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Synchronicity Goes to Hollywood


Searching for a postmodern religion on the set of
The Celestine Prophecy: The Movie
by Ross Robertson
 

The ironies and complexities of spiritual life in America are with me as I snack on pretzel sticks and reread The Celestine Prophecy during a flight from Albany to Orlando. I'm on my way to a central Florida film set to meet James Redfield, author of the popular spiritual fable that first swept the nation a decade ago. Following years of pursuit by the film studios, he's finally making The Celestine Prophecy into a movie, and he invited us to come down to watch the action unfold. After a month of preparation for the trip, I've grown to like the book's characters: the rugged adventurer Wil; Marjorie, the scientist you always wish would be more of a coquette; the quiet, sturdy Father Sanchez. But more than that, I'm intrigued by the book's status as a cultural phenomenon, whose striking immensity can only be compared to, say, the Peruvian Andes.

Perhaps more than any other New Age franchise in recent memory, The Celestine Prophecy is known for provoking extreme responses. That is, people either love it or love to hate it. As Tom Butler-Bowdon, author of 50 Self-Help Classics, puts it, “The two most common reactions to it are 'It changed my life,' and 'This is utter trash.'” Admittedly, I once found myself in the second camp, though my position was based on ignorance rather than considered opinion—my grandmother gave me the book soon after it came out, but I never read it. I was an arrogant college student; I thought the New Age heralded the failure of Western civilization.

At the time, I assumed the unparalleled success of Redfield's novel signified another giant step down for spirituality on the slippery slope of pop culture. (I am a Gen-X'er, after all. I exhibit a tendency toward inflated criticism of the hypnotized American consumer while remaining blissfully undisturbed by my own participation in said consumption.) But now, whether or not it was a step down for spirituality, I wonder if it wasn't also a giant step up for pop culture. Never before had a spiritual book penetrated so deeply into the contemporary secular mainstream; never before had spirituality been so popular. The New Age was in its heyday, and the collected wisdom of the ages—from Buddha to Rumi to Redfield—was on display at just about any bookstore. I myself depended on this; I, too, followed the path of my own spiritual interest primarily via the spirituality section.

Now I'm the beneficiary of an opportunity millions of Celestine fans would envy—a rare firsthand peek at the next episode of this modern-day spiritual history-in-the-making. And if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that whatever I've heard so far, there must be a whole lot more to the story.

FROM PUBLISHING SENSATION TO THE SUNSET STRIP

Originally self-published in trade paperback in 1993 (Redfield distributed his first copies by hand, from the trunk of his car), within six months The Celestine Prophecy topped one hundred thousand in print, and soon Warner Books' hardcover edition would climb onto the New York Times bestseller list, there to stay for over three years. All told, nearly twelve million copies are in print worldwide, in more than forty languages, and combined sales of Redfield's books (including two sequels and a handful of others) add up to an extraordinary twenty million. What's more, the book sparked a nationwide proliferation of church discussion groups, classes in metaphysical bookstores, experiential seminars, “Your Celestine Journey” adventure treasure hunts—the list goes on. Now, it's continuing on its seemingly destined journey to a theater near you.

For Celestine Prophecy buffs everywhere, you'd be hard pressed to find a better piece of news. Yet the larger significance of its long-awaited leap to the silver screen has to do with the fact that this film represents more than itself—represents, in fact, an entire movement of pop spirituality that is rapidly becoming a social and cultural force in contemporary American life. It's a simple adventure story, really—the tale of an everyman (nameless in the book, dubbed “John Woodson” in the movie) who travels to Peru in search of an ancient manuscript containing nine insights into a new enlightened awareness, insights Redfield predicts humankind will progressively grasp “as we move from where we are now to a completely spiritual culture on Earth.” Along the way, Woodson has a series of serendipitous encounters with both friend and foe (seekers, scientists, and rebel priests determined to bring the teachings of the ancient scrolls to light; churchmen, government officials, and an international cartel hell-bent on destroying every last one of their potentially liberating pages) as he makes his way toward Machu Picchu and the climactic discovery of the Ninth Insight.

It's also a spiritual parable tracking the hero's inner journey—in this case, his discovery of a guiding intuition that manifests itself through synchronicities, or meaningful coincidences (two or more events that occur without either one having caused the other but whose relationship is significant beyond the possibilities of mere chance). “What I like about the story,” says actor Matthew Settle, who plays John Woodson in the film, “is the restoration of wonder to this person's life. John is kind of walking through life with a blasé, meaningless existence, just doesn't feel like he has a sense of purpose. And when he starts recognizing coincidences and trusting his uncertainty, he finds a new certainty in trusting a lack of certainty, you know? He finds confidence in life, confidence in a God-force, and gives himself over to this thing that would otherwise be scary territory. It's a walk in faith.”

Against the backdrop of our postmodern restlessness and the proverbial loss of meaning, this story of Woodson's walk in faith can be read as the story of a broad popular movement whose reach extends far beyond even the sizable Celestine domain. Take, for example, the inimitable Deepak Chopra (whose thirty-five books have also sold twenty million copies worldwide) and his recently released The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire: Harnessing the Infinite Power of Coincidence. Or self-empowerment guru Wayne Dyer's The Power of Intention: Learning to Co-create Your World Your Way, hot off the presses for 2004 (Dyer's count is twenty-one titles, thirty million sold). Then there's Paulo Coelho's classic, The Alchemist (1988), which stands in at a staggering twenty-seven million copies in fifty-six languages, and has the distinction of being Madonna's favorite book. Hovering on the fringes of this territory are dozens if not hundreds of authors—prominent among them Neale Donald Walsch and Richard Bach. Walsch is the author of the Conversations with God series (seven books, seven million copies), the first volume of which spent two and a half years on the New York Times bestseller list. And Bach's Illusions (1977), having sold fifteen million copies in twenty-seven years, is still going so strong that Hampton Roads Publishing just released a companion volume, the Messiah's Handbook, in August.

These are the megastars of a publishing trend that shows no signs of letting up. And, while the messages they're bearing to what must be at least fifty million seekers around the world are remarkably consistent, that's not the only thing they have in common. That's right, The Celestine Prophecy isn't the only secular spiritual parable headed for Tinseltown. In fact, Celestine producer Barnet Bain is taking on Illusions next, and Laurence Fishburne is currently working on the screenplay for The Alchemist, in which he will also star, along with Jeremy Irons and (you guessed it) Madonna. But The Celestine Prophecy will be the first to arrive, ushering in what very well might be a new era of New Age filmmaking in Hollywood.

“In the aftermath of a success like Mel Gibson's The Passion,” Bain says, “there's a newfound respect for the business potentials of an audience that cherishes religious or spiritual values. And when you have a preestablished brand that has as much equity in the culture as The Celestine Prophecy, that adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Illusions and The Alchemist would certainly be in a similar category. If you look back over the history of the New Age—about twenty or twenty-five years—there are only three, maybe four, novels that stand as credible fiction, and they're the ones we're talking about here. They're in the vanguard of exploring an emergent personal spiritual philosophy. These things are Rorschach tests.”

If The Celestine Prophecy: The Movie turns out to be anywhere near as successful as some in the industry predict, its spiritual themes will reach unprecedented flocks of cinemagoers—perhaps the biggest step yet toward attaining the critical mass Redfield and many others believe is necessary to trigger an evolutionary shift in the culture at large. (And you can bet that along with Illusions and The Alchemist, if all goes well, Redfield's sequels The Tenth Insight and The Secret of Shambhala won't be far behind.) Whether such a prospect inclines one more toward exhilaration or more toward uneasiness, it's enough to make us all pause to ask: Can pop spirituality save us?



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October–December 2004