom argued that many Americans, even some professing Christians, are Gnostics of sorts. Their religion is based on personal experience and has little room for tradition or authority. The goal of their religion is "to be alone with God or Jesus." Now, while Bloom was rightly criticized for overstating the case, it's undeniable that many Americans are in the market for what I call "do-it-yourself God kits." These kits enable them to feel good about themselves without making objective moral demands. They promise valuable knowledge without forcing the adherent to confront questions of truth. In other words, it's a religious system perfectly suited for the spirit of our age. That's why it's standing-room-only at the Kabbalah Center. Unfortunately, we find traces of Gnosticism in many American churches, as well. That's the subject of an upcoming BreakPoint. You'll want to continue reading, because while it's easy to mock the excesses of Hollywood, Christians must be prepared to recognize error wherever it rears its head. For further reading and information: Yossi Klein Halevi, "Like a Prayer: Kabbalah Goes Hollywood," The New Republic, 10 May 2004. (Reprinted by Jewish World Review.) Nancy Haught, "Mystical Kabbalah, Trendy Kabbalah," The Oregonian, 30 April 2004. Also see "A Who's Who of Celeb Kabbalah." "Hollywood & the Kabbalah,", 8 January 2004. Kim Masters, "God and Man in Hollywood," Vanity Fair, December 1997. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, "When Did Madonna Become a Rabbi?Beliefnet, 10 October 2003. David Mills, "Getting Jesus Right," Touchstone, October 2001. Harold Bloom, The American Religion (Simon & Schuster, 1993). Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (Free Press, 2003).


Chuck Colson


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