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New Age books - New Age Religion and Western Culture by Hanegraaff

New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought - Amazon page New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought by Wikipedia link Wouter J. Hanegraaff, State University of New York Press, SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions (February 1998), 580 pages

Writing as an unbiased academic, neither gullible nor critical, Hanegraaff provides a superb overview of the New Age movement and the various aspects and beliefs that make up its worldview. He also refers to, quotes, and even has short biographical sections on, all the leading New Age lights, David Spangler, Shirley MacLaine, David Bohm, Edgar Cayce, Ramala, Marilyn Ferguson, Matthew Fox, Starhowk, and many more.

The first part covers the main trends (as Hanegraaff sees it) in New Age religion (channeling, healing, New Age Science, etc), and includes brief but very useful biographical sketches. The second looks at various themes, the Nature of Reality, the influence of mind in shaping our reality, new age cosmogony (Atlantis etc), and so on, The third part of the book gives the historical background of the New Age in the western esoteric tradition.

It is quite an experience to find long quotations by writers like Shirley MacLaine in such a serious and scholarly manner, not to criticise or ridicule but to elucidate the nature of New Age beliefs. This to me says much about the high academic integrity of the author.

For me the first two parts go together, and provide an excellent synopsis of the generic New Age worldview (allowing for great individual variations) and major themes, complete with book and page references (for brevity the books by New Age writers are indicated by abbreviations or letters, one has to continually consult the key at the end for the full title, at least until the abbreviations become familiar). This alone makes the book an essential edition to any student of contemporary new age or new paradigm thought (the two being pretty much synonymous here).

In contrast to the contemporary New Age covered in the first two parts, the third part is in a different, more history of ideas, style, and might almost be considered a separate short book in itself; it looks at the rise and development of esotericism in its "modern" Western context (as opposed to what is traditionally considered esotericism by the perennialist movement - Sufism, Kabbalah etc). Here we find reference to people like Swedenborg, Boehme, Mesmer, Emerson, Blavatsky, and others, as well as general themes, and much of interest to the student of historical esotericism.

I only have a few gripes regarding this otherwise excellent book.

First, while neopaganism is included as one of the major trends, there is no mention of popular gurus representing the Eastern religions. Hanegraaff makes a deliberate choice not to include the eastern gurus, because he was concerned to present the New Age as a primarily western movement. But the New Age, though it may be Western in popularity, has always incorporated ideas of the East, as we can see in the writings of everyone from Blavatsky to Wilber. And the influence of figures like Rajneesh, Maharesh Mahesh Yogi, and others is surely just as pervasive in and important to the overall make-up of the New Age as neopagan elements are, as browsing through the articles and advertisements in any New Age magazine will reveal.

Second, I was surprised to see no mention of David Tansley or Barbara Brennan, and no doubt other important New Age figures could be added as well. Sure one can only include so much, but Ms Brennan's books have had a huge influence on the New Age worldview and on holistic healing. There is also no mention of Reiki, perhaps because of its "Eastern" nature? Whatever the reasons, these ommissions leave this otherwise excellently comprehensive book strangely incomplete.

Without doubt, this work will set the standard of academic research into the New Age and popular esoetricism for many years to come.

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Text content by M.Alan Kazlev
uploaded 19 July 2008