Spiritualism is a lot like cilantro, you get it or you really don’t. For those of us who do most of their meditating over a takeout menu and think of enlightenment as a period in history, this new Smokescreen podcast just about manages to reset our prejudices and introduce us to the mindset of an earnest 1980s hippie.
The achievement belongs to Jonathan Hirsch, who narrates I Am Rama and has a unique perspective on the issue of spiritual leaders, having been raised by freewheeling parents who were once devoted followers of the podcast’s subject — “Rama”, or (actual, less glamorous name) Frederick Lenz.
Like most New Age gurus, Lenz is a divisive character but potentially not for the usual reasons, and the meat of this podcast really comes from unpacking the “saint or sinner?” conundrum. This mainly involves meeting former devotees who fall pretty heavily on each side of the fence, and learning of the tremendous financial success befell so many of Lenz’s believers.
A peace-loving type who drives a sports car and pushes followers to learn computer programming? There’s enough here to be interesting.
Ultimately, whether Lenz was a prophet or running a pyramid scheme is where the tension comes from, but there’s something a little flabby in the exploration. Hirsch helpfully leads us to information and tells us he wants us to draw our own conclusions, but there’s a distinct lack of punch when it comes to the argumentation for either side.
It’s important to remember something that seems to be overlooked here: a listener comes to any story about a New Age leader with a very healthy skepticism. They don’t expect to emerge as a convert. We want and expect to have our assumptions pummelled but, aside from a few tales of well-executed business plans, the building up of Lenz isn’t sufficient enough to make the taking down particularly satisfying.
We emerge from the experience believing that “Rama” was probably a scam artist, a sex pest and a pretty arrogant individual with perfectly nice but naive followers. But isn’t that precisely where we started?