God's bikie trashes New Age feelgoodism

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Beyond the Myth of Self-Esteem: Finding Fulfilment by John Smith with Coral Chamberlain. Acorn Press.

BARRY:

A new book by counter-cultural warrior and Christian God Squad motorbike club founder Rev John Smith says that feeling good about yourself may not actually be that good for you in the long run.

It’s not that he wants you to be depressed, however. Smith’s point is that we can grow and make necessary changes to ourselves and our environment when our experience of discomfort prompts self-reflection.

The argument of the book comes with a reference to ‘one of the world’s most influential visionaries’ (AKA Jesus Christ), pushing Christ’s idea that ‘to find ourselves we must lose ourselves to a greater vision. He also said that discovering this truth is liberating.’  

The book also comes with a warning, somewhat dramatically, that it ‘will challenge almost all you have ever heard or read about self-esteem as expressed by contemporary pop culture’. So, suitably alerted, let’s dig in, shall we?

A semantic line of sorts is drawn between healthy self-respect (borne up by ‘identity, meaning…true fulfilment and deep joy’) and ‘the myth of self-esteem’ (built on social isolation, emotional arrested development, and an inordinate self-focus on ‘feeling good and looking good’).

The book considers a mixed bag of issues, including community, positive thinking, service to others, globalisation, philanthropy, an epidemic of depression, self-imagery, loss of purpose, pop psychology, ‘Me-focused sex’ and ‘Me-focused “altruism”’, etc. It comes home to roost by addressing spirituality and ‘the most seductive myth of all’ – the New Age self-esteem mythology that elevates ‘the self to god-like status’.

Citing Dostoevsky’s Karamazovian grand inquisitor – ‘The everlasting wish of the human race is to find someone to worship’ – the booksays the wish has now been fulfilled, as we humans worship ourselves through myopic Facebook observations, posts of selfies and the vain photobombing of others’ lives.

The book contends, with considerable ethical heft, that we ignore the pain or needs of others, the better to get off on our own gloriousness. It then notes that the path to fulfilment is surrender of self to the greater good, through connection with the Divine and service to our fellows. Thus does the individual grow, as part of the whole.

This is not a new message. It is still timely.

Subtitled Finding Fulfilment, this is a cogent but often bloodless work; worthy but at times clinical. I didn’t so much read this tome as gut it and hunker down with it for a final exam – informative yet lacking resonance at a human level; the writers didn’t draw me in. That said, I wholeheartedly agree with its central premise: ‘there is more to life than the nurturing of our self-esteem'.

JEN:

John Smith – or 'Smithy' as he’s known to his many admirers – is undeniably an Australian gem in leathers. Based in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs, but very much a man of the world, John Smith’s name has become synonymous with Christianity with purpose.

This non-self help book promises to continue the rich tradition. It comes to us with all the breathless imaginings of a brave new world of thinking and being. Indeed, the book aims to be 'life-changing' and 'is essential reading if you are looking for a deeper understanding of your world'.

Defending the rights of the marginalised in Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Philippines, where he was jailed and nearly executed, Smith has long walked the walk. Likewise, when he talks, people listen, and it’s not surprising that he’s had the ear of like-minded advocates such as Bono and former US president Jimmy Carter.

Yes, if anyone has both the qualifications and inclination to write a book on the pitfalls of self-esteem, then John Smith is our man. As he warns, almost every significant facet of our lives – parenting, teaching, religion – appears to have been smeared by the same what’s-in-it-for-me brush peddled by media doyens such as Oprah, Anthony Robbins and Dr Phil McGraw (to this list allow me to add any one of the Kardashian clan or any number of the overnight sensations we’ve come to know as ‘reality stars’).

Yes, there is much to applaud about Smith’s astute observations. But with too many pages dedicated to proving the existence of the myth, the author begins to seem almost as self-absorbed as the movement he’s trying to discredit.

Being presented with chapter upon chapter of such negative proclamations, it’s difficult not to be left strangely alienated from the cause. And while Smith is undeniably well-read and a well-regarded theologian, I wager that his final assertion that our true self-esteem depends upon self-surrender to the 'all-wise, all-loving God' will leave the typical non-Christian – and indeed many Christians – cold.  

Kudos must go to Smith and Coral Chamberlain for attempting to provide another platform for an otherwise well-worn topic, but surely enough of us are now well aware of how far the cult of self-esteem and personal identity has infiltrated our lives, and know, if only on a subconscious level, that meaning lies beyond ourselves.

Yes, Barry, 'there is more to life than the nurturing of our self-esteem', but I’d sooner look to the life and example of the man than read his book.


Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor, and Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, John Smith, New Age, pop psychology, Christianity

 

 

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Existing comments

Perhaps sometimes the truth hurts and John Smith is not one for pulling punches. We live in a self-absorbed society, that idolises the trivial and ostracises those who are less fortunate and powerless.
Wayne McMillan | 12 March 2015


I will try to get hold of John Smith's book. One of the most pernicious sources of false self-esteem these days surely comes from the various versions of the cult of spirituality, mostly devoid of any real roots in Scripture or tradition. These can be more sophisticated than the usual self-help books, but even more likely to lead to the worship of self in place of God.
Rodney Wetherell | 13 March 2015


I found Jen and Barry's reactions to another self-improvement book, which is marketed as a corrective to the "other" modern self-improvement self-esteem alternative, much more informative than Smith's book itself. It seemed to leave them curiously flat. They are both much too savvy to think a book can "change" you: that change has to be an interior process. There was once and still is, to some extent, in Western culture, a process of going within, with a purpose not of finding some narcissistic "self-fulfilment" but the deep well springs of your own being, which often results in your not becoming an isolate but doing something for the world, not as a matter of form, but with real purpose. In a religious form you see it in the lives of St Francis of Assisi and St Ignatius of Loyola, both of whom really changed their societies in a positive way. In a secular context Carl Jung worked on what he called this "process of individuation" with his clients which he considered might ultimately have the same sort of results in their worldly lives. Smith, I feel, is a good diagnostician of the modern ethos but he shows no real way out.
Edward Fido | 13 March 2015


I read one of John's books in my last years of high school in the late 80s - can't recall the title - but i can still remember how it changed the way I looked at religion - and helped me understand why the way we refer to God as "Father" can be a problem for people with distant and painful father-son experiences. It helped me understand my own father's tough upbringing with a harsh disciplinarian father - and how that affected the way he related to me.
AURELIUS | 13 March 2015


RE: my previous comment - I just found the book and I recommend John Smith's "Advance Australia Where?" as well (which I read in high school).
AURELIUS | 14 March 2015


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