Off the cuff is a feature in which we pose a question to a handful of leading thinkers and ask for a brief response. Our question this week is about practices of spirituality and the way they are covered in the mainstream press.

In last week’s New York Times Sunday Styles section, Allen Salkin reported on the emergence of a “new wave” of spiritual practices and identities among young, urban, professional women. Profiling women in their twenties and thirties who have become devotees of this new approach to spirituality—“a hodge-podge of philosophies” comprising themes derived from self-help literature, meditational practices, holistic nutrition and dieting, and positive thinking—Salkin’s article plots a supposed shift in the sensibilities and lifestyles of “New York’s former Carrie Bradshaws,” women who have gone from chasing after “high-heels and pink drinks at rooftop bars” to becoming “well versed in self-help and New Age spirituality.” Equipped with this new outlook, Salkin reports, these young women—gurus, as they’re affectionately referred to—then preach their stories of self-transformation in order to guide other young women, who “swear by—and even emulate—them.”

What are we to make of this portrait of the self-styled leaders of “a new generation of self-empowerment”? Are the forms of spiritual practice and self-understanding that Salkin describes indicative of a novel transformation of American spirituality? Or does his article perhaps say more about the way such topics are reported on by the mainstream press (and even by the New York Times in particular)?

Our respondents are:

Courtney Bender, Associate Professor of Religion, Columbia University

Rev. Donna Schaper, Senior Minister, Judson Memorial Church

Elizabeth McAlister, Associate Professor of Religion, Wesleyan University

Mara E. Donaldson, Professor of Religion, Dickinson College

Melani McAlister, Associate Professor of American Studies and International Affairs, George Washington University

Michele Dillon, Professor of Sociology, University of New Hampshire

Carl Raschke, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Denver

Kathryn Lofton, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies, Yale University


BenderCourtney Bender, Associate Professor of Religion, Columbia University

Salkin’s article on the “new gurus” is easy for a serious person to overlook. It presents no evidence (or even reason to expect there might be evidence) for a growing interest in the (old) kinds of spiritual energies that have long attracted, numerous Americans. Rather, it reproduces a well worn portrait, equal parts seedy and tantalizing (perhaps like the cocktail recipes on the following page). In short: bleached-blonde women with money to spend, healthy-minded and healthy skinned, are helping others like them to manifest boyfriends and book contracts. And they call it spiritual.

If a serious person might get bogged down in the details, she might nevertheless consider how the Times‘s representations of “spirituality” appear like clockwork in the style and travel sections, and create fugal counterpoints to its more “serious” reporting on American religion. On the same day that the Times ran Salkin’s new guru story it also ran a long piece on prayer in the Magazine. The author, a non-praying Jew, is shocked at the state of American prayer. Christians are chanting like Hindus, Jews have figured out how to daven after anonymous sex, non-denominational consultants teach techniques where, for a fee, even an agnostic like him can find inner peace. Spooked and concerned, he finally finds refuge in a small mountain church in West Virginia where children pray without fancy tools, techniques, schools, coaches or training. His anxieties are relieved: there is still some real religion out there, far from the urban and urbane realms of religious hybridity and “interfaith” prayers.

In both stories religious mixing and “hodge podge” is the marker of lack of seriousness—religious and human. Once money enters the picture in a form of exchange for services or advice, the charge is sealed. But a serious reader might wonder whose world is the stranger one. Maybe a better question would be this this: why are journalists surprised and shocked by all this mixing? Or, what better, more interesting stories of American religion would take shape if journalists could get beyond telling us about their surprise at American religion’s complex, mixed, hybrid forms?

The question is not merely rhetorical, nor is it naïve, given that we can see precisely what a narrative of mixing makes possible in a piece like Salkin’s. Having taken the time to follow Salkin’s links and read about all the young women he mentions, I think it is pretty clear that the “new gurus” are much less a group than Salkin reports. The women in his story do not hang out, nor do they share purposes, techniques or visions of spiritual life. They are more dissimilar than similar. And while they might be religious borrowers or self-styled spiritual authorities, they draw on distinct sources and traditions as they do so. Their practices have different logics. There might in fact be an interesting story or two here, about what young women are doing in the world of religion and spiritual pursuits. But instead, their desires and powers are flattened out, gently nestled in the nonserious space of cocktail parties and wedding announcements. Are they serious? Probably so. Are they important to know about? Maybe. But we’ll have to find a different way to talk about religion in America in order to find out.

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Rev. Donna SchaperRev. Donna Schaper, Senior Minister, Judson Memorial Church

At age 62 and the veteran of many “new” movements in American spirituality, I was both amused and excited by the new packaging of the old American pragmatism. “Self-empowerment” is such an all-American phrase that it ought to wear a flag. Self-help is as old as Ben Franklin. Having cited the deeper strains in the newest claim to be new, those of pragmatism and self-help, let me applaud anything women (or anyone) can do to swim against the currents of obligation, capitalism, “deserving health care” (as immigrants apparently do not) and the punishmentalist so-called religion of the increasingly mean right. Fight these strains with all your heart! It is especially delightful to enjoy the eroticism of younger women put to the service of claiming themselves, their beauty, style, and fun. That will really perturb the punishmentalists. Go for it.

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Elizabeth McAlisterElizabeth McAlister, Associate Professor of Religion, Wesleyan University

The current trend of (middle-class white) women pursuing self-realization is not a bit new; it belongs on a long arc that reaches back through the New Age Movement, the Human Potential Movement, Hippies, New Thought, Spiritualism and other strands of American religious history. What is new is the combination of women as leaders, entrepreneurship, and the new media that women use to produce and consume “the spiritual.” Just like established religious leaders, these spiritual life coaches are becoming players in the religious niche marketing that the American system creates. It can be high-tech, through websites, Skype, and ‘webinars.’ Insofar as they run women-owned businesses, it’s women who are making the money this time.

These eclectic coaches, with their message of self-consciousness and self-determination, are produced by and are responding to the present era of tremendous contradictions in global capitalism. The thought and practices they teach are an attempt to resolve the tensions of this period—let’s call it late modernity or even post-modernity—where there is no longer (in secular circles) a coherent sense of history and of our place in it, where there is little or no trust in government, where the economic system increasingly widens the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, where people live close together but not in community, and where there is a tremendous capacity for (consumer) choice but little depth of meaning.

We could go so far as to say that the coaches (like their male counterparts, after all), are mystifying these structural conditions insofar as they focus mainly on individuals, and tend to proffer the idea of personal responsibility for, and therefore control over, one’s entire past and future. They do help other women create meaning, purpose, self-love, freedom, a little peace of mind. But aren’t the interests of global capital committed to engendering us as individuals who seek satisfaction in a rich interior life—so we can get back out there each morning and keep working? Just as we yearn for the latest products on the market, we become individual searchers on a private journey—echoing the country’s majority Protestantism—always wanting more, forever seeking endless transformation.

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Mara DonaldsonMara E. Donaldson, Professor of Religion, Dickinson College

I was glad to see Salkin’s article in the New York Times Magazine, and I shared it with several of my colleagues. There were some things I liked, several I thought were misleading, and other things that troubled me.

First, I liked the visibility of having an essay on women’s spirituality in a mainstream press. The discussion of successful, urban women in their late twenties and early thirties becoming concerned with careers, relationships and spirituality highlights a trend that has its roots, not just in 19th century positive thinking movements, but in patterns of spirituality since the 60s. These women are interested in their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. They encourage each other in small groups to think holistically about their lives. The article does a good job of illustrating the range of this concern.

I found two things misleading. The first I have mentioned. This is not a new phenomenon. Interest in holistic health—in mind, body and spirit—has long been on the spiritual scene (e.g, Thomas Moore, Deepak Chopra and others) in the United States. Nor is it only New Age. I see this as an extension of interest in women’s spirituality from the sixties when feminists (Daly, Ruether) criticized Christianity, for example, for separating mind and body in traditional theology. Alongside the feminist critique were women who were recovering Goddess traditions (e.g. Carol Christ and Nelle Norton) as a way of understanding the feminine. Finally, the article shows the increasing interest in alternative approaches to health.

So, what concerns me? The cartoon or picture that heads the article seems a parody of the article itself. It’s as if the Times did not quite know what to make of this phenomenon. More troubling, however, is the emphasis on the individual. The article makes it appear that the end result of life coaching is solving individual problems, like finding a man. There’s much more to holistic approaches to spirituality than that. In fact, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, mentioned in the article, is a good example of what I am talking about. Yes, Gilbert’s quest begins as a result of a major life crisis and yes, she learns to love herself (and she gets her man), she includes at the end of her book a list of all the people who contributed to building a house in Bali for a woman who needed one. The physical, emotional, and spiritual healing that Gilbert describes includes helping others. I suspect (hope) that the women that Bernstein, Carr, Macaluso-Gilmore and others coach go on to help others as well—those who do not have the same access to the small groups, private sessions, or self-help books.

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Melani McAlisterMelani McAlister, Associate Professor of American Studies and International Affairs, George Washington University

Sometimes the line between reporting and performative speech gets blurry indeed. Although women looking inward for self-discovery is hardly novel, the Times has found a way to transform a few interviews into proof of a “new wave.” (This, unfortunately, is also not a particularly novel habit.)

Yet what is this remarkable new trend, exactly? Is it women reading and writing self-help books? Going to yoga classes? Going on diets?

It’s not that I don’t think there is something worth watching here: how next generations, new contexts, and changing political values affect spirituality and/or religion is always fascinating. But these kinds of newsy updates ought to invite us to serious skepticism about the provenance of those who sell themselves as 21st-century Athenas sprung from the head of a Higher Power. What is actually new here, and what is simply being marketed as “new? The long and checkered history of spiritual innovation and syncretic enthusiasms is necessarily elided amongst these urban prophets. You don’t sell books, after all, by offering “the spirituality of the 1890s—plus yoga outfits!”

I’m also interested in the racial politics of this spirited amnesia. None of these (mostly white?) 20-somethings (or the reporter) have apparently even heard of the spirituality movements that have animated African American women’s culture for several decades. Womanist prose, anybody? And, umm, maybe a woman named Oprah?

The very fact that “Spiritual Cowgirl” seems to be gleefully channeling the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes of her younger years says something about the way that these self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” are building on entrenched pop culture institutions. (Everything I need to know, I learned from After School Specials.) The web provides significant additions to the meditations menu, but I’m not sure if it transforms Chicken Soup, or just transfers it to another pot. (Several scholars are doing some really interesting thinking about this, including the folks at the Center for Religion and Media at NYU.)

The most compelling moment in the article comes when the director of the New York Open Center, who “has been offering classes on self-transformation for 25 years,” says that he sees more younger women signing up for classes in meditation, shamanism, etc. They started from yoga, he says, and are now moving on to more complex forms of spirituality. This provides another moment where we might pause to think about the influence of the (recent) past on the changing practices of the present: yoga has become a major cultural and spiritual institution in the US over the last 2 decades, but maybe it is seeing a decline in numbers. And maybe some younger people are re-structuring their investments, moving from one set of practices to embrace others. Perhaps entrepreneurial Indian Americans (several of whom are quoted) are bringing Ayurvedic medicine to the masses. Maybe. From this piece, it’s hard to know.

What we do know is this: a few women in New York turned thirty, and decided to drink less and think more about meaning-making in their lives. That’s not new or revolutionary or even very surprising. Then again, it’s also probably not a bad idea.

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Michele DillonMichele Dillon, Professor of Sociology, University of New Hampshire

It would be easy to criticize the new wave of self-improvement and life-coaching spirituality discussed in the recent New York Times article, tellingly placed in the newspaper’s Style section. Spirituality is a word used loosely today and lacks consensual meaning. The current high demand for self-help tools supplied by entrepreneurial spiritual gurus suggests that there are many individuals, women especially, who are “searching for guidance [and] looking for something […] that makes life easier to deal with.” The danger is that if these women simply “tap into their spirituality [and] start listening to themselves” as the gurus advise, they may not find too much within selves already depleted by a hectic and tumultuous lifestyle. Research suggests that spirituality “works” best—i.e., nurtures meaning, personal growth, and concern for others—when it involves a commitment to some transcendent source and systematic practices that enable the individuals to rethink their lifestyle choices.

Nevertheless, the evidence of a spiritual hunger across the US cannot be dismissed lightly. A growing proportion of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and spiritual needs are increasingly being met in small groups headed by charismatic leaders. Who is to say that the life-coaching spiritual activities currently attractive to cosmopolitan New York women might not stick? The increasing number of young Americans raised with no religious affiliation need something to anchor them amidst the fluidity of our times. If some can manage to spend two hours a week with a spiritual guru or doing yoga or meditation, or whatever disciplined practice they might choose (becoming vegetarian), perhaps it will help them become more centered, and as has always been true of American religion, enable them to meaningfully integrate spirituality into everyday life.

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Carl RaschkeCarl Raschke, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Denver

It has been said that American self-help philosophies, along with the best-selling authors that promote them and the usually professional men and women who buy into them, are even “more American than apple pie.” The phenomenon traces all the way back to Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, and is re-invented and re-incarnated in a slightly different format, virtually every generation. New personalities (predominantly female), new formulas, new gurus, new lingo every quarter century or so; but the themes and emphases remain the same: taking care of both body and soul, with a heavy emphasis on the quest for self-discovery, will make you, as Franklin said, “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” The forms of spiritual practice and self-understanding Salkin describes are largely an update of the New Age craze in the mid-1980s, the last time this particular wave crested. The millennial generation is simply trying on some vintage therapeutic hand-me-downs from the aging boomers with a few new twists. “Life coaching” is simply the buzzword du jour for what used to be called “spiritual counseling” by a New Age guru. In their grandmothers’ generation it was termed “the power of positive thinking.” These developments are not necessarily concocted by perpetually trend-starved reporters, looking to pump up the 24/7 news cycle. But the press routinely “discovers” this phenomenon, because it lacks any sense of history, or even relatively recent historical memory. The positive thinkers usually take flight in American culture when the romance of youth is waning, and generational discouragement is starting to set in. Now that the Obama administration, installed in office by the “change generation,” has fallen back to earth, the same spiritual swallows seem to be returning to Capistrano.

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Kathryn Lofton, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies, Yale University

In recent years, the New York Times has fine-tuned its secular slouch toward objects religious. Their discursive posture isn’t ramrod, precisely because they do not want to act too concerned about any of the nominated objects: religion is out there, but it isn’t so much as to exceed the Style section. Although generally condemnatory of the War on Terror, and obviously disappointed by religion’s persistent practitioners in the West, the Times nonetheless inhabits a missionary profile all its agnostic own. And so, among its occasional features addressing domestic religious subjects, three tropes reappear: (1) dulled suburbia reinvigorated by virile evangelical charisma; (2) nonprofit agencies revitalized by interfaith collaboration; and (3) anxious women quelled by spiritual accessories. The predictability of the Times‘s diagnostic output is less troubling than its (undoubtedly accurate) certitude that its readership will collude with this smirk, that they—those gracious readers—will never shiver in the darker shadows of their religious slumming.

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