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Looking for Wisdom Among the 'Christian' Gurus
When the self-help genre isn't helpful enough
Dave Ramsey, Jordan Peterson, and Rachel Hollis are, each in their own way, three of our modern gurus. They’re a diverse group that reflects particular personalities of modern culture. Peterson is the philosophical academic, Hollis the Instagram celebrity, and Ramsey the folksy, financial counseling version of Dr. Phil. Their books don’t just sell; they live atop the bestsellers lists for years at a time. Hollis’s last two books are both currently in Amazon’s top 5. Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life has sold 10 million copies since late 2017. You have scroll a bit further to find Ramsey’s manifesto The Total Money Makeover (and its various spin-offs), but then again, Ramsey’s radio show has been reaching millions of listeners since the George W. Bush administration.
These three aren’t, obviously, the only or even most prominent gurus in America. Not in their wildest dreams have Hollis, Peterson, or Ramsey even approached the fame and reverence of, say, Oprah. But these three gurus are uniquely interesting to me because of their presence in Christian culture. Peterson is the only one who is not a professing believer, but that hasn’t stopped him from having a considerable influence and interest among American Christians. The point is not that all Christians are interested in these people, nor is it that their messages are particularly Christian to begin with (more on that in a second). The point is that for some reason, at this moment, the ascensions of their respective platforms have somewhat converged with each other—especially their astonishing book sales—and this convergence brings to the surface some particular tensions and questions for evangelicals.
Some of these questions are theological. For example, all three of these gurus offer what most of us refer to as “self-help.” Hollis is the most obvious example. Her books are straightforward you-go-girl sermonettes, tilted toward the Tony Robbins school of self-actualization and chasing your dreams. Conservative evangelicals balk at this lingo, pointing out that this kind of self-cheerleading tends to undermine worship of Jesus and instead turn the reader’s gaze inward. Based on the content of her books that’s been provided via marketing and reviews, Hollis seems pretty dismissive of these concerns; indeed, it’s difficult to find anything in Harper Leadership’s descriptions of Girl, Stop Apologizing that sounds distinctly Christian—or, for that matter, distinctly virtuous.
But Hollis isn’t the only one of these gurus who traffics in self-help. Here are some of Peterson’s 12 rules: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” (to project confidence and stand up for yourself); “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping” (=Boy, Wash Your Face); “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today” (a very common self-help truism). While these sentiments don’t appeal so obviously to naked ambition as some other self-help lit, they invite many of the same critiques. The same is true, in a different way, for Dave Ramsey. Ramsey’s self-help is more palatable because it is predicated on a material well-being rather than positivity or bravado. It is, after all, objectively good to not be broke or in massive debt. But this emphasis comes with landmines, too. When Ramsey counsels readers to do “rich people things” instead of “poor people things,” it comes off as aphoristic and naive, not to mention the ethical problem that appealing to accumulating wealth creates for Christians who take seriously the Bible’s warnings about even the desire for riches.
But stopping with the criticisms of the gurus won’t do. Theological problems notwithstanding, the reality is that these gurus are gurus in part because they are speaking into real existential crises that must spoken into by someone. Ramsey’s “tough love” persona may be off putting, but his average reader graduated college with over $30,000 of student loan debt, a fate so common it’s a national crisis. Peterson and Hollis are certainly not gospel-centered in their therapeutic writing. But what if there were evidence that therapeutic positivity could at least staunch the gaping wounds of depression and suicide among young girls, and disaffection and radicalization of young men?
Indeed, to ignore the dynamics into which these gurus write and speak seems to be a way of ensuring that the chaff never gets peeled from the wheat. For good or ill, Hollis, Peterson, and Ramsey are resonating with millions of people, many of whom are Christian, with messages of taking responsibility for life, letting go of shame and excuses, and believing that a better future is possible. Gurus exist to fill gaps—intellectual gaps, emotional gaps, spiritual gaps, etc. How they fill those gaps matters, but the gaps themselves matter too. The contemporary culture into which Hollis, Peterson, and Ramsey speak is a deeply fractured one that inspires compulsive anxiety and isolates all of us from inter-generational wisdom and meaning. The ascent of gurus, especially ascent in Christian spaces, should not merely trigger polemics and dismissals, but serious self-examination as to how well our theology and institutions are speaking into these gaps, and to what extent the failure to speak into those gaps has created demand for biblically deficient gurus who can read the anxieties of the times better than many pastors.
When Hollis exhorts women to assert themselves and quit rolling over for the whims of others, we don’t have to take her word for it that she’s saying something. We can see a #MeToo and #ChurchToo movement littered not only with predatory men but overly deferential—and ignored—women. When Peterson warns of a loss of transcendent truth and a toxic religion of politics, we need only observe how ruthlessly captive many Christians are to the social media outrage du jour. Now, I don’t really think either Hollis or Peterson intend their messages to be interpreted in a fully Christian context. Whether they do or not is beside the point. The point is that one can either insist that the only reason Hollis and Peterson sell books is that materialistic feminists and jaded male culture warriors are really just that determined to read their worldview back to themselves, or one can point out the societal and even ecclesiological trends that invite the input of gurus. It’s a question of what you think the average reader of these books is wanting. For my part, I don’t think they’re wanting ideology. I think they want answers.
Gurus fill gaps, but unfortunately, they usually fill them with sand. Cultivating Christian wisdom begins with humility, a humility that foremost fears God (Prov. 9:10) and does what is right, especially by one’s neighbor (Prov. 1:10-19). Humility tends to break a guru’s spell, since so much depends on the creation of a “brand” that is self-referential. By contrast, the wisdom of Christian worship is a nuanced wisdom. In his book The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom, Tremper Longman III summarizes the humble posture of biblical wisdom:
We will not know everything with unshakeable certainty, nor will we always be sure that this time is the right time for a certain word or action. The sage will not be paralyzed by fear or anxiety in the face of ambiguity and mystery but will live with a quiet confidence based on the fear of the Lord, in whom, like Job, we trust in the midst of our trouble.
The trouble with gurus is not only that they get things wrong, but that they exude an unhealthy pride when doing so. The pride goes part and parcel with the brand. But anyone who reads Girl, Stop Apologizing and determines to make all the suffering and complexities of life go away with more self-actualization will not only sin, but fail miserably. Likewise, anyone who puts Peterson’s 12 rules into action with the end goal of being more of an alpha male is building his own bridge to nowhere. Self-help by itself doesn’t really help the self. To adapt C.S. Lewis, self-help without Christian wisdom does not yield a happiness too strong, but a happiness too weak—too dependent on willpower, too in debt to products, and too vulnerable to the harsh realities of life in a fallen world, including realities outside our control.
Perhaps the ideal response to the ascendancy of gurus in Christian life is a recovery of the preaching and teaching of biblical wisdom literature. Maybe my radar is askew, but it feels like wisdom in Scripture has been unfortunately neglected in the resurgence of biblical theology and gospel-centered preaching. As John Piper so helpfully pointed out a couple months ago, making a “beeline to the cross” in teaching the Bible does not adequately convey the full message, and this is especially true with regards to the eminently (and awkwardly!) practical character of wisdom lit.
The rise of these gurus is an opportunity more than a challenge. Reformed evangelicals in particular can be so dismissive of “therapeutic” books and teaching that they can throw out the wisdom baby with the psychoanalytical bathwater. It doesn’t need to be this way. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and that includes all true wisdom, real encouragement, and genuine help of selves. We should long for an evangelical recovery of Christ-centered wisdom teaching, teaching that has eyes wide open toward the struggles of life in decadent modern society AND a theological literacy that bottoms out in worship.
And all of that should be free.