Beliefnet, that bastion of complex and nuanced writing on all things religious, was hit with a plagiarism scandal this week. To start off the new year, this repository of the hardest hitting coverage of the religious milieu was forced to shut down the blog of Neale Donald Walsch. The longtime contributor it seems managed to lift, verbatim, a story about a Christmas Concert where one of the children mistakenly held a letter upside down, turning “CHRISTMAS LOVE” into “CHRISTWAS LOVE.” Isn’t it heartwarming? The problem was, Walsch told the story as if it was his own son’s classmates in the story. It wasn’t. Candy Chand, a different author completely, had originally penned the words over a decade before. The story was in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. Candy Chand was not amused, nor should she be. Walsch, hardly the first to find himself publically chastised for the sin of stealing others’ work, posted the most unbelievable mea culpa I’ve ever read. Shortly after, Beliefnet announced that his blog was no more. Excuse me, his “blogsite.” That’s what he called it. He also called it a “blogspace.” Neale Donald Walsch is not a very good writer. That should be evident from the fact he plagiarized, though if you’d ever slogged through anything he’d actually written you’d not need plagiarism to seal the conviction. This is a man who, just before the mea culpa posted this gem:
You are an Individuation of Deity, a singularization of The Singularity, an aspect of Divinity. You are the Localized Expression of the Universal Presence… You are God… You are in the Realm of the Physical — what has also been called the Realm of the Relative…which is where Experiencing occurs.
Let us put aside for the moment that ‘singularization’ is not, I think, a word. What in the name of all that is holy does anything in that collection of words mean? This is where Experiencing occurs? Experience now apparently requires an extra suffix and a capitalized first letter, because I must assume that experience is a holy act we don’t do enough of. We must reorient ourselves to the reality that we are God. We are not God. Let’s put a stop to this right now. I am not God. You are not God. Walsch is not God. None of us are God. There are any number of religions that profess creation is a physical (and metaphysical) extension of God, and that we are thus manifested aspects of the divine, but that is a very long way away from saying that you are God. Because, and let me be clear about this, you aren’t. Not. Even. Close. Unfortunately, our religious discourse has been cheapened to the point of absurdity by the likes of Walsch and others. They’ve turned it into a steady stream of feel good platitudes and New Age bullshit. They’ve turned it into the ultimate self-help scam, wherein turning oneself over to the Lord can bring you riches, weight loss, and eternal salvation to boot. Jews get in on this too. We build synagogues that rival megachurches, and then we hold yoga classes in them. Yoga classes. Yoga! It’s easy to forget, in this time of yoga ubiquity, that yoga originated from the meditation and mystical traditions of Indian Hinduism. It wasn’t meant to be divorced from its larger tradition so we could exercise without shvitzing. To know this would require some knowledge of religion beyond what Madonna and her red-string clad wrist is selling you. But forget about the religious underpinnings of yoga. Forget about the deep study and incredible commitment required from Kabbalistic meditations. Religion light is the way to chill. Beliefnet has, for its Jewish audience, a little slideshow. It’s called “10 Simple Soul Exercises” and it’s written by Rabbi Brian. Rabbi Brian has a last name. It’s Mayer. Rabbi Brian apparently doesn’t like his last name much. Or maybe he just thinks you’ll like him better and feel more comfortable if he goes by Rabbi Brian. He’s written a book he’d like you to buy. It’s called “How to Find Out What (The) God (Of Your Understanding) Wants from You,” a title so hubristically inane as to boggle the mind. Rabbi Brian’s slideshow includes this gem: “Spend Time ‘Not Doing.’” Rabbi Brian just stole Buddhist philosophy and distilled it onto a fortune cookie. And this being spiritual commerce, that fortune cookie will be coming to a Chinese restaurant near you just in time for next Hanukkah. Nobody should be surprised that Beliefnet got bit on the ass by a writer playing fast and loose with reality. This is a site largely predicated on the most saccharine religious syrup imaginable. Therein the reality and complex traditions of religious communities and their sacred texts are nothing compared to spirituality that’ll make you feel oh so tingly. Their tagline is “Inspiration. Spirituality. Faith. Religion.” That order is telling, and all of it is a convenient stand-in for actual religious devotion. All of this, all of Beliefnet’s inanity and all of the spiritual tokenism that extends well beyond their digital borders, boils down to the single pompous conceit we’re all guilty of from time to time. We want it easy, and we want it to be about us. We don’t want God. We want (The) God (Of Our Understanding). We don’t want serious meditation and devotion. We want yoga classes. When all else fails, we want to actually be God, or the Individuation of Deity. May I just say, God called. He says you can blow him. You want to have a serious discussion about religion, let’s talk about perennial philosophy, it’s failings and its strengths, and how we might apply it in cross-cultural dialogue. God knows we could use some of that dialogue, but I seriously doubt any of the authors I’ve mentioned in this post have a substantive understanding of what perennialism is. I would be in no way surprised if most or all of them required a dictionary to define the term. Religion is supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to require sacrifice. It’s supposed to require scholarship. Judaism certainly does, and we deserve more than Rabbi Brian’s shilling. We deserve better than Beliefnet’s vapid offerings. Thankfully we can have them, but we’re swimming up a tide of popular culture obsessed with immediate gratification, even from God. Beliefnet is guilty of hubris, pride, and a few other sins. It’s not a surprise they’ve also been caught stealing. Now what are they going to do about it?