I freely confess that I am, as a rule, not a big Wikipedia fan. However, I must reluctantly tip my hat to the brave souls who attempted the all-but-impossible task of writing a brief summary of the history and contents of the "New Age" movement. Talk about trying to make sense out of spaghetti thrown against the sanctuary wall! Here is a sample:
The New Age movement is a Western spiritual movement that developed in the second half of the 20th century. Its central precepts have been described as "drawing on both Eastern and Western spiritual and metaphysical traditions and then infusing them with influences from self-help and motivational psychology, holistic health, parapsychology, consciousness research and quantum physics". It aims to create "a spirituality without borders or confining dogmas" that is inclusive and pluralistic. ...
The New Age movement includes elements of older spiritual and religious traditions ranging from atheism and monotheism through classical pantheism, naturalistic pantheism, and panentheism to polytheism combined with science and Gaia philosophy; particularly archaeoastronomy, astronomy, ecology, environmentalism, the Gaia hypothesis, psychology, and physics. New Age practices and philosophies sometimes draw inspiration from major world religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Chinese folk religion, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism; with strong influences from East Asian religions, Gnosticism, Neopaganism, New Thought, Spiritualism, Theosophy, Universalism, and Western esotericism. The term New Age refers to the coming astrological Age of Aquarius.
Well, that about covers it. I love the word "sometimes" near the start of the second sentence in that second paragraph. As if there needed to be another grammatical qualifier in there somewhere! But how do you define a movement that, at its essence, was an attempt to avoid confining doctrines (a practice that produces its own doctrines, of course) while promoting an individualistic, consumerist approach to spiritual experience?
Talk about a quintessentially "emerging" American religious trend. A Buddhist thinker once told me that the essence of the era was "charge card spirituality." To see more attempts at defining this term, click here.
I bring this up, of course, because of the Arizona jury's decision to find "New Age guru" James Arthur Ray guilty of negligent homicide in the deaths of three of his followers during what the New York Times called a "botched sweat lodge ceremony near Sedona in October 2009."
Readers are also given some background material, with much of it coming through the voice of prosecutor Sheila Polk:
The case drew international attention, largely because of the bizarre circumstances and because the deaths took place at a pristine campground within sight of the red rocks of Sedona, a well-known New Age gathering place. ...
Ms. Polk had painted Mr. Ray as a reckless man who continued his ceremony, the culmination of a five-day “Spiritual Warrior” seminar that cost as much as $10,000 a person, without regard for the participants who were falling ill and slipping into unconsciousness.
The defense said the three victims were not coerced by Mr. Ray and may have died from unknown toxins in the sweat lodge, a round wood-frame structure covered with blankets and tarps. Besides the three deaths, numerous other participants were injured during the ceremony, which was intended to push people to conquer their limitations. All had signed waivers warning that death was among the risks, Mr. Ray’s lawyers noted.
“You will have to get to a point to where you surrender and it’s O.K. to die,” Mr. Ray said in a recording during the ceremony that was played at the trial.
That's interesting information. However, readers are never given even the shortest of answers to several essential questions and, yes, they have to do with religion. What, for example, is a "sweat lodge"? What were the seekers seeking, as in the specific spiritual or material goal that was worth risking their lives? What was the ideal experience inside that lodge?
In other words, what is the religious content of this event and, thus, the story? Where did Ray get the content of this product that he was selling? I am assuming that, in the non-tradition of the New Age, he had essentially created his own rite out of pieces of Native American religion. If so, readers need to know that.
If these kinds of questions interest you, don't bother looking in the Los Angeles Times, either -- other than a vague hint in the lede:
A jury in Arizona convicted a bestselling author and self-help guru Wednesday in the deaths of three clients during a sweat lodge ceremony in 2009 that was intended to help participants overcome adversity to reach their full potential.
That's a start. So what else do readers need to know about the spiritual and religious issues involved in this drama, in order to grasp why these people risked their lives? True, we do learn a few facts about Ray's rise, with the help of Larry King and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. But what was the content of the product he was marketing there?
During the trial, witnesses testified about the chaotic, two-hour event in the steam-filled sweat lodge. It ended with dozens of clients being dragged from the building. In addition to the deaths, more than 20 people were hospitalized.
Sorry, but that's all you are going to get. It seems that ideas have consequences, but the content of religious ideas is not worthy of journalistic attention in this kind of court story -- even if people died.
Has anyone found coverage of the trial that yielded factual insights?