Book Review: Spying In Guru Land

by Arthur B

William Shaw spies on cults for fun and profit; Arthur reviews the results.


I am a sucker for cult confessionals. Give me a first-hand account of someone joining an obscure sect, finding out it's not all it's cracked up to be, and leaving - perhaps suffering horribly in the meantime - and I'm there. I think a fair number of people are fascinated by oddball religions - I'm constantly surprised by how many of my acquaintances have read and enjoyed Sam Jordison's The Joy of Sects - but by their nature cults are insular beasts, with obscure customs and tangled, often complex teachings. A view from the inside is often a great way to understand them.

There's a problem, though; by their nature, cult confessionals are written by people who have dropped out of these groups, and therefore have an axe to grind. Objectivity is neglected in favour of airing the writer's grievances. It's never the author's fault for getting caught up in a group, even when there are bright flashing warning signs from the very start; it's always the fault of the group's malevolent leader, whose powers of mind control are irresistible. There are some exceptions - Tim Guest's My Life In Orange is an account of his childhood as the son of a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his experiences growing up in the group's communes. While he does feel some resentment for the cult, he does manage some degree of objectivity; he blames Bhagwan's power-hungry assistant, Ma Anand Sheela, for the cult's decline into authoritarianism and madness in the latter days of the American commune, rather than the leader himself, and he doesn't let his mother off the hook either, describing how her burning need for spiritual fulfilment led her to neglect her duties as a parent.

Another exception is Spying in Guru Land by William Shaw. Shaw first became interested in cults when he was researching a book on New Age travellers, and stumbled across the tale of Holy John, the guru of a short-lived sect which lived in Cornwall awaiting the return of Lyonesse, King Arthur, and the Lady of the Lake. He decided to research them by infiltrating them and learning their secrets. The ethics of faking religious faith are debatable but the result is a valiant attempt at an objective look at the subject.


Everyone has their own idea of what a cult is, from "a bit like Heaven's Gate" to "religions which are not my own". It's an emotive term, which is why some people like to say "New Religious Movements" instead; Shaw refuses to use the term, considering it too broad and complaining that it robs cults of their "maverick intensity".

Shaw's definition of a cult is partly set out in the book's introduction, partly implied over the course of the book: he considers a cult to be a religious group which is small enough to be obscure and poorly-understood, which is insular and stands in opposition to the outside world, and which is the brainchild of a single individual, who takes a strong leadership role. Interestingly, he also argues that a group can become a cult if the rest of the world decides that it's a cult; if the outside world acts in a hostile manner towards a group, then the group is natrually going to become more insular and hostile towards the outside world. The obvious example is the Waco siege: every time the BATF and FBI behaved aggressively towards the Branch Davidians, they only confirmed David Koresh's paranoid ideas, prompting the group members to cling ever more tightly to Koresh's view. At one point Shaw discusses the Aetherius Society, a group of UFO-spotters who venerate George King, Earth's representative in the Interplanetary Parliament; while the group is certainly odd, they've never attracted much heat from the anti-cult lobby, because they seem to be harmless cranks. They certainly don't seem to demand ever-increasing amounts of money, time, and devotion from their followers in the same way that the other groups Shaw covers do. Shaw seems to suspect that if the outside world had treated Aetherius with more hostility, it could have become a full-blown cult, but it's kind of a moot point: they don't behave like a cult, so they're not treated like one.

Not What They're Cracked Up To Be

One of the important points Shaw makes is that of all the people who start to get involved in a sect, most people tend to leave in the early stages. Shaw presents us with all sorts of recruitment methods - from the Jesus Army's "Come and live with us! We'll talk about Jesus and sing songs!" approach to the Emin's theatre activities to the evening classes of the misleadingly-named School of Economic Science (think a night school run by Victorians teaching an idiosyncratic interpretation of Gurdijeff) - and shows how while many people might come along to a few meetings, only a few have the dedication (or the gullibility) to maintain their involvement.

Other common threads are identified. Most cults tend to have conservative views on sex and gender roles - pretty much all of the groups profiled in the book do, aside from a few which have no stated position like the Aetherius Society. Sex cults seem to be an exception. Shaw theorises that this is part of sects' rejection of the modern world; the members are unhappy with the way the world is, and want to recapture a time before everything became so sexualised - whether that time is the 1950s or the glory days of Atlantis is irrelevant; the fact of the matter is that life was better, cleaner, and more celibate way back when, and we can make it that way again.

Perhaps more importantly is that that, on an individual level, those days are "Before I hit puberty". Another idea Shaw draws on is the idea of cult as a retreat into childhood. The School of Economic Science is structured like a school. The activities of the Emin are like an after-school club, although with more aura-reading (their rituals, as Shaw describes them, often have this odd, childlike quality to them - lots of marching about imagining electricity sparking out of your fingers). The Jesus Army will put your income in the collective purse and make decisions about spending for you, as well as making sure you don't date the wrong kind of boy or girl. There's a definite sense that the adult world is a little too much for many of the people Shaw profiles, that all they really want is to drop their responsibilities and be kids again. (You could draw interesting parallels with My Life In Orange here.) In this case, the power of the cult leaders is understandable - they've volunteered to be Mummy or Daddy for these orphaned kids - as well as the tendency for cult members to spurn their families once they join a sect (either of their own volition or because the cult has prompted them to sever their family connections). The group members become siblings in a sort of "family of choice", and as such their actual families become unwanted competitors.


This is a frustrating book, because William Shaw goes most of the way towards making a good point but doesn't quite get there. Yes, the anti-cult movement does have a tendency to overhype the "brainwashing" aspect of these sects, making it sound far more insidious and effective than it actually is. Yes, most people do drop out in the early stages of indoctrination. I was talking to Dan about this, and he pointed out that brainwashing, such as it is, is far more effective if you choose the right subjects for it. Anyone who is willing to sit through lecture after lecture in the School of Economic Science, or give all their income to the Jesus Army and move into one of their communal homes, or let the whims and moods of the Emin rule their schedule is naturally going to be the sort of person who really, really wants to be part of that group despite the inconvenience, for whatever reason. Even if "brainwashing" just amounts to peer pressure, groupthink, making people feel welcome and loved when they behave according to the group's social mores and making people feel dirty and shameful when they don't, I think Shaw downplays too much the power of these techniques, especially when applied to people who dearly want to belong. It's all very well to say "well, I wasn't affected by any `brainwashing'" when you never sincerely believed that the group's teachings had any truth to them, but if you think they might have the answer to life's problems it's a different matter.

Where I do think Shaw gets it right is his refusal to regard all cult leaders as self-serving, power-hungry maniacs who deliberately design the sects they form in this way. Cults like that exist, of course - Scientology springs to mind - but Shaw seems to think that there are just as many gurus who don't initially intend to create a cult-like group, but end up doing so anyway by accident. We never get the impression that cult recruiters like the Emin teachers that Shaw encounters are deliberately trying to weed out the strong-minded and independent thinkers in their teaching groups so that they can indoctrinate the week-willed sheep - many of them seem to genuinely want to keep as many people as possible - but the group dynamic they have produced through their mutual willingness to put aside their doubts and fling themselves wholeheartedly into the sect's mindset means that that's the way things pan out anyway.

Shaw's experiences show us that cults are just like any other insular clique; if the manifestations of this insularity are especially strange, violent, or passionate, that's just because they're playing with higher stakes. God, the Universe, and your place in life are far more important to human beings than, say, a weekly invitation-only poker game.

Appendix: Things Shaw Tells Us About the Jesus Army

I thought I'd go over the facts Shaw reports in the chapter on the Jesus Army in detail, since many Ferretbrain readers are based in Oxford and the Jesus Army is fairly visible there.

  • The Jesus Army is, strictly speaking, the outreach ministry of the Jesus Fellowship Church, both of which were founded by Noel Stanton, a former Baptist pastor. It is strongly influenced by the House Church movement of the 60s and 70s, as well as Stanton's own personal theology, which stems from an effort to reconstruct the lifestyle of the early Church as reported in the Book of Acts. As part of this, they practice communal living, and hold all earnings in common.

  • The communal purse is a big deal. You have to give all your income to it. Shaw relates an incident where two new members were caught holding back 20 for beer and cigarettes. The group leader compares them to Ananias and Sapphira, Biblical figures from the Book of Acts who withheld funds from the early Church and were struck dead by God.

  • Many new members drop out within their first two years of probationary membership.

  • Like the Pentecostals, they are known for speaking in tongues. Like the Puritans, they don't celebrate Christmas or Easter. Like the Quakers, they believe that the spirit of God can move you to say things. Name a flavour of Protestantism and chances are they take something from it.

  • The Fellowship maintains a number of communal houses (72 at the time Shaw was infiltrating them), which together are known as "Zion". Where possible, unmarried men and women are kept separate in these houses, although there are families who live in them too. On Shaw's first visit to one of these houses, the members already begin inviting him to come and live with them and join the group. When he refuses, they begin telephoning him and asking if they can come to his house, presumably to try and convince him to sign up.

  • The Fellowship teaches a traditional understanding of marriage, in which the man is in charge and the woman follows his lead. From the group's foundation, women were expected to dress modesty and avoid wearing trousers. Unmarried members are encouraged to avoid associating with members of the opposite sex. The group's guidelines state that if a male member falls in love with a female member, he should tell his elder, and if the elder approves of the match and the woman is consenting the matter is advertised in case anyone else wants to stake a claim. Contraception, while not officially banned, is discouraged, and married members are expected to sleep in separate beds; sex is for procreation only.

  • Members are encouraged to be celibate. You can actually gain official "celibate" status - you spend one year as a "probationary celibate" before you are elevated to this exalted position. According to Shaw's estimates, over 10% of the group's members are celibates. This is considered to be a high and noble calling, higher even than marriage.

  • Fellowship members are encouraged to be on their guard against backsliding. Going to the pub, watching TV, smoking, drinking, or having carnal thoughts about someone you're not married to; all these things are apparently sinful, for people outside of the fold, and shouldn't be indulged in.

  • A number of deaths around one of the group's first communes, New Creation Farm at Bugbrooke, focused intense scrutiny on the Fellowship in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Shaw describes three of these, two suicides by group members and one case of accidental death on the premises. (Shaw does not blame the group for these deaths directly, mentioning them mainly to explain the intense interest the press suddenly developed in the Fellowship.)

  • Bad publicity around New Creation Farm continued. The local Church of England rector complained that people often turned up on his doorstep having run away from the commune - sometimes women objecting to the group's discipline, sometimes people who wanted to leave the Fellowship but had already handed their income over to the communal purse, sometimes homeless people who had been recruited in London and were utterly lost in rural Northamptonshire. In 1986, shortly after being asked to leave the Evangelical Alliance, the group was expelled from the Baptist Union due, in part, to the adverse publicity. The Jesus Army itself was formed in 1987.

  • The Jesus Army frequently goes on Eat, Drink and Pray sessions in London, where they go out late at night with hot food and drinks and minister to homeless people and drunks. Shaw describes how they bring a refugee from Kosovo back to the communal house and bring him into the group.

  • Some former members of the group go further than Shaw in their accusations. Peter Eveleigh, who left the Fellowship in 1986, claimed in an anti-Jesus Fellowship pamphlet that strong peer pressure is brought to bear on members to remain celibate. He stated that marriage was considered to be inferior to celibacy, and women have no choice in the selection of a marriage partner other than the right to decline an unwanted advance, but Eveleigh claimed that there had been instances where women were pressured to "marry against her desire in the church's interest". From the men's side, the process of getting approval can take a long time, sometimes years, if the request isn't turned down outright. Even engaged couples who join the Fellowship, claimed Eveleigh, must separate when they join and request the approval of the elders for their relationship. "Only men over 25 may expect to be allowed to marry," Eveleigh alleged.

  • Eveleigh also made accusations about the status of children in the Fellowship - they were "virtually prohibited" from making friends with children who were not of the Fellowship, and were not allowed to take part in any extracurricular activities at school. It was made clear to the children that if they did not accept the community's lifestyle by the age of 18 they would have to leave their homes and parents.

  • The group's adversaries are not entirely innocent; ex-members and opponents of the group have been known to attack the Fellowship/Army's communal houses. Houses considered especially at risk are said to be under "vigilance", and at least one person is always left inside to keep watch.

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