Don Lattin is one of the most experienced and savvy observers of contemporary religion, having astutely covered modern spiritual mores for the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner for two decades. His latest book is a worthwhile, thought-provoking work, despite its failure to deliver in one important respect.
The book is divided into four parts. "Searching for the Sixties" attempts to portray the fearlessly, almost excessively questing spirit of that decade. Its chapters examine the Esalen Institute, the highly influential human potential center on the coast of Central California; a group of men ordained as Catholic priests in 1970 (only five of 15 were still priests 20 years later); and the Course in Miracles phenomenon. "Turning East" analyzes the widespread exploration of the dharma by millions of Americans, in chapters on "Dharma Kids" (the children of "New American Buddhists"), the Hare Krishna movement, and the rise and fall of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a.k.a. Osho). "Sex, Drugs, Rock 'N Roll, and Religion" covers the freewheeling experimentation with sex and psychedelic drugs that characterized the time and the surprising effort by conservative evangelists to incorporate modern-sounding music into their liturgies. "Paradise Lost" is a somber, sometimes bitter look at the excesses and failures of other movements: the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a panoply of New Age prophets and profiteers, and the not-so-utopian Farm community led by Stephen Gaskin.
The book contains much terrific reporting, captivating storytelling, and enjoyable reading. But after a few chapters, you notice that while Lattin is in the milieu on which he is reporting, he seems not to be of it. Obliged by his responsibilities as a journalist to remain at some distance from his subjects, he doesn't evince much empathy for their motivations or all-too-human frailties. And while he is clearly familiar with just about every permutation of American spirituality in our time, he doesn’t seem to have an affinity for any particular path.
But the larger disappointment is that Lattin never really delivers on the promise of his subtitle. He rightly points out that the '60s are too easily maligned but doesn't show how the values articulated and championed in that tumultuous, idealistic era still animate contemporary life. He does note that the sexual-liberation movement led to (among other things) the ordination of women, but overall there is a sense that all the exploration and barrier-busting of the '60s amounted to little in the way of enduring importance. For example, in his too-brief concluding chapter, he writes that yoga has become "a lifestyle choice, more like going to the gym than to the ashram." Maybe for some, but for countless others, it is part of an ongoing effort to live a sustainable, spiritually integrated life--a vision that if not born in the ’60s surely was nourished by them. Indeed, as Lattin finally observes, "Now, more than ever, we need to remember that 'the Sixties' was about keeping hope in the world and faith in ourselves." Amen to that.