The Bible and Cults: Interview with George Chryssides

George Chryssides is deeply rooted in his research on new cults and religious movements. We sat down with him for an interview to learn more about his work.

This is the first part of an interview series dedicated to the EBR (Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception Online). EBR is a research tool for scholars in biblical studies and related fields

DG: Can you introduce yourself?

George Chryssides: My name is George Chryssides; I used to be Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in England. I took slightly early retirement in 2008 and I’m now a research fellow at York St John University and the University of Birmingham back in England.

DG: Can you tell us a little bit about your area of study?

GC: My main area of interest is new religious movements, popularly known as cults. That doesn’t have a terribly clear definition, roughly speaking any Christian related organization that arose within the last 200 years is considered usually new movement for the purpose of this encyclopedia.

DG: What do you find interesting about researching new cults and new movements?

GC: What particularly interests me in new religious movements is that when you look at their ideas initially, you think: “How can anybody believe that? This is silly.”

Then, the more you look into it you detect quite coherent inner logic and you can see why people become convinced by it. And I think that’s what interests me, the transition from complete disbelieve, not to persuasion, but to conceive what is in the believe systems.

DG: In direction of a movement, a religion, or a cult, what are the key elements that make something stronger become a belief?

GC: The key element is that their talking about the exponents of the faith in question, asking them questions, getting them to explain things, and a lot of the time they are not written down, because the field of religious movements as an academic study is really new itself. It started around the 1980s, 1990s.

DG: How would you see the relationship of your research to EBR, this encyclopedia?

GC: The relationship is, how certain groups have taken up the bible, what they’ve done with it. And that can range from believe in the inerrancy of scripture as you get with groups; like the Jehovah’s witnesses to groups of adapted scripture, like the Mormons to groups that have taken seemingly improper interpretations of scripture – claiming that it is really talking about Extraterrestrials for example – and all this variety of things is quite fascinating.

DG: So what would you say is one of the most curious cults or movement that you’ve looked at?

GC: Oh, that’s a difficult one, I’m not sure to be honest! I think probably the ones that create the most imprint utility on my part, the UFO religions, the ones that believe that Extraterrestrials in some way associated with the bible that cryptically talks about them – that Ezekiel’s chariot really were UFOs and it was a UFO that came down to pick Elijah up – and things like that.

DG: Can they provide you pictures to prove?

GC: Yeah, often they’ve got pictures!

DG: So, you said you’re an editor on this project encyclopedia, what is actually your role, what is your task, what do you do?

GC: Well, my task mainly is to identify authors that can write entries on that particular area. A lot of the time I end up writing the entries myself, because – well, for a number of reasons: It’s difficult to find someone who has got range, as to cover all the religions and often you get concepts where there’s not a clear expert. So, it’s identifying the expert that is the initial problem, then if you go to somebody who is a specialist on new religious movements, they don’t actually know the Bible all that well. One of the things I’m finding about new religions is that there’s kind of a new breed of scholars that are not ensued of the Bible as I was half a century ago, or slightly more. There are people that have looked at things like Judaism or other religions.

In the end, I think of who else can do it and I simply do it myself. Anyone who’s watching this interview is welcome to offer their services of course, because I’m always very keen to get new reliable authors that have got this kind of spread that we’re looking for.

DG: Maybe the new generation will have that?

GC: I doubt it, not on the Bible side, certainly NRM (New Religious Movements Scholars) are not studying the Bible in the way people like me used to.

DG: Do you think they should?

GC: I think the problem is that there is so many new religions and there’s so much on that subject matter around that it’s really hard to get that kind of spread. If I said now to study the bible what would they not do as a consequence?

DG: You work on the project EBR with a large board of people, scholars from around the world from different topics, what is that like?

GC:  It’s quite exciting to know what also the different people are doing and come into contact with an international team that represent different areas of expertise. Sometimes that is very useful for my own projects outside EBR. We’ve got one member on the team that’s written an article for an anthology that I’m co-editing. So, there’s that kind of spin-off as well.

DG: Why do we need the EBR?

GC: EBR could be for everyone interested in the bible. I guess it’s mainly scholars, academics, students, but we have little cards that give people a free trial membership and I’ve got personal friends that have an interest in the bible, but not particular expertise or qualifications. I’ve given them one or two cards – not sure if I was supposed to do that – but I think creating an interest in the project widely is not a bad thing.

DG: What will they find there?

GC: Well, it is anything they’re looking for, really, if they want to know something about a key character in the Bible, like abiotic concept, the introductory material is there, but of course it also goes further and shows how other people have taken up the concept in question. So, I think it’s interesting from a variety of perspectives.

DG: You are working with publisher De Gruyter, so what is that like, being editor and working with De Gruyter?

GC: Well, I’m very happy with the kind of support I get from the people in Berlin. If you run into difficulty and ask the question, if something is going wrong with the electronics, I get a pretty immediate answer, you couldn’t do anything better in it.

DG: Is there anything else you would like to add?

 GC: The only thing I would add is the invitation for competent people to come and introduce themselves as potential writers as well as potential readers.

The Editors

Articles signed by the editors were written in a collective effort.

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