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Monday, January 11, 2010

Self Improvement Follies

Self-Improvement Follies

The other day, I made a visit to our local mall-based, chain bookstore. During my search for the book I wanted, I encountered the voluminous self-help section, with its almost overwhelming variety of titles that were guaranteed to provide folks with the tools they needed to become successful and rich.

Because I had some time to kill, I perused some of the books. Actually, during a time when I was having problems at my work, I had read several such books. They had provided me with neither succor nor tools to alleviate my troubles – indeed, as I recall, they merely increased the level of guilt I felt for having problems.

The genre is remarkably similar: you – not external factors – are responsible for your life and circumstances; and you have the power to change your situation. If you think positively about your situation and project your positive imagery to the people around you will be successful. Additionally, if you work at visualizing what you really desire, it will come to you. The most annoying element of this invidious, ludicrous genre is the so-called “Christian” versions of this pap.

If we look at the self-help movement Biblically, two things stand out. First, the Bible clearly indicates that a lot of people’s problems are not their own fault. Consider the case of Job. He was a righteous man who had calamity fall upon him, just so God could prove that Job was righteous. Job’s situation was ultimately ameliorated by God, not by positive, visualization on the part of Job. The self-help idea is especially pernicious because it causes some folks to believe that those who are suffering actually brought it upon themselves. The Bible tells us that we are to “rejoice with those that rejoice and weep with those that weep” (Romans 12:15).

The second problem in all this is that it puts a tremendous emphasis – and burden – upon the individual. American culture has always emphasized and aggrandized the individual. In recent times this cultural tendency has become much more pronounced. Protestant worship forms have tended to exaggerate this, putting major emphasis on the individual Christian and much less emphasis on the church community. Accordingly, we frequently fail to recognize communal sins and fail to attempt to ameliorate these. Rather, the blame for sinning (usually certain contemporarily relevant sins) falls only on the individual.

Both the old and new testament is careful about individualism. In the Old Testament, there is restricted use of the personal pronoun: reference it is frequently to a character, which is in relation to the Nation Israel. Likewise in the New Testament the reference is to “the body of Christ.” That is one of the reasons for the Eucharist, where we acknowledge our commitment and attachment to The Lord and to the people of His Church. Jesus speaks to this frequently, as for instance in his teaching on ‘who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-37).

We truly are “our brother’s keeper” and we should be providing emotional, spiritual and material help to those who are suffering. Let us work to make Christ’s Body be a valid substitute for the world’s pathetic efforts to “improve” us.

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