Spirituality For Idiots (Jan-Feb 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

By Victor McCracken
January-February 2002

While perusing the local Barnes and Noble earlier this week I came across a curious book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Awakening Your Spirituality. I know these complete idiot books have become quite popular in the past several years. I don’t know why. Perhaps shelling out $19.95 for a book intentionally marketed to absolute imbeciles gives one some sort of ascetic thrill. In a consumer world like ours the confession implied in this monetary gesture is the closest we can come to self-flagellation.

 

Admittedly, there is something appealing about cozying up next to the holy one while drinking a mocha frappuccino and thumbing through a book full of delightfully encouraging thoughts and pithy bullet-point advice. These books must be paying dividends to the book publishers who came up with the novel idea. After all, I found the book on the same shelf as a half-dozen other Idiot-books—among them, A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Christianity, A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Religion on the Internet, and A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Angels. I picked up a copy of Awakening Your Spirituality and glanced through it quickly, hoping that none of my church members would catch me so close to the new age spirituality and occult section.

 

I think I have come to realize why these Idiot guides are so popular. It’s not so much that we enjoy abusing ourselves with the reality that we are, after all, idiots and that our inspiration comes from a treatise that looks like an oversized mixture of comic book and washing-machine owner’s manual. No, one need look no farther than the back cover to see why one might buy this book. In boldface print is that quintessential American mixture of self-interest and marketing savvy:

 

“You’d like to live a richer, more fulfilling life—and you’re pretty sure that to do so, you’ll have to get in touch with your spiritual side. But every time you think about looking within, you feel like bailing out.

Don’t abandon your spiritual journey! Even if you think you don’t have a prayer, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Awakening Your Spirituality will help you find your own personal path to Enlightenment.”

 

Everything is so, well, “me.” So efficient, so practical. Who wouldn’t want to live a richer, more fulfilling life? And imagine having all you need to know distilled in a little book—and with cartoons! Surely for us to accomplish our life’s ambitions it would be helpful—yea, even necessary—to “get in touch” with our spirituality. After all, how is one to make it big in the world when your spirituality is yawning away within? We must reawaken our spirituality! And don’t worry. It won’t be that hard. You’re not such a bad person. Your spirit just needs a little encouraging, some gentle prodding. Let us give you a no-fat, low-foam venti cup of spiritual cappuccino , something to help your soul catch up to your over-caffeinated physical self. Buy this book! We’ll show you how to find your own way to peace, prosperity, and blessed life.

 

Here are a few things I learned in my brief foray into the world of idiot-spirituality, just some pithy advice that I picked up from the book without having to spend my money (one of the many virtues of Barnes and Noble Booksellers):

 

  • Kindness is something that every spiritual path agrees is central, and is a good measure of progress in the right direction.
  • Tithing and other money experiments can help you worry less and become more generous with your money.
  • Feeling grateful for each thing in life is a great way to open the heart and let Spirit in.
  • You can create a sacred space of your own, to answer your need to connect with Spirit.

 

How easy this spiritual life sounds, and how pragmatic! And it’s all about me. It’s about my desire for a more fulfilling life, about me channeling my spirituality to that end, and about me pursuing my own personal path to Enlightenment. And guess what? You can find your own path to. Awaken your own spirituality! It only costs $19.95.

 

I had an aching notion that this all sounded familiar as I placed the book back on the shelf. Where else have I come across these promises, this alluring mixture of spiritual concern and narcissistic excess? I didn’t think much more about the Idiot book until I arrived at my office a few days later. Slumping in my leather chair readying myself for a long day’s work, I picked up a book sitting on my desk, The Prayer of Jabez. This book is cheap (only about $6 on discount), short (less than 100 pages), and simple (the book focuses on a four line prayer tucked in the dusty recesses of 1 Chronicles), The Prayer of Jabez is all the rage in church circles these days. I suddenly understood the source of my ache. On the back cover:

 

“DO YOU WANT TO BE EXTRAVAGANTLY BLESSED BY GOD? Are you ready to reach for the extraordinary? To ask God for the abundant blessings He longs to give you? Join Bruce Wilkinson to discover how the remarkable prayer of a little-known Bible hero can release God’s favor, power, and protection. You’ll see how one daily prayer can help you leave the past behind—and break through to the life you were meant to live.”

 

Here again is that same packaged, marketed spirituality, this time in its more acceptable Christian attire. I guess that one virtue of The Prayer of Jabez is that it is less expensive than the Idiot’s guide. Still, I couldn’t find any cartoons on the pages, just sparse chapters with occasional text boxes offering words of wisdom for the reader (my personal favorite: “Is it possible that God wants you to be more ‘selfish’ in your prayers?”). And the publishers seem to have picked up a lesson or two from the Idiot-book publishers. In addition to the book itself, one can now purchase a leather-bound Prayer of Jabez devotional book, personal journal, or large-book edition complete with beautiful full-color drawings. I’m still waiting for the Prayer of Jabez key chains, T-shirts, and children’s videos that will inevitably find their way into a Christian bookstore near me.

 

I wear my cynicism on my sleeve. It has always seemed to me a truth of Christian spirituality that we see our lives as God’s offering to the world. God points us beyond ourselves, and in our journey with Christ our lives are caught up into something much larger than “me.” This seems to me very different than a spirituality that begins by promising blessings to the one who commits to reciting a four-line mantra daily. I’m wondering have we lost something in our desire to make Christian spirituality more “appealing” or “attractive” to those busy, spirit-hungry consumers, not to mention ourselves? In our zeal to evangelize have we started sounding so much like those other spiritual chefs that we can no longer distinguish the way of Christ from the way of [fill in the blank]?

 

Maybe so. But instead of sounding so dour, let me conclude with a modest proposal for all Christians seeking to bear witness to the gospel for the world. I propose that there be a fast in the land. I propose that for a set time we fast from any language that would suggest to the spirituality-seeker that the way of Christ is about them. Let us excise from our preaching, our writing, and our teaching any notion that spirituality is about self-fulfillment. A few words and phrases that I suggest we fast from in all their variant forms:

 

          “Blessed”

          “Abundant Life”

          “Fulfilling”

“Relevant”

          “Practical”

          “Easy”

          “You”

 

Let us replace these words with a few new ones, novel words to the average spiritual consumer, but a good beginning for those of us looking to recover our way:

 

          “Sin”

          “Grace”

          “Redemption”

          “Kingdom”

“Gospel”

          “Cross”

“Messiah”

 

Now enough idiocy. I’m heading back to Barnes and Noble . . .

 

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About...

This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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