I promised myself only one The Office reference in a review of Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution, written by Rainn Wilson, the actor who portrays Dwight Schrute on the show. So here goes: In season five , Dwight and his longtime girlfriend, Angela, the most religious person on the show, break up. Dwight is crushed and confides to a coworker, “She introduced me to so many things. Pasteurized milk, sheets, monotheism, presents on your birthday, preventative medicine.”
Where Dwight was a latecomer to the merits of monotheism, Rainn Wilson has made promoting it a major part of his life’s calling, bending his significant celebrity and resources to projects that promote human spirituality in media, entertainment, and social activism. Soul Boom is his latest effort and, despite its shortcomings, is one of the most compelling non-Christian apologetical works I have read.
Anticipating shared values
Wilson is a member of the Baha’i faith, a religion introduced in the 19th century by Baháʼu'lláh (1817–1892), who claimed to receive a new revelation that, roughly speaking, placed him in the genealogy of “Manifestations of God” stretching back to Abraham and including Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Muhammad. The religion now claims around six million followers globally.
The teachings of Baháʼu'lláh, as well as his son and grandson and the Universal House of Justice, the faith’s governing body since 1963, are quite ecumenical. For starters, they draw widely from world religions to form the basis of their teachings. In addition—and more provocatively, at least from this Christian’s perspective—the faith rejects the exclusivist claims of world religious leaders, making figures like Jesus far less consequential than he appears in any historic Christian creed.
All that said, Soul Boom, which calls for a worldwide spiritual revolution along the lines of “an ever-advancing civilization” and “collective” spiritual maturity, is a powerful presentation of the Baha’i faith’s perspective on spirituality. After putting down the book, readers will likely appreciate the Baha’i faith’s amiability and think highly of Wilson’s character, whatever they think of his views.
The book is funny, irenic, and regularly revealing. At one point Wilson describes how his attempts to develop a television show exploring spiritual themes met rejection in Hollywood because God was deemed “too controversial.” As Wilson observes, the depths of depravity, violence, and voyeurism on television go deeper every year, but somehow God is a “four-letter word.” Someone so familiar with elite cultural production brings a potent and trenchant critique of its aversion to anything overtly spiritual.
Like all good apologetical works, Wilson’s book starts by anticipating shared values and then moves toward claims that might be a harder sell for outsiders. The second half of the book suggests (in somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion but seriously enough) that we need to create a “new religion” called SoulBoom that will help usher Wilson’s real interest—a global spiritual revolution advancing spiritual progress and cosmic unity. This religion looks a lot like the Baha’i faith, which includes no clergy and promotes practices of prayer and meditation. In making his case, he diagnoses many problems Christians would also highlight in American society: consumerism, loneliness, violence, and partisanship. His solutions, however, are harder to swallow.
Soul Boom failed to make a convert out of me (among other reasons because following his religion would make one a … Boomer?). Even so, the book is valuable for its contribution to a broader spiritual dialogue and as a skillful apologetic for the Baha’i faith. Wilson wishes his readers to embrace a spirituality that adheres to some key precepts drawn from his faith tradition. Christians, who in many contexts today might find themselves with only slightly more cultural resonance than someone from the Baha’i faith, can take note of the way Soul Boom searches for cultural common ground and offers its distinctive prescriptions to the uninitiated.
Key to Wilson’s winsomeness is that Soul Boom is laced with popular culture metaphors. In the dominant one introduced in the first pages, Wilson describes the “twofold path” of spirituality through two television shows: Kung Fu and Star Trek. The former represents the personal, internal journey toward mental wellness and self-mastery, while the latter represents what Wilson calls the “spiritual evolution of a species [humanity].” Both pathways, in Wilson’s telling, are needed, even as spirituality in 21st-century America has largely focused on the themes of Kung Fu. But to quote Star Trek’s Captain Picard, “We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” Wilson is keen on getting readers interested in the social potential of spirituality.
I work at a Christian study center serving a large public university, so the trends of “nones” and the “spiritual but not religious” are present every day. Wilson should be lauded for breaking down the artificial “privatization” of spirituality that reduces faith to an individualistic pursuit of self-actualization or a distant set of dogmas. To the extent that SoulBoom’s spirituality fosters values that make it possible for people to become more Christlike, Christian readers can affirm the value of Soul Boom’s intervention.
At the same time, Wilson treats Christianity like Star Trek does religion. Star Trek is often as condescending to religion as any of the Hollywood shows Wilson critiques, a lesson I learned while becoming a Trekkie as a missionary kid in the ’90s. In describing one species’ development, for example, Captain Picard remarks, “Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural … the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear.”
So, while Wilson is friendly to world-religious figures like Jesus, his compliments smell like they could have come from Picard. Jesus taught the Golden Rule and called for justice. He also claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, to be the only way to God, to be the king of an unseen kingdom. He died and rose again, which, if true, would be the hinge point of all history. It is no surprise that these teachings, which are present even in the parts of the Gospels that SoulBoom acknowledges, are completely absent from Soul Boom.
Human and divine agency
I read Soul Boom right after another book, Biblical Critical Theory by Christian scholar Christopher Watkin. Among the merits of Watkin’s biblical approach to critical theory is teasing out what makes the biblical understanding of the world distinct. Two overriding Christian commitments are that the God of the Bible is a personal God and that the biblical worldview is “emplotted” in a storyline of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation that shapes everything the Bible talks about and teaches.
These two features of the biblical portrayal of reality oppose SoulBoom at a fundamental level. In the first case, the God of SoulBoom, like the God of the Baha’i faith, is something far different than the God of the Bible. In the second case, SoulBoom, like the Baha’i faith, has a very different (if equally clear) story line: The world is moving toward a unity of spirit and matter, with human spirituality as the driving force.
Here’s the rub: Wilson’s “emplottment” of Jesus into the story line of SoulBoom conscripts Jesus and the Bible into a narrative—and an entire worldview—the biblical authors wanted nothing to do with.
The God of SoulBoom is distant and elusive—a “Big Guy/Gal/Force/God/Creator thingy,” in Wilson’s words—that mostly just has “our best interests in mind.” Although Wilson’s theism moves beyond a vapid “spirituality” and includes a public, rather than simply private, dimension of faith, it does not do enough to differentiate itself from what sociologist Christian Smith has termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.” In contrast, the God of the Bible is engaged and relational, constantly drawing close to his creation and expressing love, concern, anger, and sacrifice toward humans, who reflect God’s own image.
The story of SoulBoom concerns a humanity that must essentially save itself by living up to and evolving its own spiritual potential. If so, writes Wilson, humanity will “mature and collectively make increasingly moral, compassionate choices” to achieve cosmic unity and “arise from the individual to the whole.” The story of the Bible goes in the opposite direction. It tells of a good creation dashed by rebellion and sin and the king of that order working to make things right, with salvation that is for us but not because of us, culminating not in humans ascending into unity with God but in God’s descending and dwelling with his creation.
The agency of the story in SoulBoom lies with humanity. As Wilson states, it is people who must change, through “recognizing that we are, in fact, spiritual beings having a collective human experience” who can be open to “the soul-level transformations we’re going to need to make.” The agency of the biblical story is God’s. It begins with God creating and ends with God dwelling; we work as co-stewards and God works through us, but we are never the stars of the show.
Further contrasts only reinforce the point that the biblical story chafes within the boundaries of SoulBoom and thus in the prescriptions for Wilson’s spiritual revolution. Like in the Baha’i faith, SoulBoom’s reduction of Christian truth to humanistic moral insights that align with other world religions makes the original appeal of Christianity problematic and the remaining appeal little more than one of taste.
An oasis, not a destination
Even so, Christians can affirm some ideas that Wilson advances, none more than the truth that answering the question of “Who am I?” must begin outside oneself. Every force in our culture pushes in the opposite direction, from debates over identity politics to our culture’s commodification of personal identity. In the Bible’s understanding, the question of “Who am I?” transforms (in Watkin’s phrasing) into “Whose am I?”—an interrogation that launches us on the road to Jesus. As with Augustine in his Confessions, it ushers us deeper and deeper into the paradox of losing oneself for the sake of the gospel in order to find our true identities in Christ.
Wilson affirms a generalized version of this basic truth that, if widely adopted by his nonreligious readers, would be progress indeed. His aim is to “advance a conversation about the importance of the divine dimension of existence and how it can influence our lives and our futures, collectively and individually.” This echoes C. S. Lewis’s self-diagnosis that he possessed “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Lewis called this “joy,” an emotion that Wilson also affirms as the antidote to the world’s cynicism. There is more, though no less, to this world than what our senses apprehend.
In a Western world devastated by disenchantment, disillusionment, and cynicism—functionally materialist in its institutions—a more robust recognition of a spiritual dimension to reality can be an oasis. The value of Soul Boom is not so much the new religion of SoulBoom but Wilson’s apologetic for monotheism in a culture increasingly averse to organized religion. Even if Wilson’s view falls far short of the beauty of the Christian witness, Christians can accept Wilson as an ally in holding forth for a deeper and wider sense of reality that includes the supernatural.
Yet while Wilson’s contribution might lead us to an oasis, it is hardly the destination. If I do the reverse of Wilson and “emplot” SoulBoom into the biblical story line, we realize quickly that it cannot contain the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Second Coming. It cannot make sense of one modern hymn’s contemplation of the ancient mystery, “Yet not I, but through Christ in me.”
On its own terms, SoulBoom does resemble Star Trek. Implicitly, SoulBoom treats those things that make Christianity unique as remnants of Captain Picard’s “superstition and ignorance and fear.” In fact, Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was an avowed atheist and opposed organized religion in all its forms. Yet not all writers for Star Trek were quite as hostile. In a later series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, produced after Roddenberry’s death, a devout religious character named Kira is confronted with the idea that all cultures should believe in each other’s gods for the sake of self-fulfillment and galactic peace. Rather than assent to this pragmatic approach to religion, she instead points out, “There’s just one thing—we can’t both be right.”
It is only from this vantage point of unbridgeable difference, paradoxically, that a truly openminded exploration of spirituality can begin—one that takes the various traditions on their own terms rather than presuming they fit together into some harmonious spiritual whole. Using Wilson’s categories, SoulBoom remains stuck in the frame of Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek, when what we need in our cultural conversation about spirituality is a dose of Deep Space Nine that moves us toward, rather than away from, the biblical story.
The apostle Peter understood early on who Jesus is. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” he says in Matthew 16:16. Any true spiritual revolution will seek not to diminish this bold claim but rather to understand its vast implications. And it will center the question that prompted Peter’s reply and on which a true grasp of Jesus’ nature depends: “Who do you say I am?”
Daniel G. Hummel is a historian and the director for university engagement at Upper House, a Christian study center located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation.