“I’ve been through,” is what people used say to tell those in the know that they had attended est. People still say this, but it now can refer to Landmark, the Forum, and Wings. Wings seminars are a rite of passage for today’s white-collar professionals in keeping with the definitions and terminology of Victor and Edith Turner (Turner, 1982). The purpose of this rite of passage is tailored to the American, white-collar professional: it transforms the American individual into a more efficient person, as described in Habits of the Heart (Bellah et al., 1985). Wings is certainly not an established religion, nor even a sect. However, Wings has many religious overtones, and this is significant.
Wings is not a group that has developed folklore from the traditional social evolution of people spending time together. This is a designer folkgroup with carefully designed folklore meant to accomplish specific goals: a sense of fulfillment and higher level of efficiency. This is accomplished with the religious overtones incorporated into their seminars. The meanings of such terms as “efficiency” and “fulfillment” will become clear during the discussion on the rite of passage.
My research included reading Wings brochures, seeing their offices, and studying related books and journal articles. I interviewed Wings president Kris King, Director of Operations Susan Rogers, a facilitator, four seminar graduates including a young man who had gone through Wings’ teen seminars, and a man who belonged to a sort of watchdog group concerned with Wings. Also, in the interest of accurate fieldwork, I’ve been through.
Wings as Religious Folklore
The people who attend Wings are predominantly middle-class, middle-aged, office-working professionals. They are fully ingrained in the American capitalist system, a system which takes people away from their neighborhood and original religion (Kosmin and Lachman, 1993). This creates an unstable environment for people where they no longer have traditional ties to the community in the form of geographical or occupational enclaves (Bellah et al., 1985; Shibley, 1996). This can result in an identity crisis and in such times of crisis, people long for stability (Shibley, 1996). Different people will turn to different lifestyle enclaves such as religious congregation, political groups, or hobbyist clubs in an attempt to have community (Bellah et al., 1985). In this sense, all of these different enclaves become products, for which people shop around (Hoge, Johnson, Luidens, 1994; Shibley, 1996).
Whether religious, political, or hobby-oriented, such groups will often have religious overtones in the form of rites of passage and other such rituals. Wings, however, has more religious overtones than usual. First , people find the Wings community appealing because of what Dean Kelley called “strictness.” The Kelley Thesis is that the religions that survive and thrive are often the ones that are considered strict or in high tension with the surrounding environment (Kelley, 1972; Iannaccone, 1992, 1994; Shibley, 1996). While on one end, these religions survive because they eliminate the free riders, they also look attractive to people “shopping” for religion because they “increase the relative value of group activities” (Iannaccone, 1994).
The typical Wings seminar is four days (Thursday to Sunday) and runs from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. (except Sunday which ends at 6 p.m. so everyone can have a celebratory dinner). They ask that participants not talk to anybody or go out after the seminar, but simply rest up for the following day. This was an easy request to honor as the blocks of time in the seminar left me very tired: I would ride my bike home, take a shower, maybe watch some television as I recorded my daily research journal, and go to sleep . . . quickly. The time and energy involved in Wings is a considerable investment. This investment weeded out those less committed (two people dropped out) and increased the relative value of group activities in that we were all in this intensely encompassing experience together.
Another religious overtone evident in Wings was the role of the emotional- or personally-based experience. The individuals who seek to find stability through religion also tend to look for emotion- or experience-based religion (Shibley, 1996). Wings accomplished this through persuading people that “sharing” with other participants was in their own self interest. “Sharing” involved standing up in front of the group and telling people what problems have been burdening you for, perhaps, your entire life. Tears were shed more often than not as the “sharer” told us that they were somehow abused by their parents or grandparents, or had a drinking problem, or had been mugged and beaten by a stranger . . . . This had a cleansing, or purging effect on the individual and group level. On the other end, people’s positive realizations were very individual in that no two people learned the exact same things from the seminar. [DF1] Suffice it here to say that these are the same type of experiences that many hypothesize are making the evangelical churches so popular today (Kelley, 1972; Shibley, 1996).
A third religious overtone relates to the content of the seminar. Wings is not concerned with issues or leaders like a political group, nor with gear or equipment like a hobbyist club, but with more esoteric matters – what Paul Tillich called “ultimate concern” (Tillich, 1957). Specifically, they were concerned with people’s sense of fulfillment and purpose. These are not secular concerns, but traditionally come under the jurisdiction of religion. The fact that people turn to Wings for answers in this realm – even while remaining affiliated with a traditional church – shows a shift in the role of religion. This is discussed specifically in the section, “Wings as Test Case for Habits of the Heart.”
Wings as Vernacular Religion
Wings fits well with Don Yoder’s definition of folk religion as “the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people and apart from and alongside the strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion” (Yoder, 1974). While Wings certainly exists as a supplement to mainstream religion for many, to look for an official theology or liturgy, one could glance at Scientology or even further back to the New Thought Movement of the early 1900s. However, if Wings had an official doctrine from which it sprang, it would be Mind Dynamics Incorporated. Mind Dynamics Inc. was started by William Patrick Penn, owner of Holiday Magic Cosmetics. He designed methods of self-growth for his staff, particularly salespeople, which included physical beatings and locking people in coffins. Before any accusations were proven, Mind Dynamics Inc. was closed in 1974. Two famous students emerged from these seminars: Werner Erhard and John Hanley. Erhard started est. Hanley started Lifespring. A Lifespring graduate named Gary Koyen began Koyen and Associates in Eugene, Oregon. Koyen sold his business to Kris King and James Newton in 1986. (Register-Guard, 1990)
Wings has adapted to environmental concerns and improved upon problems in the past. It has also reflected the individual personalities of the different owners. (James Newton left, and now Michael Morrow is part-owner.) In this way it takes its primary symbol system from a main tradition (Mind Dynamics, Lifespring, Koyen & Associates), yet it also has its own sayings, martyrs, celebrations, and even dances – all built around their own rites of passage, as we shall see.
More importantly, Wings fits with Leonard Primiano’s definition of folk religion as “lived” religion as “religion as expressed in everyday life” (Primiano, 1995). This is clear from my interviews. For example, Kris King talked about how Wings “opens up [seminar participants] perspective of what is possible” and that even she didn’t realize she could create her own day to day life until attending a like seminar. Also, all of the graduates made similar statements to Mindy’s (one of the graduates) that her “life has been on a different track from, basically, then on.” Whatever a participant feels he/she learned from the seminar, they are keenly aware that these lessons have a direct impact on their lives. I believe that not only is Wings a form of “religion as expressed in everyday life,” but is the expression of a desire to express religion in everyday life in reference to the specific compensators supplied by the Wings organization. These elements are happiness, meaning, and fulfillment.
The essence of the religious overtones of Wings folklore and Wings as a vernacular religion is in the Wings seminar: the rite of passage designed specifically for clients who pay upwards of $500 for this experience.
Wings as Rite of Passage
The model of rite of passage used in this paper was provided by Victor and Edith Turner, which they developed from Van Gennep. This model consists of three ritual stages. First is separation, where the initiate is separated from the profane time and space of mundane, daily life and enters into a sacred time and space. The central stage is liminality, where the initiate experiences sacra (sacred objects, myths, or performances that contain the community's sacred knowledge), communitas (“a bond uniting people over and above any formal social bonds”), and ludic recombination (“the analysis of culture into factors of their free and playful recombination in any and every possible pattern however deviant, grotesque, unconventional or outrageous”) [Turner, 1982]. The final stage is reincorporation, where the initiate rejoins his/her society with a new social status or understanding.
Wings takes full advantage of this model. While the stages of the rite of passage overlap somewhat, they are roughly in the typical order. The first day is dedicated to separation. The second and third day are the liminal stage. The fourth day is reincorporation.
I have previously hypothesized that the purpose of this rite of passage was to enable Wings clients to feel more empowered in their lives. They effected this empowerment through a ludic recombination of gender roles: men were crying and women were encouraged to determine what they wanted in life as opposed to being a wife, daughter, or mother (Faux, 1997). I believe this hypothesis still holds, however, it can be expanded upon with some of the concepts in Bellah et al.’s Habits of the Heart.
Wings as Habits of the Heart Test Case
The general thesis of Bellah et al.’s Habits of the Heart is that American citizens are in a state of tension between different forms of individualism and a desire for community. The authors say that, as America became entrepreneurial and then corporate, the sense of the individual was strengthened, but at a cost. Due to technological advances, the entrepreneur did not rely on his/her town of residence for financial well-being. This decreased dependence on the community. The rise of corporate America brought the spirit of the manager into the individual’s framework for existence. The manager’s work and home life were completely separate and there was a utilitarian emphasis on efficiency. In the latter part of this century, we saw the rise of the therapist as a manager of internal processes of the individual: again, the stress is on efficiency.
According to this book, due to the developments in individualism described above, relationships have become increasingly more self-serving and less satisfying. With the rise in the service industry, Americans no longer find community in geographical or occupational social settings, but in lifestyle enclaves that may be based on commonality in politics, religion, or even hobbies. Personal relationships serve as a mutually therapeutic situation where love means communicating one’s true self without sacrificing that self. A therapeutic relationship is, specifically, one in which there is a simultaneous closeness and distance where the focus is on one person; so a mutually therapeutic relationship is one which focuses on one person at a time. However, with this freedom comes isolation. Individuals may try to overcome this isolation through political, religious, or social activities.
According to Bellah et al., sacred institutions have taken a backseat to the individual’s conception of what is sacred, even of what is religion. One can still find religious communities, but America has delegated religion to the role of therapist just like personal relationships. Cosmic selfhood overrides what any institution may say about community, but the church is still utilized as a support group.
The most frequent criticism given to this book is that the pool of informants was too narrow. The authors interviewed 200 people and all of them were middle-class, mainstream, white-collar Americans. Most of them were of European descent and at least second-generation Americans. Critics said that the book could not be representative of intellectual and emotional trends in America because of such a homogenous folk group, a criticism with which I agree whole-heartedly (Bliven, 1986; Hunter, 1986; Marty, 1985).
Whether or not the theories of Habits of the Heart apply to America as a whole, I believe they apply to Wings: a predominantly white, middle-class, mainstream, white-collar, second-plus generation of Americans. If this is true, then we can make certain predictions. First, if this folk group is attracted by Wings, then, according to Bellah et al., they must be experiencing tension between the freedom from community and the isolation of individualism. Second, these individuals should express a desire for efficiency both in their relationships and internally. Also, their relationships should have elements of the therapeutic, as should any religious tendencies they exhibit. Overall, a sense of cosmic selfhood should take priority over any institutional issues.
This first day of Wings left little time for initial introductions. We (the participants) were greeted by the backup team – former graduates who volunteer to help with seminars they have already taken (sometimes several times). The easiest way to discern between a participant and backup team member was that the latter had large and perpetual smiles. We were shown around and then, at an appointed time, led into the seminar room. This room was large with a pastel blue carpet, quadraphonic sound system (playing New Age music upon our entrance), seats arranged in a semi-circle facing two benches, and large paper rolls hanging from the wall behind the two benches.
The benches were for the facilitators – people who had been through all the seminars including “The Aligned Facilitator” ($3000) and were now leading seminars. The facilitators were Michael (co-owner of Wings) and Valerie. They immediately led us in an exercise where we chose words to describe what we wanted in our lives and relationships.
The rest of the day was spent in one of six ways: (1) exercises: the group and even backup team would participate with the facilitators, the results often being written on the big paper rolls; (2) presentations: the facilitators would draw a picture and explain a concept through it, such as drawing an iceberg and explaining how our awareness was above the water line and represented only ten percent of our total consciousness; (3) small groups: six of us would sit in a small circle and each take a turn discussing our feelings on such subjects as how we hold ourselves back in life; (4) dyads: two people would sit across from each other and role-play as each other’s parent, spouse, boss, etc.; (5) check-ins: one person would stand in front of the group and share his/her feelings about someone who had hurt them, the last exercise, or something of that nature; (6) breaks: ten minutes for going to the bathroom, stretching legs, or grabbing a smoke, or an hour for lunch or dinner, and often involving individual or small group assignments. There were also assignments given as homework.
It would be overbearing to detail every facet of each day’s experience (as those who read my first draft unanimously agreed). However, some highlights are appropriate to communicate the feel of the seminar.
The first day was focused on ownership, one of the four “cornerstones” of a well-balanced life (the next days would focus on vulnerability, integrity, and spontaneity, respectively). The exercises and presentations, therefore, all focused around the idea that we are responsible for what our life is. Some of the key phrases were, “beliefs create experience,” “expectations are pre-planned resentments,” and “we are not our past, nor are we our behavior.”
Different people stood up during check-in times. One woman said that she wanted to make clear to us that she lived by a different “paradigm,” and that she wanted to be accepted by us nevertheless. Michael immediately said to her, “Why would you put your acceptance in their hands? Why would you give other people that power?” After she admitted that she shouldn’t do that, he asked everyone to raise their hand if they accepted her despite her different paradigm. We all raised our hands, assuming she was talking about Neo-Paganism or astrology, and not child-molesting or cannibalism. Other check-ins involved people opening up more so, even to the point of tears. The amount of crying increased daily until Sunday.
During a presentation about the differences between the dead, comfort, learning, and panic zones of experience, a woman raised her hand to announce that she had been in a state of panic since she walked in the door that morning. The facilitators asked her why and what she was afraid of, making a point to be patient in listening to some long answers. They assured her that she was in a “safe space” and asked everyone else who was nervous to raise their hand; most of us did.
Three types of separation are represented on this first day: physical, societal and internal. The physical separation occurs by establishing the seminar room as a special place that is entered and left with musical accompaniment and the smiling backup team. This room can not be entered and left upon a whim, but only when there is “work” to be done in the form of exercises, processes, and presentations.
Societal separation begins with the backup team’s incessant smiling. This smiling is different from the day-to-day world for most of us. The agreement of confidentiality and request that we don’t talk to anybody also served as a barrier to our regular world where we might talk about anything to our friends, family, or coworkers.
By internal separation I mean psychological separation from previous beliefs. This was accomplished through several of the presentations. The iceberg presentation (awareness as ten percent of our consciousness) set forth the idea that in our own subconscious were factors that were beyond our own control (e.g., cultural programming, repressed memory, heritage, and – perhaps – past lives). This notion was reinforced by requesting that we attempt to look at our belief systems from the outside and statements that we are not our past nor our behavior because there is a difference between being and doing (unconditional love vs. building/diminishing respect). Furthermore, we were internally separated from our normative roles, where our daily activities (e.g., manager, spouse, parent, rebel, scapegoat, rescuer) were established as not who or what we are (“Essential Being”).
This process of separation may seem anathema to feelings of isolation, however there were clearly feelings of isolation expressed. The most obvious expressions came from the paradigm woman, the panicked woman, and a man who came home from a hiking trip with “the guys” to find out his wife wanted a divorce. Also, there is no doubt that the internal separation described above was contributing to feelings of isolation. However, the internal separation was about separating oneself from the reality of isolation in the outside world. For example, the facilitators would openly state that we were isolated with statements like, “You are the source of your beliefs, experiences, and results.” However, they would counteract (but not cancel) the impact of these statements by establishing that the seminar room was a “safe space” as they did with the panicked woman and paradigm woman. In other words, they were using a therapeutic mode of communication in which they told people they were on their own through presentations and exercises, but would also alleviate any feelings of isolation through check-ins, dyads and small groups. In this way, a simultaneous distance and closeness was established as the context for a relationship based on self-expression; Wings plays on the lack of community in the outside world to strengthen community within Wings itself.
One of the main goals of this therapeutic relationship was efficiency. Two missions of PES were to “create greater results and more positive experiences in your life,” and “embrace service, learning to be in service to your world and the people in it.” As early as the first exercise, also, there is evidence that Bellah et al. are correct about efficiency being central to these people. When asked what we wanted in our lives and relationships answers were given such as “productive,” “make-a-difference,” and “dharmic.”
There was also an undercurrent of coercion for people to use the seminar time efficiently. Presentations on the dead/comfort/learning/panic zone, reasons for having a high personal participation level, and the curve of addiction (immediate satisfaction and long-term difficulty)/curve of growth (immediate difficulty and long-term satisfaction) were all intended to convince participants to throw themselves into the activities of the next four days.
Finally, the manner in which the information was presented was familiar, and, hence, efficient for the white-collar American. Large paper and magic markers are common items found in office culture. The format of establishing a vision (what do we want in our lives and relationships), issuing a mission statement (“The Personal Effectiveness Seminar will enable you to . . . .”), and evaluating one’s strengths and weaknesses is the same format used in retreats by corporations nationwide for the last many decades. The most efficient manner to communicate information is to use methods and materials familiar to the participants.
Friday focused on vulnerability. As we entered the seminar room the backup team was smiling and clapping as “We Are the World” played over the sound system. The facilitators repeated the goals of the seminar (“Say ‘Yes’ to what you want most in your life . . . .”), and the exercises, presentations, check-ins, etc. began.
Vulnerability concerned our relationships with loved ones, how parents pass on their bad habits of communication, other characteristics we have inherited from our families and more. The facilitators told us that “What you resist, you create, exaggerate, or become. What you resist gets worse. What you resist persists.” We were told that accepting whatever comes along with a good attitude can change our life experiences. We were read Robert Fullum’s short story, “Maybe, Maybe Not,” which had everybody in tears, if not choked up.
On this second day we did an interesting exercise where we gave feedback to each other. For example, you would pick someone you thought was invisible, judgmental, or that you disliked (“resisted”). You would walk up to that person and say, “You are safe with me,” and then improvise some thoughtful advice on how that person could be better.
Integrity was defined on the third day as “telling the truth,” and “honor.” We learned the five levels of agreement (five being the highest), and went over different strategies we unconsciously use to attain love and respect, as well as ways to turn those strategies around into something positive. We did forgiveness exercises in the dyads where we would role-play being someone in the person’s life and that person would say something like, “Dad, I forgive you for working all the time and being emotionally distant from me.”
The check-ins during these two days became fairly intense. People were telling awful, terrible events in their lives in front of the crowd. Crying would occur both from those in front of the group and in the group as dark confession after dark confession was revealed. People were telling memories that had been blocked out since childhood and early adulthood. Boxes of tissues were given to each small groups and dyad and the tears continued.
In these liminal two days I came to like the people in Wings and felt I was beginning to make lifelong friends. My journal from those two nights have statements like, “I think this is reality,” “ This is good for me,” and “I think I have personalized reality.”
While elements of sacra, communitas and ludic recombination existed in the first day of the seminar, they were prevalent and much more intense in these middle two days. Sacra came in the form of the mission statement, presentations, and handouts which revealed “realities” about familial and love relationships, self-perception, and interactions with the world. Other sacra included methods and strategies for facing life (e.g., five levels of agreement). Yet more sacra came in the form of stories (Robert Fullum’s short story) and performance (we actually learned and performed a “Wings” line dance).
Some of the sacra functioned as information to become more efficient. In keeping with the corporate retreat model, the focus of sacra progressed from vision, mission, and evaluation of strengths and weaknesses to the introduction of threats/opportunities and strategies. All of these issues revolved around becoming more efficient.
For example, some of the emotions handed down by our parents were not efficient; their darker sides (e.g., anger) are not efficient when trying to express our good intentions (e.g. concern). Becoming more efficient meant having integrity and using other strategies to obtain what we stated we wanted in our vision statements.
Communitas was solidified by various exercises. The exercises involving participants choosing words to describe what we want or have in our relationships instilled communitas by showing the commonality of the goals among us. Other exercises were confidential, some of which were quite intimate.
Many of these intimate exercises not only built communitas, but did so through ludic recombination. While nothing “grotesque” happened, there was a fair amount of “deviant” and “outrageous” behavior. The check-ins, dyads, and small groups involved people releasing their emotions in front of other people, which is certainly unusual in contemporary American society, and could not have taken place without a sense of separation from the everyday world.
The role playing, in particular, involved ludic recombination because one person would pretend to say things to a parent, spouse, sibling, or other loved one: things not normally said. That was what made these moments significant: it was deviant behavior to tell your parents, for example, that they really hurt you and you wanted it to stop. Another example of this type of ludic recombination was the feedback exercises where you would go up to somebody and tell them they were holding back from the experience, judgmental, or just that you “resisted” them upon first sight.
Much of this ludic recombination was therapeutic as the processes (check-ins, dyads, small groups) focused narrowly and deeply on one individual at a time. These individuals were able to talk about subjects so private and personal that they had never spoken about them before. The subjects were common to therapeutic setting: problems in relationships with parents, siblings, spouses, children, bosses, and the self.
The processes all had elements of distance as well. The check-ins ended and we would move onto something else immediately. The dyads used role playing, so that there was a speaker and a listener; the speaker would talk and receive no response, and then became the listener. The small groups listened to one person talk, and then the next in the circle, and then the next, and so on. By not dwelling on any one person’s statements or misery, a distance was created that made people feel more comfortable talking about such intimate subjects.
The reintegrative elements of this final day are fairly straightforward. We were given more than enough opportunities to sign up for the next seminar (“Crossover”) and it was impressed upon us how PES was merely the first step. We had a debriefing and accompanying packet that not only served as acknowledgment of our different status, but instructed us on how to deal with the uninitiated in general.
We did a final confidential exercise after lunch which took the rest of the time until dinner time. Instead of a dinner break, the seminar was over. Coworkers, friends and family members who had suggested to the present participants that they attend Wings entered the seminar room with balloons, cards, and flowers, as victorious soft-rock music played.
The reception was a congratulatory celebration of our new status as Wings graduates, plain and simple.
Cosmic selfhood is a radically individualistic religion in which God is the self, only magnified (Bellah et al., 1985). God is commonly credited with creation and knowledge of the purpose of life. Wings certainly supports the idea of the individual as creator (“you are the source of your beliefs, experiences, and results”). These seminars also direct a sense of purpose (“release your natural aliveness,” “create greater results and more positive experiences in your life,” and “embrace service, learning to be in service to your world and the people in it”).
This cosmic selfhood is understood through a therapeutic process where people are encouraged to become expressive individualists, talking about extremely deep and personal issues. Yet, this expressiveness is used in a utilitarian fashion – as with all therapeutic situations – to bring problems in the open and then move on, as if clearing a hurdle in a decathlon. That is why the distance between the talker and listener is maintained in the check-ins, dyads and small groups, why there is not ever a real conversation.
Using this expressiveness fits with the therapist/manager relationship model designated in Habits of the Heart as common in the late twentieth century. As a manager, the individuals are assessing their strengths/weakness, threats/opportunities, and strategies concerning more efficiency in getting what they want from life and having better relationships. But, with whom will these Wings graduates have relationships?
Family people, including spouses are built-in relationships for people attending Wings. Many people in the seminar were frustrated with their occupational folk groups. All of the people in the Wings seminar, however, now belong to another folk group: Wings graduates. While I didn't take part in many efforts to stay in touch (and I was also “resistant” and “invisible” to many people), others did. Many go on to the next seminar, “Crossover,” and many were directed to Wings from previous graduates. So, while familial relationships are permanent (and a consistent source for therapeutic discussion), spousal relationships may phase in or out, and occupational relationships can be taken or left, it is the Wings lifestyle enclave that becomes the glue of this folk group. I would not consider myself a part of this folk group anymore, but there are plenty of others who would still accept me on those terms.
The Wings relationship is based on the rite of passage, a ritual which served to ease the tension between the isolation and freedom of individualism. The seminar reinforces individualism through telling people they should and can “say ‘yes’ to what they want most in their lives;” this is a somewhat self-serving agenda. However, the isolation of such an attitude towards life is overcome by creation of this lifestyle enclave. Other people in Wings “understand” and will support each other in their pursuit for what they want. In this way, “being good” is not only “feeling good” relative to the lifestyle enclave, but “feeling good” is “being good.” This allows a maximum of freedom and a minimum of isolation in individualism.
Part of this freedom can be found in a transgression of gender roles where the women are inspired to take control of their lives beyond being a daughter, wife, or mother, and the men are encouraged to openly share their feelings (Faux, 1997). However, this transgression goes beyond gender roles. A traditional manager kept his/her work and home life separate. The work life was where efficiency ruled and private matters such as joy, freedom, or pangs for community had no place. The home life was where relationships, civic duty, and happiness took precedence; Bellah et al. called this the traditional “women’s sphere.”
Through the various ludic recombinations in the Wings seminar, participants are encouraged to transgress the strictures of the managerial role. Not only are we to bring happiness, a sense of service, and the primacy of relationships into the work life, but we are to bring efficiency to the home life. Wings is a rite of passage for white-collar professionals which enables them to live life with more satisfaction (Faux, 1997), but not only through transgressing gender roles: Wings encourages the transgression of societal roles as a whole, mixing the managerial paradigms of the work life with the more “spiritual” paradigms of the home life.
This transgression is emotion-based and the whole rite of passage involves a tremendous amount of initial sacrifice in the form of time, money (for room and board), and energy during the four-day retreat. In this way, Wings fits the requirements of a thriving religious group as determined by Dean Kelley’s theory mentioned above.
Wings is not only religious in terms of cosmic selfhood, client cultism, and rite of passage, but is a folk religion. Wings has its own sayings, dances, paradigms, rituals, and social group. The transgressive nature of the rite of passage, more importantly, is a direct attempt to bring the expression of religion (cosmic selfhood) into everyday life; this reflects Primiano’s definition of “lived religion” (Primiano, 1995).
Wings’ connection with previous traditions also denotes it as a folk religion, or unofficial tradition. However, I believe that an area for more study is connecting Wings to the official traditions – before Mind Dynamics and Scientology – of the New Thought movements founded by Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, Warren Felt Evans, and Mary Baker Eddy, or even further to the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg.
represents the future of religion in the sense that it is a post-industrial
individualistic quest. The tension
between isolation and community is never fully resolved, as the seminars
encourage the sense of freedom in one’s life. When reintegrating the participants, it
is typical to do so with one’s previous community. However, Wings reintegrates the
participants into its own
community. This community is
made up of the coworkers, friends, and family that suggested Wings, but may
exclude other people from the same social groups. In other words, Wings creates a
community of individuals who may feel especially isolated due to the sense of
freedom learned at the seminar.
Therefore, the participants will need consistent community reinforcement
to continue at this level of individual freedom. One source of reinforcement is
socializing with other graduates met in the seminar, which is good for the
participants and in the spirit of friendship. Another source of reinforcement is to
return to Wings for other seminars, which is good for Wings’ owners and in the
spirit of capitalism.
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Festivity and Ritual, ed. Victor Turner, pp. 201-219. Washington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press.
Yoder, Don. 1974. “Toward a Definition of Folk Religion.” Western Folklore 33:2-15.
“Fired EWEB Chief Gets Top Wings Job,” The Register-Guard, 16 January, 1991, pp.
“Spreading Wings,” The Register-Guard, 9 December, 1990, pp.1F, 4F, 5F.
Faux, Dave. “Wings: A Modern Rite of Passage for Today’s Professionals.” University
of Oregon, 1997.
 Religion is most often described as having a communal element and belief in a supernatural being who plays an active role in the mundane world (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985; Miller, 1995). Wings certainly has a communal element: each seminar has from 20 to 50 people attending; they often have events such as reunions and trips with former participants; and their recruitment is based on social ties outside of Wings.
Wings does not promote the belief in any supernatural being. One of the first topics for discussion in the seminar was that they did not consider themselves a religion and did not promote any religious beliefs over any other religious beliefs. Despite this, I still count this as a religion because they are addressing issues of ultimate concern, particularly meaning in life and happiness. This group eludes the traditional definitions of religion because it caters to a modern, individualistic, and therapeutic model becoming more and more prevalent in contemporary religious experience (Bellah et al., 1985; Shibley, 1996).
There is no doubt, however, that Wings is what Stark and Bainbridge refer to as a client cult. The word “cult” is not used in a derogatory tone neither in The Future of Religion nor in this article. A cult is simply a religious group in high tension with its surrounding environment – like a sect – but without “a prior tie with another established religious body in the society in question” – unlike a sect (Johnson, 1963; Stark and Bainbridge, 1985). Wings goes through periods of high tension with their surrounding community, as we shall see. It also has no past ties with established religious bodies in Eugene, Oregon where it is based.
A client cult provides “specific compensators, but does not provide the very general compensators that mark true religion” (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985). From the Mission Statement of the Personal Effectiveness Seminar offered by Wings, it is clear that Wings does offer such specific compensators.
“The Personal Effectiveness Seminar assists you to:
Say ‘Yes’ to what you want most in your life.
Openly acknowledge and appreciate that you are the source of your beliefs, experiences, and results.
Understand that respect, awareness, and love positively transform your relationship with yourself, in turn transforming your relationships with others.
Release your natural aliveness, ownership, integrity, vulnerability, and spontaneity.
Create greater results and more positive experiences in your life.
Embrace service, learning to be in service to your world and the people in it.”
 While this word has a long history, I believe it was meant here with the currently popular emphasis on “duty” and “destiny.”