William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian

Learning about the Gospel from Self-Help, AA and Tony Robbins

[This post originally appeared on the Mockingbird blog.]

The kind of religion many people in America grew up with went something like this: do or believe these things in order to be “right with God.” But as experience will show, following either of these directives tends to lead to greater frustration, disillusionment and anxiety. “Am I really good enough?” “Am I really saved?” This encounter with church or Christianity for many did not enable a more joyful, tranquil and abundant life. It did the opposite. Sometimes it told folks they had to vote Republican. In other instances, it made them feel like they couldn’t trust science or enjoy the arts.

This is not to say there aren’t more thoughtful and grace-centered versions of Christianity out there. There are. But examples of bad faith still abound, and these lead many people to doubt, despair, or simply accept that they’re just not very “religious.”

The self-help industry, popular psychology and new age spirituality all have something of a stigma in most Christian circles, and for some good reasons. I too have tended to be a skeptic, but I’ve also been fairly ignorant about these movements. And in light of the sort of religion I’ve just described, is it really any wonder that we’ve seen the growth of such “unorthodox” spiritual schools of thought in recent decades?

Obviously, there are many varieties of self-help and new age thought, and some have been more influential than others. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, has made an indelible mark on the work of soul care and addiction treatment in American spiritual life. In his book discussing the spirituality of the 12-step movement, Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr contends that AA will go down in history as America’s greatest and most unique contribution to the history of spirituality. (John Z said much the same here). Rohr argues that AA,

represents what is good about American pragmatism. There’s something in the American psyche that becomes mistrustful and impatient with anything that’s too abstract, theoretical, or distant. Americans want a spirituality that is relevant, that changes people, and that really makes a difference in this world. For many, the Twelve Steps do just that. They make the Gospel believable, practical, and even programmatic for many people.

One of the most longstanding and successful celebrity figures in self-help spirituality is Tony Robbins. A recent glimpse of his work was captured by the Netflix original documentary, I’m Not Your Guru (2016). The movie was directed by Joe Berlinger, which is interesting in itself. Berlinger is known, among other things, for creating films that usually focus on uncovering and shedding light on social injustices. For him to have a favorable impression or even care about a famous motivational speaker and life coach seems strange. Robbins’ has even been known to practice hypnosis and “fire walking”!

Berlinger, a self-described cynic, admits in an interview with Vogue that he too went in with many doubts. But he also reports that he had a personal breakthrough because of Robbins, and he described it as an “incredible, profoundly moving experience where I was brought to tears . . . for this to evoke these kinds of emotions in me was pretty extraordinary.” The film was given a disapproving review in the New York Times for not being critical enough of Robbins. But after reading the Berlinger interview, I had to see for myself.

The movie chronicles Robbins’ six-day seminar called “Date with Destiny,” which has a high price tag. The most transformative moments in the film are condensed into exchanges Robbins has with individuals during certain sessions that he calls “interventions.” He confronts people. He asks probing and invasive questions. He offends and shocks with harsh language. He’s trying to wake people up from a slumber and take them on a spiritual journey that exorcizes their fears and tolerance of mediocrity. In two cases, he calls out people who are suicidal, one of whom was sexually abused for years in a cult that claimed to be Christian. Both of these individuals have life-altering, “new-birth” experiences during the week.

Some of it is cheesy. Some of it is superficial and consumeristic. And certainly its effectiveness is driven in part by Robbins’ cult of personality. But just as much if not more of the film depicts breathtaking inspiration and life change for people.

Participants are encouraged to face their unhappiness and call their struggles by name. They are given plans for how to genuinely make progress, as well as the accountability to maintain it. Above all, the individuals who Robbins interacts with are presented with a message of unconditional love, acceptance and dignity that lifts their spirits.

All this to say, I think are a few things that people of faith can learn from Robbins.

  1. In general, human beings long to be liberated from enslavement to addictions, depression, anger, shame, fear, numbness, self-loathing, and all the rest. Robbins has tapped into this.
  2. He has discovered that the way of grace, rather than moralism, is the path to true empowerment. Similar to how Jesus addresses the woman caught in adultery, he meets them right where they are and does not condemn.
  3. However, Robbins does not give people permission to stay where they are. He leaves them no other option than to “turn around,” to change their mind, and to move in a different direction. It may be a secular version, but the pattern is real. People are hungry for this message and invitation.

Now, there are also obviously some weaknesses and limitations to what Robbins is doing. His affirmation of love is abstracted from history and any local community. People pay loads of money and travel long distances to get this mountain-top injection of advice and encouragement that will no doubt be very difficult to sustain. And as with AA, the work is done by you, one other person (sponsor), and a “higher power.”

So what it lacks is just as important: the creation-size story of the gospel. If Christians are sometimes tempted to “credit the source” of grace while missing the point of grace itself, Robbins shows that it’s possible to get the point without crediting the source.

The spirituality is also all very Eastern. By this I mean, sin is not the problem — suffering is, and knowledge of how to be free of its grip on us. Robbins is obsessed with taking away people’s pain, and he’s good at it. The problem is, people need their sin to be taken away as well, and not just their suffering.

But there still is a difficult truth for Christians to admit in all of this: The self-help movement figured something out. You don’t have to be in church, and you don’t even have to be a Christian, to experience the freeing and healing power of honesty, positivity, humility, grace and human solidarity.

Alternatively, as a Christian, what I would want to tell Tony Robbins fans is mainly this: having a rich, successful, smart, and charismatic human being tell you that you’re absolutely worthy of love is great. But what if the God of the universe has already said this to us? Robbins says we are loved because we are good — or at least have the capacity to be. Jesus Christ says that we are loved because he is good, even when we are not. And based on what I know about myself, a message about his goodness is better news than one about my potential.


Also published on Medium.

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