Sunday, August 2, 2009

Book Review, The Alchemist



The Alchemist has been on the New York Times Bestselling list for trade paperback for 96 weeks. After nearly so long of being one of the best sellers, what does Paulo Coelho’s text have to say about God? What does it have to say about life? Why are so many people reading it?
The O Alquimista, it’s 1988 title in Coelho’s native Portuguese, is about a shepherd boy Santiago in Spain. (No, I don’t read Portuguese, but it was published in English in 1993). Santiago is a shepherd by his own choice, and not because he likes sheep, but because he likes to travel. He travels all over the country side helping protect his sheep and selling the wool at various towns on a route he has made up over the last two years. Santiago has a recurring dream that a child is touching his sheep, and the child tells him to go to the Pyramids of Egypt where he will find treasure. One day he meets a gypsy fortune teller, who tells him what the author thinks is the most important point of the book—his personal legend. The dream he has been having is true.
Coelho defines the personal legend on pages 21–22, through the common literary character of the guardian figure—in this instance Melchizedeck, King of Salem (yes, the same one Abraham met). He says, “ ‘It’s what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is. At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend . . . It’s a force that appears to be negative, but actually shows you how to realize your Personal Legend. It prepares your spirit and your will, because there is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.’” The boy replies, “ ‘Even when all you want to do is travel? Or marry the daughter of a textile merchant?’ ‘Yes, or even search for treasure. The Soul of the World is nourished by peoples’ happiness. And also by unhappiness, envy, and jealousy. To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation. All things are one. And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.’”
Although Coelho professes to be a Roman Catholic, the idea of all people being of one soul and that one soul being one with all the universe is not what we believe. We believe we are not one with creation, but are placed on the world to have dominion over it. The Scriptures tell us we were made by God in His image (Gen 1:26), and that we are separate from God (“God is not man, that He should lie, nor a son of man that He should repent. Has He said and will He not do it? Or has He spoken and will He not make it good?” Num 23:19). We are not one with God.
There are good things in this book, and I hate to say it, because the book is a rare quality of thrilling adventure, but it is worse than a direct contradiction against what we believe. The worst lies always carry parts of the truth, and they are the worst because they lead people astray. Many good ideas for being confident and happy arise in this book. It is one of those books full of good wisdom. In the introduction, Coelho cites how President Clinton and others have read the book. It seems to be an influence, and if you read it you find out why. The Alchemist teaches that Positive things lie ahead for everyone if they pursue their dreams, and the unhappy people are those who stop pursuing their dreams and get stuck. You be yourself, and the omens of the world will speak to you so you can arrive at and achieve that legend. Santiago’s personal legend is to follow the recurrent dream and go to the Pyramids of Egypt and there he will find a treasure.
Helpful truths such as how in seeking the end goal we find happiness (friends, companions, a wife) are very generic truths that Santiago experiences. We watch the confident young Santiago listen to Melchizedeck’s advice, watch him face difficulty, watch him sacrifice for the dream of treasure in Egypt, watch him find happiness, and eventually watch him as he is tested. The desert, the sun, and the wind talk to Santiago, and he speaks back. The spiritual climax of the book is on page 152, “The boy reached through to the Soul of the Word, and saw that it was part of the Soul of God. And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul. And that he, a boy, could perform miracles.”
It is here that the book is not Christian, but embraces the spirituality of Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth, Helen Schucman and A Course in Miracles, or the writings of those who follow these. (If you wish to hear more about this, there are two very good, concise sermons on this whole topic by Erwin Lutzer, at http://www.oneplace.com/, and see the archives of The Moody Church Hour, message title “Oprah, Miracles, and the New Earth,” parts 1 and 2). When Coelho was interviewed by Beliefnet about his faith, he was asked (on page 181 in my copy), “In the Alchemist, you refer to the Soul of the World. What exactly is this? How is it tied to religion or spirituality?” He replied, “Well, let’s distinguish religion from spirituality. I am Catholic, so religion for me is a way of having discipline and collective worship with persons who share the same mystery. But in the end all religions tend to point to the same light. In between the light and us, sometimes there are too many rules. The light is here and there are no rules to follow this light.”
Confused? The reader will come to one of two conclusions at the end of the book:
1) Each of us can do anything and the universe will obey our command, and even point us in the right direction so we can fulfill every dream. Everything we want is good, we are good by nature, and no desire is evil. Evil is getting stuck in routine and not having adventure.
2) This book teaches wrongly, teaching that we are gods.
If you are very, very mature in your faith, it is a good story and you can read it without frustration (but pray). But, for most Christians, it will be like eating a delicious bowl of oatmeal with gravel buried in it, where you have to keep picking it out lest you break a tooth. Hopefully not too many teeth will be broken, and we will still be able to eat our oatmeal. That is my opinion of The Alchemist and its teaching. Let the reader have wisdom.

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