Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, and the fundamentalist hijacking of Christianity

A few weeks ago I went and jumped headfirst into the ruckus about Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth over at Oprah Winfrey’s message boards.

Surely you’ve heard about the controversy, haven’t you? Ms. Winfrey recently picked Tolle’s book as the subject for a groundbreaking 10-week video class that streams across the Internet and around the world. Her decision has catapulted the book to the top of the bestseller lists (making it by far the most awesomely popular of her numerous book club picks) and has elicited both great excitement and great negativity from crowds far and wide.

The excitement has come from two types of people, those who already know Tolle’s brilliant work as a spiritual author and teacher and those who are thrilled to be introduced to it for the first time. The negativity has come from legions of fundamentalist Protestant Christians who are filling Oprah’s message boards, and also a lot of the rest of the Internet and World Wide Web, with criticisms of and attacks upon Tolle as an evil New Age deceiver and Oprah as the founder of a proprietary cult that probably has something to do with the anti-Christ and is certainly leading many people away from God, Christ, truth, and so on. It’s as if Winfrey’s decision to promote Tolle’s book has popped a kind of boil on the face of American religion, releasing a flood of pent up, festering nastiness.

You can find out all about it, if you like, by visiting YouTube or Google and entering Tolle’s and Oprah’s names as search terms. You’ll find homemade video segments about Tolle and Oprah that aspire to the status of exposés. You’ll find Pentecostal pastors speaking to large crowds at revival meetings about poor and/or dastardly Oprah Winfrey and her satanically inspired deception of the masses. You’ll find an Internet pastor challenging Oprah to a public debate about religion. You’ll find articles and blog posts by fundamentalist Protestants arguing that Tolle is just America’s “guru of the moment” who preaches a watered-down New Age pantheism and feel-good self-help philosophy, and that Oprah is a veritable she-devil who has made it her mission in life to twist, corrupt, and oppose the (literal, inerrant, non-negotiable, non-interpretable) truth of the Bible.

You can also visit the section of Oprah’s message boards devoted to discussing Tolle and A New Earth, where you’ll find vigorous conversations and arguments in progress about all of these things. If you poke around there long enough, you just might stumble across the following message written by me in response to somebody who suggested that participants in those conversations should consider drawing distinctions between types of Christians, since not all of the self-identified Christians who have been jumping into the conversation at those message boards are writing from a fundamentalist viewpoint.

I happen to know a little something about religion in general and Christianity in particular. I even have the by-God academic credential to talk with some authority about the matter. So here’s what I wrote in response to this very reasonable suggestion:

* * *

You raise an excellent point. Over the past 30 years the words “Christian” and “Christianity” have been hijacked, so to speak, in America’s general public discourse to refer primarily or even solely to fundamentalist Christians and Christianity.

Fundamentalism is the attitude or approach to any given subject or issue (not just religion) that reduces it to a handful of rigid beliefs that are then held as utterly nonnegotiable. They’re also viewed as being pretty much the only points worth talking about. Moreover, in the specific phenomenon of religious fundamentalism, the beliefs are generally held in a literalistic, externalized sense. Anybody who won’t give assent to these rigid beliefs is viewed as an outsider, somebody who’s completely wrong and probably dangerous to those insiders who assent to the beliefs. In short, fundamentalism reduces religion etc. to a dogmatic belief system.

For American fundamentalist Christians this belief system involves a number of standard items, including the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the only Son of God; that his death on a Roman cross was in reality a substitutionary sacrifice where he played the part of a sacrificial lamb according to the old Jewish system of ritual animal sacrifice (an idea that came not from him but from later interpreters of his life, death, and teachings, including, especially, Saint Paul); that the 66 books of the Protestant Bible are completely without error, are to be read in a literalistic sense (six days of creation and so forth), and are the sole statement of religious truth, beside which all other purported scriptures are satanic deceptions; and so on. Fundamentalist Protestantism is entirely about “right belief.” It teaches that spiritual salvation is found in intellectual assent to its propositions.

That’s why fundamentalist Christians are so suspicious of competing belief systems: because their entire religion is at root nothing more nor less than embrace of a belief system. Doctrinal purity is everything to them. This means they’re putting intellect in the chief position. Their religion is, as Tolle would say, “nothing but thoughts in their head.” That means they have trouble even recognizing that some religious and spiritual approaches are completely different, that some religious and spiritual paths are not belief-system based but what we might called “way” based, that is, ways of transformation instead of systems of doctrines. For fundamentalists this is generally incomprehensible and often infuriating.

Obviously I’ve drawn an ideal type here. Most fundamentalists aren’t really as rigid as all this. But they are pretty danged rigid, and some of them conform entirely to the broad picture I’ve drawn. Thankfully, there are lots of other Christians who are not like that.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on April 25, 2008, in Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. innerarchitect

    I am neither fundamentalist nor close minded. What I find interesting is the lack of “substance factor” that Tolle possesses.

    According to a few sources he was “reportedly but not verified” a former student at Cambridge working on a doctorate; he abandoned that venture and dropped out in 1977.

    Since then there are gaping holes in this man’s background. The best guess is that Tolle was homeless wondering for a decade in parks around London, suicidal, and often off the grid of society.

    My point? If you listen to his videos and read his writings his concepts and ideas, sorry Eckhart you had to have analyzed at some point, revolve around “the stillness.” Ultimately he paints a scenario which can neither be proven nor probed. Eckhart has built a philosophy that is like a fortress around him.

    Even more suspicious is his contrived or “acted” mannerisms on video. His long pauses for dramatic effect, closing of the eyes, and general demeanor brings to mind the acting work of a first year drama student at a local college.

    Why would Oprah crown him with such importance? Because Oprah is no dummy. She can see that Tolle has a great “schtick” and will and does appeal to those people who view themselves as “intellectuals” liberals and free thinkers.

    I am all for Eck if he makes even one person happier or better for having read him.

    But let’s be real. This guy has NO substance factor, no credibility, and a very big idea of how perception can become reality–especially if it is a well thought out publicists version.

    • Huh?! Your points do not make any sense. You claim that Eckhart lacks substance, but struggle to make your own substance show in your ‘arguments’ (esp. your 4th paragraph: what is the point you’re alluding to?).
      Have you read his book? If you had, you wouldn’t have accused him of something that he claims is not the way to spiritual enlightenment–through the intellect.
      I do agree that his mannerisms are a little strange on video, but it looks more to me that he struggles mostly with speaking fluently in English, finding the right words under stress. Actually, I think his mannerisms are the opposite of ‘acted’, and what may startle some is his absence of that arrogant typically American quality mislabeled as ‘confidence’.

  2. I think Tolle has a bit of a stutter. I didn’t notice any weird pauses in the video I watched. Tolle’s writing is thought-provoking, and he’s reaching a lot of people. Many will get some good from it, I’m sure. There is no one-size fits all in gurus.

    The only complaint I have about Tolle, is that he seemingly got his enlightenment in one night, in a process of realizing certain truths all of a sudden. I prefer to think of enlightenment as a skill that you develop and practice. This approach is taught by Geoffrey DeGraff, my favorite ‘guru’ – I like to call his teachings “Buddhism without all the Bull****” He’s at: http://www.dhammatalks.org/

    • Tolle did not get to where he is in one night only. I think you’ll have to re-read his book to understand. I just finished ‘Power of Now’, and I did not get that impression at all. He speaks of that particular night in the intro, but that’s just the starting point. He discusses how extreme, deep pain can take you out of unconsciousness, but throughout the book he refers to various sources of spiritual thought. It appeared to me that he’s been a ‘student’ for a very long time.
      But he stresses that for most people, spiritual enlightenment is a more gradual process since the majority of us will not experience that level of pain and utter no-turning-back hopelessness.
      I think of the point where he came to in that one night was how he came to ‘feel’ enlightementm and his further studies was understanding it through the mind, which I think can be an important tool in fully grasping it.

  3. Well, I can honestly state that the clarity of the Tolle’s teachings have helped me train myself to tone down the incredible, unconscious static in my head. My stress level is lower than ever, I enjoy my life in the moment more readily without mental commentary (and without losing my grasp on the future), and I’m altogether more content on a day to day basis.

    innerarchitect, you claim that you are “all for Eck if he makes even one person happier or better for having read him.” Well, I can guarantee you that *I’m* demonstrably “happier and better for having read him.”

    Honestly, I could care less who Tolle is or what his past was like. I really don’t care what his aims are in writing his books over the years either. The fact is this: Tolle has been able to highlight a truth which has been around (and talked about orally and written about) for millennia: don’t worry about the past and future. Become aware of the present moment because that is literally all we have. We get too caught up in our own thoughts, and we should be aware of ourselves as much as possible. That’s all. It’s not original thought on Tolle’s part, but the man is a genius with clarity and repetition. I’m reading PRACTICING THE POWER OF NOW for the first time, and it really is mostly a condensed rehashing of THE POWER OF NOW’s main points. But the selections are terrific, cogent and effective.

    I’ve got to state that I owe Matt a large debt of gratitude for guiding me to Tolle’s work, which combined with daily meditation, Tai Chi, and working out has done more for my quality of life than anything else (other than living with my lovely wife). Thanks, Matt!

  4. There is some good discussion and Christian overviews with reference to Eckhart Tolle’s book, “A New Earth” at the following links that are worth checking out….




  5. Very well written blog and I appreciate the education.

    What I find interesting in Innerarchitect’s post is that there appeared to be more concern over Eckhart’s background as opposed to his message. Uh…….but aren’t Christian’s following the message of a carpenter? Where “divineness” comes from is a mystery and I would challenge Innerarchitect…..If you knew that Eckhart completed his PHD (or had several) would that have made him more credible in your eyes? Mother Theresa did not have many credentials either.

    Eckhart is not saying anything that hasn’t been said before, however, his combination of religion, quantum physics (time, space, energy), and spiritual conscious awakening is sticking a chord for many for a reason. Like anyone that “finds religion”, it if resonates within yourself and helps you to lead a life of joy and fulfillment, then the downside is????

  6. Thanks for this article. I read the Power of Now a number of years ago when it came out, and was shocked by the clear, practical philosophy, one which anyone can understand and put to work in their own lives, unlike many vague “New Age” texts out there. It soon became what I think to myself as the one book I would take with me if I was ever trapped on a desert island. I read A New Earth also when it came out & I certainly never imagined that Queen Oprah would pick it up, host “webinars” about it, and, far less, that fundamentalist Christians could somehow interpret this guy as being “threatening.” He’s basically a teddy bear. And throughout his books and his talks he reminds people that his book may not be appropriate for everyone. Hardly an attempt to brainwash people into joining a “cult” (as I read in some silly opinion piece on Fox news). I don’t think a lot of these Christians realize that their attacking of the philosophies espoused by Tolle is just as offensive to people who have found them useful, as the Christians seem to think Tolle’s existence is to Christianity. Personally, I have found the advice in his books to be sooooo helpful in ridding myself of unnecessary thought. Previously, I could go through an entire day, not really seeing anything or anyone around me, trapped in a haze of unnecessarily thought and depression. How could a loving God want that for me? Now, I’m much more aware of my surroundings…the world God created. I wouldn’t completely credit this to Tolle – his philosophy is not new. But, it is the most practical and down to earth explanation of these ideas I have ever read.
    I don’t care what Tolle was doing during the years in which he was off the radar. I suspect he was doing what he said he was doing – living with “no socially defined identity.” Why? Because I get a feeling that he is genuine. But frankly, he could have been spit-roasting babies and eating them alive. I don’t think that would make his book any less helpful to me.

  7. I am so greatful to Eckhart Tolle and Oprah for turning me onto Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and her beautiful book “”My Stroke of Insight””. Her story is amazing and her gift to all of us is a book purchase away I’m happy to say.

    Dr Taylor was a Harvard brain scientist when she had a stroke at age 37. What was amazing was that her left brain was shut down by the stroke – where language and thinking occur – but her right brain was fully functioning. She experienced bliss and nirvana and the way she writes about it (or talks about it in her now famous TED talk) is incredible.

    What I took away from Dr. Taylor’s book above all, and why I recommend it so highly, is that you don’t have to have a stroke or take drugs to find the deep inner peace that she talks about. Her book explains how. “”I want what she’s having””, and thanks to this wonderful book, I can! Thank you Dr. Taylor, and thank you Eckhart and Oprah.

  8. There is some great discussion going on here, great insight people. I have began reading this book and participating in the online classes and I believe Eckart’s message is very useful. I don’t agree with everything he says, but for the most part, it is great to learn. I am Catholic who believes in God, but I also believe in spirituality. I think you need a balance of the two. The three keys to enlightenment (nonattachment, nonjudgement, nonresistance), I bought this ring to remind of the keys. http://www.enlightenmentring.com. Hopefully everyone enjoys the book as much as I do, take care.

    • that’s interesting…”I am Catholic who believes in God, but I also believe in spirituality.” I thought the two were not mutually exclusive. Isn’t any religion ALL about spirituality. I agree that in the past few thousand years or whatever, the two have come to seperate into two identities, but I was a little startled to see you write it out so clearly, without apology. God is not spirit? Then what is God?

  9. I haven’t really read or seen any of these materials that cause such controversy even now, months later. I do consider myself “mostly” conservative. I might be fundamentalist; I don’t try not to define my beliefs are certain terms like “Liberal” or anything like that. I do believe in Christianity and I do believe that an Anti-Christ will come someday. However, I HAVE witnessed first-hand some of this lashing-out from people I know.

    My first complaint is to point out that Christians can’t expect this world to be kind us; whether we are in America or Antarctica, we Christians are supposed to be in the world but not “off” it. We aren’t supposed to become part of a world that we are supposed to see as full of sin. I find it very interesting that many Christians react like this to what they perceive as threats to their beliefs, and this extends to other things that have happened in the last couple of years: The release of “The Da Vinci Code,” for example. Why are we so surprised that there are other people in the world (and yes, even in the United States) that don’t hold the same conservative Christian viewpoint, even holding conflicting viewpoints?

    Second, I find it interesting that most of the criticism that I heard about it comes not from people who have necessarily seen it and heard out what Oprah believes. I’m big on hearing out a person’s opposing viewpoint, mostly because I would want someone to pay me the same courtesy if my opinion, for whatever reason, attained national attention. However, all of the criticism I heard wasn’t “Oprah holds such and such beliefs in error,” but “Oprah is the Anti-Christ,” etc. etc. In other words, to respond to opposing views, these people simply seek to discredit and tear down these other people. That urks me; people are people, and (I believe, anyway) that Christ died for them, too. Why personally attack people? Simply explore their doctrine and, if and when you find it in error with what you believe, state the discrepancy and leave it be.

    Finally, it disgusts me that some people in this country call these opposing viewpoints and the popularization of unchristian and even anti-christian “persecution.” I have never had to endure a beating or the death of my family because of my belief; I haven’t had to watch anyone in this country die just because they believe in God (or even because they DON’T believe in God). That’s real persecution, and a lot of the people who call Eckhart’s ideals persecution don’t realize how much they dishonor their Christian brothers and sisters overseas who go through that real persecution daily.

    And by the way, Eckhart’s beliefs is just fad; it’s just another verse in the Great Conversation of Man. It isn’t like his ideas are the ones that people will always hold and it isn’t like someone couldn’t take center stage tomorrow and propose their own radical viewpoint and get the same attention.

    • Now, if I understand correctly, you have not read Eckhart, yet you claim that his beliefs are fads? And what is not fad? Christian dogma?
      Eckhart transcends all religious thought. It’s perfectly possible to both practice the power of now, yet be a Christian, although epitets are sort of useless when you understand that all of life is what you see as ‘forms’ of spirit.
      To me Christianity is not any different from paganism, just a continuation of it, with some tweaks here than there in doctrines, and with the arrival of Jesus, part of his message had to somehow fit into the picture (of being present), even if it was largely misunderstood. The belief that God is seperate from humans and other life, and is a being that can be loved by choice, or not, is pagan in origin. The main difference being that one god had been chosen to be worshipped which literally just replaced a pantheon of gods.

      • Josefina:

        I apologize if I came across as demeaning to Eckhart’s beliefs in calling it a fad. I did not mean for that to be the implication at all, especially since I haven’t read any of his work to try to understand what he is saying. I was merely illustrating that, in our nation, there seems to be a great deal of “bandwagon” attitudes: It’s the attitude that says, “My friends all read and like (insert name of anything), so I like it, too.” My point was that many (certainly not all) people who were excited by Tolle’s philosophy were only interested in it because Oprah Winfrey endorsed it. Understand that I do not hold bandwagon Christians in an higher regard; in my view, if there’s anything that a person should think about, it would have to be whether or not they believe in supernatural phenomenon, and to simply take accept what anyone else says as gospel truth without considering the reality or non-reality of it yourself seems to me a grievous error, an intellectual irresponsibility.

        My point in referring to the sudden popularity of Tolle as a “fad” was that, many people were merely flocking to it because it was a new idea to them. That doesn’t make it any less valuable, but it also tells me that people are not thinking about important religious issues in the way that they should, be they Christian, atheist, Buddhist or Wiccan. They were simply jumping on the bandwagon.

        In order for me to better contribute to this discussion, I will have to see if I can read some of Tolle’s works this summer and try to understand what he is saying.

  10. From the tapes ive listened to by Echhard Tolle his philosophy is strikingly similiar to Roy Masters teaching and both are borrowed from hinduism. But the difference is that Roy doe acknowledge the existence of evil and is not a monist as is Echhart Tolle.

  11. Roy Masters actually incorporates into his teachings Buddism, Hinduism and Christian teaching

  12. I gather wisdom from wherever it’s found. THE NEW EARTH retaught me the wisdom of living primarily in the present moment and that I CAN control my thoughts. Those two concepts have changed my life. Thank you, Eckhart Tolle!

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