The Term “New Age”

I generally do not consider myself a “new ager,” and I don’t think the term is at all descriptive or helpful.

In particular, I think the labeling of reincarnation- an idea that has been the rule rather than the exception across many cultures for a very long time- as “new age” is both ignorant and inaccurate.

The phrase “New Age” means generally nothing by denotation, and the word ‘new’ is deceptive because most of the ideas described as “new age” are actually thousands of years old.  The term describes a very vaguely-defined series of ideas that are loosely connected and often strung together in a badly mishandled and profoundly commercialized way.

Generally, to me the term “New Age” conjures up images of John Tesh albums, yuppies with big hoop earrings and too much hair spray going to private astrologers, and motivational speakers who appropriate sacred rituals and transcendental ideas to sell books to empty-hearted suits who can’t commit to a serious spiritual path.  In case you haven’t guessed, this is exactly what a 90s child was taught to see in the alleged New Age movement, and there was certainly a lot of that going on during the height of the “Pax Americana” from 1980 to 2000.

Furthermore, I think the whole idea that there is a “New Age movement” is generally overlooking the dynamic that religion took in the later half of the 20th century.  The social upheavals of the 1960s created a market for religious texts from Eastern and esoteric traditions, and it led to the mass commodification of any religion someone could make a buck off of by the 1980s.  But, as with all things, with commodification came the introduction of badly-produced translations, ersatz traditions invented entirely by motivational speakers, slick infomercial preachers who are openly obsessed with material prosperity, and misappropriations in great abundance.  And anyone who claims that this has not happened to their religion in equal measure is either lying or not paying attention; remember that I grew up in the charismatic Megachurches of the Pax Americana which were laced with the Christian equivalent of all this mess.  It was not a satanic plot to overthrow the “true church,” but the inevitable consequence of religion and capitalism merging into one indiscernible entity.

One of the things that came out of this era, when the Megachurches were at their height of power and paranoia, is that “new age” became a slur against anything non-Christian.  If you wanted to discredit the church down the road, labeling them a “New Age Church” was an easy way to get people to come to your 4,000 seat revival.  Beyond that, everything from astrology and divination to Gnosticism and yes, even reincarnation is lumped into this category because it doesn’t jive with the “traditional” religions of the West.  It’s ironic, because entire religions (Buddhism being one of them) are called “New Age” even though Buddhism pre-dates Christianity by several centuries.  The confusion comes from instances where parts of Buddhism convenient to free market mavens have been co-opted for commercial purposes.

In all, the term “New Age” represents a dated and vague concept that has no utility in the 21st century except to describe the undesirable commercialization of transcendental and magickal beliefs and the marginalization of non-Christian ideas in 20th century America.  It’s a quaint archaism that doesn’t reflect the reality of the spiritual independence of the 21st century, a time when the free availability of sacred texts via the Internet has made the commodification of religion a less pronounced feature of the culture.

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