One of the more provocative and fascinating documentaries you will ever watch that released last month on Netflix is “Wild Wild Country.”
It’s the true story of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, often called Osho, his personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, and their community of followers in what became known as Rajneeshpuram in Wasco County, Oregon.
The goal was to build a utopian commune in the Pacific Northwest, but it didn’t end up very utopian at all. Instead, after conflict with local residents escalated, the cult responded with bombings, assassination attempts, poisoning and the first bioterror attack in the United States.
Along the way, you enter into the dynamics of this cult, which include the removal of any and all sexual boundaries, manipulation and mind control, mass wiretapping and too many Rolls Royces for the Bhagwan to keep up with.
But as fascinating as the story of the rise and fall of the cult itself proves to be (brought to life through extensive documentary footage), it is the stories of the people who were involved that are most engaging.
To this day, they look back on their involvement with an air of wistfulness, while acknowledging the horror of the drama’s end. As I watched each installment, I was struck by how these smart, seeking people, were drawn into such a ridiculous mess. Three things seemed to pull them in: the longing for community; the longing for some kind of spiritual experience; and the longing for some sense of purpose. Three things they still long for and look wistfully back on as having existed—even if for a fleeting moment before ending in chaos.
The commune certainly gave them community. The Bhagwan led them into a spiritual experience (occultic, but an experience). And the building of the utopian paradise gave them their sense of purpose.
What was lacking, of course, was truth.
And therein lies an important lesson. There is nothing wrong with the desire for community, experience and purpose. They are good and God-planted desires. But, when divorced from God, they turn in on themselves and lead to decay and eventual destruction. In this case, community became dictatorial, experience became amoral and purpose was used to rationalize every manner of evil with the means justifying the end.
This is the riveting story of “Wild Wild Country.”
Christianity traffics in all three desires as well, but adds the important dynamic of the truth God has revealed about community, experience and purpose. When we were first given the Garden of Eden, it provided community, experience and purpose, but we were also told of the tree from which we must not eat, establishing authority, truth and boundaries. Community does not exist for itself, nor does experience or purpose. That is the great difference between the cult’s manifestation of all three and the Christian vision for all three.
I could not help but feel like “Wild Wild Country” is a depiction of what C.S. Lewis once called the “apeing” of the Christian faith by the evil one. This is the “apeing” of the new community and God’s desire for humans within it.
“Wild Wild Country” should be required viewing for leaders, though it is often difficult to watch and deserves its “Mature” rating. It reminds us of the foundational longing inherent within us that cries out for community, spiritual experience and purpose.
And how we need to offer each of them, along with truth, to the world.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.