The Secret: Uncovering the Truth About an Old Lie
By Rob Starner
The earth turns on its orbit for You.
The oceans ebb and flow for You.
The birds sing for You.
The sun rises and it sets for You.
The stars come out for You.
Would it surprise you if I told you we sang this in church last Sunday? It would be natural to understand the referent of these attributions of praise to be the One to whom we owe our life, our love, and our devotion.
Can I let you in on a secret? I did not copy the opening praise from a worship chorus. I copied it from the final paragraph of Rhonda Byrne’s recent best-selling book: The Secret.1 In her book, the recipient of these adulations is not God — at least not God as we know Him. The recipient of the worship is You.
Before we write this off as New Age nonsense that will fizzle of its own accord, we would do well to consider that: (1) The Secret presents itself innocuously as a self-help tutorial; (2) The Secret enjoys the endorsement of several influential people, including Oprah Winfrey and Larry King; (3) The Secret proclaims an alluring message; (4) many businesses are using The Secret in their employee motivational training; and, (5) many Christians in our churches lack a grounding in God’s Word that would enable them to easily discern truth from error.
In view of the magnitude of exposure The Secret has had, those in our churches who may have attended motivational seminars sponsored by their employers or who have read the book, need to know the dangers of The Secret’s teaching. They also need to know how to respond to their employers and fellow employees who might have questions about this motivational teaching. This calls for an informed, biblical response.
The Secret’s Success
What is the secret of The Secret’s success? The rapid and widespread impact of Byrne’s Secret derives from viral marketing techniques that utilize pre-existing social networks (businesses, Web sites, churches, and celebrities) to publicize the book. But these astute advertising venues are only partial answers. The real answer lies in a brilliant marketing strategy: choosing a compelling title, and appealing to a universally perceived need.
The title, The Secret, functions as a powerful, double-edged sword. It empowers both the author and the reader. Knowing information that others do not know generates feelings of superiority and power. Besides, people have an innate need to be part of a group, especially an in-the-know group. The rhetorical power of this information exchange derives from the fact each of these cravings capitalizes on the other. Thus, we have a method of information exchange in which both author and reader are paid for their part of the transaction. The reader (who knows the secret) has opportunity to become an empowered transmitter of knowledge in a limitless number of future transactions. All this makes an incredibly compelling market strategy that has yielded astounding sales.
While provocative titles sell books, only convincing arguments make committed disciples. Readers want to know: What’s in it for me? Why is this secret worth knowing? The promotional teasers offer insight: “Without exception, every human being has the ability to transform any weakness or suffering into strength, power, perfect peace, health, and abundance. … The Secret explains with simplicity the law that is governing all lives, and offers the knowledge of how to create — intentionally and effortlessly — a joyful life. … This is the secret to life.”2
The news The Secret promises to deliver is ostensibly good news: “life-transforming”; “untapped power”; “how you can have, be, or do anything you want”; “[bringing] joy to every aspect of your life”; “eradicating disease”; “acquiring massive wealth”; and “achieving … [the] impossible.”3 These claims address the universal problem of humanity’s deep sense of weakness and concomitant desire for autonomy. The solution Byrne offers, however, is akin to putting a band-aid on a severed limb.
Where does God fit in all of this? Since people have a deep sense of weakness and a belief in a Higher Power, the quest to find and understand this Higher Power is sensible, if only for pragmatic reasons. The Secret reflects one such quest. Although Byrne has marketed this book as the latest and greatest (she refers to its theme as “The Secret to life”) of the self-help genre,4 this work belongs in the religious category because it clearly promotes a religious ideology. Thus, a careful comparison of the book’s contents with its title and packaging reveals that what its readers see is not what they get. And what readers get is not a newly discovered truth, but a repackaged, long-standing lie.5
The Secret’s Sources
Byrne admits indebtedness to numerous sources. Unfortunately, she is often not forthright in her identification and use of specific sources.6 Particularly problematic are her unsupported assertions that numerous world-renowned people from many walks of life have delivered the secret in their poetry, music, paintings, and philosophies.7 Nevertheless, in spite of Byrne’s disingenuous handling of source material, The Secret bears recognizable affinities with various overlapping theological perspectives that extend as far back as the Garden of Eden: Word-Faith theology, New Age thought, Christian Science, New Thought, theological liberalism, Eastern Religions, Gnosticism, Hermetic traditions, and what we might best label as serpent theology. A brief comparison of the major tenets of liberalism with the worldview presented in The Secret reveals several lines of defense Christians can use in combating the influence of this false teaching.8
Byrne and Liberalism: To Infinity and Beyond
The secret religion Byrne offers shares several theological postulates with classical liberalism. The parallels between these hetero-gospels9 are striking: both are human-centered; put confidence in humanity’s ability to discover the Divine; appeal to science; emphasize feeling; and are concerned with human perfectibility. In spite of these parallels, however, Byrne’s approach often stretches these shared notions to the limits of credulity.
First, even though the approaches of liberalism and Byrne are both man-centered, they do not have identical men in the center: For liberalism, mankind stands at the center; for Byrne, each person stands (alone) at the center of his universe. An unspoken corollary of this paradigm is that people (other than yourself) have significance only in that they happen to be objects in your universe over which you are master. A second unspoken corollary is that in your neighbor’s universe, you are merely an object over which he is master. Both of these corollaries presuppose as many universes as people, and that every person is an object in an infinite number of universes.
Second, although Byrne and liberalism put confidence in humanity’s ability to discover God/Universe, both the map they trust to show the way and the vehicle they trust to take them there, differ significantly. Liberalism uses the Bible as its map and scientific and historical inquiry as its vehicle. Byrne’s approach takes a much more skeptical view of the Bible than does liberalism. For her, the Bible is merely one among many more or less valuable maps. As for the vehicle, since you are at once Alpha and Omega, the starting point and the destination coincide, so you do not need a vehicle.
Third, liberalism and Byrne appeal to science, but to different ends. Liberalism appeals to science and reason to separate fact from what its faulty presuppositions had relegated to myth in the Bible. Byrne appeals to science to prove the law of attraction. Unfortunately, the authorities she cites have spurious credentials, and she bases her case on a radically decontextualized misinterpretation of the principle from quantum theory that “the observer determines the outcome.” In quantum physics, this expression means that the physical (not psychical) act of observation interferes with the outcome. With no legitimate justification, Byrne takes the expression to mean your thoughts determine the outcome and argues that quantum physics teaches the law of attraction.
Fourth, liberalism and Byrne emphasize feeling, but, again, we must make an important distinction. For liberalism, feeling is not concerned with sensation, whether we are happy, sad, or angry. Instead, it involves a deep awareness of the nearness of God — I in God, God in me, God in everything.10 Byrne generously offers both nuances on the religious smorgasbord she presents in The Secret.
Fifth, religious liberals believe that every day, and in every way, society is becoming better. This expectant, self-confident, self-sufficient worldview reaches into every portal of society. Even in the field of psychology, humanity is touted as having the ability to heal its own disorders. In 1910, French pharmacist and psychologist émile Coué founded a method of psychotherapy based on autosuggestion. He taught his patients to repeat in mantra-like fashion: “Every day, and in every way, I am becoming better and better.”11 Those who read The Secret should note the striking parallels this self-reliant, psychological pep talk has to the therapies Byrne suggests.
In this discussion, I have not said one word about sin. That is because Byrne never mentions the concept. To understand the secret, Byrne consistently urges us to look to ourselves. Why is looking inside ourselves an effective strategy for Byrne? She tells us: “You are God in a physical body. … You are all power. You are all wisdom. You are all intelligence. You are perfection. You are magnificence. You are the master of the universe.”12
Sin is not a part of this pseudo-world. But we must mention sin because it is an indispensable constituent of the real world. Sin made knowledge of God an inaccessible secret. But God refused to hide in secrecy. Instead, He poured himself out in revelation. In the Bible, God is letting humanity in on the biggest secret of all time.
Instead of looking to Adam, we must look to Jesus Christ. The first Adam failed in his charge to point us to God — as did all of his descendents, both individually and collectively. Only the second Adam — Jesus Christ, the God-man — can lead us to God.
The direction of approach is telling. In our quest for God, we discover that He has been pursuing us all along. How does He get our attention? He recognizes our weakness and offers us His strength — with one catch: We must use it His way, never for exalting ourselves, but for serving others. Thus, knowledge of God comes through relationship with His Son, Jesus. Believers both objectively witness (Scripture) and subjectively experience this relationship (Christ indwelling the believer). Instead of worshiping ourselves or retreating into a pseudo-cosmos in which we are master of the universe, we need to lose ourselves. For only in self-denial do we find true empowerment and satisfaction (Matthew 16:24 and parallels).
Byrne, on the other hand, urges us to find ourselves. The Secret projects health, wealth, and happiness as a human entitlement. Readers are encouraged to create feelings of happiness by thinking happy thoughts. Beyond Byrne’s expressed desire that everyone know the secret, her overwhelming emphasis is on what the secret can do for the person who knows it.
The book enlists numerous testimonials claiming this esoteric knowledge is the source of the person’s dramatically improved health, wealth, or happiness. This message resonates with prosperity theology. The parallels are striking and instructive.13
Byrne’s understanding of God is seen nowhere more clearly than in the definition she offers in the summary of chapter one: “The Great Secret of Life is the law of attraction.” By law of attraction, Byrne means that your thoughts have a frequency that they send out to the universe; the thoughts magnetically attract like thoughts and bring them back to you. The good news is that by knowing this Secret, you can begin to attract positive circumstances into your life by sending positive thoughts out into the universe. You name it. You claim it. Your thoughts — and only your thoughts — are the limit. Whatever you think about, you can bring about. You are the master of your own destiny.
The bad news is that you — and you alone — are completely responsible for the bad things that happen in your life. One purveyor of the Secret addresses this. Here is his conclusion:
“You are going to immediately say, ‘I didn’t attract the car accident. … ’ I am here to be a little bit in your face and to say, ‘Yes, you did attract it.’ This is one of the hardest concepts to get, but once you have accepted it, it is life transforming.”14
Now watch how he addresses naysayers:
“You have a choice right now. … Do you want to believe … that you have no control over circumstances? Or, do you want to believe and know that your life experience is in your hands and that only all good can come into your life because that is the way you think? You have a choice, and whatever you choose to think will become your life experience. Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thoughts.”15
Many things need to be said about these citations. Let me mention two or three. First, the capitalization of “The Great Secret of Life” hints at personhood, but the law of attraction is life-less; it has power, but zero volition. It is simply at the disposal of the user. It can make not a single demand regarding its use — whether for moral or immoral purposes. It bears no judge’s gavel. I can use it for whatever purpose I deem appropriate. That is good because in this pseudo-cosmos, I am god.
Someone might counter, “But you cannot use it to hurt people because that would be immoral.” In whose judgment? The point is that in an impurely fabricated, person-centered universe, where other people are merely objects in the universe (also at the disposal of the master) and the person is god, not a single action of this god (namely you) can be called into question. This grants you instant autonomy.
The geographical problem is that this is a pseudo-cosmos. It is a logical impossibility. It demands as many universes as people. It requires a single person to be a myriad of different individuals in everyone else’s universe. The moral problem is that it obliterates the distinction between right and wrong. People judge everything from this god’s perspective. Were everyone to become Secret disciples, the moral situation in the real world would be this: Everyone does what is “right in his own eyes.” The true God has already addressed this issue (Judges 17:6; 21:25; Proverbs 21:2, KJV). People may choose to live in a pseudo-world, but that will not alter the fact the only true God will judge their actions and motivations in the real world. Like Belshazzar of old, they will be “weighed in the balances, and … found wanting” (Daniel 5:27, KJV).
Second, these citations address one’s notion of powerlessness with the implicit promise of giving the convert control over life — the desire to be God with no restraints, no conditions, and with absolute autonomy. Sadly, even Christians carry this carnal impulse until they receive their full sanctification at death or when Christ returns for His church. The apostle Paul urged us to: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5,6).
Paul gives these injunctions in the context of community. In the real world, we are all part of one universe. Our actions have moral implications in terms of how they affect our neighbors. The true God has defined what is moral and immoral, and the consequences of each path.
Finally, this law-of-attraction principle functions in much the same way as the faith principle of Word-Faith theology. Word-Faith theology claims this faith principle works for unbelievers as well as believers. The Secret outdoes this in two ways: (1) it extends the power to the thoughts, not merely verbal confession; and (2) it excludes the Christian God from the equation.
Byrne’s belief that you are the master of the universe takes liberalism’s affirmation of the imminence of God and stretches it to the most extreme view imaginable: God is not merely in you; you are not merely in God; you are God Almighty. You determine not merely your future, but the future. You not only call the shots, you make the call. Nothing is right or wrong until you declare it so.
On careful reading, the only secret we discover is that The Secret is not what it appears to be at first. It is not a self-help collection of tips for success in life;17 it is, in fact, an altar call. It is an invitation to accept yourself as Lord and Savior.
This new secret sounds remarkably like the old lie presented to Adam and Eve — and an alarming number of their descendents. Thus, we must conclude that the overall theological system endorsed by The Secret is fundamentally incompatible with historic Christianity. The themes in The Secret are not merely decorative hood ornaments to a Christian theology; they are the engine that drives the pagan bus.
The most insidiously pernicious lie tendered by The Secret may well be its naive, amusement-park approach to life. It operates in a pseudo-world, where people leisurely amble through the attractions, eat popcorn, and enjoy the rides. But in the real world what happens when the ride a person believes will give him ultimate pleasure and satisfaction is permanently closed to him, leaving him without hope of ever experiencing the satisfaction that it alone can bring? If you answered, “He leaves the park,” you are correct. Every 16 minutes someone in this country tragically makes the conscious decision to leave the park forever.16 Last year a pastors son close to me tragically made the conscious decision to do so. I believe the distorted worldview presented in The Secret is partly responsible. As pastors, we must seek to dismantle this faulty construct in evangelizing, preaching, teaching, and counseling.
Pastors must present a biblical worldview because it offers something of far deeper import than pleasure. A biblical worldview offers meaning and purpose. It shows us that we can only find true satisfaction and joy in a relationship with God and wholesome relationships with people.
People need a theology that is not shaken by the tragedies of life. This theology can only be found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the worldview reflected in the Bible. Nothing in The Secret offers this kind of hope.
God created the cosmos as an arena in which I could learn about Him. Experiencing God’s comforting presence and His delivering power in the buffeting storms of life brings awareness that God did not design this world as my final destination. It brings the confident expectation that He has a much better place prepared for me — and for all who put their trust in Him.
1. Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (New York: Atria Books, 2006).
2. From The Secret homepage at http://www.thesecret.tv (accessed February 27, 2008).
3. Byrne, The Secret. These promises are found on the front flap and back of the dust jacket.
4. Byrne, The Secret, p. ix. Capitalization in the original is as cited. This expression suggests not merely one among many secrets to life, but the secret to life.
5. For thorough critiques from a sound, biblical perspective, see James L. Garlow and Rick Marschall, The Secret Revealed: Exposing the Truth About the Law of Attraction (New York: FaithWords, 2007) and James K. Walker and Bob Waldrep, The Truth Behind the Secret: A Reasoned Response to the Runaway Bestseller (Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House Publishers, 2007). These works document numerous instances of statements taken out of context or fabricated to bolster support for particular assertions. Walker and Waldrop do a laudable job of critiquing Byrne’s mishandling of quantum physics. Garlow and Marschall primarily object to the “dishonest nature of the book” (p.239). For an approach that focuses on the underlying need that The Secret addresses (albeit wrongly), see Ed Gungor, There Is More to the Secret (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2007).
6. Readers should find it disingenuous that although Byrne acknowledges Jerry and Esther Hicks in a list of those she thanks for their inspirational teachings, she fails to mention that the Hickses have been teaching “the secret” for more than 20 years and that their material was a significant part of the original DVD version of The Secret (for which the Hickses received half a million dollars in royalties). Readers need to note that Byrne edited the Hickses out of the extended version DVD and, apart from a single reference in the aforementioned list, the Hickses are entirely absent from the book. Even though the Hickses credit Abraham as the source of their teaching, knowing a collection of nonphysical entities through whom they have channeled this information may help readers determine the truth. For more on this, see Walker and Waldrep, The Truth Behind the Secret, 27–39.
7. Byrne, The Secret, 4.
8. For excellent discussions on the influences of some of the more specific sources mentioned in this list, see Garlow and Marschall, The Secret Revealed, 215–41. For the similarities with Word-Faith, see my article, “Prosperity Theology,” in The Encyclopedia of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, ed. Stanley Burgess (New York: Routledge, 2006).
9. Paul uses the adjective-noun configuration (heteron evangelion — another gospel of a different kind) to describe the religion of the Judaizers (Galatians 1:6). No sooner are the words out of his mouth than he realizes he has just used the term evangelion (meaning good news) to describe this man-centered approach to God. To repair this, Paul immediately inserts a corrective statement, “which is not allo” (another [one] of the same kind, verse 7). In this clause, Paul uses the adjectiveallo (another [one, thing, matter] of the same kind) as a noun substitute to avoid using even one more time the term, (evangelion), to describe the false one (referencing the religion of the Judaizers without reapplying the term good news. The grammar and syntax of this sentence suggest that Paul is saying: “When we compare the truly good news with the religion offered by the Judaizers, we are not comparing apples with apples. The former is an instrument of edification and life; the latter an instrument of destruction and death.” Paul felt that the religion taught by the Judaizers was so utterly incompatible with the gospel revealed to him by the resurrected and glorified Christ that he could not with forethought bring himself to describe that system as good news. To offer a synopsis of the Judaizers is beyond the scope of this article, but we need to note that it was as man-centered as the religious views offered in The Secret.
10. The equation of religion with feeling traces to Friedrich Schleiermacher. For a discussion on this, see Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 39–62.
11. Encyclopedia Britannica Online at http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9026549/Emile-Coue (accessed February 27, 2008). I find no particular fault with the words themselves. But it seems clear that the idea behind them was I am making myself better and better by repeating this mantra, not I am becoming better and better because I am surrendering myself to the Holy Spirit’s work in my life.
12. Byrne, The Secret, 164,183.
13. For a fuller treatment of this aspect, see my article, “Prosperity Theology,” in The Encyclopedia of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, ed. Stanley Burgess (New York: Routledge, 2006).
14. Byrne, The Secret, 27,28. Italics original.
15. Ibid., 28.
16. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “Facts and Figures National Statistics,” http://www.afsp.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.viewpage&page_id=050FEA9F-B064-4092-B1135C3A70DE1FDA (accessed March 4, 2008).
17. I am not minimizing the value of self-help books. I am merely suggesting that promoters of The Secret, knowingly or unknowingly, are using the book’s affinities with the self-help genre for substantial marketing gains.