Secret history of The Secret

It’s selling like an elixir that promises everything but eternal life. Rhonda Byrne’s book tops USA TODAY’s best-seller list for the seventh consecutive week, and the companion DVD is No. 1 on Amazon’s sales chart. It has captured wallets and water coolers like nothing else since Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown suggested Jesus was a daddy.

Oprah dedicated two shows to The Secret; Australian video producer Byrne has a roundup on how the mind can deliver a laundry list of goodies, from health to a helicopter. Saturday Night Live was quick to lampoon the book, while Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist Maureen Dowd invoked it while wondering if wishful thinking could lead to a change in the White House.

But such pop culture fascination leaves actress and minister Della Reese Lett laughing.

“Child, The Secret hasn’t been a secret since the times of Moses, if not before,” says the former Touched by an Angel star, founder and minister of the Understanding Principles of Better Living church in Los Angeles. “But every generation needs a new way to look at things that have been around a while. I suppose right now The Secret is it.”

Lett’s church is one of hundreds of loosely affiliated metaphysical churches that have been around for more than a century. Their guiding principles are anchored to self-fulfillment via the power of the mind.

The number of American followers of these so-called New Thought churches (don’t call them New Age) hovers around 200,000, which includes 100,000 who regularly attend the nation’s 700 Unity churches, says James Trapp, CEO of the Association of Unity Churches in Lee’s Summit, Mo.

What’s particularly interesting about The Secret phenomenon is that beyond finding its way into millions of homes, it is in some instances getting the curious to step out of those houses and seek like-minded fellowship.

“We’ve got more people coming on Sundays than ever,” says the Rev. Temple Hayes of the First Unity Church of St. Petersburg, Fla., whose small bookshop has sold 860 copies of The Secret. The church holds regular workshops using the book as a teaching tool.

Overall, services at First Unity have decidedly Christian overtones, with regular readings from the Bible and references to God and Jesus, although the latter isn’t viewed as the Son of God. Communion is reserved for holidays such as Easter. Sunday staples include sermons (the preferred term is “message”) and a moment of silence, which can be filled with any form of meditation.

“We teach people how to think, not what to think, and folks find that appealing,” Hayes says. “But we do make sure to tell people that, while the mind is a powerful way to get what you want, you may face some pain along the way. Nothing comes easy.”

That sounded like a fair trade to Bob Stewart, a county commissioner in St. Petersburg who recently was drawn to First Unity when a favorite Presbyterian minister retired. Skeptical at first, he now relishes the weekly meetings, as well as his new meditation routine.

“I’ve found a comfortable zone at that church,” Stewart says. “I find that focusing my mind helps me with my life.”

Over the decades, everything from personal solace to material wealth has helped draw people to spiritual and secular leaders who promise that your wish is the cosmos’s command.

Even before the Civil War there was a fascination with mental healing, an outgrowth of the work of 18th-century Austrian physician Franz Mesmer, who pioneered the study of the unconscious mind and hypnosis and gave us the term “mesmerizing.”

When photography became popular, “many people were sure these often-foggy images were proof that the body possessed an energy that was capable of taking physical form,” says Robert Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., who focuses on unconventional U.S. religions.

Fuller says a growing fascination with the unseen world gave way to a wave of interest in Spiritualism, in which otherworldly energy was used for both healing and summoning Aunt Betsy from the great beyond.

Famously, magician Harry Houdini embraced the movement in the hope of contacting his late mother, but he turned on it when she didn’t appear. His attempts to debunk mediums led to dire threats from high-profile Spiritualists such as Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (Just last week, Houdini’s relatives moved to exhume the escape artist’s body in an effort to see if he was murdered by Spiritualists.)

By the 1920s, with science and industry humming along, Spiritualism had given way to a new movement called New Thought.

New Thought was tethered to an appealing concept: The human mind was capable of delivering anything it desired, from pain relief to debt relief.

That message was appropriated by others who wanted to tap into the frustrations of the masses.

“The get-rich philosophies that followed, like Norman Vincent Peale’s classic, The Power of Positive Thinking, all were the result of the changes in economics,” Fuller says. “In the 1800s, it was relatively straightforward. The harder you worked in the field, the more successful you were.

“But with the advent of the stock market in the new century, people suddenly felt like they had less control of their lives and of success. So along come these people saying ‘You just need to change the way you’re thinking,’ and believe me, that hit home.”

Today, you need only to see Donald Trump’s face beaming from a Learning Annex brochure to know that the appeal of this promise remains irresistible.

But there are plenty of people who see positive thinking as a deeply religious experience that can help connect humans both to each other and a higher power. New Thought leader Trapp says his organization hopes to welcome this group.

“Many people seem to be looking for this philosophy now but just don’t seem to be aware of who we are,” says Trapp.

As for The Secret, he appreciates any spillover into the pews but advises fans to be informed.

“It is a good introduction, but (the book) is superficial and tends to focus on accumulating material things,” he says. “That is only the beginning of the message. The real point of mental power is to create a world that works for everyone, with food, education and health care for everyone. I’m glad (Unity) ministers are using The Secret to try and bring people in. I just hope it segues for many people into a church experience.”

Interestingly, the president of the New Thought Alliance, Blaine Mays, questions whether the book’s popularity can translate into new believers for Unity or other metaphysical churches.

“Maybe one in 100 will ask, ‘I wonder if there’s a church that preaches these same ideas,’ ” Mays says. “Face it, you had Transcendental Meditation, you had Shirley MacLaine, now you’ve got The Secret. You just know it also won’t be around forever.”

Mays thinks the “spiritual aspect” of New Thought turns off those mainly on the hunt for a salary increase or a better love life.

“We’re not against that, but it’s just that it’s not what we’re really after,” he says.

But the pursuit of material happiness is just fine with some New Thought leaders, including Lett, who says, “God never said it wasn’t OK to be well fed, well clothed or drive a nice car. You have to take care of yourself, as well as others.”

Mark Anthony Lord, minister at Chicago’s Center for Spiritual Living, echoes that sentiment.

“America was built on having a wonderful life, on being all that you can be,” he says. “If you generate a feeling of self that’s capable and worthy, you’ll attract what you want. I don’t care if you use it to get a car.”

Spiritual but not religious

Attendance is up at his center since The Secret caught fire, which pleases Michelle Schrag, who attends each Sunday with her stockbroker husband and three children. Though raised Catholic, Schrag says the center’s “emphasis on meditation, which I now do each day, has helped me find happiness in my daily life.”

Cafeteria Religion

aka “Salad-bar Religion.” Denotes the trend where people pick and choose religious beliefs, doctrines and practices – mixing and matching them much as they would select food in a cafeteria. A prime example of a cafeteria religion is the “church-free spirituality” promoted by Oprah Winfrey.

A number of publishers refer to the phenomenon as “private spirituality.” It is also described as “spirituality without religion.”

That said, this eclectic approach is not just popular among non-Christians, but also among people who consider themselves to be Christians. More often than not, the latter do not know how to discern orthodoxy from heresy.

Many, but by no means all, who take this approach are also religious pluralists.

Schrag is typical of a growing breed of American who declares, “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” says Catherine Albanese, who heads religious studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara and is author of A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion.

“I have to laugh at all the hype around The Secret, because for some folks, it’s really just religion as usual since the 19th century. Passing on a message of how to get what you wanted from life was a business then, and it’s a business now,” Albanese says.

Just ask “Abraham,” the disembodied, vibrational force whose teachings have been transmitted for the past few decades through the physical form of lecturer and author Esther Hicks. Although she dismisses the popular term “channeling,” Hicks is a modern link to the past Spiritualist movement.

Hicks and her husband, Jerry, have written about the so-called law of attraction — the “secret” that was the focal point of The Secret DVD. But contractual issues find the couple, and their Abraham entity, excised from the version now circulating.

No worries, they say. They’re happy to stay on the road and pass on Abraham’s keys to better living through the power of the mind.

“The secrets of life have never been a secret. It’s like calling the law of gravity a secret,” says Abraham via Esther Hicks, whose normally lilting twang suddenly takes on a robotic tone.

“People have been calling Jerry and Esther, saying, ‘I have bought The Secret, but now what do I do?’

“The truth is, The Secret is merely a powerful catalyst that presents the possibility of a better life,” says the monotone voice. “Abraham is smiling in the simple knowledge that, in truth, The Secret has not revealed ‘the secret.’ “

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday March 29, 2007.
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