There is a lot of buzz around Wild Wild West, the Netflix documentary series about the Baghwan Sri Rajneesh community that took over a town in Oregon in the 1980s. As crazy as that all sounded I remember the events unfolding and it was as mad as the documentary shows it to be.
There is another documentary worth tracking down called, The Source Family. It's about a restaurant in LA on the Sunset Strip that was an entry point into a cult/community created by an ex-Marine named Jim Baker, one of the early proponents of health food and healthy living in the US, who changed his name to Father Yod, got himself 13 wives and started a commune in LA based on healthy living, healthy eating, utopian ideals and a little bit of rock and roll.
They had a band, led by Father Yod and played up and down the Sunset strip in the early 70s when the Strip was the locus of all kinds of counter-culture action. This is same area where evangelist Arthur Blessit used to walk the streets puylling his cross and evangelizing hippies and druggies and anyone else who would listen. It was the era when this kind of thing was almost de rigeur.
The restaurant was one of the first natural food restauranrs in the US and was at the forefront of the mainstreaming of health food and healthy living that has become such a part of what it means to be an Angelino these days. It was a different world than today's vegan restaurants etc. but in its day the Source was the hippest place to be in LA.
LA has a rich spiritual history, even Christian history. It is the land of spiritual innovation whether it be Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple, one of the first media driven mega churches ot the broader Pentecostal movement that also got its start there. And much of contemporary Christianity owes a debt to the dynamics of the Jesus people who emerged from their psychedelic haze and drifted down to the ocean to get baptized and bring their vision of a loving, revolutionary, hippy Jesus into mainstream religion.
California itself is notable for many things in American cultural history. In a remarkable book called, The Visionary State, Erik Davis chronicles the psychogeography of LA and other places up and down California,
"In the American imagination, California’s shores stage both the fulfillment and decline of the West, its final shot at paradise and its perilous fall into the sea. That is why the California dream encompasses both Arcadian frontier and apocalyptic end zone, Eden and Babylon. As Christopher Isherwood put it, “California is a tragic land – like Palestine, like every promised land.”
Documentaries like these seem so far away from the way we experience religion and spirituality these days, but in many ways they echo many of the dynamics and concerns many still feel towards religion today. The lust for power and control coupled with the desire for some sense of meaning or shape to life that drives so many is a potent cocktail for potential disaster, as these documentaries so evidently show. Of course, it doesn't have to be a 1970s or 80s cult in order for these things to happen.