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Lions Roar : September 2005
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2005 81 IN 1982, THE AMERICAN CATHOLIC NOVELIST Walker Percy published an unusual critique of the self-help movement. His book was part parody, part philosophical treatise. Percy exercised his full powers as a storyteller, culture critic, and amateur (yet impressive) linguist in a send-up of self-styled gurus who were profitably telling millions of people how to improve their sex lives, connect with their spiritual selves, lower their weight, raise their teenagers, lengthen their lives, and otherwise help themselves. The book’s title, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, registered both Percy’s dismay at the cultural condition and his hope that the movement would soon self-destruct. Millions of diet books, thousands of relationship seminars, and one Dr. Phil later, it’s clear that Percy’s hope was in vain. The self-help and actualization movement (the acronym for which, uncannily, is SHAM) is still with us, and with us in force. As Steve Salerno explains in SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, we are living in a self-help world. After 50-percent growth in the last four years, SHAM is an $8.56 billion indus- try. Marketdata Enterprises, a group that tracks major cultural trends, expects the self-improvement business to grow to $12 billion by 2008. Between 3,500 and 4,000 new self-help books appeared on bookshelves in 2003, and best-seller lists are perennially populated with SHAM titles. Last year’s list includes such favorites as Family First: Your Step-by-Step Plan for Creating a Phenomenal Family by Dr. Phil McGraw, He’s Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys by Greg Behrendt, The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential by Joel Osteen, and The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness by Stephen R. Covey. If you aren’t familiar with those titles or authors, you might not know that three of the above are religious, two heavily so. Warren is a pastor in Orange County, California, and his book is the best-selling hardcover nonfiction title of all time. Warren’s teaching has launched Purpose-Driven seminars in evangelical churches throughout North America. Osteen is the pastor of a 28,000-member church in Houston, Texas, now the largest church in the United States. Covey became famous years ago with his first self-help title, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and while his books do not wear their spirituality on their sleeves, Covey is a devoted Mormon who has also authored books exclusively for Mormon audiences. These three are not, of course, the only members of the self- help movement who are—or appear to be—religious. Pop psy- chology could fill a monastery with its self-styled saints, includ- ing Deepak Chopra, the “uncommonly versatile guru [who] weighed in on everything from astrology to preventative medi- cine to spiritually enriching golf,” Marianne Williamson, the New Age priestess once fondly called “Mother Teresa for the nineties,” and, most recently, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, whose self- empowerment radio crusade was given religious justification by her apparent conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Indeed, the self- help industry shows signs of becoming even more religious: “Sales of inspirational, spiritual, and relationship-oriented pro- grams and materials constitute a third of overall SHAM dollar volume and are tracking upward,” Salerno writes. It is perhaps unsurprising that the ministers of mental health would draw on religious traditions to hawk their wares, giving people all the benefits of religion (self-fulfillment, a sense of pur- pose) with none of the sacrifices. Self-help priests offer Religion ILLUSTRATIONBYSTEVEHEYNEN SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless By Steve Salerno Crown Publishers, 2005; 272 pp., $24.95 (cloth) REVIEWED BY PATTON DODD Give Me that Low-cal Religion