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The Problem with Best-Selling Spirituality
by Andrew D. Witmer
Andrew Witmer is a graduate of Taylor University in Upland IN. He is the son of Daryl and Mary Witmer. Since 1998 Andrew has worked for Mars Hill Audio in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he recently produced, with former National Public Radio senior editor Ken Myers, an audio-documentary on best-selling spirituality literature. Featuring studio interviews and extensive field reporting, the two-hour documentary explores the changing shape of American religious belief through the stories of three best-selling books: The Celestine Prophecy, Conversations With God, and Embraced By the Light. To order Best-Selling Spirituality on two audiocassettes, please call Mars Hill Audio at 1-800-331-6407. American interest in spirituality has increased greatly during the last decade. TV shows about angels pull in high ratings and books about spirituality consistently hit the best-seller lists. I recently spent four months researching two of these books: The Celestine Prophecy (8.5 million copies sold) and Conversations With God (more than 1 million copies sold). The questions that guided my research were: what do these books teach? why are they so popular? what does their popularity tell us about our current cultural moment?
The themes that emerge most clearly from both The Celestine Prophecy and Conversations With God are: (1) skepticism about authority, and (2) the power of the individual to choose his own spiritual beliefs. In a recent interview, James Redfield, author of The Celestine Prophecy, said that people “should not allow other individuals to tell us what our truth is. It’s all about not being controlled by other people, other dogmas. If we go out and test out a dogma and it turns out to be some-thing we want to believe in, that’s fine and good, but the calling in this historical period is to go out and find spiritual experience for oneself.”
The religious life has traditionally been understood in terms of submission to authority, but Redfield’s understanding of spirituality stresses the authority of the individual to choose for himself what he will believe. We are free to choose religious beliefs just like we choose the food we eat or the cars that we drive. Take it out for a spin and see how it handles – no obligation to buy! For Redfield and many other Americans now interested in spirituality, the individual is free even to select beliefs from different, competing religions. He makes his choices on the basis of personal needs, experiences, feelings and desires.
Neale Donald Walsch, the author of Conversations With God, takes much the same approach. When the question of authority is raised in Book One of Conversations With God, we are told: “Listen to your feelings. Listen to your Highest Thoughts. Listen to your experience. Whenever any one of these differ from what you’ve been told by your teachers, or read in your books, forget the words. Words are the least reliable purveyor of Truth.”
As evidenced by the massive sales of both The Celestine Prophecy and Conversations With God, this can be a very attractive way of understanding the spiritual life. But the over-emphasis on individual choice fails to account for the key role that submission to authority plays in almost all learning. In order to learn bricklaying, ballet dancing, or any other complex discipline, I need to submit myself to an authority other than myself. The same principle holds true for the religious life, where there is infinitely more to learn and where the stakes are infinitely higher.
I think everyone understands this at some level, even those who claim to reject all authority. After all, one of the most common reasons for turning to religion in the first place is the recognition that on our own we are unable to make sense of the world. We all know deep down inside (even if we refuse to admit it) that we are flawed, imperfect and lacking, and that we need to rely on some authority other than ourselves for guidance in life. It’s important to note that even those who are learning about spirituality from The Celestine Prophecy and Conversations With God (both of which urge their readers to reject authority) are themselves accepting the authority of James Redfield and Neale Donald Walsch.
Where does this leave us? If you accept the idea that submission to authority is necessary for learning about the religious life and agree that we all inevitably accept some authority other than ourselves, you must immediately ask another question: to which authority will I submit myself? There is no more important question than this one, for the eternal fate of your soul rests on how you answer it. It is a tragic fact that many people who recognize the need for authority nevertheless fall into error by submitting themselves to the wrong one. The wonderful news is that there is an authority that deserves your submission! Christianity teaches that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God, our final authority in all of life. The Areopagus Proclamation, and many other Christian resources, can provide you with solid reasons to accept the Bible as authoritative and submit yourself to its teaching.