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Religion-Free Bible Part 3: A Brief History of Self-Help Religions

June 2, 2013

Jim Palmer is not alone in his blend of self-help and Christian teachings–many other writers have come along with similar messages downplaying sin and focusing on self-worth. Most, however, do not know how culturally constructed their narrative of “discovering yourself” is. Despite the fact that they market their message as universal and transcending any particular culture or institution, their message is shaped by their own cultures and institutions. The spiritual self-help narrative is a 20th-21st century American phenomenon, and its promoters are unconsciously shaped by the presuppositions of  their surrounding context.

One of the major factors influencing these writers is individualism. Individualism takes many forms, not all of which are bad, but most of which focus on the individual making his or her own decisions, without regard to outside institutions such as family, religion, state, etc.  Individualism, however, is not a philosophy shared by all cultures or people. Historian Norman F. Cantor writes, “Self-consciousness…is a middle class phenomenon.” (The Medieval Reader, 111), and while his statement is based on Marxist assumptions, it contains a good deal of truth. The individualistic notions of young 21st century Americans are not going to be held by Koreans, Africans, or Arabs. Even different kinds of individualism differ greatly, from the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson to the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre  to the brash boasting of Lady GaGa. There are multiple sources from which the modern concept of individualism sprang; we can probably blame it on Descartes, mainly because it’s fun to blame the ills of the modern world on Descartes. Whatever its source, individualism is a culturally constructed idea, and to pretend that a specific brand of individualism is the key to finding the truth is to be provincial in your thinking.

And with a mustache like that, how can he not be villainous?

A second factor influencing spiritual self-help narratives is the American Dream. Cornel West writes, “In the American way of life pleasure involves comfort, convenience, and sexual stimulation. Pleasure, so defined, has little to do with the past and views the future as no more than a repetition of a hedonistically driven present.” (Race Matters, 26). The “American Dream” has often come to mean a life of prosperity and ease, gained and maintained with little effort, free from any disruptions, trauma or pain. The “prosperity gospel” preached by countless televangelists pandered to this idea. But as the years went by, and people began to realize that material possessions weren’t making them happy, a new industry popped up. I call it the “mental prosperity gospel.” Instead of marketing material comfort, they marketed mental comfort. Authors like Deepak Chopra appeared to show Americans how they could be “in control of their lives,” and “realize their true potential.” Sometimes these authors wrote under the guise of Christianity, at other times they adopted a sanitized version of Buddhism, and sometimes they wrote secular works. But the main gist of them was clear–avoid mental pain, stress, and trauma at all costs.

This approach of comfort over all, however, doesn’t square with traditional Christianity. In the Bible, many of the heroes of the faith suffered immense amounts of stress, grief, and emotional trauma. Job’s troubles were so great he wished he had never been born. Jeremiah’s sadness over his nation’s sin and subsequent destruction was so great he was known as “the weeping prophet.” The Psalms of David give us a personal glimpse into David’s interior thought life, which includes what we would call severe depression (Psalms 13 and 69 are good examples). Jesus was known as the “Man of Sorrows,” and endured severe mental anguish before and during his crucifixion. Outside of the Bible, there are many great Christians who struggled with negative emotions–Jerome, Augustine, St. Anthony, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, G.K. Chesterton. Even St. Francis, who we normally think of as a jolly fellow, would often despair of his sins, or be depressed by his life as a monastic. He was reported to have jumped into thornbushes as a way of trying to mortify the flesh.

Born and raised in a briar patch

A final factor comes from the consumerist mentality. While I am a supporter of the free market over Euro-socialist interventionism, the free market itself is not a moral imperative. The dominance of consumer capitalism leads to the commodification of ideas. If ideas are something that can be bought and sold, rather than things that have consequences and must be critically evaluated, then we should choose the ideas that we like. And, given the nature of the American dream, the ideas that 21st century Americans like are high on peace of mind and short on suffering servanthood.  Jim Palmer paraphrases Matthew 16:24-25 as this:

“You’re going to have to give something up. I’m a stand for your wholeness, your freedom, your happiness, your peace, but it’s going to require something of yourself that I can’t do for you. That self-sabotaging story you carry inside, that way of being that keeps you safe but lonely, those walls you’ve built around your heart, those fears that imprison you, those false people you manufacture as yourself in order to please others – whatever it might be for you – there’s something you’re going to have to trust me enough to give up to receive what I’m offering…[It goes on, but I won’t torture you any more than I have to]

The original verse, on the other hand, says “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” A paraphrase interesting in truly updating Jesus’ words might run like this: “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself and sit in his electric char and follow me.” Jesus presents his words as a non-negotiable truth, not as an idea to be followed if it suits my fancy. For many Christians ancient and modern, committing yourself to following Christ is the equivalent of signing your own death warrant. True religion is not something that can be bought and sold–it has to be wholeheartedly followed.

Honey, there’s a sale on Barthian Neo-Orthodoxy down at Macys. Should we go?

Current Listenings: “Fortunate Son,” “Green River,” “Who’ll Stop The Rain,” “Cotton Fields,” all by Creedence Clearwater Revival.



One Comment leave one →
  1. July 4, 2013 10:58 pm

    I like these imprecations. Jim Palmer would do well to review the Church Fathers who fought gnosticism.

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