NRM Teaching Challenges:
Thinking Along with Peoples Temple Survivors

by David F. Mihalyfy

As I teach my new course “New Religious Movements: Myths and Reality” twice this year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), I hope that the work of Peoples Temple survivors will help my students think through delicate ethical issues involving the dehumanization of members of new religious movements (NRMs).

On the one hand, general skills taught through NRM-specific content are relatively uncontroversial. Due to its status as a First Year Seminar, my course will train students in the interlocking fundamentals of college-level humanistic inquiry: the formulation of sharp questions, the respect necessary for vibrant dialogue, and the professional writing and speaking skills that facilitate that dialogue. True, these fundamentals also surface in students’ lives as citizens – just think of conversations about political issues – but that civic formation is a happy side effect of education, not a tricky topic demanding tact.

On the other hand, a much greater challenge arises from the course’s NRM-specific content. Since NRMs are often the targets of stigma and sensationalism, their members are often dehumanized in an all-too-familiar “feedback loop.” First, popular wisdom tags “cultists” as victims of odd psychological pathologies or credulous robots. In turn, these perceptions inspire and are reproduced by many media portrayals and works of art that revel in prurience and shock value rather than seek understanding. As a result, NRM members can experience perceptions of themselves as odd or less-than-human, and given its prevalence in society and even primary sources, this judgment will enter the classroom and militate against the academic and civic value of respect for persons.

Consequently, the course’s current design seeks to combat this persistent dehumanization in three ways.

First, the course immediately asks students to work through the academic brainwashing debate that questioned the popular stereotypes.

On the first day of class, students will watch Errol Morris’ 2010 documentary Tabloid and then compose one or two paragraphs describing the perceptions of its subject Joyce McKinney, who thought her love Kirk Anderson was brainwashed by the Church of Latter Day Saints. Next, students will think through how scholars disputed the validity of such perceptions by examining Communist thought reform camps and recruitment into the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

In addition to offering writing practice and a straightforward example of scholarly dialogue, then, this series of classes directly takes on dehumanizing stereotypes and should ideally leave students asking more nuanced, insightful questions about social forces that affect us all, not just “them.”

Since the course also segues into these new questions, this dehumanization will likely be overcome as part of the course material’s natural progression.

Second, encounters with the voices of NRM members will also fight this dehumanization.

Many course units incorporate personal accounts by members and ex-members. For example, Laura Johnston Kohl’s Jonestown Survivor and Leslie Wagner-Wilson’s Slavery of Faith appear in a unit on NRM-related violence alongside a scholarly hypothesis derived in part from examination of Peoples Temple.

Each student will also write a research paper on a local NRM studied through written sources and three-to-four term-time site visits. Ranging from a New Age bookstore and a yoga studio to Alcoholics Anonymous and guru-centered meditation groups, these NRMs were pre-screened for leadership open to an ongoing relationship with the course, and to rule out NRMs that require money, act deceptively, or engage in high pressure proselytization or illegal activities. Ideally, the experiential learning of the site visits will deepen students’ understanding and resist any simplistic conceptions of NRM members.

For that reason, the course will treat interpersonal skills necessary for respectful, productive encounters.

Resources will include not only the standard ethnography handbook Analyzing Social Settings, but also in-class speakers. For example, in fall semester, SAIC graduate Kelly Christian will discuss how she and collaborator Charla Hudlow documented activities of the Patriot Guard Riders, bikers who often counter the efforts of protest groups like the Westboro Baptist Church by shielding the funerals of military personnel, veterans, and first responders.

As with the other general skills taught through the course, students should thus become better prepared as citizens, and quite possibly as artists as well.

Third and finally, the course will include a capstone unit on several more complicated ethical issues branching outward from dehumanization.

During the question-and-answer period following a memorable presentation by a panel of Peoples Temple survivors at the 2011 American Academy of Religion conference, a professor asked what the survivors thought students should learn about Jonestown. One survivor answered – and the others agreed – what was most important was that Peoples Temple members were the antithesis of clones or brainwashed zombies; instead, they were a group of the most very different people imaginable. Yet, as I was finalizing my syllabus, I was bothered by how the course discussed Peoples Temple only in the unit on NRM-related violence; although valid, that line of questioning elides members’ experience by foregrounding general social phenomena, thus subtly dehumanizing them in contradiction of their wishes, not to mention academic and civic values.

Accordingly, I decided to leave in the unit on NRM-related violence, but I also decided to create the capstone unit and ask students those same tough questions. Now, students will look at the Peoples Temple / Jonestown gallery on Flickr and read remembrances from the jonestown report, then discuss not only what topics were selected for the course and why, but also how the selection of certain topics over others can affect perceptions of a given NRM.

I also decided to ask how and why artists choose to represent and speak on the experiences of NRM members. As part of a larger interrogation into his country’s psyche, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami composed Underground, an oral history of Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system. On the basis of this expertise, he later spoke to the New York Times about Al Qaeda. Independently, artists who find inspiration in Peoples Temple have found themselves noticed by and even engaging in extensive conversations with survivors through the pages of the jonestown report (e.g. the paintings of Nick Burgess, the Cults music video “Go Outside”, the Jonestown Library project of Nicola Bergström Hansen). Ideally, discussion of these works and their reception will allow students to reflect on why artists turn to NRMsn as well as to sensitize them to possible responsibilities if they should undertake such a project.

Overall, then, this capstone unit should force students to grapple with how scholars and even artists can use and dehumanize NRM members, even beyond the common stereotypes about brainwashing.

These are my hopes for the course, but hopes do not always match reality. In particular, I wonder if I will ever see effects on students’ artistic practice, since past students have said that such effects are unpredictable and often require a long gestation period. In any case, I’m thankful for this forum to express my thoughts, and am looking forward to any feedback from jtr bulletin readers, as well as to reporting on course outcomes after the completion of this academic year.

(David Mihalyfy is an Instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago. The curriculum for his class is here. He may be reached here.)

Last modified on January 7th, 2017.
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