When I was in my first year of seminary, the students were required to take a missions and evangelism class. One of our projects was to go forth into the beast that is LA and street evangelize. That was years before street preaching was in vogue among Reformed folks, so we were all but clueless as what to do.
At any rate, my buddy from Alabama (we won’t hold that against him) suggested we go down to Sunset Blvd where the big Scientology dormitory was and see if we could witness to them. All I knew about Scientology was that their leader, L. Ron Hubbard, wrote science fiction books and floated about on a yacht, and various movie stars were Scientologists. I was game, so I said, “sure.”
We arrived at the place and parked outside the building on the street. Immediately, a little security car comes pulling up and this police officer looking chap asks us where we were going. I replied to see a friend, which wasn’t entirely untrue because we did have a friend living in an apartment across the street from their complex and we planned to pay a visit. He waved and told us to have a great evening.
Walking up to the front of the building, we were greeted by a massive, John Deer tractor-sized gold lion statue. We gawked at that lion for a moment and then ascended the marble stairs that led up to the main lobby. There inside was an enormous bust of L. Ron Hubbard’s bulbous, pot-marked head sitting near the book store. Scientologist cadets (If we can call them that) hurried up and down the halls. They were all dressed in various solid colored shirts like vintage Star Trek uniforms. That was weird and funny all at the same time.
Browsing the books, the shelves were stocked with all sorts of texts that I guessed explained Scientology or discipled the practitioners. I don’t think we found one that was under 75 bucks. A young man strolled over to us and began chatting us up. We asked him to give us the run down on what Scientology was all about and he confidently told us how it helps you use your mind correctly. He pointed out an E-meter that supposedly measured the electrodermal activity in a person. I said it looked like a car battery charger. He wasn’t amused by that comment.
Needless to say, we had an interesting conversation that I go into greater detail in a post over at my personal site if you’re interested.
I reminisce about that day for the purpose of drawing the readers’ attention to what I think is an important apologetic book that just so happens to be a history of Scientology.
Most Americans are vaguely familiar with Scientology because of its connection with Hollywood elites, particularly Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Others through the prolific science fiction writings of the founder, L. Ron Hubbard. While the average person maybe recognizes the name “Scientology,” and the better than average person may know it’s a religious organization of some sorts, what the general public doesn’t know is the dark and disturbing underbelly of the secretive group, and that is what Lawrence Wright’s book exposes for us.
I had read the author’s previous history about Al Qaeda, entitled The Looming Tower (That’s an excellent book as well, by the way, and would highly recommend BTWN folks to read it), so I knew that Wright was a fabulous researcher who had the ability to weave together an engaging story. I was interested in his book on Scientology because the “Church’s” presence swirls around in Southern California.
The book is broken into three major parts. The first opens by recounting the “conversion” of writer Paul Haggis in 1975. A skeptical atheist, Haggis, was drawn to the claims that Scientology was a scientific approach to self-help and personal betterment. He stayed devoted to the Church until the late 2000s when Scientologist leadership refused to take a public stand against Proposition 8, California’s traditional marriage bill.
After setting up Haggis’s story, Wright moves to a detailed biographical overview of L. Ron Hubbard. He was a man with an extremely troubled personal life who spent a lot of his early years in pursuit of a Bohemian lifestyle. Wright tells how Hubbard was a washout in the navy during World War 2 and how he gained a following writing for pulp science fiction magazines. Hubbard had the ability to write voluminous amounts of sci fi stories that were published under a number of pseudonyms.
He was also fixated on the occult and would dabble in the occultism of Aleister Crowley while living in Pasadena. He and a friend, Jack Parsons, who worked for what would become known as JPL and developed solid rocket fuel, headed up a cadre of occultists and other spiritual malcontents. Together, Hubbard and Parsons created an occultic sex ritual designed to summon an ancient female deity of Babalon, as they called it. Their friendship eventually dissolved because Hubbard stole Parsons’s girlfriend.
After a number of attempts to make money with his writing, he finally hit pay dirt with the publication of Dianetics in 1950. Hubbard fancied himself a self-taught, self-help guru, and unlike most of the flash-in-the-pan books of the self-help genre that are popular for a year or so and then disappear completely, his book stuck. Dianetics became the gateway he used to introduce readers to further material he developed that was promised to help individuals get over their personal problems and take control of their lives. Through that, Scientology was born.
Wright then goes into an overview of what it is that Scientology teaches and why. He lays out the development of all the Scientology lingo, like “going clear,” “Emeters,” “suppressive person,” and the “Rehabilitation Project Force,” which is more like a North Korean gulag designed to rehabilitate members, including children as young as four, who had failed to meet expectations or were believed to be “goofing off.” He also explains the various operating levels within Scientology and the mythology behind Xenu, the tyrannical space overlord who banished the souls of his people by flying them to earth on jetliners and killing them in volcanoes. Those souls are called “thetans” and attach themselves to human beings causing them all sorts of emotional and mental harm. The gist of Scientology is to separate those thetans from your body so that you can then go clear.
Some of the more unbelievable revelations Wright recounts involve Scientology’s attempts to destroy by harassment anyone who tried to leave the church or write negatively about it. For example, Paulette Cooper, a journalist who wrote one of the first ever scathing reviews of the group in 1971. She became the victim of numerous lawsuits and other countless personal attacks that almost drove her to suicide. Even more stunning was Scientology’s Operation Snow White, a criminal conspiracy attempted by members working in at least 30 countries in more than 130 government agencies around the world to purge any negative reports on the group. They wiretapped and stole documents from many of those agencies, including most notably, the IRS.
The second part of the book deals with Scientology and their influence among many elite Hollywood movie stars and entertainment moguls. After Hubbard’s death in 1986, a young “messenger” in the Sea Org named David Miscavige organized a take over of the Church and purged all the senior members in Hubbard’s absence. He was the one who brought Scientology to a place of having tax exemption from the IRS (obtained through lawsuits and harassment campaigns against the IRS personnel), as well as a more prominent roll among Hollywood elites. A good portion of this section tells of Tom Cruise’s involvement with Scientology and his influence within the group as a major public relations for them.
The third section of the book returns us to the life of Paul Haggis. In 2008, when proposition 8, the traditional marriage bill was to be voted on in California, Haggis was troubled that the official church in San Diego had given contributions in support of the bill. Haggis had two lesbian daughters who had been raised in the Church, and he saw Scientology’s support of prop. 8 as hypocritical against everything he believed they stood for.
When attempts to change the mind of church leaders failed, Haggis began his own investigation through the internet and began to have his eyes opened to the fact that Hubbard had always believed homosexuality was a subversive behavior that needed to be purged from those who practice it. That began to lead Haggis to question what he had always believed and eventually leave the church altogether.
Wright’s book on Scientology is fantastic, both as a compelling story, as well as an important apologetic work. While it certainly provides insight to one of the more strange, but secretive mind-science cults in the world, it also is a study on the power of how what one believes can be so enslaving, or the idea behind “Prison of Belief” in the subtitle.
Members of the church for the most part come from irreligious families, or folks who have fallen out with the church of their youth. Many, like Haggis, profess no religious affiliation at all and even claim to be atheists. They are initially drawn to Scientology because it is said to be the study of “science” and the mind techniques developed by Hubbard are claimed to help people overcome their hang-ups, phobias, and other personal anxieties on their own apart from the help of doctors, psychiatrists, or even priests and pastors.
Many Scientologist testify that the basic, introductory courses they took immediately helped them with their mental health issues, much more than any doctor or prescribed medication could ever hope to do. That breakthrough is what entices them to continue with the church. Some even join the top fraternal order called the Sea Org signing the billion year contract basically staying committed for all eternity to Scientology.
Thus, they willingly embrace as true the bizarre sci fi space “revelations” of Hubbard, along with the abusive hazing rites that happens at all levels throughout the organization. For example, when the FBI raided the Hollywood headquarters (the dormitory where my friend and I visited) in the aftermath of Operation Snow White, agents found a large room in the basement filled with men and women wearing boiler room working outfits. None of the people welcomed their “liberation” from what really amounted to cruel captivity, but saw the FBI as wrongfully intruding in their necessary program to keep themselves in good standing with the church.
The RPF is just a small slice of the abuse Scientologists are exposed to. They’ve been forced to divorce spouses, give up their children, get abortions, and subjected to some of the harshest bullying imaginable. Even children are subjected to what really amounts to slave labor by performing tasks for the church. Yet, as Wright points out, none of them would say they are being abused. They would claim that they personally are the problem, and would never imagine their leaders, particularly David Miscavige, is an insane and brutal individual.
Wright is not a Christian, so his study is not filtered through a Christian worldview. However, what he had done is provide a unique glimpse into the power of an individual with a charismatic persona to manipulate men and women desperately attempting to find meaning in life, deal with trials, hurts, and an overall desire to work their way to gain personal salvation on their own apart from God’s grace.
The book is also available in audio, so if you are a commuter or have the time to listen rather than read, I would recommend checking out the audio edition from your local library. What makes or breaks an audio book is the reader, and Morton Sellers, who read this one, did a phenomenal job.