Transcript: Hi, this is David Brower and thank you for joining us on Your 20 Minute Podcast today. Our special guest, Brian C. Wilson, professor of comparative religion at Western Michigan University. And Brian, welcome from, I guess you’re in Michigan and I’m in Colorado. We’re both a little on the chilly side, I guess.
Brian Wilson: That’s right. It’s great to be with you.
David Brower: Thank you so much. Great to have you here. One of the things that we were talking before we started rolling here, and you’ve been in your position at Western Michigan for 23 winters as your wife would call it. And so tell me what that means, professor of comparative religion. What does that encompass?
Brian Wilson: Well, comparative religion is the academic study of religion. So we basically use the tools of psychology and social sciences and history to understand a variety of different religious traditions. And so my department, for example, you can come and study Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and my specialty happens to be new religious movements in the United States. So I teach American religious history, but I really focus on the things that people used to call cults and sects, and of course today, we call them new religious movements.
David Brower: Well, there you go. They gotta have some kind of politically correct label.
Brian Wilson: Well, yeah, and it’s interesting because those terms used to have a kind of legitimate sociological meeting, but they’re used primarily now as derogatory terms in the press, so we kind of stay away from that because our whole point is to try and understand religious traditions from the inside out.
David Brower: How fascinating. So you are not only always teaching, you’re always learning, aren’t you?
Brian Wilson: Well that’s one of the wonderful things about my job is that I’ve been doing it for 23 years, and of course, all my schooling before that, but there’s always something new to learn, some new facets, some new tradition out there, some new founder. So yeah, it’s fascinating. It’s endless.
David Brower: So how did you get from medical microbiology at Stanford to religious studies?
Brian Wilson: Well, I decided after I finished my degree in medical microbiology, my original plan was to go off to med school.
David Brower: Okay.
Brian Wilson: But then I decided I better go out and get a little bit of real world experience. So I joined the Peace Corps and did that for three years.
David Brower: Nice.
Brian Wilson: I did Honduras for two and Dominican Republic for a year, and just love the experience. But one of the things it did was it exposed me to a variety of religious traditions I hadn’t been familiar with. And so at that point, it kind of reoriented my career goal, and I decided to come back, instead of doing medical school, to get a PhD in religious studies and teach about religion.
David Brower: I’ll be darned. Well, good for you. So do you get a lot of students coming in and have all these epiphanies, or are they kind of well-educated already, or a cross section of, I don’t know anything, do I know everything, kind of thing?
Brian Wilson: Well, I think it’s a cross section, but more on the side these days of I don’t know anything.
David Brower: Nice.
Brian Wilson: More and more of our students, they might come from a religious background or a religious home, but know very little even about their own traditions.
David Brower: I’ll be darned.
Brian Wilson: So most of our students find it really eye-opening and exciting to not only study their own traditions and learn about it from the inside out, but also to study other religious traditions as well.
David Brower: Man, I wish we were closer. I’d love to take your class. That’d be fascinating.
Brian Wilson: We have a lot of fun.
David Brower: I bet. You don’t have an online class, right?
Brian Wilson: Well, I teach actually online graduate courses these days.
David Brower: Okay.
Brian Wilson: We’ve got a certificate in spirituality, culture and health, and I teach a class on religion and alternative medicine in the United States.
David Brower: Oh my gosh. Fascinating.
Brian Wilson: Yeah.
David Brower: So one of your most recent projects is a book about John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age. He was, or is, was. Did he pass?
Brian Wilson: Was.
David Brower: Okay. So he was a business tycoon and lived most of his life in Kalamazoo, not too far from you.
Brian Wilson: That’s right. I’m located in Kalamazoo, so in his hometown.
David Brower: Okay. I have to think, I think there’s a professor there that I know through Songwriting With Soldiers. I’ll have to think about that, because we have some family that live in Kalamazoo, and I met a young man from western Michigan a couple of years ago. So anyway, I’m digressing, but you have me curious now, so I have to look that up. So Mr. Fetzer died in 1991, and what was intriguing to you about his life? What drew you to write this book?
Brian Wilson: Well, the interesting thing about John Fetzer was that most people who knew him, or knew about him, and he’s best well-known here in Michigan and in the Midwest, is that he began one of the first commercial radio stations here in southwest Michigan, WKZO in Kalamazoo, which is still on the air.
David Brower: Wow.
Brian Wilson: And he parlayed that into, he built it into a local media empire. So he had not only radio, but he got into television, and then later into cable, and so he made just lots and lots of money. He was very successful as a broadcaster. Um, but he also, in the 1950s, managed to by the Detroit Tigers baseball team.
David Brower: My gosh.
Brian Wilson: He owned the Tigers until ’83. And in fact, one of his proudest moments was the ’68 World Series when the Tigers. So most people know him from that, but he also had this really fascinating spiritual life as well, which for most of his life, he kept pretty quiet. And he basically transitioned from traditional Christianity into an exploration of all sorts of things that might be called collectively metaphysical movements, and which eventually became the new age movement in the 1980s and 1990s. So that’s what I found fascinating about him, was that he had this whole kind of spiritual side that most people didn’t know about.
David Brower: I’ll be darned. I was reading some of this, so freemasonry, parapsychology, Buddhism. He had his toes in a lot of stuff, didn’t he?
Brian Wilson: Yes, he was kind of a seeker. And that’s one of the kind of inspirational things about his life was that even in his last decade, he was continually reading and taking on new practices and studying new traditions. And so he was always open to all sorts of new spiritual currents.
David Brower: So his study, where he was and how he lived his life is not really that unusual, I guess, if that’s the right word from your class and what you teach, the study of all these different things.
Brian Wilson: That’s true. That’s true. I think if he had had a chance to take one of my classes, he would have felt right at home. And of course, he probably would have known most of the stuff because-
David Brower: I was gonna say, he could be a guest lecturer.
Brian Wilson: Yeah. Yeah. Well, he started exploring this stuff back in the 1930s and so for decades, he continued this kind of a spiritual quest.
David Brower: So how’d you find out about that? Obviously in a roundabout way, you were neighbors, I guess, so it’s probably pretty easy to track some history on him. But what triggered you to go, “Well, this guy’s got an interesting spiritual background. I want to, I want to check this out.”
Brian Wilson: Well, I got really lucky because John Fetzer, in the last decade of his life, basically liquidated all his businesses and created something called the Fetzer Institute. And the Fetzer Institute was designed to basically promote his kind of spiritual vision long after he died, so you can’t live in Kalamazoo and not know about the Fetzer Institute. So I knew about the institute, and I knew a little bit about his background, but I wrote a book about, another local percentages personage who was very interesting, that’s John Harvey Kellogg, and the book was called Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living. And that came to the attention of a branch of the Fetzer Institute called The Memorial Trust, and their mission is basically to preserve and promote the legacy of John Fetzer.
David Brower: Okay.
Brian Wilson: And so they asked me to write up a chapter for a book that they were putting together, and they liked it so much, they eventually asked me to write the spiritual biography of John Fetzer.
David Brower: Wow.
Brian Wilson: Yeah, so it was a great opportunity. I really got lucky.
David Brower: That’s a goose bump moment right there.
Brian Wilson: Yeah.
David Brower: Good for you. And so that led to you deciding to write the book after all of that?
Brian Wilson: Yeah, because they basically turned me loose in the archives, which are housed in the Fetzer Institute, and I was lucky enough to get a year-long sabbatical from my university, and so I planted myself at the Fetzer Institute, went through the archives, which were just incredibly rich, and had material that goes all the way back to John Fetzer’s childhood, and that allowed me to put together, I think a really kind of comprehensive overview of his life, but also to kind of contextualize that within the larger kinds of spiritual movements within the United States during the 20th century. So it was a dream project, and it was just a lot of fun.
David Brower: I was gonna say, it probably feels like a dream sometimes.
Brian Wilson: Yeah, it does.
David Brower: So the book that you wrote, John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age. So what was the new age that defined in his mind, and has that changed now that you’ve been doing your studies with him or on him?
Brian Wilson: Well, John Fetzer was very interesting because he was always interested in his own kind of spiritual transformation, his own individual spiritual transformation, and encouraging other people to explore this as well. But he always felt that the importance of individual spiritual transformation was that he believed if enough people did this, it would catalyze a global spiritual transformation. And he started calling this the new age back in the 1960s before that label really became widely popular. So he always had this kind of global vision, and that’s essentially what the Fetzer Institute was founded for, was to promote spirituality not only at the individual level, but also in terms of a global spiritual transformation, which John Fetzer called the new age.
David Brower: It’s fascinating to me in some of the stuff that I read about you, it’s one line here that, where is that? Wilson shows that in fact, the midwest was the first cradle of advanced spiritual expansion long before California claimed that mantle. So that’s fascinating to me, because not very many people knew that, I would think.
Brian Wilson: Yeah, I was born and raised in California, and I always thought that it was the birthplace of all these interesting kinds of esoteric and metaphysical movements. But it turns out I was pleasantly surprised when I moved to the Midwest to find out that a lot of these traditions either started here or had a significant presence here in the late 19th century. And then a lot of people who then transplanted from the Midwest to California took those traditions with them. So the Midwest has long had this very interesting alternative religious history that most people don’t know about, and that of course is exactly what John Fetzer tapped into when he started his own kind of spiritual quest.
David Brower: And that’s exactly one of the many reasons I’m sure that you wrote this book, to bring all that to the forefront and let people know not only what’s been going on, but what is going on even after his death.
Brian Wilson: Yes. Well, it continues to be a really vibrant region in terms of a spiritual exploration. So there are still lots of interesting new religious movements in the region, and it continues to spawn new ones as well.
David Brower: Fascinating. Obviously, you spent a year sabbatical studying this man and going through the archives, and all those kinds of things. Were there any moments that were really a-ha moments for you that really surprised you when you were going through all that material?
Brian Wilson: Well, one of the things that surprised me was just how much Fetzer’s interest in radio kind of precipitated his spiritual class, because early on when he was just a child, he was introduced to radio by one of his brothers-in-law, and they built a little crystal radio set together, and this was way back, and I guess he was 11 or 12 years old. And John Fetzer, even in his 80s, talked about how he was just absolutely fascinated by the fact that you can have this little device, and it can draw in music and voice and all these things over the air. And he said it was at that point he started speculating about the connection between radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation and subtle energies. And so he began thinking that there had to be a connection, a close connection, a kind of continuum of energies that went all the way from the material world to the spiritual.
David Brower: Wow
Brian Wilson: So it was this technology, especially this very primitive technology back when he was a kid that kind of sparked these kinds of interests in things spiritual, but also the connection between science and spirituality.
David Brower: How fascinating. I was in radio for 28 years, so that really fascinates me. I’m intrigued by that a lot, and now I’m blessed to have a very spiritual life, and so I’m anxious to read your book. Your team was very nice to send me a copy of it, so I appreciate that. The book, hardcover edition’s available at Barnes and Noble, other selected bookstores, and of course you can get it online at Barnesandnoble.com. There’s also a Kindle edition if I remember right.
Brian Wilson: That’s right.
David Brower: And can people reach out to you if they have questions about, about Mr. Fetzer, or should they just take a look at purchasing the book, or what would you encourage our listeners to do to become more aware about this new age?
Brian Wilson: Well, of course, I would love everybody to go out and buy a copy of the book. As you said, it is available also as a eBook, as a Kindle edition, but also, there are a couple of online places people can go. The Fetzer Institute itself, has a very nice website, and it’s simply fetzer.org, and The Memorial Trust, who commissioned this book, has a website called infinitepotential.com, and there, people can go and actually download a free PDF of the preface and first chapter to the book, so that’ll give you a kind of taste.
David Brower: Oh, nice.
Brian Wilson: In case you’d like to go on and read more. And also, it also has information about the ongoing programs in The Memorial Trust.
David Brower: Infinite Potential, I love the name of that.
Brian Wilson: Yeah, they did a very nice job on the websites. A lot of fun. Yeah.
David Brower: How cool. So just looking, you can get the Kindle edition, folks, for ninety nine cents. You can get the hardcover for 32.91, and there’s some other books here that you have. One you mentioned, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biological Living, Yankees in Michigan, Discovering the Peoples of Michigan, The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Christianity. Oh, that’s a must. I got to get that. And What is Religion: Origins, Definitions and Explanations. Studies in the History of Religions, Christianity, Religions of the World. I did an audio book, I’m trying to think of the name of it, History of the Christian Religion From a Historical Point of View, written by Dr. Henry Epps, and I did an audio book for him and that was, my gosh, so fascinating. And you’ve got a lot of books here.
You got me intrigued. I’m going to get a couple of these. So congratulations. There’s no coincidence, I don’t think, on you going from California to Michigan to having these great moments with the Fetzer Memorial Trust and the institute. It’s like you were destined to have this quest, don’t you think?
Brian Wilson: Well, in hindsight, it certainly appears that way. Of course, as you live your life, you never see the patterns.
David Brower: Oh, for sure.
Brian Wilson: Yeah, I would definitely say so.
David Brower: Yeah. I love 20/20 hindsight. It’s one of my favorite places to go. Hey, thank you. Thank you so much, Brian. Fascinating to talk with you, and I’m really curious to read more on this book, I’d read some of your other books, and again, infinitepotential.com, and then fetzer.org are the two places to check, and of course, you can go to Amazon and Barnes and Noble and all these places and not only find the John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age book, but Brian’s other books as well. Brian, it’s been a real pleasure, man. Really thrilled to talk to you today. Thank you very much. It’s been great.
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