A SHAM Religion?

Scientific American online published an article on what journalist Steve Salerno calls the Self-Help and Actualization Movement, or SHAM for short. And a sham it is, indeed. The self-help movement is a marketer's dream and feeds on the average American's depressions, fears, and self-loathings. By promising instant success and gratification, these books, CDs, and videos suck wallets dry.

The article is definitely worth a read, but for reasons other than the sham that SHAM clearly is. To illustrate what I mean, I will quote a significant portion of the short article here, because the author (Michael Shermer) makes a very fascinating observation near the end (which I made bold for emphasis):

While Salerno was a self-help book editor for Rodale Press ... extensive market surveys revealed that "the most likely customer for a book on any given topic was someone who had bought a similar book within the preceding eighteen months." The irony of "the eighteen-month rule" for this genre, Salerno says, is this: "If what we sold worked, one would expect lives to improve. One would not expect people to need further help from us--at least not in that same problem area, and certainly not time and time again."

Surrounding SHAM is a bulletproof shield: if your life does not get better, it is your fault--your thoughts were not positive enough. The solution? More of the same self-help--or at least the same message repackaged into new products. Consider the multiple permutations of John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus--Mars and Venus Together Forever, Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, The Mars and Venus Diet and Exercise Solution--not to mention the Mars and Venus board game, Broadway play and Club Med getaway.

SHAM takes advantage by cleverly marketing the dualism of victimization and empowerment. Like a religion that defines people as inherently sinful so that they require forgiveness (provided exclusively by that religion), SHAM gurus insist that we are all victims of our demonic "inner children" who are produced by traumatic pasts that create negative "tapes" that replay over and over in our minds. Redemption comes through empowering yourself with new "life scripts," supplied by the masters themselves, for prices that range from $500 one-day workshops to Robbins's $5,995 "Date with Destiny" seminar.

There is certainly a connection here, and it's one that most Protestant evangelicals would do well to remember. Four points are worth considering.

1. First, one's denomination (even religion?) is not the sole source of God's grace and mercy. God does not need our religious institutions to reveal Godself and act on behalf of the world. We are, as Barth puts it, simply the channels and the craters which God has put in place. But they by no means restrict the scope of God's activity. When it comes to the issue of inclusivity vs. exclusivity, we do well to make Newbigin's self-description one that applies to us all:

It has become customary to classify views on the relation of Christianity to the world religions as either pluralist, exclusivist, or inclusivist … [My] position is exclusivist in the sense that it affirms the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian. It is inclusivist in the sense that it refuses to limit the saving grace of God to the members of the Christian church, but it rejects the inclusivism which regards the non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation. It is pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but it rejects a pluralism which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ. (Newbigin, Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pp. 182-83)

As Jüngel writes in his article, "On the Doctrine of Justification":

His death is the foundation of his exclusivity. And this exclusiveness consists precisely in a universal inclusivity, in that in his death the sin of all sinners is condemned to pass away and brought to nothing. (IJST 1:1, p. 40)

2. Second, Christians need to remember that the Christian faith does not require people to be existentially made sinners before they can be "born again." This, unfortunately, is the norm in Protestant evangelism. But this is a great mistake. Christianity is not the solution to a problem; it is not the filling of some "god-shaped hole" that resides in all individuals. Such an account has nothing to do with the gospel of new creation which comes to us as a free event in Jesus Christ, an event that reorients the whole person not from (immoral) sin to (moral) salvation but from the old person to the new person: from the old person who has no true future to the eschatologically new person who lives from the future that becomes real in the present due to the power of the Holy Spirit. God is not the answer to a problem, but the basis for (new) life and (new) creation.

We would do very well to remember Bonhoeffer's profound rejection of modern religion's emphasis on God as the Great Solution, the deus ex machina ("god from machine"; a Greek deity who entered into a stage drama to change the course of events or solve a problem that the human characters created) who enters into the picture as a "god of the gaps" who solves what humans cannot solve on their own power:

I had been saying that God is being increasingly pushed out of a world that has come of age, out of the spheres of our knowledge and life, and that since Kant he has been relegated to a realm beyond the world of experience. Theology has on the one hand resisted this development with apologetics, and has taken up arms—in vain—against Darwinism, etc. On the other hand, it has accommodated itself to the development by restricting God to the so-called ultimate questions as a deus ex machina; that means that he becomes the answer to life’s problems, and the solution of its needs and conflicts. (Letters and Papers From Prison, p. 341)
Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail—in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure—always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I’ve come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness. As to the boundaries, it seems to me better to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the ‘solution’ of the problem of death. [. . .] God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. (Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 281-82)

3. Third, evangelicals in America have for far too long capitalized on the very same fears and self-doubts on which SHAM feeds. American Protestantism has, for all intents and purposes, capitulated to the "desires" that drive the markets by becoming a SHAM religion. Churches have become businesses. Or, even worse, become self-help clinics -- except the name "God" is used to displace human responsibility. I would rather have people attend an actual SHAM clinic than enter a church and hear the same message except with the pseudo-promise that prayer will make God do what you cannot do on your own power. God becomes the divine projection of our human powers and desires. In other words, far too often, evangelical American Christianity realizes what Feuerbach believed to be true of Christianity in general. In that sense, Feuerbach was a true prophet. It will take a massive mobilization among critically thinking Christians to embody the actual Gospel -- the word of the cross -- rather than the pseudo-gospel of modern SHAM religion.

4. Fourth, American Christianity becomes a SHAM religion whenever it, too, sets up a "bulletproof shield." Time and again people have "crises of faith," because the solutions they were promised never come to pass. But pastors have a whole arsenal of bulletproof shields: "you are still too weighed down by your sin," "you have not prayed enough," "you are not reading the Bible regularly," "you have not confessed your sins," "you have not given enough money to God," etc. The last -- perhaps the most insidious -- is now the most common, particularly in Third World countries where the SHAM Health-and-Wealth Religion is dominant. God damn America for televangelism. (And for a whole lot of other things as well.)

Conclusion: In light of this article, Eberhard Jüngel's treatment of sin in Justification is apropos: sin is "entanglement in a sham existence": "If sin in its most primitive form is the untruth which corrupts the truth of divine love and does not even allow itself this love, then the deeds we do in life can be called nothing else than a sham existence" (128). Salvation, or justification, is thus a rescuing from this sham existence. When God rescues us, God sets us free from a sham existence:

The justification of the ungodly, which is the truth that sets us free, speaks negatively about those fatal lies that may perfectly well appear as offers of meaning. [Read: SHAM, a movement of self-help and self-actualization.] A life lived from God's righteousness will thus be lived in freedom from that sham existence in which sinners are entangled and in which they threaten to be destroyed. This sham existence takes various forms: individual and collective, profane and religious, political and economic. It exists in the intimate depths of human life, but also on a global scale. It can spread both locally and in the wider community. Among these [lies] ... is the lie which implies that the old Adam can renew himself, if only he believes in himself, whether generically, or as a member of a class or a race. ... For since no earthly power can truly make a new person from the old Adam, this totalitarian claim can only be maintained with the aid of a lie, and the lie can only be maintained with the aid of terror. ...

Faith is the most complete exclusion of all human self-actualization. For believers trust in God at work. And this trust in God, as far as we are concerned, consists quite simply in enjoying our new existence. (265-67)


Shane said…
Nice thoughts David,

I would like to point out that Michael Shermer has several books that are worth reading, one of which is called "The Denial of History" or something like this about Holocaust deniers. It has a fascinating section on the nature of historical claims and their methodology.

Aaron G said…
My local "Christian bookstore" is a SHAM retail store...including a whole wall of Gaither sentimentality.