Chen Tao in Texas:
A New Religious Movement, its Host Community, and Mass-Mediated Adaptation
Ryan J. Cook, University of Chicago
(A paper presented by University of Chicago at CESNUR 99, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvanya. © Ryan Cook 1999 - Do not cite or reproduce without the permission of the author
(See also Chen Tao's page on CESNUR Web site)
Introduction -- NRMs, Mass Media, and Dual Adaptation
In this paper I offer some speculations on the general topic of new religions and the mass media that have grown out of my experience with a very specific new religion and its complicated relationship with the press. I am taking a slightly different tack from other presentations I have done on the same material, in part so it will fit with the theme of this conference, but just as much because one of the conferences subtopics -- that of new religious movements (NRMs) and adaptation -- forced me to see the groups relations with the news media and with its host community in a new, and I believe productive, way.
The group to which I refer is Chen Tao  and the host community at the time of my field research was Garland, Texas. When in Garland, Chen Taos leader announced that God the Heavenly Father would appear on television on the 25th of March, 1998, and in person on the 31st of that month. What made these prophecies and the events that followed them so interesting to me and several colleagues from the University of Chicago  was: first, how they were tailored to be as media-friendly as possible; second, how the leader of Chen Tao, in his efforts to make the news media an instrument of prophecy, created considerable tension with his otherwise accommodating neighbors; and third -- and most importantly for this conference - how the groups conflicted interrelationship with the news media shaped, accelerated, and undermined the process of adaptation to their suburban American context. From the example of Chen Tao, I further suggest that adaptation is a process to which a host community is also subject, and that in certain contexts the news media play a large role in that adaptation.
Chen Tao History and Sociology
Let me begin with a brief portrait of Chen Tao for those less familiar with them. In Chinese, chen means "right" or "true," and tao means "way." The history of the True Way goes back about four decades to a spiritual self-improvement association based in urban southern Taiwan, called the Association for Research on Soul Light . The group sought to locate, quantify, and cultivate "spiritual light energy" using technological devices and traditional Chinese practices like qigong; its mixture of Buddhist-Taoism and high technology attracted a good number of students, academics, and white collar professionals -- several thousand by one members count.
Among them was sociology professor Hon-Ming Chen, who joined in the early 1990s. He found in the Association an explanation for his reportedly life-long visions of spheres of golden light . Chen soon discovered that God the Heavenly Father wished to communicate several things to him: first, that he had a special role to play as spiritual teacher and critic of degraded popular religion; and later, that he was to deliver messages about the end of the world and the return of Christ.
Chen succeeded to prophetic leadership in 1995, refashioning Chen Taos steady state cosmology by coupling the Buddhist conception of reincarnation according to merit with a cyclical model of history, bringing in a Biblical apocalypse as an exclamation point.
According to Chen, the End Times are brought about the collective negative karma of all living beings . God, as a loving Father, creates and recreates the cosmos, and sends Christ and Buddha, first to teach us, and then, at the end of each cycle, to save those who have followed the "Right Way" to rebalance their karmic books. But He grants his children complete free will, allowing souls to take on bodies, to be seduced by the lusts of corporeality, and thus to create negative karma for themselves, to injure other living beings, and ultimately to propel the material world to repeated destructions. 
Evidence provided by the damage to our natural environment and the degradation of our civilization is cited by Chen to bolster his claim that ours are the last days and that Christ will arrive soon in "Gods space aircrafts."  He proclaimed that the "Kingdom of God" descended first on the groups headquarters in Taiwan, and then on the North American continent. One site in particular - Garland, Texas -- was singled out by Chen as the location for the repeated creations and salvations of humanity . After a period in San Dimas, California, and a series of pilgrimages around the US and Canada, Chen moved to this Dallas suburb in the spring of 1997. The rest of Chen Tao followed him in the fall of that year. In Garland Chen made public his prophecies concerning the dual theophanies, statements which for several weeks last year (i.e. 1998) earned his group headlines around the world and the scrutiny of a number of investigators of new religions.
When the University of Chicago team of which I was a member encountered them in late March of 1998, Chen Taos 160 members occupied around 20 houses in an upper-middle class residential section of Garland, a suburb of Dallas, Texas.,  Whole families had joined, often three generations -- parents, children, and grandparents. Many members had been well-paid professionals in Taiwan (e.g. doctors, engineers), with at least three being genuinely wealthy. Members had sold their houses and liquidated their assets to bankroll their extended stay in the US. 
Because of the groups gradual, unobtrusive arrival in Garland over several months, neighbors who were dimly aware of the new arrivals or had begun to develop cordial relations with individual Chen Tao members were actually shocked to hear from national media representatives of a "cult" in their midst.  By the end of March, after several months of prophecies and press conferences, few could claim either ignorance or surprise. Thus I have chosen to report on the Garland phase of the group because I had direct contact with them then, and because their interaction with the news media and their neighbors was at its most intense.
Garland socio-religious context
Garland is a suburb of around 180,000 people to the northeast of the Dallas-Fort Worth "metroplex." A number of residents with whom I spoke still referred to it as a "small town." Though relatively recently a small agricultural town and rail stop, it has since been swallowed by the strip malls and tract housing characteristic of suburban America. Garland is ethnically, culturally, and religiously more diverse than many of my interlocutors led me to believe. As with much of the American South, Baptist churches and church schools still predominate in Garland, but you can spy Catholic and charismatic churches in any short drive around town.
Chen Tao, the mass media, and adaptatio
Teacher Chen received orders to relay the message of human-caused apocalypse and divine saucer salvation as widely as possible before the period he called the "destruction," sometime between October and December 1999 . The means by which Chen chose to reach this audience of souls was the news media, which became an integral part of his ministry . What developed in Garland was a symbiosis, a tacit partnership that provided each partner with something they wanted: for Teacher Chen, a means to reach millions of living beings with Gods word; for the news media, a source of compelling stories for a market in which Heavens Gate (and anything made to seem related to it) was still a hot commodity. 
This partnership worked largely because of a long-standing, ultimately unresolved pattern of mutual misrepresentations. For his part, Chen disregarded evidence that journalists had ulterior motives in broadcasting Chen Tao -- disregarded, in fact, that they were telling a story using Chen Tao in a manner that undermined his message. And journalists continued to put Chen Tao in the spotlight even as some realized they were assisting a group that they considered questionable. 
But we need to bear in mind that this partnership took place within, and interacted with, a specific socio-religious and historical context: suburban Texas post-Waco and post--Heavens Gate. I argue that the media partnership was a crucial means through which Chen Tao adapted to Garland -- and, in fact, how Garlanders came to terms with the combined effects of Chen Tao and the media. I would further argue that the presence of news crews and especially the press conferences set up for them served as forums and catalysts for that mutual adaptation.
Doctrine - Jesus is coming, yall
Surprisingly, quite a bit of Chen Tao doctrine fit right in with that of their religious neighbors. The assertion that Jesus would soon return to save the elect resonated with the convictions of many neighbors, and a number of them said as much to me . It was the high-tech means by which he was to return that did not square with those convictions.
Praxis -- not much
My colleagues and I did not learn whether or not any specific practices in which Chen Tao engaged fit their Garland context. Like much about Chen Tao, practices tended to persist at low or nonexistent levels of tension with community values, as we will see below.
Doctrine -- failed prophecy
For the most part, the major elements of Chen Tao doctrine did not succumb to adaptation. As far as I could tell, the most significant adaptation Teacher Chen had to make was to account publicly (and privately) for "failed" prophecy -- specifically, Gods scheduled appearance on Channel 18 set for 25 March, 1998. This was the conference at which Chen stated that the news media and his general audience "can consider the prophecy nonsense"  (which, on further inspection, is considerably more ambiguous and open-ended than "I was wrong").
Praxis -- public worship, public buildings
Chen Tao practice, however, was much more prone to adaptation so as not to cause tension with neighbors. One of the first things to go was mass bicycling trips around the neighborhood during which they tucked letters explaining their mission into neighbors front doors.
Rites which were at first performed in public -- and in traffic -- retreated back behind Master Chens fences relatively early on as well. I heard from some interviewees about a "phoenix" ritual that took place several times on Ridgedale Drive; neighbors successfully demanded Chen and his crew engage in that particular form of worship in private. 
Neighbors also raised an objection to a Chen Tao construction project to put a gazebo in Chens back yard . Complaints about zoning violations had surfaced before, usually in reference to reported overcrowding in one or several of Chen Taos houses or about Chen operating a "church" in a residential area. But this was the first instance in our awareness of the city responding to neighbor concerns with explicit prohibitions on Chen Tao activity.
Doctrine -- syncretism and criticism
Many aspects of Chen Tao remained in a state of tension with local preconceptions, chief among them their syncretic combination of apocalyptic Christianity, Pure Land Buddhism, and flying saucers. The idea that souls transmigrate and reincarnate, when it became obvious, also annoyed Baptist Garlanders expecting one and only one End. And Chens assertion that other (unspecified) religious leaders were only in it for the money and cheated their followers out of true salvation certainly didnt endear Chen Tao to local religious leaders.  (Under these circumstances it was a good thing that Chens claim that most of the Old Testament was the work of "heavenly devil kings"  was not well publicized.)
Praxis -- publicizing prophecy
Despite causing a good deal of tension with their neighbors, Chen and his followers also remained true to a core set of practices, the premier example of which was engaging the news media as a partner in the prophetic enterprise. That engagement provoked the major complaint among the neighbors who spoke with me and my colleagues: too many reporters and camera crews traipsing around the neighborhood and bothering people. Even though at least one neighbor profited from the news medias interest, most agreed that they had been better off before Chen Tao became notorious. 
Other methods of publicizing prophecy caused tension with the neighborhood. Chen Tao posted several large billboards displaying the Heavenly Fathers periodic pronouncements and photos of "Gods space aircrafts" in Chens front yard. At least one neighbor remarked that he would not be legally allowed to put up billboards of that size in his front yard to advertise a business, and concluded that this was simply one more instance where the city deliberately did not apply rules to Chen Tao that it enforced among its own citizens.  The complaint about "special treatment" came up with some frequency in our interviews in regards to the city of Garland; people perceived that this favoritism extended not only to Chen Tao but to the invading news media (though on press conference days whatever liberties the press enjoyed were tightly regulated by police supervision and press passes).
Community adaptation to Chen Tao and media
As stated above, adaptation was not simply all in Chen Taos court. Their neighbors, indeed Garland, changed as a result of Chen Taos presence and their attraction of media attention. One forum for this change was direct news interviews of neighbors. Another was press conferences, in which group, journalists, neighbors, various academics, and others interacted. In attending the 31 March press conference, my colleagues and I discovered that neighbors contact with the news media in these forums gave them the opportunity and the motivation to accomplish several conceptual reorderings:
To state their conceptions of Garland BCT -- "before Chen Tao"
Stories about CT-connected events elicited by interviewers very easily led neighbors into portrayals of the city and neighborhood as it once, i.e. "normally," was -- "a nice, quiet, small town". The period from December 1997 through March 1998 was considered an aberration from which neighbors hoped to soon escape. These neighbors got their wish when Chen Tao, partially dissolved, left for Lockport, NY, in April. 
To rethink those conceptions in the wake of Chen Tao and media
Was Garland such a quiet small town before the media "circus?" As an outside observer - one who grew up in a town of 4,000 - I was quick to question that sort of normative statement. And, in fact, so did several Garlanders with whom I spoke. 
To state their relationships to each other and to strangers
The media "circus" brought a small but highly visible collection of outsiders to Garland. Not just reporters from New York and Hong Kong, but anticultists, academics, and a stray Satanist. Such a sudden and obvious influx of strangers who were there to examine another population of strangers forced Garlanders to reconsider the meaning of belonging and community.
A comment I heard with some frequency from neighbors in the immediate vicinity of Chen Tao was how the whole affair actually brought them together. Some said they really did not know their neighbors until they met and commiserated about Chen Tao.
To consider what it means to live in nominally "live-and-let-live" America
Though Chen Tao and its media strategy stirred up considerable hostility among some neighbors I spoke with, these same neighbors would frequently follow up complaints with a "but this is America," or "this is a free country," and, even if it would be pragmatic or gratifying to rein Chen Tao in, it would be somehow un-American.  That sentiment provided a very interesting counterpoint to the contemporaneous, ongoing national discussion -- played out most often in the news media -- about what was to be done or left undone concerning NRMs after major tragedies involving the Branch Davidians and Heavens Gate.
To externalize and consider their ideas about religion, prophecy, and the End Times
The prominence of a "cult" in Garland prompted many to offer us their distinction between -- to paraphrase a well-known Edward Sapir article -- "religion genuine and spurious." Most took the group seriously as a religious organization; their objections were to Chen operating a "church" in their neighborhood in defiance of zoning ordinances. Before the 25 and 31 March prophecies became known, some neighbors harbored the hope that Chen and his group represented an exotic form of Christianity.  But by the time my colleagues and I set about interviewing them, most neighbors and other Garlanders considered Chen Tao a "cult" and Chen a "false prophet" and cult leader. News crews inquiring about the "cult next door" only served to reinforce the conception of CT as a "cult," as did the activity of a pair of self-described anticultists from Chattanooga.
Chens messages of Christs imminent return and the end of this world, despite their exotic trappings, resonated with many Garlanders. Though they rejected Chens syncretic vision, a number of my interviewees firmly believed in an imminent, though undatable, Second Coming which Chens prophecies reinforced. 
We cannot be certain if the constellation of interactions between Chen Tao, news media, and local government that reached its zenith in Garland will reemerge with similar force in their new host community of Lockport as we draw closer to Chens forecasted end times. Chen Tao membership has dropped to around 30 through desertion and one rather acrimonious defection, and their media profile has diminished accordingly. 
If a similar situation does arise in Lockport towards the end of 1999, it will also provide an opportunity to check up on the features of the host community side of adaptation. The five conceptual reorderings we discerned among long-term residents of Garland were, I believe, a direct result of the catalyzing effects of the Chen Tao-news media partnership. They suggest that investigators of new religious movements should look into adaptation in host communities as well as NRMs, and that they pay special attention to the role of the mass media in this two-way process of adaptation.
AAP Newsfeed. 12/25/97. "Taiwan religious cult raises concern in Texas suburb."
_____. 12/30/97. "Cult says God will land in Texas aboard spaceship."
_____. 3/19/98. "Taiwan UFO cult members say God to make TV appearance."
_____. 3/25/98. "God is a broadcast no-show despite camped-out followers."
_____. 4/1/98. "God is a no-show again in Texas."
AP. 12/23/97. "Former professor believes hes father of Jesus, will become God."
_____. 3/29/98. "Taiwanese in Texas draw media attention."
_____. 4/1/98. "Sect leaving Texas expects to meet God in Michigan."
_____. 4/2/98. "Still waiting, Taiwanese sect off to Michigan for divine instructions."
Asia Intelligence Wire/China News. 3/27/98. "Cult members plan to return to Taiwan."
_____. 4/1/98. "Cult members still waiting for God."
Buffalo News (UPI). 4/2/98. "Taiwan cult arrives in New York."
Cardinale, Anthony. 4/11/99. "Cult still awaiting vision." Buffalo News. 1C.
Chen Hon-Ming. N.d. Practical Evidence and Study of the World of God and Buddha: Gods
Salvation and Education. Chen Lian-Ling, tr. [Taiwan?]: privately published.
[Chen Hon-Ming] God. 1997. Gods Descending in Clouds (Flying Saucers) on Earth to Save
People. Richard Hsiu-Sen, tr. Garland, TX: privately published.
[Chen Hon-Ming] All the Gods. 1998a. The Appearance of God and the Descending of the
Kingdom of God - Saving Human Beings by Means of Gods Space Aircrafts. Lockport,
NY: privately published.
_____. 1998b. "1999: the year of global destruction -- how should you save yourself and others."
Pamphlet: privately published.
_____. March 31, 1998. Letter to Garland, TX, city officials.
Chen, Jay, and Lilian Wu. 3/31/98. "Cult followers still waiting for Gods arrival." Central News
China News. 12/20/97. "Cult members head for Texas to meet UFO."
_____. 3/25/98. "God is a broadcast no-show despite predictions."
Cook, Ryan J. 1999. "Gods descending in clouds (flying saucers) on Earth to save people: mass
mediation of prophecy in a Taiwanese syncretic movement." Paper presented at Central
States Anthropological Society 76th annual meeting, Chicago IL.
Cook, Ryan J., Dereck M. Daschke, Carrie B. Dohe, and Matthew J. Goff. 1998. "God and grad
students descend on Texas: a field report on Chen Tao." Millennial Prophecy Report, July 1998.
Covert, James. 12/25-27/97. "Sect leader denies suicide plan." Garland News. 1A, 7A.
_____. 1/?/98. "Garland sect travels to Michigan." Garland News.1A,3A.
_____. 3/13/98. "Prepared for flight with God: Group talks about beliefs that Christ is coming to
visit." Garland News. 1A-2A.
_____. 3/29/98. "Officials ponder religious groups next move." Garland News.
_____. 4/2/98. "Religious leader draws media crowd." Garland News. 1A,12A.
_____. 4/?/98. "City tallies final cost of media blitz." Garland News. 1A-2A.
Cropper, Carol Marie. 3/26/98. "Prophecy is retracted as God fails to appear." NY Times. A12
Deutsche Presse-Agentur. 3/18/98. "Members of Taiwan sect in Texas predict message from
God on TV."
_____. 3/25/98. "God disappoints Taiwan sect in Texas, fails to show on TV."
Festinger, Leon, David Riecken and Stanley Schachter. 1956 When Prophecy Fails.
Minneapolis: U MN P.
Florida Times Union. 3/26/99. "UFO cult perseveres despite desertions." A19.
Interview of Sherrie Amyx (neighbor). 3/31/98. Conducted by Carrie Dohe, UCCTRC.
Interview of Ken Blackburn (neighbor). 3/31/98. Conducted by Carrie Dohe, UCCTRC.
Interview of Kia Vandraagen (neighbor). 3/31/98. Conducted by Matthew Goff, UCCTRC.
Interview of "Ruey" (Chen Tao member). 3/31/98. Conducted by UCCTRC members.
Interview of Ching-Wei Wang (Chen Tao member). 4/1/98. Conducted by UCCTRC members.
Jackson, Forrest. 5/98. Personal e-mail communication with the author.
Kaufmann, Frank. 3/28/98. "Predicted TV showing by God draws a crowd."
Posting, University of Calgary New Religions listserv.
Lin Wen-fen. 3/25/98. "Foreign Ministry concerned over UFO cult activities in US."
Taiwan Central News Agency WWW.
NY Times. 3/5/98. "UFO cult waits for God in Texas town."
Perkins, Rodney, and Forrest Jackson. 1998. "Spirit in the sky." Fortean Times 109 (Apr.)
Reuters. 3/25/98. "God a no-show for Taiwan spiritual sect."
Straits Times (Singapore). 12/22/97. "Taiwan cult on US visit denies plans for mass suicide." 22
Tucker, Ernest. 3/26/98. "God a no-show, so cult alters tune." Chicago Sun-Times.
University of Chicago Chen Tao Research Cadre. 1998. Transcript, 3/31/98 Chen Tao press
conference, Garland TX.
_____. 1998. Videotape, 3/31/98 Chen Tao press conference, Garland TX.
Watchman Fellowship. 1998. "Transcript of Chen Taos March 12, 1998, press conference in
Garland, TX." HTML document. http://www.watchman.org/chentranscript.htm.
Wicker, Christine. 4/1/98. "Leader tells listeners that they are God." Dallas Morning News. 28A.
Wu, Lillian. 12/20/97. "MOFA follows cult activities of Taiwan residents in US." Central News
Wu, Sofia. 12/19/97. "Ministry investigates cult with plans to travel to US." Central News
1. Though a more correct pronunciation would be "jun dao" (zhen dao), I will use the form in which it commonly appeared in English-language print media and Chen Tao books.
2. The University of Chicago Chen Tao Research Cadre, hereafter UCCTRC -- we acquired the name somewhere on the way to Texas, and it stuck (for better or worse).
3. Perkins and Jackson 4/98. The official Ministry of the Interior registration title in the Chen era was the "ROC Soul Research Association" (Wu 12/19/97).
4. Interview, Wang Ching-wei, (4/1/98).
5. Perkins and Jackson 4/98.
6. Chen 1998. The Appearing of God and the Descending of the Kingdom of God 45-7. From this point forward, I will use the following shorthand for Teacher Chens major publications: AG -- The Appearing of God and the Descending of the Kingdom of God&--Saving Human Beings by Means of Gods Space Aircrafts (1998); GD -- Gods Descending in Clouds (Flying Saucers) on Earth to Save People (1997); PE -- Practical Evidence and Study of the World of God and Buddha: Gods Salvation and Education (1996).
7. PE 266-74, GD 61-72, Chen 1998b.
8. PE 250
9. Chen, letter to Garland city council (3/31/98).
10. Fieldnotes, 3/30/98; also AAP Newsfeed 12/30/97, Covert 12/25/97:7A.
11. China News 3/27/98; AAP 3/25/98.
12. China News 12/20/97, Wu 12/20/97.
13. Fieldnotes; interview, Blackburn (3/31/98).
14. Chen 1998b. The cosmos goes through periods called "creation," "abiding," "destruction," and then "annihilation." That fourth period comes forty-four years after the "destruction."
15. Wicker 4/1/98.
16. Cook 1999; UCCTRC 1998.
17. Covert 4/2/98. For an interesting early parallel to this relationship see Festinger, Riecken, Schachter 1956.
18. Interviews with Blackburn (3/30/98) and Amyx (3/30/98); fieldnotes (3/31/98).
19. Asia Intelligence Wire 4/1/98, Chen and Wu 3/31/98, Tucker 3/26/98.
20. Fieldnotes (3/31/98); Jackson, personal communication (5/98).
21. Covert 1/?/98.
22. Fieldnotes (3/30/98); videotape transcript, press conference, 3/31/98 (UCCTRC).
23. PE, GD
24. Fieldnotes (3/29-3/31/98).
25. Interview, Blackburn (3/31/98); fieldnotes (3/30/98).
26. Cf. AP 4/2/98, Covert 4/?/98, Jackson, personal communication (5/98).
27. Fieldnotes (3/31/98).
28. Fieldnotes (3/30/98).
29. Fieldnotes, 3/29-30/98; Covert 3/13/98.
30. Interview, Amyx (3/31/98).
31. Fieldnotes (3/30/98); interview, Blackburn (3/31/98).
32. Fieldnotes (3/29/98, 3/31/98).
33. Cardinale 4/11/99, Florida Times Union 3/26/99.
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