Mysticism Wow

When I was a teenager listening to rock music (okay, so I’m a midlifer who still listens to rock, but that’s another story), among my friends the worst thing you could say about a musician or a band was that they had “gone commercial.” The idea was that pop and rock existed on a continuum, with “pure musicianship” at one end and “money-grubbing sell-outs” at the other. As teenagers, we really couldn’t grasp the subtlety that in a free market society, all art is commercial to some extent — we just had a sheep and goats mentality, where bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Yes were seen as true artists, while the Bee Gees, Styx, Boston and Foreigner were derided as the sellouts. Of course, after the punk rock explosion a new line of demarcation emerged: you had the new wave and the dinosaurs — but I’m talking about the mid-70s, when it was still cool for rockers to have long hair and even longer guitar solos. In those halcyon post-hippie days, artistic integrity was bound up with being unconcerned about something as base and dirty as album sales.

Okay, thirty years later I can chalk all that up to youthful naiveté, but while I eschew the black and white thinking of my youth, as an author I continue to ponder the question of artistic integrity in a market economy. If a book (or song, or whatever), can’t sell, it doesn’t get published. If you have the resources to publish it yourself, great, but maybe then the word is it shouldn’t get published, as it’s a waste of your resources which could have been saved for a more worthy project. But of course, this is a dicey business. It’s legendary how creative juggernauts like Dr. Seuss or the Beatles had to endure rejections from editors or producers who were convinced that their work lacked commercial potential. The original British publisher of The Lord of the Rings calculated that he’d lose £1000 (no small sum of money in the 1950s) by publishing it, but did so anyway because he thought it was a work of genius (now there’s a case where intuition trumping business sense paid off handsomely). But of course, this works the other way around, where much-hyped and ballyhooed creative properties are released to thuddening commercial failure. Take, for example, Wikipedia’s list of Box Office Bombs: movies that grossed less money than they cost to produce. Some of these movies are critical failures (The Golden Compass) while others are regarded as artistic triumphs (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). You never can tell, can you?

So, where am I going with this? Well, the issue for me is the question of the marketability of mysticism.

Several years back I had a conversation with the owner of a large independent publisher of spritual audiobooks. I was pitching the idea of a program on mysticism, and she cut me off. “I’m not interested in mysticism, it’s too vague, I can’t sell it.” The conversation rambled on, but I mentally filed that comment away for future reference. Then, just last week I was talking with another friend, who is a professor of New Testament exegesis at a Jesuit university. He told me that when he was in graduate school he considered doing his dissertation on a topic related to Christian mysticism, but was advised against it, “because it’s not marketable.” As important as the contemplative life is to him, he now feels that this was advice well-given and well-heeded.

So if mysticism isn’t marketable — either to the mainstream spiritual consumer or to academia — then why do I keep writing about it? There are two issues at work here. First of all, I write about it because I love it. It’s a grand and glorious tradition, and it’s a viable arena for real, meaningful, transformational spiritual practice, here and now. So I can turn mysticism’s “lack of marketability” on its head and see this as a topic whose time simply hasn’t yet come. But the other issue has to do with that word the publisher used: “vague.” Mysticism doesn’t connect with people because no one really knows what it is, and it’s one of those words that has become so diluted by different usages in different contexts, that its imprecision has just become an almost insurmountable liability. No one is going to read (let alone, buy) a book on a topic that seems squishy and formless.

So I’ve taken to thinking like a marketer. If mysticism has an image problem, it needs a makeover. Okay, this is dangerous, because we don’t want to end up with something like the “Catholicism Wow” marketing campaign (featuring the “Buddy Christ”) from the movie Dogma. But I think those of us who love and care for contemplative spirituality might find new ways to share it with others, without devolving into “Mysticism Wow.” Maybe the word itself needs to go — after all, mysticism is a highly contested concept particularly among conservative Christians, and while its root “mystery” goes back to the Bible, the word “mysticism” only dates back to about the sixteenth century. I just don’t know what would replace it: experiential Christianity? Christianity beyond words? the Spirituality of the Presence of God? One of the monks in Conyers thinks we should be talking about Trinitarian Communion rather than mysticism. But is this just replacing one ambiguous term with another? And every now and then I get an email or a comment posted to this blog from someone who thinks I should quit writing about mysticism and just talk about Christian discipleship. But that’s like saying we should do away with colors like “crimson” or “scarlet”, because after all “red” is good enough. Just as not all mysticism is necessarily Christian, so not all Christian spirituality is necessarily mystical. And while that may bother those who think in terms of purity, I rather like the fluidity this entails. And I think in our postmodern world, others would too.

I discussed this with Jasmin and Mike Morrell over lunch Saturday after Sara Miles’ workshop in Atlanta; and later Mike emailed me and suggested that perhaps mysticism needs to be celebrated in relation to two other strands of Christian spirituality: the work for justice and the postmodern conversation. I think he’s on to something, but it’s still not quite a bingo yet. Mysticism, as the heart and core of Christian discipleship, is like a glittering diamond. What setting is worthy of it?

Why Is "Mysticism" A Dirty Word?
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
Happy St. Hildegard's Day!
  • bdl

    Hi Carl, cool blog.

    My bigger concern would be that mysticism and spirituality would be watered down and then co-opted by our poisonous capitalistic consumer society.

    I’m thankful for the blogging world where anything can be “published” and anyone can have a voice regardless of the marketability.

  • Carl McColman

    My bigger concern would be that mysticism and spirituality would be watered down and then co-opted by our poisonous capitalistic consumer society.

    Which is precisely why I alluded to Buddy Christ. What’s funny in a satirical movie is all too dangerous for those of us who desire to share the riches of contemplative spirituality with others. It will always be a tightrope, because precisely what makes mysticism so beautiful and valuable subverts its mass-market appeal.

  • Kristen

    What I’ve found that works is just having a voice out there. I don’t think mysticism is ever going to be the “in” thing, and if it is it probably won’t be mysticism anymore. But I’ve had good luck in just consistently putting my voice out there. Especially when I stick myself right in between the “popular” debate of christians vs atheists. Somehow the mystic point of view can appeal to both sides, and people are attracted to that de-polarity. I think perhaps getting our views out there in that context will really help. Here, there’s a third option. Both sides are misunderstanding the point. People seem to really respond to the real grounding in truth and love that mysticism represents. And as long as it doesn’t look too mysterious, a lot of the mystical concepts really really appeal to people.

    But it’s not the kind of thing that happens overnight. It took me a year or so of consistently putting my voice out in one particular community…and people are slowly turning towards my point of view, without me pushing them there. People are intrigued by the fact that I don’t fit into any of their boxes, and so they start listening. :)

  • Kristen

    As a side note: what if we got a mystic to enter into a debate with a fundamentalist and someone like Richard Dawkins? I think that might be the type of publicity that might actually work. How to make it happen? I have no idea. :)

  • bdl
  • zoecarnate

    Here’s a cool post on Centering Prayer from an emerging blog, Next Reformation…

  • arulba

    Maybe mysticism is the diamond you discover in your back yard rather than the one promised on a map?

  • arulba

    I hate it when people leave cryptic posts on my blog and I just did it to you. My apologies. What I mean is – if we market mysticism, then is it still mysticism or is it something altogether different? The idea of witnessing in Christianity got totally warped into something more like marketing. It works wonders from a sales perspective. But it’s one thing to write about what you love. It’s another to try and manipulate people into loving what it is you love.

  • Carl McColman

    Arulba, thanks for your posts, and I hear where you’re coming from. And I also hear echoing in the back of my mind, “Don’t be like those bands who have gone commercial! As tempting as it is to retreat into that adolescent position of artistic purity, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful here. Whether we like it or not, we live in a free market economy and I’ve been given a tremendous opportunity to write a reference-sized book on Christian mysticism. I owe it not only to the publishers who are sinking tens of thousands of dollars into this book, but to myself (as I am sinking plenty of time into it), my family (who has to put up with me continually talking about it, praying about it, doing research, and writing), my readers (who deserve the best book I can write) and most of all, Christ (who asks that we do not bury our talents, but actually use them) to write a book that will actually reach people where they are, and will give them a meaningful introduction to a topic of which they probably know next to nothing — and do so in a successful enough way that it doesn’t go out of print in two years. So I don’t think retreating into a purity-based position of “if I try to sell it, I’ll ruin it” is particularly helpful. If Christ could empty himself and take on the messy imperfections of earthly life, then the least I can do is try to say something beautiful and meaningful about mysticism in the context of a book that will be marketed and sold. That’s the challenge I’m facing — and that I’m inviting you (and all the other readers of this blog) to wrestle with, alongside me.

  • phil foster

    Or, how are we called to walk in both worlds (this life and the eternal life), to “…be in the world, but not of the world…” What does it mean to be the body of Christ in the 21st century? How can we transcend our cultural limitations and yet address the culture in a hospitable, charitable, loving fashion?

  • Matthew Smith

    The Dalai Lama seems to have some pretty effective marketing going on though I’m not sure how that works. His book promises “happiness” which seems to be something close to people’s hearts. Perhaps he is also seen as authentic because of western romanticising of the east.

    Mass marketing seems to rely on dumbing things down and exaggerating. I think of mysticism as the opposite of dumbing down and exaggerating. Mysticism is about intellect and understatement. So perhaps it cannot be marketed using the usual means. However, there are ways of anti-marketing, e.g. titling your book “Mysticism: nevermind you’re probably too dumb to get it”.

  • Carl McColman

    I don’t think I’ll be able to sell that title to my editor, but it did give me a chuckle. :-)

  • Darrell Grizzle

    I can understand how it might be difficult to “think like a marketer” regarding a book on mysticism, but I sincerely believe you can do so without sacrificing integrity or watering anything down. As a counselor I had to make a dramatic shift in thinking when I became self-employed – I had to learn to “think like a marketer” in order to keep my practice alive. I really respect the amount of thought (and, I suspect, prayer) that you’ve given this issue, Carl.

  • Carl McColman

    Thanks, Darrell. You know, two of the most deep-seated prejudices in our culture are that “God and sex don’t mix” and “God and money don’t mix.” If you think about how marketing is all about desire and allure, it has a “sexy” component (I’ve known more than one marketing person who talks about “making it sexy” when referrring to a campaign). So in a way, the idea of spiritual marketing pushes both the “God ≠ sex” and “God ≠ money” buttons. No wonder I’m agonizing over it, and many people think it can’t be done. But if we believe that Christ came to redeem the entire cosmos (and not just “pure souls”), then of course we can enter into the dark, alluring, monetized world of marketing in a consciously Christ-like way.

  • Peter

    You guys are way over my head here in this marketing stuff–which probably explains why you are still making it and I’m unemployed and broke–so any comments I make will have to take on a double-dose of their usual “for-what-it’s-worth” character….

    But is the “Mysticism for Dummies” market fully saturated at this point? Somehow I kind of doubt it.

    And one more thing seems to keep echoing in this discussion: the “handbook” idea, the “user’s manual” kind of thing. I’m not sure how close to the original vision of Carl (or his contract publishers) this concept is, but I’m just reflecting here that any work of this scope may take on a bit of the “handbook” identity, and that could be a good thing. What do you think?

    Blessings on your work,

  • Darrell Grizzle

    Yes, marketing is (usually) about desire and allure – but it’s also about meeting a need. When I market my counseling practice, especially the court-ordered evaluation part, I don’t try to appeal to desire or allure, I try to meet a need. I emphasize aspects of my practice that set me apart from others who provide court-related counseling: evening and weekend appointments, easy-to-find location near the courthouse, personal attention. (You’d be surprised how many people call several different counselors and end up with me because I was the ONLY one who was actually friendly on the phone!)

    I believe there is a need for your book, Carl. The object is not to create a desire for your book but to find those people who need your book and would readily desire it if they only knew about it.

  • Carl McColman

    Gee, Darrell, that actually sounds healthy, responsible, and marked by dignity and integrity.

    Imagine that.

    I’m reminded of the gravestone that reads:

    God does do wonders, now and then,
    Here lies a lawyer who was an honest man.

    Substitute “marketer” for lawyer and we’re on to something. :-)

  • Peter

    Wow, that principle could actually help me in my job search as well:

    to find those people who need what I can do for them and would readily desire it if they only knew about it.


    Thanks, Bear…

  • bar

    Any criticism of ‘Yes’ is out of line.
    Besides, they and the other bands you mention were huge commercially as well.