October 22nd, 1995

POCAHONTAS THE PREACHER

Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.  It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).

Pocahontas is a success.  She’s done what the Disney company wanted her to do:  she’s entertained a lot of children and made a lot of money.  The movie, the toys and clothes and books–they all add up to big bucks.  But Pocahontas is more than a money maker.  She’s also a preacher.  She doesn’t just entertain.  She evangelizes.  She preaches a religion that’s fun and fascinating and friendly to the environment.

In the movie, Pocahontas learns that she can have ongoing contact with the spirit of her dead mother.  She also has her own special guide, Grandmother Willow, the spirit of a tree, who tells her,  “Have faith, child!  Let the spirit of the earth guide you.”  “All around you are spirits, child.  They live in the earth, the water, the sky…  If you listen, they will guide you…  You must listen with your heart.  Then you will understand.”  Pocahontas grows in the faith that everything has a spirit and that everything is ultimately one and that the way to ultimate truth is to listen to your own heart.

Pocahontas also evangelizes Captain John Smith.  She tells him, “The creatures of the forest, each rock and every bird, the fish in the waters–they are brothers and sisters.  We are all one–with the sun, the moon, and the stars…  Even this little leaf has a spirit and a name.  We are all part of the earth.  We are joined to each other…  My people say life on earth is like a giant hoop.  It has no beginning.  And it has no end.”  Smith is converted.  He too has contact with Grandmother Willow, and he experiences the spirit of an eagle entering him and helping him soar with Pocahontas and uniting them with the rest of nature.

Disney’s reincarnation of Pocahontas doesn’t have much in common with the real Pocahontas, of course.  Disney’s Pocahontas looks like a Hollywood sex symbol;  the real Pocahontas was just a child when Captain Smith arrived.  Disney’s Pocahontas falls in love with Smith.  The real Pocahontas had no romance with Smith but did marry an Englishman named John Rolfe when she grew a bit older.  Disney’s Pocahontas converts John Smith to nature worship.  The real Pocahontas never converted anybody.  She was the one who was converted.  She gave up her old religion, put her faith in Jesus Christ, and was baptized as a Christian.

But hey! who cares about the facts?  If you want history, read a textbook.  If you want to have fun, go see a movie.  Kids like the movie, Disney likes the dollars, and we can all live happily ever after, right?

Well, my kids like fun and fantasy and fairy tales as much as anybody;  and I don’t want to spoil anybody’s fun or stifle anybody’s imagination; but Pocahontas isn’t just another fantasy.  It doesn’t just recycle an old legend like Snow White.  It takes historical people and historical events and changes them.  And it doesn’t just deal with make-believe things that are all part of the fun and that nobody would take seriously, the way Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has talking teapots and kitchen utensils.  No, when Pocahontas speaks of all things in nature having a spirit, even stars and leaves;  when she listens to her own special spirit guide and to the spirit of the earth and to the spirit of her dead mother;  when she believes the spirits of all things are joined together in one;  she is expressing not just a fantasy for children but a form of religion that a great many people really believe.  And with the help of movies like this one, even more people may believe it.

If you think I’m overdoing it when I call Pocahontas a preacher, don’t blame me.  I’m just repeating what folks at Disney have said.  Disney’s deluxe new book The Art of Pocahontas says the film is meant to have “more than a touch of religious fervor, of spirituality.”

And don’t think that film fantasies can’t affect you or your children.  For example, the movie Top Gun is just fiction, but after Top Gun scored big at the box office, enlistment in the United States military soared upward.  Or take another example: a tobacco company payed the producer of a James Bond movie $350,000 for a three-second scene in which their brand of cigarette was being lit.  $350,000 for three seconds!  Obviously that tobacco company believes that movies have the power to affect attitudes.   If fiction doesn’t affect us, then why do so many of us worry about sex and violence in movies and on TV?

Okay, you might say, maybe fantasy can have an impact.  But how can anybody mention Pocahontas in the same breath as programs that are filled with sex and violence, or cigarettes, or films that look like recruitment commercials for the military?  Pocahontas is a kids’ movie.  It’s rated “G,” for goodness’ sake!  It’s about romance.  It promotes a love for nature.  It’s against violence and racism and ruining the environment.  How can anybody complain about a movie like that?

Some folks complain that Disney is hypocritical.   The movie condemns greed for gold even as it is carefully designed and marketed to make money selling a whole line of products to kids and their parents.  The movie condemns the exploitation of Virginia’s land and native people–and Disney was producing the movie at the very time it was also seeking to build a megabucks theme park in a historic area of Virginia despite major concerns about the land and the people native to the area.  But I don’t want to get bogged down in those matters.

I bring up Pocahontas because I want to think with you about the religion portrayed in it.  Pocahontas preaches a religious approach that more and more people in the English-speaking world find appealing:  the type of religion that is sometimes called New Age.  New Age messages are coming at us from many different directions, and Pocahontas is just one more example.  You need to be able to recognize these messages and understand the religious perspective that lies behind them and evaluate them in terms of the truth of God revealed in the Bible.

What I want to do with you is to look at some basic ideas of New Age thinking.  We’ll see why these ideas are attractive to so many people, we’ll look some ways these ideas are being promoted, and we’ll see that we need something better than what New Age thinking has to offer.

The historic Christian faith affirms some very definite beliefs in a personal God who has openly revealed himself in Jesus Christ and in the Bible.  New Age religion, however, is much harder to describe or get a handle on.  What is New Age?  Well, it’s hard to say that the New Age has one particular set of beliefs or worships one particular god.  In fact, that’s one of the main features of New Age religion that makes it attractive to so many people in our society:  There’s nothing definite about it, and it seems very tolerant and inclusive.  All religious beliefs are true in their own way, because all roads lead to God. God is everything and everything is God.

One expression of this is nature worship.  Think again of Pocahontas.  Like many Disney films, it offers wonderful cartoon animation, but it offers more than animation.  It also offers animism.  Animism is the idea that all things have a spirit, including trees and rocks and stars.  Animism involves efforts to communicate with these different spirits and to worship them.  In other words, animism is nature worship.  Often this animism is combined with pantheism, the idea that God is all and all is God, that the spirits of all things are actually manifestations of one Great Spirit who unites all things in one great circle of life.

Some forms of New Age religion draw on the animism of Native Americans and other tribal peoples.  Others draw more heavily on the Eastern religious traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism.  These religions differ in some details from tribal animism, but they are still similar in some important ways.  They believe that all is One; that all forms of being have spirit and are sacred; that a spirit which is human in this life may have been a cow or a mouse in another life; and that the goal of all forms of being, the final destiny of all incarnations and reincarnations, is to lose our sense of individual identity and be absorbed into the divine oneness that already exists in you and in everything else.

Besides tribal animism and the great Eastern religions, some New Agers also draw on the old pagan myths of gods and goddesses and on the mystery religions of ancient cultures and old gnostic ideas which emphasized a secret knowledge that comes only to those who are channeled messages from exalted masters.  The revelation isn’t public;  it comes through a guru and is available only through secret rites and rituals.  Still other New Agers pick up on various notions about astrology and the zodiac, or the magical power of crystals, or any number of other superstitions that suddenly have a new respectability.

But why refer to this hodgepodge of different ideas by one label and call it New Age?  Why use one label to cover all?  Wouldn’t it be more helpful to describe each different religion by its own proper name?  Well, in some ways that would be more helpful, I suppose.  But it’s not that simple, because New Age doesn’t stick to one particular religion.

New Age thinking is syncretistic, which means that it mixes together many different viewpoints.  New Agers usually aren’t Lakota Indian or Inca or Aztec or whatever, and they don’t want to follow all the practices of any particular tribe, but they may want to borrow some aspect of tribal religion.  New Agers may not be truly Hindu or Buddhist, but they like the some aspects of the great Eastern religions and the overarching worldview, and they borrow what they like.

In short, it is a smorgasbord religion.  Pick and choose what you like, and whatever you believe is true for you.  All that matters is that it works for you.  You can take aspects of various religions and superstitions, mix them together with a dash of Christianity if you like, spice it up with some witchcraft and communication with the dead, add a bit of science fiction here or there, top it off with a good dose of psychology, and presto!–you’re a deep, spiritual person who respects the beliefs of others, loves the environment, and can do almost anything through the power of positive thinking.  Again,  underlying all this is the idea that all is God, and that all religions lead to God even if they seem completely contradictory.

It’s not hard to see why this approach is attractive.  For one thing, it feels pretty good to think that you are God.  As Shirley MacLaine puts it, “If everyone was taught one basic spiritual law, your world would be a happier, healthier place.  And that law is this:  everyone is God.  Everyone.”  Psychologist M. Scott Peck, whose book The Road Less Traveled happens to be a favorite of many preachers and churchgoers, says in that book, “To put it plainly, our unconscious is God.  God within us.  We were part of God all along.”  Peck’s book says this was not only the message of the Buddha but also the message of Christ.

Another attraction of New Age thinking, especially in our day, is that it seems environmentally friendly.  If you worship the earth and the air and the plants and the animals, you won’t be so eager to pollute and destroy.  In fact, some environmental groups promote pantheism, the idea the everything is part of God.  For example, a Sierra Club publication offers meditation techniques for “conversation with the spirit of the living Earth,” and then it says, “The more you contact the spirit of the living Earth, and evaluate what it says, the easier it will become for you to contact it and trust what it provides.”

Remember what Grandmother Willow told Pocahontas?  “Have faith, child!  Let the spirit of the earth guide you.”  Sounds like the Sierra Club and Disney are stealing each others lines–or else both are stealing their lines from New Age pantheism.

Another appealing aspect of the New Age approach is that it’s user-friendly.  You don’t hear that horrible 3-letter word SIN in New Age teaching.  You don’t have to honor the agenda of a supreme and personal God;  you can harness the power of the impersonal god-power-within-you to accomplish whatever happens to be on your agenda.  Motivational seminars for athletes and business people sometimes use New Age ideas to help people relax and visualize success and grow confident in their own unlimited powers.  One sports psychologist says, “Much of this work is about spiritual stuff, but we don’t ever say that because people start getting nervous…  Our stance is that people are unlimited in their individual abilities, that as humans all of us are infinitely able to do anything we want.”  “Infinitely able,” of course, is just another way of saying “Almighty.”  The New York Times told how representatives of some of giant corporations met to “discuss how metaphysics, the occult and Hindu mysticism might help executives compete in the world market.”

Still another attraction of the New Age is that it can be fascinating.  It doesn’t come in the form of a single book like the Bible that anybody can open and read.  You get forms of secret revelation that elevate you to a higher level than other people, and that elevates you above the crowd.  Mystical meditation, magic crystals, contact with the dead, channeled messages from ascending masters–these take you far beyond the average person and the dull humdrum of day-to-day life.  Nobody wants to be average, and certainly, nobody wants to be bored.

What should we make of all this?  First of all, we need to recognize that it’s evidence of a powerful spiritual hunger.  Very few of us can live with a worldview that everything is really just a bunch of atoms and molecules interacting randomly.  There’s got to be more to it than that.  We sense the touch of the divine in nature and in our own being.  And when you don’t know the one true God–the Lord who is a personal being and not an indefinite, impersonal force–you begin to deify what God has made instead of worshipping the true God himself.

What happens is that Satan, the ultimate deceiver, takes a genuine spiritual desire and an authentic sense of wonder and twists it into nature worship and self-worship.  And he makes it seem attractive.  Do you want to respect and protect the environment?  Then, says Satan, perhaps you should worship it.  Do you marvel at the power of the human mind and our potential for accomplishing things?  Then, whispers the devil, why not suppose that you are really on a par with God himself?

Now, of course we should take good care of the world God made, and of course we should be grateful for the personality and potential God has given us.  But it’s a deadly error to equate something that shows the touch of the divine with the divine Lord himself.  Everything was created by God.  That doesn’t mean everything is God.  We human beings are made in God’s image.  That doesn’t mean we are God.

Satan is a master of making lies look attractive, and those who spread his lies are often attractive as well.  As the Bible puts it, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.  It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).  Don’t expect Satan to always come breathing fire.  Do you think he’s stupid?  He’s most effective when he’s working in disguise.

Sometimes Satan’s method may be a mantra or horoscope or seance or secret ritual.  Then again, it may be an herbal healer who slowly convinces you that herbs don’t just have some physical properties capable of helping you, but that the real healing power comes from the spirits that live in the plants.  It may be a basketball coach using Zen spirituality to improve performance.  It may be an environmental organization implying that the only way to save the planet is to worship it.  It may be a motivational speaker who privately admits that his work is spiritual but doesn’t say that to his clients.  It may be a pop psychologist like John Bradshaw offering New Age prescriptions for your deepest ills.

And yes, it may be something you watch for fun.  It may be Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, communicating with the spirits of the dead and learning to make use of a universal, impersonal Force which has both a bright side and a dark side.  It may be the Karate Kid learning from Mr. Miyagi to look inside himself for everything he needs.  It may be sweat lodge visions in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman or Walker, Texas Ranger or Dances With Wolves.  And it may be Disney’s Pocahontas trusting in the spirit of the earth.  Satan doesn’t just use crude movies that are rated R and X and NC-17.  He’s happy to use one that’s rated G.

Meanwhile, right within many Christian churches, the line between Christianity and other religions has been blurred.  Almost everybody these days is in favor of a vague something called “spirituality,” without bothering to ask whether certain teachings are true or false.  People like Joseph Campbell and Madeleine L’Engle have helped blur the line between truth and error with their talk about the power of myth.  All religions can be true as myth, because none of them are true as fact.

This kind of thinking has deeply influenced some of you who are preachers and leaders in the church.  Satan can get you so confused that you can’t tell the difference between the message of Jesus and the Buddha, between nature worship and adoration of the one true God, between the occult and true spirituality, between the gnostic psychology of Carl Jung and the revelation of God in Scripture.  And in the middle of all this, Satan may even help you to feel like a better person.  Satan is happy to give you a bit more of your own righteousness if that will keep you from seeking the righteousness Jesus gives.

Our society desperately needs revival, and the Christian church desperately needs reformation.  We need a renewed and living relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ in order to satisfy our spiritual yearnings.  Otherwise, we’ll keep sampling all sorts of different dishes in the religious smorgasbord, and we won’t even taste the poison that Satan has slipped in.  We need the Holy Spirit of God to help us to understand that the truth matters.  We need to realize that Satan often masquerades as an angel of light, that we can’t drop our guard even when we’re listening to a preacher or watching a G-rated movie.  We need to be thinking and praying and consulting the Bible all the time in order to separate divine fact from demonic fantasy.

The Lord doesn’t say, “I am God and so are you and so is everything else.”  He says in the Bible, “I am God, and there is no other;  I am God, and there is none like me” (Isaiah 46:9).

God doesn’t say, “You must listen to your heart and you will understand.”  He says in the Bible, “Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit” and woe to the women “who prophesy out of their own imagination (Ezekiel 13:3,17).

God doesn’t say we go through as many reincarnations as it takes to merge with the universal consciousness.  He says in the Bible, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

Jesus doesn’t say, “I am just one among many spiritual masters, and all roads eventually lead to God.”  Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  That’s the message the real Pocahontas came to believe, and that’s the message you need to believe.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.