Wellbeing Holidays

17 10 2008

Mysticism is mainstream, we all know that, but there are times when it really comes home with force. When I was in my teens there used to be an obscure little corner in the Belfast branch of Waterstones known as ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’. This backroom part of the bookshop hosted some scattered fragments of fuzzy thinking, reserved entirely for those who could be readily identified by their flowing skirts, long bead necklaces and braided hair (and that was just the male shoppers). Now Waterstones has a startling edifice of New Age literature spanning a long wall, with everything from the seemingly banal (10 Steps to Taking Your Next Ten Steps) to the brazenly dark and occultish. This is at least something of barometer of how popular such publications have become in a country not known for its open-mindedness.

The acceptability of New Age thinking was driven home for me with even greater force during this week as I listened to ‘Travellers Tree’ on Radio 4, hosted by Katie Derham. The focus this week was on ‘wellbeing holidays’, an increasing trend amongst British travellers to not merely read pulp fiction in Benidorm, but to truly get away from it all and refresh their bodies, minds and spirits in evocative locations.

The programme was exuberant in its approach to this phenomenon, with lively reports from listeners who had gone to discover themselves in retreat locations in the company of similarly disconnected strangers who wanted to find something higher than themselves. Such reports were punctuated by commentary from a ‘wellbeing holiday’ veteran, and cheesy soundbites from pundits and experts (‘behind every Thomas Cook brochure the spirit of pilgrimage is bubbling away’ one presumably sane man suggested).

A number of things struck me as I listened to the broadcast:

1. The practical truth of Paul’s teaching in Romans. ‘Claiming to be wise, they became fools’ is written all across the experiences of those reporting for the programme. Britain is a nation which speaks scornfully of all things Christian and biblical. Believers are routinely written off as naive dinosaurs at best, and brainwashed psychopaths at worst, with the standards of Scripture finding scant regard in popular discourse. What has replaced the Divine logic of belief in Christ is not a cold, hard-nosed intellectualism which will brook no sense of the transcendent or Divine, but a soft, saggy mysticism which makes a mockery of the dignity of being human. People are willing to spend considerable amounts of money to go on a retreat where ‘mentors’ invite them to wander into the woods and find a special tree, or allow their special tree to find them. Others spend their holidays seeking to relive the experiences of hunter-gatherers for a weekend, presumably without the routine bloodshed and uncouth sexual politics which such a lifestyle would have necessarily entailed (or perhaps not, who knows?!). Ask these same people to consider the claims of Jesus Christ, who verifiably lived, sacrificially died and undeniably rose from the dead and the response will be categorically negative.

2. The tragedy of modern materialism. People are ravenous for a higher reality, and will go to great lengths in their efforts to find it. This includes investing copious amounts of cash on seeking to elevate their souls using New Age methods. Such experiences, we are told, have a cleansing and clarifying effect, lifting the mundanity of modern urban existence for a least a limited period. How heartbreaking such sentiments are, how dislocated our communities have become, and how lonely and hopeless is our culture! Imagine Norma from Accounts sitting at her desk on Friday afternoon dreaming about getting away from the people with whom she shares relationless proximity in the office, so that she might enjoy intimacy with complete strangers on an island at tremendous financial cost. What a challenge to evangelicals to engage such people with a message which brings true joy, and communities of Christian who offer true warmth, friendship and acceptance.

3. The insufficiency of secular approaches to spreading the Gospel. The one sentiment which ‘Travellers Tree’ voiced repeatedly was the hunger within the hearts of people to experience the transcendent. How pathetic that in seeking to reach such people Christians have made mistake of downplaying the spiritual nature of coming to Christ, in favour of a lifestyle based marketing ethic which places becoming a Christian in the same intellectual/emotional category as joining a gym. Evangelicals serve a God who is utterly holy, utterly different, and yet imminently near through His Word preached plainly. In a world of famished souls we have all too often been found guilty of offering juice and biscuits while Satan furnishes the tables of unsaved men and women with a seemingly meaty menu.

We are living in a mystical world, among people who have become all too open to all that is ephemeral and hazy. We have the Truth, a message which comes with the power of the Holy Spirit, granting life, forgiveness and adoption. How we need to make Him known to a world which is glutting itself on the poisoned rations of New Age philosophy.

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