There's an old saying about a sucker being born every minute—and nowhere is this more true than in the realm of spirituality.
It seems there's always someone trying to sell some kind of pseudo-spiritual snake oil. Perhaps the most recently successful of these is The Secret.
If you've managed to somehow miss hearing or seeing something about it, The Secret is a kind of “self-help” program, comprised of a book and an interminably long-seeming DVD, which plays like an infomercial with poor graphics. Oprah Winfrey's done a number of shows promoting it and it's been top of the New York Times' best-seller list.
Currently, there are more than 5 million copies of the book in print.
What's it all about? Basically, getting whatever you want just by thinking about it. Money, a new car, jewellery, your pick of partners, a big house, riches—you name it, you can have it if you believe hard enough.
The Secret is the brainchild of a former Australian TV producer, Rhonda Byrne. But this “secret” is nothing new—it's basically a mishmash of ideas from various people and religions throughout history, squashed together and repackaged, accompanied by a DVD featuring a number of selfhelp writers, metaphysicians, investment gurus and the like. Published in November 2006, it has an impressively secretive-looking cover, giving the impression that by taking it from the shelf, you've personally pried it from the hands of a technologically-advanced Egyptian mummy. The website actually claims that it's revealing this hidden wisdom “for the first time in history.” But it isn't the first book to claim to make you rich. Byrne “found” the secret in 2004, in a book from 1910 called The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D Wattles. Much of The Secret's material is harvested from other sources, like Eastern religion and New Age belief, in making its claims about the “Law of Attraction,” which, according to the book, is as real as the law of gravity. Supposedly, whatever you think about, you attract to yourself—either positive or negative.
You need to know what you want from the universe, believe and behave like the object of your desire is winging its way to you and it will arrive, provided you don't think anything “negative.” n While the effects of positive and negative thinking on our lives does have some grounding in practical psychology, when you read the book or view the DVD, any credibility falls apart with how ridiculous it really is.
Although it may seem harmless enough to try to think up piles of money and a Ferrari for yourself, other parts of The Secret are potentially damaging to people— not just for themselves but also for their relationships with others. Particularly when the key to success seems to be greed.
Joe Vitale, a “metaphysician” featured in The Secret, says the universe is like “a catalogue” that we can flip through and choose what we want. Rather than education, hard work, learning from failures and putting in some effort, all you have to do is want something hard enough and you'll get it. Catherine Bennett, of The Guardian, asserts it's a “moronic hymn to greed and selfishness.”1 Bryan Patterson describes The Secret as “inexact pseudo-science where superstition is mistaken for spirituality and materialism is the goal.”2 John Norcross, a professor at the University of Scranton and an authority on self-help books, says, “It's pseudoscientific, psychospiritual babble. We find about 10 per cent of self-help books are rated by mental health professionals as damaging.
This is probably one of them. The problem is the propensity for self-blame when it doesn't work.”3 Yet people continue to buy it. As Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, says, “Nobody ever went broke overestimating the desperate unhappiness of the American public.”4 n One seemingly harmless suggestion argued by The Secret is it's not food that makes you fat, it's your thoughts about food: “Food cannot cause you to put on weight, unless you think it can.” She also suggests avoiding looking at fat people, averting your eyes and conjuring up a mental image of your ideal body in an effort to think yourself thin.
More insidious is the claim that people who are ill have brought poor health on themselves, by thinking negative thoughts or listening to people talk about illnesses. The belief that people bring illness on themselves by not thinking positively is not a new one.
There is no doubt that positive thinking helps some people but when used to say “It's all your own fault,” questions should be asked.
This thinking lacks sympathy for those around us and encourages apathy toward the suffering of others because they have “brought it on themselves.” After all, The Secret says, if you're responsible for the good things that happen in your life, you're also responsible for the bad. Taken to its natural conclusion, believers in The Secret would have to say that anyone who has been the victim of war, massacres, child abuse, terrorism, domestic violence and natural disasters is responsible for the tragedies—they thought it on themselves.
This means you can be absolved from caring about what happens to others and focus on visualising yourself a big house. At the conclusion of The Secret DVD, Lisa Nichols says, “It's not your job to make the world a better place.” This woman needs to look through history at figures like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi and many others who have fought for social change, equality and reforms to make the world a better place, rather than simply focusing on themselves and what they could gain personally.
The Secret requires unquestioning acceptance, rather than critical thinking and actually asking yourself whether many or any of the points it makes are valid. If you begin to question its methods, or doubt anything about it, you must be inviting negative thoughts that will make you fail.
Following Byrne's appearance on Oprah, Oprah's website had viewers posting questions about the compatibility of The Secret with Christianity. Their answer? There is nothing in the teachings of The Secret that contradicts the essence of any of the world's religions.
If you believe in God, they argue, The Secret describes how He works; if not, then it's just how things are anyway.
For a Christian, much of what The Secret has to say is, at best, hard to swallow and, at worst, dangerous. The Secret feeds off our culture's need for instant solutions with little to no effort. But quick fixes are generally contrary to the Christian world view. In the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 7), Jesus said, “The way is hard that leads to life,” rather than, “Following Me will make everything okay!” Byrne claims that Jesus also followed “the Secret” and the book makes a number of distorted claims about Him.
She says Jesus was a multimillionaire, ignoring the Bible's descriptions of Him as a poor, itinerant preacher, who had to borrow a donkey to ride into Jerusalem. Matthew 8:20 notes that He had nowhere to lay His head.
Not only does Byrne manage to get Jesus out of context, she also misquotes Bible verses in order to provide “support” for The Secret. Referring to the instruction to “ask, seek and knock” to receive in Matthew 7:7, 8, she writes, “The creative process used in The Secret ... was taken from the New Testament.” But these verses are hijacked, urging people to ask the universe for whatever they want and it will deliver their desires—just like Aladdin's genie.
The greed this inspires is also worrying.
Many “self-help” books are about how to “self-help” yourself to as much as you can get—and The Secret's no exception. It ignores the teachings of Jesus that emphasise sharing, caring or making the effort to live responsibly in a world that's driven by consumption.
Jesus discouraged hoarding things for ourselves, saying in Matthew 6:19-21 not to store treasures on earth but in heaven, because your treasure is where your heart will be found. When He was talking to the rich young ruler, who wished to follow Him more fully (see Matthew 19:16-30), He suggested selling his possessions and giving to the poor. When the young man went away disappointed, Jesus noted that it's easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. He concluded that the first will be last and the last will be first, which is like the comment in John 12:25 saying, “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The Secret is also a moral-free zone that denies the accountability of any kind of judgment, because whatever you “feel” like doing is the right thing to do. While it isn't fun to be responsible for our actions, it's clear in the Bible that judgment of our actions, words and thoughts will occur—although when we ask for forgiveness and are covered by God's grace, we have hope when faced with such judgment. If you read Bible verses like Revelation 20:11- 15, 2 Corinthians 5:10 or Matthew 12:36, you can't ignore the fact there's going to be judgment.
Perhaps the most worrying claim of The Secret, though, is that the universe is God and God is the universe. Byrne calls it “the Universal Mind” and says it's in everything. But you only need to read the creation story in Genesis 1 to see the distinction between God and His creations.
The Secret takes this self-centred explanation of God a few giant leaps further: “You are God manifested in human form; made to perfection ...
You are God in a physical body. You are the Spirit in the flesh. You are Eternal Life expressing itself as You ... You are all power ... You are the creator.” The Bible clearly says we aren't God—and we should be really careful of anyone claiming to be. Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should change His mind.” God is perfect and we as humans aren't. If we were God, it would negate the need for Jesus to have died for our sins or for anyone to enter into a relationship with God.
Romans 5:6-8 says: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ [Jesus] died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” If we were actually God, we'd already be perfect, have perfect knowledge and the ability to live forever—which we obviously don't have. Although Jesus lived on earth in human form, He was still divine. We are only human and will always be so in this life.
No-one wants to have a meaningless life. Perhaps some choose to use The Secret to give their life greater meaning and add some hope to their existence.
But God can give us real purpose for our lives if we choose to build a relationship with Him. When we seek a relationship with God, we open ourselves to more possibilities for our lives than we could ever imagine. Jesus said, “But seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
God isn't just a protector and doesn't just give us things. He's also the author and finisher of our faith, sovereign and holy, He gives and takes away. He also has a plan for our life that's beyond what we can understand, if we let Him work in us.
Life is difficult. There are no easy answers and you will experience suffering.
While you may have success, bad things and good things will happen to you. This is life—not magic happy fairy land where wishing on a star will bring you whatever you want. We can develop better, stronger characters through trials and tribulation. If we follow God when things aren't going our way, it will give greater glory to Him.
As Reinhold Niebuhr said in “The Serenity Prayer,” “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
1. “Only an idiot could take The Secret seriously,” Catherine Bennett, The Guardian, April 26, 2007.
2. “The Secret of stupidity,” Bryan Patterson, The Herald Sun, April 29, 2007.
3. “Decoding The Secret,” Jerry Adler, Newsweek, March 5, 2007.