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Summer Reading: Martial Arts Cult or Religion?

Erin Prophet

Book Review: Death by Budo: A Mystery in NRM Studies By Susan J. Palmer; Illustrations by Sylvia Rack.



When messages from a long-dead Japanese noblewoman begin to emerge from a martial arts studio, the line between fitness culture and religion blurs. Death by Budo is a clever murder mystery and a (relatively) painless way to learn more about how new religions form, split, change, and become more (or less) controversial. When a murder occurs during a martial arts class, a sociologist, already investigating the group on her own, is brought in to help the police. Is the group a cult? Is it dangerous? How should they proceed?

Palmer, a sociologist based in Canada who has studied real-life minority religions like the Unification Church (Moonies), the Raelians, Scientology, and the followers of Rajneesh, aka Osho, is familiar at first hand with the mercurial quality of new religions. She has documented ways in which charismatic leaders transform and reinvent themselves and their teachings as part of the complex power dynamics that take place both within the group and between the group and society. She also shows that new revelations are often tangled up with the leader’s own emotional ties and personal crisis, even psychopathology. But even the leader often perceives the revelation as coming from an outside and divine source. At least at first. But what happens when the revelations stop coming and the leader must still provide answers?

Palmer’s plot centers around Oliwia, a bored and overweight housewife who is transformed by a powerful but flawed martial arts instructor, and in turn becomes an unlikely charismatic leader, channeling the mysterious deceased and fictional Japanese empress Lady Nii, and making apocalyptic prophecies. Before long, a second murder has been committed, the prophecies have spread, and Oliwia is not the only one receiving revelations from Lady Nii.

The only potential pain in this publication comes from the book’s realistic descriptions of the exhilaration of fitness (perhaps based on Palmer’s own experience in the mixed martial art Kajukenbo), which may inspire readers to take up martial arts themselves, if only to get in shape. The murder(s) seem almost incidental to the plot, and they glide by farcically, conforming to murder mystery tropes that make this sociology lesson go down easy.

Order Death By Budo