*. Going Clear is a documentary about the Church of Scientology based on Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book of the (nearly) same title. Directed by Alex Gibney, it’s a well-crafted film that plays much like a double-wide 60 Minutes episode. The history of the church’s founding by L. Ron Hubbard is described and then the story brought up to date with the various scandals it has been involved in. There are plenty of moments that will have you shaking your head, or rolling your eyes.
*. Any study of a cult raises two questions. The first has to do with the word “cult.” Is Scientology a cult or a bona fide religion? That’s an interesting question in the history of these things, as evidenced by the shabby roots of Mormonism and Christianity itself (the latter being a despised Jewish sect, originally). Hubbard’s “space opera” mythology is patent nonsense (the time scales, for starters, are impossible), but every faith has its loopier elements, like Jesus coming to America or a virgin birth.
*. In the end, the question of whether Scientology was a religion had to be determined by the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S., and when they held, under duress, that it was, it gave the church not just legal imprimatur but a renewed breath of life. That is, tax exempt status. Without so finding the story of Scientology may well have ended, as they didn’t have the money to pay their bills.
*. To my eyes I think Scientology can lay claim to being a religion. Any religion or church today though is also a business, and Scientology is rather more geared toward the bottom line than most. As Hubbard himself once summed his mission up: “MAKE MONEY. MAKE MORE MONEY. MAKE OTHER PEOPLE PRODUCE SO AS TO MAKE MORE MONEY.” That said, Scientology does at least make the usual nods toward self-improvement and saving the world.
*. The second question raised by cults has to do with how people fall for them in the first place. From an objective point of view, Scientology is total nonsense. Despite its claims to being scientifically based it hasn’t a shred of science to back up any of its claims. But there are always seekers looking for a larger meaning or purpose to their lives, and then a next generation who are born into the faith. Then once in, especially in the case of Scientology, it’s very hard to leave. The church is a little like a roach motel.
*. This is what is meant by the prison of belief: being so invested in a system of belief (and we can extend this from a religion to a political party, or the fandom surrounding a celebrity) that it’s no longer possible to back out. One simply doesn’t have the emotional or psychological resources to achieve escape velocity.
*. I think Going Clear works very well as an exposé, and special credit has to be given for proceeding in the face of one of the most litigious organizations on the planet. As a cult of celebrity Scientology has little time for God or gods but instead holds up money and fame as life goals. Most of their practice is pitched as therapeutic, with its biggest stars representing the kind of transfiguration that can be achieved. That the rest of it is so corny and shoddy (the cartoonish mythology, the silly sailor suits, the giant portrait of Hubbard with his hand resting on a globe like some kind of Bond villain) it can only raise a smile. But to be John Travolta or Tom Cruise . . . isn’t that like touching the face of God? Or becoming God oneself?
*. Obviously the current head of the Church, David Miscavige, does not come off well. Indeed, the testimony here paints him as a violent sociopath with delusions of grandeur. But Tom Cruise fares little better as celeb pitchman. Receiving an oversize Medal of Valor (for what?) and then saluting the aforementioned portrait of Hubbard is beyond satire. But of course it’s all a bit darker than that.
*. Lawrence Wright: “Probably no other member of the church derives as much material benefit from his religion as Cruise does, and consequently none bears a greater moral responsibility for the indignities inflicted on members of the Sea Org [Scientology’s executive body], sometimes directly because of his membership.” One wants to ask Cruise how he sleeps at night, and Rainier Wolfcastle’s answer comes to mind: “On top of a pile of money, with many beautiful ladies.”
*. Given how secretive and paranoid an organization the Church of Scientology is, Going Clear is probably about as deep an investigation as you’re going to see. It’s also fairly presented, not coming across as having any axe to grind. Indeed, even former members of the Church who are interviewed are surprisingly forgiving. The contrast to Scientology’s all-too predictable response — going on the attack — speaks volumes, both about them and the times we live in.