Andrew Pudewa and Musical Pseudoscience

Andrew Pudewa

By R.L Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

My mom loves writing.

She loves to write, she loves to teach others how to write, and she loves attending workshops on how to write better. As far back as I can remember, she emphasized the importance of writing well to her children. My siblings and I grew up being encouraged to write short stories, book reports, poems, and — in my case — even musical productions.

Two decades ago, my mom brought Andrew Pudewa to Los Gatos Christian Church in the San Jose, California area to teach homeschool kids about good writing. Pudewa runs the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW). IEW describes itself as an “award-winning approach” that “will give you the tools you need to confidently teach your students to write well, think clearly, and express themselves eloquently and persuasively.” The cornerstone of the IEW program is “Teaching Writing: Structure and Style,” a course for parents and teachers on how to teach writing.

About Andrew Pudewa

Almost two decades ago, my mom brought Andrew Pudewa several times to Los Gatos Christian Church in the San Jose, California area.
Two decades ago, my mom brought Andrew Pudewa several times to Los Gatos Christian Church in the San Jose, California area.

Pudewa has been the principle speaker and director of IEW since the 1990’s. While he does not have a college degree, he does have two stated credentials: First, he is a “graduate of the Talent Education Institute in Matsumoto, Japan.” This means he has a “Suzuki Violin Teacher” certificate. Second, he has a “Certificate of Child Brain Development from the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.” (The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential is a non-profit organization whose programs for brain injured children have provoked significant controversy over the last few decades.)

While Pudewa primarily focuses on writing, his opinions on other matters have popped up online from time to time. Pudewa believes public schools are “temples of relativism.” He has argued that multiple-choice tests are “evil” and “part of a clandestine effort by the inner sanctum of social scientists.” He also calls the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression.”

I vividly remember three things from attending Pudewa’s writing classes:

1) Pudewa’s notion of the ideal paragraph.

2) Group massages.

3) Rock music kills plants and hurts rats.

The first — Pudewa’s notion of the ideal paragraph — I remember with fondness. Pudewa has these strategies for making a paragraph interesting. Each paragraph is supposed to include different “types” of sentences — a sentence beginning with a declarative, like “There is…,” a sentence beginning with an “-ing” verb, like “Thinking he was late, the boy rushed…,” a “very short sentence” with five words or less, and so forth. I have heard from other homeschool graduates that they hated this part of Pudewa’s program, that it was stifling and led to poor writing habits that took years to overcome. I even found a homeschooling mom express this sentiment recently in such a spot-on way it was simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking:

“[My child’s] paragraph on Noah is all stilted and weird because she HAD to include that who clause and that ‘ly word.

While I understand those criticisms, I personally appreciated the idea of intentionally changing your sentence structure to make each paragraph more arresting.

The second — group massages — was just weird. Pudewa would make all the class attendees — homeschool kids and homeschooling mothers — stand up and give each other back massages. When you’re a kid and your teacher makes you give a back massage to not only strangers but much older adult woman, and vice-versa, it is… weird.

The third — Pudewa’s tangential lessons on the “effects of music on life” — are what I am interested in discussing here.

Pudewa has a fascination with music and its alleged effects on the human brain and children’s ability to learn. This fascination makes sense considering Pudewa is not only a writing teacher, but also a Suzuki-method violin teacher. In fact, it might interest homeschool graduates who disliked Pudewa’s writing instruction methods to know that Pudewa’s methods are an experiment in applying Suzuki’s method for teaching violin to something other than music — namely, writing.

The Profound (New Age) Effects of Music on Life

It wasn’t random happenstance that other children and I learned about the detrimental impact certain types of music can have on rats, plants, and students two decades ago. Pudewa has been teaching this lesson since the 1990’s.

Even today, the Institute for Excellence in Writing continues to sell Pudewa's presentation on music, entitled "The Profound Effects of Music on Life."
Even today, the Institute for Excellence in Writing continues to sell Pudewa’s presentation on music, entitled “The Profound Effects of Music on Life.”

More important, he still is.

Just a couple years ago in 2011, Andrea Schwartz — who works with the Christian Reconstructionist organization the Chalcedon Foundation and who oversees the Chalcedon Teacher Training Institute — interviewed Pudewa. In that interview, Pudewa brings up the same plant and rat stories I heard as a kid.

As of today, in November of 2013, the Institute for Excellence in Writing sells Pudewa’s presentation on music, entitled “The Profound Effects of Music on Life.” The presentation description says the listener will “discover the fascinating effects that different kinds of music have on our brains,” a discovery that will “transform your thinking” and make you “never listen to music in quite the same way again.” How does Pudewa accomplish this? Well, “Dramatic evidence regarding potentially harmful music is introduced with both scientific data and spiritual insight.”

Yes, “dramatic evidence.”

You could spend $15 and buy his presentation to find out more. Or you can check out the presentation handout that IEW has available for free on their website. A quick perusal of this handout verifies for me that this is exactly the same presentation with the exact same “dramatic evidence” that I heard as a child, years and years ago at Los Gatos Christian Church.

So what is this “dramatic evidence” that leads Pudewa to teach young, impressionable children for two decades now that rock music could “potentially harm” their bodies and brains? Well, the evidence comes from a number of sources, the most notable being: Dorothy Retallack, Frances Rauscher, and Inge and Ron Cannon.

The New Age Pseudoscience of Dorothy Retallack

Rock music kills plants.

Andrew Pudewa's primary source for his musical plant claim is Dorothy Retallack's book "The Sound of Music and Plants."
Andrew Pudewa’s primary source for his musical plant claim is Dorothy Retallack’s book “The Sound of Music and Plants.”

If there is anything for which I will forever remember Andrew Pudewa, it is this claim.

He made the claim almost two decades ago. He is still making the claim today.

In Pudewa’s aforementioned presentation outline, you can see this for yourself. He claims that, “Plants exposed to classical music flourished while those exposed to rock and heavily percussive music were less healthy and turned away from the source of sound, many finally dying.” He then provides a footnote to the “primary source” for this “research citation.”

Pudewa’s primary source for his musical plant claim is Dorothy Retallack’s book The Sound of Music and Plants.

Dorothy Retallack was a professional mezza-soprano who described herself as a “doctor’s wife, housekeeper, and grandmother to fifteen.” In 1964, after her last child graduated from college, she enrolled as a freshman at the now-nonexistent Temple Buell College. Note that she was a professional musician, not a scientist. In order to fulfill her basic general ed science requirements, Retallack took an Introduction to Biology course. Her teacher asked her to conduct an experiment — any experiment that would interest her. This experiment led to her claim to fame: the musical plant myth.

According to Dr. Daniel Chamovitz (Ph.D. Genetics, Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University, Retallack was “a unique mixture of a social conservative who believed that loud rock music correlated with antisocial behavior among college students and a New Age spiritualist who saw a sacred harmony between music and physics and all of nature.” She was inspired for her experiment by a 1959 book called The Power of Prayer on Plants. This book was written by the late Reverend Franklin Loehr, who founded the Religious Research Foundation.

Do me a quick favor, by the way, and go look at his “foundation” website. This will tell you all you need to know.

But just in case that doesn’t clue you in, let me add: Loehr was a “past life reader” who believed he channeled an “entity” that called itself “Dr. John Christopher Daniels.” This entity was a “research librarian” 4300 years ago.

So Retallack’s experiment on plants was inspired by the ancient librarian-channeling Reverend’s book about plants. In his book, Loehr claimed that plants bombarded with prayers fared better than plants bombarded with hateful thoughts. This claim caused Retallack to wonder if music could impact plants in the same way. She exposed a variety of plants to Bach, Schoenberg, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. Her experiments, she claimed, demonstrated that plants exposed to soft classical music (and even elevator music) were healthy, whereas plants exposed to rock music — in particular, the drum beats of rock music — died. She wrote up her conclusions in the 1973 book The Sound of Music and Plants.

And there you have it. This is the origin of the idea that rock music kills plants. This is the entirety of the evidence that Andrew Pudewa cites for the idea as well.

But there are some problems. I will let Dr. Chamovitz explain:

Retallack’s studies were drought with scientific shortcomings… The number of replicates in her studies was so small that it was not sufficient for statistical analysis. The experimental design was poor—some of the studies were carried out in her friend’s house—and parameters, such as soil moisture, were determined by touching the soil with a finger. While Retallack cites a number of experts in her book, almost none of them are biologists. They are experts in music, physics, and theology, and quite a few citations are from sources with no scientific credentials. Most important, however, is the fact that her research has not been replicated in a credible lab… Retallack’s musical plants have been relegated to the garbage bin of science.

What Dr. Chamovitz states is the universal scientific consensus. Because — spoiler alert — plants don’t have ears. Plants can technically see, smell, and feel. But they cannot hear. As Eastern Connecticut State University professor of Botany, Ross Koning, has stated:

Plants have no ears to hear and no brain to process or develop musical taste or music appreciation…so any attempts to show relationships between music forms and growth or other responses have met with total failure in the hands of true scientists. This explains the lack of literature you find to read on the subject.

The popular TV show MythBusters even had a segment on this myth, entitled “Talking to Plants.” Like Retallack, they too used bad scientific methods. But unlike Retallack, their conclusions were in favor of beat-driven music: the plants they exposed to intense death metal grew the most.

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, who has a PhD in Horticulture and is the Extension Urban Horticulturist at Puyallup Research and Extension Center at Washington State University, has also written a scatching review of Retallack’s “research.” Dr. Chalker-Scott points out that, among many other problems, Retallack’s book should not be considered valid because: (1) out of the 40 footnotes only two are relevant to the subject of plant growth and sound; (2) Retallack “anthropomorphizes,” comparing “plants to humans in terms of having ‘likes and dislikes, their feelings and idiosyncrasies'”; and (3) “the potting containers were Styrofoam drinking cups with no drainage.”

Most curiously, Dr. Chalker-Scott also makes the following observation: “The book is published by a company that specializes in New Age literature, not science.”

Yes, New Age literature. Dr. Chamovitz also points this out: “Her book was eventually published as New Age literature.”

Andrew Pudewa has been teaching New Age literature to Christian homeschoolers for  two decades.

Misinterpreting Frances Rauscher

Andrew Pudewa cites studies by Dr. Frances Rauscher, widely considered to be the pioneer of the "Mozart Effect."
Andrew Pudewa cites studies by Dr. Frances Rauscher, widely considered to be the pioneer of the “Mozart Effect.”

It’s not just plants that rock music hurts, though, according to Pudewa. Rats are also negatively impacted; in contrast, Mozart can positively benefit — via the “Mozart Effect” — students and children. Again from his presentation handout:

College students temporarily improved spatial-temporal IQ scores by 8-10 points after listening to Mozart, when compared with relaxation music and no music… Preschool children given six months of keyboard instruction increased spatial-temporal IQ scores by an average of 46% over other supplemental instruction (singing, computer, free play)… Rats exposed to Mozart music from before birth to 60 days old were able to learn mazes over twice as fast as those with no music, whereas rats exposed to repetitive “minimalist” music were unable to navigate mazes at all.

For all of these claims, Pudewa cites studies by Dr. Frances Rauscher. Dr. Rauscher (PhD, Experimental Psychology, Columbia University) is widely considered the pioneer of the “Mozart Effect,” the idea that listening to Mozart can positively impact young children and students. But this is sort of like the case of Brian Ray and the state of homeschooling research: the research does not really prove what people think it proves. Here is NPR’s summary of what Rauscher demonstrated:

In the spring of 1993 a psychologist named Francis [sic] Rauscher played 10 minutes of a Mozart Piano Sonata to 36 college students, and after the excerpt, gave the students a test of spatial reasoning. Rauscher also asked the students to take a spatial reasoning test after listening to 10 minutes of silence, and, after listening to 10 minutes of a person with a monotone speaking voice.And Rauscher says, the results of this experiment seemed pretty clear. “What we found was that the students who had listened to the Mozart Sonata scored significantly higher on the spatial temporal task.”

While this seems simple enough, it got quickly and increasingly complicated. J.S. Jenkins (MD, Fellow at the Royal College of Physicians) explains: “Some investigators were unable to reproduce the findings,” while “others confirmed that listening to Mozart’s sonata K448 produced a small increase in spatial-temporal performance.” Rauscher herself “stressed that the Mozart effect is limited to spatial temporal reasoning and that there is no enhancement of general intelligence.”

She also cautioned that her test might have involved “inappropriate test procedures.”

Many attempts to replicate Rauscher’s studies were conducted, many of which were unsuccessful. According to Andrew Gorman, Research Associate at the Institute of Cognitive Science at University of Colorado, Boulder,

In an effort to replicate and extend the results from UC, Irvine [Rauscher’s study], Stough, Kerkin, Bates, and Mangan performed a similar study using 30 subjects… The results of their test showed that while there was a small mean difference in scores across conditions in the predicted direction, these differences were not significant… The researchers concluded that further research in this area would not be of any benefit.

…Citing other studies that failed to show a “Mozart Effect” (Kenealy, 1994; Stough et al., 1994), Newman, Rosenbach, Burns, Latimer, Matocha, and Vogt tried to duplicate the conditions of the original study by Rauscher et al… This showed no significant difference between condition group and thus did not support the Rauscher et al. experiments. In analyzing the scores using music training as the factor, no significant difference was found. Interest- ingly, the subjects who reported liking classical music scored significantly lower than those who did not.

Gorman canvasses a good number of other studies, some backing up Rauscher’s study and some undermining it. Gorman’s conclusion of all the contradictory studies is as follows:

It is clear that there is growing evidence that support the claims that music can enhance verbal and spatial-temporal ability. However, this is by no means a panacea. The short-term effects that have been found are so ephemeral and are confined to such a narrow range of tasks that it is questionable as to whether any practical applications will come from this research. Any hope that these results will directly influence educational policy seems misguided.

While Rauscher’s studies created a storm of arguments, Rauscher herself was surprised and confused by the ways people took the results. The results were often misinterpreted or misapplied. Rauscher states,

“Generalizing these results to children is one of the first things that went wrong. Somehow or another the myth started exploding that children that listen to classical music from a young age will do better on the SAT, they’ll score better on intelligence tests in general, and so forth.”

Ironically, Rauscher sees her study as supporting a love of music in general, not a love of any particular type of music. She says,

“The key to it is that you have to enjoy the music. If you hate Mozart you’re not going to find a Mozart Effect. If you love Pearl Jam, you’re going to find a Pearl Jam effect.”

Yes, the person that Pudewa cites in favor of “the Mozart Effect” actually believes “the Pearl Jam Effect” is just as valid a conclusion.

And what about those rats that listened to Mozart non-stop? Well,  I could point out that Dr. Kenneth M. Steele (PhD, University of Tennessee-Knoxville), Professor of Psychology at Appalachian State University, conducted his own Mozart/rat experiments. He concluded that, “in the context of piano note frequencies,” rats were “deaf to most of the notes (69%) in the sonata.” Thus, “Whatever the rats hear, it is not the sonata written by Mozart.”

But I think Rauscher probably gives the best response to her own study, albeit indirectly:

Rauscher, at age 42, hears more Mozart in the lab than she did 15 years ago when she burned out and abandoned a more traditional pursuit of music. Even now she has mixed feelings–at least about the ‘all Mozart all the time’ auditory diet that she feeds her research subjects. ‘I’m so sick of it I could die,” she says. “Sometimes I can’t get it out of my head. It’s so annoying.'”

I think the lesson here is (1) listen to music you love and (2) don’t listen to any type of music (whether you love it or hate it) for 12 hours a day, day after day after day.

The Cannons Strive for Excellence

Another “citation” that Pudewa provides on his presentation handout is this:

Striving for Excellence (audiotape set), IBLP, Box One, Oak Brook, IL 60522

Why is Andrew Pudewa citing material from Bill Gothard's Institute for Basic Life Principles
Why is Andrew Pudewa citing material from Bill Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles

Published by Bill Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles, Striving for Excellence: How to Evaluate Music consists of two audio cassettes and a booklet. The booklet lists no author. The material on the cassettes is presented by Inge & Ron Cannon.  Inge Cannon helped launch Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI) in 1984. In 1990 she became the director of HSLDA’s National Center for Home Education. Dr. Ron Cannon, Inge’s spouse, earned his PhD in 1985 in theology from Trinity Seminary.

Jeri Lofland at Heresy in the Heartland has already summarized the contents of the Cannons’ “Striving for Excellence” message. So I will cite a few highlights from her summary:

The Cannons began with some music theory that was way over our heads… Then there were some odd bits and pieces about rhythms causing riots or neural damage in mice… Another doctor translated DNA into musical scores. (Don’t ask me how.)… Now we came to the heart of the argument: rock music, the very beat itself, was equated with rebellion and unbridled sensuality. It would make listeners want to take drugs and have sex… And if we still weren’t convinced, the Cannons explained that rock songs were imbalanced, like asymmetrical architecture. The best forms of art or music were those from the Age of Classicism: a definite beginning, a climax point, and a satisfying conclusion. With echoes of David Noebel’s publications against rock music, this one deprecated Impressionism and Cubism while celebrating the Baroque and the Classical periods.

This series by the Cannons is chockfull of so much debunked pseudoscience and conspiracy theories that I am unsure why Pudewa would direct anyone in its direction. Furthermore, notice what Jeri says Striving for Excellence mentions: “neural damage in mice.” Yes, the Cannons themselves reference Rauscher’s studies — and like Pudewa, they do so haphazardly. Should someone tell me that the Cannons also reference Dorothy Retallack, I will not be surprised.

Andrew Pudewa, David Noebel, and Bill Gothard

Ultimately, my criticism here is much bigger than Andrew Pudewa. It absolutely does bother me that Pudewa — as an instructor of young, impressionable students — would perpetuate pseudoscience and alarmist myths through his teaching position.

That is bad enough.

But this is bigger than Pudewa.

Interracial concert audiences concerned Christian fundamentalists and the Ku Klux Klan.
Interracial concert audiences concerned Christian fundamentalists and the Ku Klux Klan.

The Retallack and Rauscher experiments have inspired a longstanding trend within evangelical circles — and the Christian homeschooling movement — to spread fear and panic about any music with a beat. Since the 1960’s, people like Bill Gothard — from IBLP and ATI— and David Noebel — from Summit Ministries — have spread inaccurate and unintelligent claims about rock music. Gothard has argued that rock music leads “to rebellion, drugs, immorality, and the occult,” associating just about every possible sin with the musical genre.

David Noebel’s first claim to fame is the 1965 book  Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles, where he alleges — no joke — that “Rock ‘n’ roll is turning kids into gay, Communist, miscegenators.”

Miscegenators, people.

David Noebel, the founder of our beloved Summit Ministries, was against interracial marriage as much as he is against gay marriage. And rock music was the root of the evil that was interracial marriage. What, you ask, led him to such an asinine, racist conclusion? Well, according to Dr. James Kennaway, a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease at Durham University, Noebel brought to light “a less common aspect of music’s dangers – the threat posed to plants. He reported an experiment conducted by Mrs Dorothy Retallack of Denver that demonstrated, he claimed, that avant-garde classical music made plants wilt and Led Zeppelin made them die.”

Yes, with David Noebel we have come full circle to Doroth Retallack.

But Bill Gothard’s claims about music do not make Retallack’s look much better. W. Terry Lindley, Professor of History at Union University, explains that, in Gothard’s 1993 book, How to Conquer the Addiction of Rock Music, Gothard “recalls a life-threatening incident involving Christian rock”:

A seventeen-year old girl, while undergoing a routine operation to cut a non-cancerous tumor from her finger, suddenly developed what appeared to be a heart problem. However, when the girl’s headset turned off, her heart returned to normal rhythm. She had been listening to the rock album “Beyond Belief” by Petra.

Cue the horror movie music.

Dr. Kennaway situates these fears of the Religious Right in the broader context of what he describes as “the development of fears that music can make listeners ill.” He explains that, “For the last two hundred years many doctors, critics and writers have suggested that certain kinds of music have the power to cause neurosis, madness, hysteria and even death.”

One of the most significant factors in this fearmongering, according to Dr. Kennaway, is racism.

“Race,” he explains, “has played a major role in most medical panics about music since ragtime. Already in 1904, an American critic commented on the popularity of the argument that the ‘peculiar accent and syncopated time’ of ragtime could have a ‘disintegrating effect on nerve tissue and a similar result upon moral integrity’.” One sees this unfortunate sentiment in Noebel’s miscegnation comment. Noebel gets even more upfront about his racism, saying that rock music is a Communist plot to replace classical music with, and I quote, “the beat of African music.”  One also sees it — whether intentionally or not — in Andrew Pudewa, the Cannons, Bill Gothard, and David Noebel whenever they make comments about “beats.” Because, see, each and every musical type has a beat. What all these individuals are objecting to is what they abstractly refer to as “syncopated” or “tribal” beats — in other words, beats brought to the U.S. by Africans.

So not only is this shared narrative anti-intellectual and unscientific, it is also an inherently racist narrative. I think the most vivid example of this fact comes from Dr. Roger Chapman (PhD, American Culture Studies, Bowling Green State University), Professor of History at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Dr. Chapman states,

Interracial concert audiences concerned Christian fundamentalists and the Ku Klux Klan, who called for a ban on the “devil’s music” to prevent the spread of juvenile delinquency and the “mongrelization” of white teens.


For two decades, Andrew Pudewa has taught young students flawed science about music. But the science is more than merely flawed. It originated from a man who thought he channeled a 5000-year-old spirit and then promoted by a New Age spiritualist. Why is such pseudoscience being taught by Pudewa to Christian homeschoolers? Why is something so untrue — and something that is actually New Age literature — being repeated over and over for decades by evangelicals and Christian homeschool leaders so concerned about New Age literature and African spiritualism — by Bill Gothard, David Noebel, and others like Bob Larson, Jimmy Swaggart, Geoffrey Botkin, and “Little Bear” Wheeler?

This is not only the height of bad scholarship, it is the height of irony.

Growing up, Christian homeschoolers were cautioned about how listening to rock music could cause you to be demon possessed. Now come to find out, that very alarmism was inspired by a man who quite literally claimed to be possessed himself.

I could end this whole post with some conclusion that wraps everything up nicely and neatly. But that would be too classical, if you know what I mean. So I will conclude with the best critique of the whole “rock music kills plants” myth that exists, courtesy of Audio Adrenaline:

How I Learned To Stop Being Afraid and Love Other Religions: Part Three, I Celebrate My Childlike Wonder


HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from R.L. Stollar’s personal blog. It was originally published on August 1, 2013.

 < Part Two: When Buddhism Saved My Life


“If you were to say to the grown-ups: ‘I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof,’ they would not be able to get any idea of that house at all. You would have to say to them, ‘I saw a house that cost $20,000.’ Then they would exclaim, ‘Oh, what a pretty house that is!’”

~Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince


Part Three: I Celebrate My Childlike Wonder

The message I received growing up, from homeschool curriculums to highschool worldview camps, was a message about a dichotomy:

Everything is either for us or against us, us versus them, heaven or hell, Biblical Worldview™ or Bust.

Summit Ministries, for example, reduced every belief system in the world to only three — Secular Humanism, Transcendentalism, and Theism. And if you weren’t a member of that third category (and not just a member of the category, but also the sub-sub-sub-category of Biblical Worldview Theism), you were dangerous. You were to be kept at an arm’s distance, and it would be more than an arm’s distance, except that — if you were too far away, we couldn’t evangelize to you.

But as I left my youthful suburb behind, I realized life is far more complicated. The American Christian worldview was trying so hard to make everything neatly packaged, with a pretty bow on top, so that we wouldn’t “lose the faith” in college — that it forgot to take other people seriously. Looking back at Summit’s lesson plans, I cannot help but employ facepalm after facepalm. Reading quotations from Chuck Colson’s How Now Shall We Live?, which I remember made the rounds in my homeschooling community in highschool, I cannot help but cringe at its abundant use of straw men.

I wish I wasn’t raised to fear other ideas. 

I wish I wasn’t raised to fit people neatly into summer camp categories.

Most of all, I wish I didn’t have to fight so hard to free myself from the Biblical Worldview™ or Bust mentality. Because it took a whole lot of energy to extricate myself from that.

Once I broke free, once I began to see that what I was taught as “Christianity” wasn’t some pure set of doctrines but rather a particular moment-in-time’s interpretation of doctrines — and also a whole lot more — I began to see other religions differently, too. I began to see that they had a lot to offer me. Buddhism wasn’t just a line in a binder that gets stamped either “True” or “False.” Neither was Daoism or Hinduism or any other -ism. They were complicated movements full of people and history and ideas and passions, fueled by heartache and hope and joy and terror.

They were made of humans. They were just like me. They were asking the exact same questions I was, and for the exact same reasons. They breathed, they felt, they lived, they loved, they hated — everything that made them relatable and understandable and beautiful and tragic was everything that was conveniently omitted from my education.

I was taught to refute. I was not taught to relate.

I was taught to analyze. I was not taught to love.

I was taught to argue. I was not taught to appreciate.

As I learned to approach life with humility and openness, I began to see the complexity. I began to see what other religions had to offer. I learned so many important life lessons from this process — I learned from Buddhism, for example, how to ground my mind when my depression got overwhelming. I learned from Daoism how censorship, control, and domination are not the only forms of influence and leadership.

I learned that there are so many beautiful and good things in other religions that have nothing to do with the Biblical Worldview™. 

I can freely admit that beauty and that goodness without fear. Because I came to realize that religion is more than a set of propositions that are true or false.

It is a force that underlies and propels human thinking and interaction. At the same time it is also the final touch to that thinking and interaction, an acrylic fixative for the oil painting of human ingenuity. Human beings have a desire to make sense of their world, to find a meaning in that sense, and to be inspired by the meaning they find.

In this sense, therefore, religion is both true and false, Christian and pagan, personal and social, relative and universal, oppressive and liberating. It can be each and every one because religion is not one particular entity. It is an edifice of both the idiosyncratic and the profound. As propositional truth about the universe’s origin, it can be true or false; as revealing the delicacy of human nature, it can be beautiful or ugly; as a particular society’s intense struggle to understand itself and its universe, it can either be faithful to that struggle or unfaithful; as encompassing disciplines such as meditation or yoga, it can either be healing or aggravating; and so forth. In short, it is so much more than what the evangelical culture believes.

One cannot divide religion into the simple categories of “right” and “wrong” based on whether it affirms the humanity and divinity of Jesus.

Even if one does affirm Jesus as such, one cannot say this is the essence of religion.

To see religion from a broader perspective doesn’t need to threaten anyone. For example, Christianity’s understanding of the universe can easily be understood as underlying this analysis. According to the Book of Genesis, the God of Israel created humanity in His image. He created humanity with the tools of reason, a blistering curiosity, and the insatiable need to put together the puzzle pieces of the world into a coherent picture that makes sense of this world. No matter what religion one adheres to, therefore, since one is still human in the sense of being made in God’s image, one will experience this insatiable need for a coherent portrait of reality.

Religion as such is the product of this need. The various religions are the attempts of human cultures throughout the history of the world to create a coherent picture of reality.

Even the contemporary American interpretation of Christianity is not a flawless deduction from the Old and New Testaments but rather one more human attempt at coherence.

To some people, of course, this necessitates a cynicism or pessimism regarding religion. (To the contemporary American Christian, it just implies heresy.) If religion is interpretation, how can anyone claim to have the right interpretation? While an important question, this inquiry all too often implies that interpretation as a process lacks any sort of inherent value. I simply disagree.

Maybe I read too many children’s books, but I am a big fan of process. I am forever unfolding, learning new things each day.

I will hold onto my wonder until the day I die.

Even if the process becomes tedious, it bears many gifts. It bears treasures unto the painter, the musician, the lover, and the logician. While religions have no doubt caused catastrophic pain and suffering (and I don’t mean to diminish this fact, but my personal struggle is appreciating other religions, not hating them; I was raised to hate most of them), religions are also the artifacts of cultures worthy to be preserved in the grandest of museums—remnants of the human struggle to understand an alienating and a chaotic world; the courageous refusals to cave into meaningless; the unparalleled artistry and creativity employed to justify such refusals.

Consider the poetic fury of the Rg Veda, or the kaleidoscopic narrative of theMahabharata, an epic unparalleled in mass and muse by the greatest of Greek and Roman artists. (Really, just read the Mahabharata, period. It makes the Iliad look like a Young Adult novel.) Plumb the depths of Dante’s Inferno. Bask in the apocalypse of St. John in his Book of Revelations. Know the deeply felt vibration of the mystical Om, or the karmapa chenno of the Diamond Way. Hear the austere men of faith solemnly chat their divine liturgies, especially the “One Hundred and Second Psalm” by the Russian Patriarchate Choir; adore the children who delight in their Sunday School rhymes.

Say what one may about these people and their faiths, yet think about how amazing it is —

Human beings have created art, song, and dance; tens of thousands of gods; histories and philosophies and mythologies — all to figure out life.

And then think about something else.

Think about the negatives, too, for one moment.

You cannot escape the negatives, no matter how beautiful your religion is, no matter how “biblical” your view of the world is.

One moment the Roman Catholic Church finds itself embroiled in sex scandals—the next moment it is the American Protestant Church, as Calvary Chapel and Sovereign Grace crumble under the weight of child abuse. Before that, human sacrifice occurred, documented in the Mahabharata. Isaac of the Old Testament also intended to sacrifice his son for his deity’s pleasure. King David of Israel committed adultery. So did Pastor Ted Haggard. So did Arjuna of Hindu fame. Chuang Tzu was a lazy bastard. Prominent Buddhists are notable money machines; The Purpose-Driven Life is, too.

This is the human element of religion.

It is the element of Midas: everything humanity lays its eager fingers upon transforms into a human endeavor, no matter how superhuman the endeavor might have first manifested.

When the Buddha left his palace home to seek enlightenment, he did not intend to create a worldwide movement full of sects that constantly bicker and would try to oust each other out of power. Neither did Jesus. In the 1950′s, Jim Jones had a seemingly simple goal: to create the People’s Temple, an inter-racial mission for the sick, homeless and jobless. Decades later, the movement would end with over nine hundred adults and children drinking cyanide-laced grape Kool-Aid. The so-called Moral Majority seemed to have the blessing of God in 1978; by 1989 it fell apart, with many of its adherents later appearing in the news for sexual transgressions and drug abuse.

We cannot avoid this human element, any more than I think we can avoid the sense of wonder that provokes us to fashion religion. These things are essential to human being. To be human is to have a personality. And personality gives birth to the great fire that is the drama of human becoming—a drama in which religion plays a central role. It is the canvas on which we portray our search for truth.

I have come to appreciate that canvas, where it comes from. I have come to appreciate and love what each religion I have studied has to offer, and I do so with open arms, with a sincere desire to know and relate and understand.

I reject attempts to make myself and other people afraid to know and understand other humans and how they view the world from their own eyes. People who attempt that are snuffing out wonder, one book and one summer camp at a time.

I think of the child that Antoine de Saint Exupéry talks about, who sees the beautiful house and the grown-ups cannot understand the beauty in anything other than dollar amounts. Those of us who are learning to see the beauty in religions are scary to the “grown-ups” of American Christianity and Christian homeschooling because they cannot understand the beauty in anything other than disembodied doctrines:

“Does it fall under the Theism category?”

“Well, no, but I learned the most amaz—”

“Then off with its head!”

“But it contains an important truth about—”

“It’s not part of The Biblical Worldview™! End of story! Off with its head!

“But I really appreci—”

No! Off — With — Its — HEAD!”

I left that world. And I am not looking back.

If that’s what it means to be a grown-up, I’m choosing Neverland. I will live Where The Wild Things Are. Because I choose to celebrate my childlike wonder.

I choose to live in awe of the world, of humanity, of the amazingness that we — for whatever reason you want to say — have named tens of thousands of gods and created the Downward Dog pose; we sing songs and clap our hands and we eat wafers and say blood is wine; we laugh and cry together and we do all these things because we are that passionate about figuring out this maddening world we live in.

I mean, how amazing is that?

When I realized that, I stopped being afraid of other religions.

David Noebel, Summit Ministries, and the Evil of Rock: Jeri Lofland’s Thoughts

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Summit Ministries’ Jeff Myers and David Noebel on James Dobson’s radio show.

Jeri’s post was originally published on her blog Heresy in the Heartland with the title “Time Makes Ancient Good Uncouth.” It is reprinted with her permission. Also by Jeri on HA: “Generational Observations”, “Of Isolation and Community”, and “His Quiver Full of Them.”


New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

~James Russell Lowell, 1845

I ordered David Noebel’s booklet “Christian Rock: A Stratagem of Mephistopheles” from Summit Ministries in Manitou Springs as a teenager sometime in the early ’90’s.

I needed to know that Gothard and my parents weren’t crazy, that other intelligent adults had reasonable arguments with which to oppose Christian rock.

From the back cover: “It is The Summit’s purpose to arm Christian young people with facts and information concerning God, home and country so they will be able to hold fast to the true and the good in building their lives for the future.” I wanted facts; I wanted information.

And it turned out that Noebel supported my parents’ position:

“The church is beset with a relentless beat which weighs on the nerves and pounds in the head. And the syncopation evokes a most basic sensuous response from the body, since it is purposely aimed at the physical and sensual.”

“Squeezing in a few ‘thank you, Jesus’ or ‘Hallelujah, it’s done’ in rock music does not cleanse rock of its evils. Indeed, the lyrics were not its main sin for some time. The beat of the music was its evil.

Noebel presented 30 reasons, plenty of Bible verses, a study involving houseplants, and claims about applied kinesiology by a John Diamond. He quoted Henry Morris (a civil engineer and ardent young-earth creationist also opposed to modern art) and had a lot to say about sex and Marxism. Additionally, he linked the rock beat to atheistic Soviet communism and objectionable art styles like cubism and surrealism.

David Noebel is the author of "Understanding the Times," a book popular in evangelical and homeschool circles.
David Noebel is the author of “Understanding the Times,” a book popular in evangelical and homeschool circles.

I knew nothing about David Noebel.

I was not familiar with his much earlier work Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles, published in 1965–long before my birth–by Billy James Hargis’ Christian Crusade.

In one reviewer’s words: “Noebel is compelling because he’s intelligent, coherent, and well-researched, despite being absolutely paranoid and utterly mad. Aside from some inconsistent use of the Oxford Comma, he has a clear, if discursive thesis:

“Rock ‘n’ roll is turning kids into gay, Communist, miscegenators.”

Billy James Hargis was a right-wing evangelist and radio and television ranter long before Rush Limbaugh. He saw communist plots everywhere: in the NAACP and the civil rights movement, in the assassination of JFK, in water fluoridation. According to TIME magazine (Feb. 16, 1976), he founded American Christian College “to teach ‘antiCommunist patriotic Americanism'” from the city he called the “Fundamentalist Capital of the World”. From there, he promoted a hard line against drugs, homosexuality, sex education, abortion and the Beatles and toured with the college choir.

David Noebel was an aide to Hargis for twelve years, speaking around the country, founding The Summit in 1962 as a Christian Crusade program to combat anti-Christian teachings from secular universities (like the University of Tulsa) and contributing to Hargis’ television show where together they decried marijuana use and rock music. Later, Noebel became Vice President of Hargis’ new American Christian College in Tulsa.

In 1974, Noebel was staggered when students confided to him that Hargis, ardent promoter of traditional morality and father of four, had had sex with several of them.

Eventually four men and one woman exposed Hargis’ sexual abuse and manipulation over a period of years. TIME reported on the scandal in 1976, Hargis was forced to resign, and the school closed its doors the following year. Noebel went on to effectively “fold” Christian Crusade into Summit Ministries, building it into a successful international worldview training/brainwashing center targeting all ages, but teenagers in particular.

Noebel was an aide to Billy James Hargis, a right-wing evangelist and radio and television ranter who saw communist plots everywhere.
Noebel was an aide to Billy James Hargis, a right-wing evangelist and radio and television ranter who saw communist plots everywhere.

Postmodernism has replaced communism as the bane of our times. According to an article by Summit’s Steve Cornell,

“[The] pre-modern era was one in which religion was the source of truth and reality…. In a postmodern world, truth and reality are understood to be individually shaped by personal history, social class, gender, culture, and religion…. Postmoderns are suspicious of people who make universal truth claims…. Postmodern thinking is full of absurdities and inconsistencies.”

As a postmodern myself, I find it ironic that the decades have softened Noebel’s hardline position on Christian rock.

Apparently Mephistopheles has released it for other uses. Students at Summit’s youth conferences speak of the meaningful “corporate worship“, which now includes rock songs like “How Great Is Our God” by Chris Tomlin and “Jesus, Thank You” from Sovereign Grace Music.

The teens attending the worldview lectures today were not yet born when David Noebel penned Stratagem and would likely be surprised to learn that the religious anthems they find so powerful are actually “estranging them from traditional values”. According to the now retired, but still involved and revered, “Doc” Noebel, “although the lyrics might acknowledge the concept of true worship, the music itself expresses the unspoken desire to smash it to pieces.”

Summit’s John Stonestreet writes, “Truth does not yield to popular opinion. Unlike postmodernism, the biblical worldview can withstand all challenges and still speak to the dominant culture.” This belief is at the core of Summit’s “worldview” training.

And yet, Lowell’s line rings more true: time does make ancient “good” uncouth. Morality and truth are, in fact, shaped by history and culture.

As Summit’s stance on Christian rock illustrates so well.

Maybe, in another 30 years, Noebel’s successors will stop fighting same-sex marriage and even give up warning kids about “the gay agenda” as they “keep abreast of truth”? One can always hope…

How I Learned To Stop Being Afraid and Love Other Religions, Part One: If Satan Made Xanax, And Other Worldview Myths


HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from R.L. Stollar’s personal blog. It was originally published on July 30, 2013.


“Nothing short of a great Civil War of Values rages today throughout North America. Two sides with vastly differing and incompatible world-views are locked in a bitter conflict that permeates every level of society.”

~James Dobson and Gary Bauer, Children at Risk: The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Our Kids, 1990


Part One: If Satan Made Xanax, And Other Worldview Myths

When I enrolled in the Eastern Classics program at St. John’s College back in 2005, I encountered many and varied responses from fellow evangelical Christians. Some proved encouraging and others not so.

The most common response, though, was: “Are you a Buddhist?”

As the months passed and the time of graduation grew closer, the question changed, but only slightly:

“Have you become a Buddhist?”

At first the question provoked but a smile. As it grew more regular, however, and as I began to know more about Eastern philosophies and religions as well as what actually occurred in the minds of the questioners, it provoked a thought process. I realized that, to many Christians I knew, “Eastern” meant “Buddhist.” And “Buddhist” meant some tranquil species of rebellion against the American Jesus — like if Satan made Xanax for the mind. I vividly remember one individual who commented that, if I were to study Eastern religions, I better not become a Buddhist: Buddhists have no emotions whereas, you know, Jesus wept.

Such comments are likely the result of ignorance regarding world religions. A good number of the people who asked this question in 2005 did not shun inquiry. They merely lacked familiarity with Buddhism. They did not know (as I did not know prior to a year of study in the Eastern Classics) that Buddhism, like Christianity, has a dizzying number of denominations, each vying for doctrinal dominion. Consequently, when someone asks me now if I agree with Buddhism, I experience great difficulty answering the question: “Which denomination?” I have to ask. I have great fondness for the emotional freedom and experience-based practices of Diamond Way Buddhism, for example, whereas I dislike the asceticism of Theravada Buddhism. American Zen Buddhism is another story.

I have thus realized, after these conversations with friends and fellow students, that the American Christian mind (maybe even the American mind) has a paltry understanding of some of the longest-standing and deeply rooted ideas of the world. American evangelicals especially do not take time to appreciate, let alone understand, a good number of their strongest opponents in the sphere of religion. Those who have taken time (seemingly not much) only do so to construct flimsy card-houses with the purpose of a surprise attack.

You have groups like Summit Ministries and Worldview Weekend, training up the next generation with nothing more than an arsenal of generalizations, simplifications, and shameless reductionism.

No one seems interested in taking the ideas of other religions at face value and learning to see any sort of beauty or value in them.

To say that other religions can be beautiful or valuable is not an exercise in relativism. But granting this beauty or value will likely suffer the fate of being interpreted as such by many of today’s “worldview” champions. The old guard of American Christianity and Christian homeschooling — Dobson and Bauer, from this post’s opening quotation, and people like Summit’s David Noebel and John Stonestreet, or homeschooling’s Kevin Swanson and Ken Ham — is terrified of anything that sounds “postmodern.”

Postmodernism is like intellectual dub step to the old guard.

In today’s evangelical culture, a defense of religion as an aesthetic and social phenomenon seems indistinct from a defense of religious pluralism and intellectual apathy. But that’s because this culture is so afraid of “liberal” arts to the point that it cannot comprehend some basic philosophical and sociological concepts. The fact is, to understand religion as an aesthetic and social phenomenon grants humanity the freedom to explore a ground to aesthetics and society that condemns, rather than condones, an unwillingness to pursue truth.

But first: what does “religion” mean? And what would it mean, that one can perceive this noun’s content as “aesthetic” and “social”?

To the evangelical culture, religion is either Christian and thus true or pagan and thus untrue. This proves a stunted understanding, however, because religion is neither one nor many truth-claims which one can either affirm or reject. Religion is no doubt a phenomenon which entails truth-claims. But it also entails much more. Religion is a complex totality of human and other elements, only one element of which is the sort of truth-claim that one can package into propositions.

We need to start seeing religion — and any particular religion — not as a mass of disembodied doctrines but as what sociologist Peter Berger calls a “world conspiracy.” “World conspiracy,” in fact, seems the best definition for religion.

What does this mean?

In The Sacred Canopy, Berger explains that,

“The condition of the human organism in the world is…characterized by a built-in instability. Man does not have a given relationship to the world. He must ongoingly establish a relationship with it.”

The world abounds with the sort of innate precariousness that a Buddhist would term as impermanence — “All things pass,” sighs Kaoru, one of the main characters in Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji. This line is almost identical to Solomon’s sentiment in Ecclesiastes.

Human and other life forms, buildings and projects, ideas and romances—these all rise and fall, constantly, perpetually, each and every day. As a result of this precariousness, human beings go about selecting structures of meaning in which they can operate. Humans construct families, work places, technology, and institutions in which to control the elements of the world that bear chaos. Out of their constructions human beings hope for an order, a society. Peter Berger says,

“Society, as objective reality, provides a world for man to inhabit. This world encompasses the biography of the individual, which unfolds as a series of events within that world”

But humans need more than order: they need to feel meaningfulness within that order. They require that order to be “ordained” in some way. Thus,

“a meaningful order, or nomos, is imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals.”

This nomos is religion:

“Religion is that human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established, wherein ‘cosmos’ implies not a galaxy but order.”

This final addition to the human world-building project grants the project and its everyday objects and endeavors a sense of purpose, an all-encompassing reason for pursuing the ends of the society. Berger terms this sense of purpose or reason a “sacred canopy” cast over world-building. It is a “world conspiracy” in the sense that humans work together to give their reality a meaning:

“Religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant”

What Berger as a sociologist calls a “world conspiracy,” or “sacred canopy,” a theologian like N.T. Wright might term “worldview.” (1) Jamake Highwater, a historian and philosopher of sexuality, preferred the term “mythology” in his 1991 book Myth and Sexuality:

“All human beliefs and activities spring from an underlying mythology—those metaphors, informing imageries, and paradigms which deeply influence every aspect of our lives and which determine our attitudes about reality—about the world and about ourselves: good and evil, normalcy and abnormalcy, fact and fiction, justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, power and powerlessness.”

Whether one prefers world conspiracy, sacred canopy, worldview, or mythology as a descriptive, the common factor among the ideas is that human being itself contains within it a hope and passion for carving out a home in a hostile existence.

This hope and passion — and all its nuances, quirks, failures, and successes — is the stuff of religion.


Part Two: When Buddhism Saved My Life >