Pop culture's best-kept Secret

The latest pop culture phenomenon: The Secret
By David F. Dawes

A NEW pop culture phenomenon is dominating the best-seller charts. The Secret, in both DVD and book form, has a devoted following which shows no signs of diminishing. While many claim it has transformed their lives, there has also been a backlash against some of its basic tenets.

According to its website, The Secret originated in 2004, when Australian TV producer Rhonda Byrne discovered "the secret laws and principles of the universe. Almost immediately her life was transformed, as she began to put into practice what she had learned . . . Her greatest wish, and mission, was to share this knowledge with the world."

Law of attraction

At the core of The Secret is a principle known as 'the Law of Attraction' -- which, according to Wikipedia, "posits that our feelings and thoughts attract real events in the world into our lives -- from the workings of the cosmos to interactions among individuals in their physical, emotional, and professional affairs."

The initial inspiration for The Secret, Byrne has said, was a 1910 book, The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles. However, she has made loftier claims for the lineage of The Secret, asserting that "the greatest people in history" have been "past secret teachers" -- including Aristotle, Plato, Isaac Newton, Martin Luther King, Carl Jung, Victor Hugo, Henry Ford, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, the prophet Muhammad, Andrew Carnegie, Joseph Campbell, Alexander Graham Bell and Ludwig Von Beethoven.

In her book, Byrne applies the attraction principle to various things, including weight loss. She writes: "Food is not responsible for putting on weight. It is your thought that food is responsible for putting on weight that actually has food put on weight. Remember, thoughts are primary cause of everything, and the rest is effects from those thoughts.

"Think perfect thoughts and the result must be perfect weight. Let go of all those limiting thoughts. Food cannot cause you to put on weight, unless you think it can."

Since its 2006 release, The Secret has attracted high profile media attention from such luminaries as Larry King and Oprah Winfrey. It has also attracted some severe criticism.

'Moronic'

The Guardian's Catherine Bennett savages the film as a "moronic hymn to greed and selfishness," promoting "[a] creed so transparently ugly and stupid that it seems impossible that anyone could take it seriously."

Karin Klein, in the Los Angeles Times, contends that Byrne "took the well-worn ideas of some self-help gurus, customized them for the profoundly lazy, [and] gave them a veneer of mysticism."

Referring to the DVD version, Newsweek's Jerry Adler takes the filmmakers to task for inspiring Secret adherents to focus on "a narrow range of middle-class concerns -- houses, cars, vacations, followed by health and relationships, with the rest of humanity a very distant sixth."

Doug Todd of the Vancouver Sun maintains that many Secret admirers are "in a dream world, in which they believe fabulous things will just wondrously come their way -- without any effort, talent, knowledge or skill. Just through nice thoughts and blind faith."

Anthropologists, Todd adds, "call this 'magical thinking.' It's like believing that sticking pins in Voodoo dolls will cause your enemy to feel pain. It's the conviction that wearing your favorite Canucks jersey will cause the team to win the playoffs."

Toronto resident Charlene Crews, an individual and family therapist, sees a lot of good in The Secret. She bought the book, she told CC.com, "based on curiosity." At first, she said, "I thought it was kind of cultish."

Hot topic

Despite this concern, she decided it would make an ideal "hot topic" for her Girls Night Out Club, a web-based social network she operates for outgoing women.

While acknowledging that she is "not an expert on The Secret," she facilitated a coffee shop discussion on the book in early February -- "three days before Oprah did her show on the subject." The event attracted "an abundance of women -- and opinions."

Crews said she sees "both good and bad" in the phenomenon. "People are jumping feet first into this. Some say, 'My entire life has been changed' -- and they're saying this only three weeks after reading the book."

Empowering

On the plus side, she said, The Secret "promotes positive thinking," challenging adherents to "reframe how you think"; it also instills confidence. "I think it can be very empowering. It helps you appreciate what's good in your life."

Further, she said, "We all need to be reminded of how we impact the world. A lot of people feel like victims. The books says you can lead yourself down this positive path."

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The Secret's main flaw, according to Crews, is that it prompts people to believe "you must be wealthy to be happy. I take offense at that. The book reinforces that [message], in the mask of empowerment. I think it's a tragedy if people read this and think they need to get rich. If you base your self-worth on materialism, that's dangerous."

Asked whether she agreed with critics who dismiss The Secret as a get-rich-quick scheme, she responded: "For the writers, definitely!" However, while she felt the book was too focused on material wealth, she said it also promotes "a more holistic approach to life." Essentially, she said, The Secret is "equivalent to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy."

Bob Beverley, a Canadian-born psychotherapist and ordained Baptist minister now living in Pauling, NY, is the author of How to be a Christian and Still be Sane. He is also co-author (with Kevin Hogan, Dave Lakhani and Blair Warren) of The Secret Behind the Secret Law of Attraction -- the first book responding to the phenomenon.

Roadmap

The Secret, he said, is "a roadmap that starts off well, but will end poorly. The theories will inevitably crash and burn -- because reality is not like that." Beverley said the 'law of attraction' reminded him of faith healing, and the 'name it and claim it' prosperity gospel.

The Secret's promoters, he said, have done a "tremendous marketing job" to attract "loyal followers of various New Age practices." Asked why the book and DVD are so popular, he said: "Human beings don't like to delay gratification. It can be so hard to succeed; you have to plough through fear and despair. We want the quick shortcut."

Life's difficulties

'Quick fix' solutions, he said, are contrary to the Christian worldview. "Jesus said, 'The way is hard that leads to life.' The Bible doesn't say, just follow Jesus and everything will be okay. It talks about life's difficulties -- unlike this kind of absurdity."

However, he said his perspective on The Secret is not entirely negative. "I don't think they're simply saying this is just about getting what you want. They also promote compassion and gratitude. It's not just a get rich quick scheme."

Further, he noted: "It will get people to think about their view of the world. It's a good thing to get anybody to ask themselves, 'What do I really believe?'"

Beverley added: "To think without fear is a good thing." However, he cautioned: "To think the universe will then line up with what you want is delusional."

Downside

Douglas Todd contends that The Secret has "a chilling downside," because "it inevitably leads to believers thinking those who were killed in the Holocaust . . . in Darfur, in Stalin's purges, in Iraq -- and all those people who succumb to cancer and other diseases -- are responsible for their own tragedies."

This may be reinforced by a Toronto Star account of an event held at Indigo Books in March, featuring Secret teacher Marie Diamond, author of The Very Simple Law of Attraction. The article recounted an exchange in which a sympathetic audience member told Diamond he was troubled by one point: "How, for example, was 9/11 attracted to the people in those buildings? That's something I can't understand."

The author responded: "Sometimes, we experience the law of attraction collectively. The U.S. maybe had a fear of being attacked. Those 3,000 people -- they might have put out some kind of fear that attracted this to happen, fear of dying young, fear that something might happen that day."

Dangerous

"I think that's a dangerous [aspect] of The Secret," said Crews. Referring to a friend suffering from terminal cancer, she noted: "It's like they're saying, 'It's your own fault that you have terminal cancer. You brought this on yourself."

"I get annoyed when I see people who are crushed by life being told that 'if you're poor or unhappy, you attracted that to yourself,'" concurred Beverley. Jesus, he added, "had immense compassion for the broken. He didn't like the Pharisees placing burdens on people, and not lifting a finger to help them carry those burdens."

He said that, in his view, The Secret promoters had shown "no sensitivity" to this concern. However, he added, he didn't believe they were being intentionally callous.

In researching his response to The Secret, Bevereley said he had read hundreds of reviews at Amazon.com. He came to the conclusion that "quite a few Christians have read it. Some know how unbiblical it is."

He added: "I think Christians should read it to know what's out there. Those who are grounded can see through it."

May 3/2007