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Spiritual But Secular

Ersatz sermons

By Anne Bokma

Eighty-year-old photographer Willie Waddell has experienced her share of heartache — a son who died in a car accident almost 30 years ago, and another son, “a multi-millionaire businessman,” who lost his fortune and dealt with addiction. She remembers incessantly pacing the floors of her home in Victoria in an effort to cope with her grief.

In time, she found some sources of solace, often beginning her day with an inspirational TED Talk and frequently turning to the words of Don Miguel Ruiz, the bestselling author of The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. “I pick up The Four Agreements once or twice a week — if I am getting stressed I will turn to it. It has a very good effect on me,” says Waddell, who was raised in the United Church but says she now has “zero inclination to go to church.”

People like Waddell may not be finding support in soothing words from the pulpit, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t looking for messages of inspiration and hope. Today, there’s no shortage of secular-style sermons for them to turn to. Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul Sunday TV show features conversations with spiritual gurus from Marianne Williamson to Eckhart Tolle. The U.K.-based School of Life broadcasts its Sunday morning secular talks by cultural figures via YouTube. Archived commencement addresses by notables such as author-essayists David Foster Wallace and Nora Ephron are also popular online; in an article, the website Brain Pickings calls them “the contemporary secular equivalent of the sermon . . . [a] compact packet of wisdom on how to be a decent human being and lead a good life.”

But none of these come close to the immense popularity of TED Talks, which have attracted more than two billion views. Delivered to the masses with evangelical zeal, the talks were recently dubbed “The Church of TED” by the New York Times. They feature presenters such as author Brené Brown on “The Power of Vulnerability” (24 million views), psychologist Dan Gilbert on “The Surprising Science of Happiness” (12 million views) and Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs on “How to Live Before You Die” (eight million views). These talks even follow a classic sermon structure: three points, and no more than 20 minutes.

Some ministers, such as Rev. Minnie Hornidge of Alberni Valley (B.C.) United, are capitalizing on the popularity of TED Talks by incorporating them into their sermons. Hornidge has shown snippets of several TED Talks featuring, for example, author Karen Armstrong on compassion and LGBT advocate Ash Beckham on inclusion. “They give people something deep to think about,” she says.

Some argue these talks offer lightweight inspirational nuggets, which are usually viewed alone without the bonding presence of community, are consumed quickly and are easily forgotten. “TED Talks are full of nice ideas, but good ideas are worthless without resiliency and commitment,” writes doctoral student John Slattery on the Daily Theology website. “They fill us with good feelings without forcing us to interact with them in a serious style.”

In his book, Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, Robert Fuller, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Bradley University in Illinois, observes that many congregants “have little loyalty to their church’s theological traditions” and choose to “self-consciously supplement their church’s teachings by consuming books, articles or lectures that are decidedly non-theological.”

He bristles at the notion that spiritual seekers should be chided for this. “I don’t think anyone should be criticized for engaging in these small episodes of spiritual upliftment — and there’s nothing wrong with experiencing them alone,” he said in an interview. After all, he points out, “Buddhist teachings encourage us to ‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’”

And who’s to say that light can’t come from the glow of a TED Talk on a computer screen?

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.

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