Walking on coals for no particular spiritual reason

Think of this post, if you will, as a sequel to that “define meditation” piece that I wrote here the other day.

Or you can think of it as an unsolicited advertisement for “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” the important new book by columnist Ross Douthat of The New York Times. I think that the book is important, whether one agrees with this Catholic writer’s definition of “heresy” or not. The trends documented in the book are significant, even if you reject Douthat’s traditional Christian point of view.

This brings me to an interesting New York Times piece about one of the most famous non-religious prophets (Or is that profits, in this case?) in our media world today. That would be the capitalist guru Tony Robbins. The key non-religious religion words in the story are right there in the headline: “A Self-Improvement Quest That Led to Burned Feet.”

Obviously, this is a story about people getting hurt while walking over burning coals.

The larger question is WHY they were walking over these coals and how the Times team decided to frame the motives for that act. The story opens with the blisters on the feet of 18-year-old Madina Kaderi:

Ms. Kaderi was one of nearly two dozen who were injured on … the first night of Mr. Robbins’s “Unleash the Power Within” seminar, which included a fire walk as a signature experience. She said she did not seek medical attention, but many of those hurt reported second- or third-degree burns, Capt. Reggie Williams of the San Jose Fire Department told The Associated Press.

Thousands participated in the walk, which stretched down 24 lanes, each around eight feet long.

“It transformed people’s lives in a single night,” said Carolynn Graves, 50, a real estate agent from Toronto, who crossed the coals without injury. “It’s a metaphor for facing your fears and accomplishing your goals.”

Ms. Graves suggested that the people who burned their feet “were out of state,” a term that participants said meant having the proper mental attitude.

So this is a “signature experience” that is supposed to transform “people’s lives in a single night” by helping them “face their fears.” This works, unless one is in the wrong state of mind. Is this the same thing as not having enough faith?

The story includes no coherent discussions of the religious implications of any of this. Thus, from GetReligion’s point of view, the whole piece is pretty much haunted.

Here’s my key journalistic question: Did this story need some kind of summary on the religious roots of this ritual? Even one paragraph? Consider this sample, sent by a GetReligion reader, from a website about traditions in Fiji:

The practice of fire-walking is believed to have originated on the island of Beqa, a few kilometres away from Suva and off the main island of Viti Levu. This ancient religious ceremony often requires great strength and discipline of the mind, body and spirit. …

Firewalking is also practised by Hindus in Fiji as part of religious ceremonies. Here too there is much preparation involved in mentally building up to the event. Hindus also have strict regulations and protocols to adhere to prior to such ceremonies, which are usually conducted close to temples. Unlike Fijian firewalking — which is conducted on hot stones — Hindu firewalking involves crossing a pit filled with hot embers.

Is this kind of background material relevant to the Robbins rites, which claim to offer a dramatic transformational experience at the end of workshops that cost as much as $2,000? I would argue that it is. It also would have been interesting for one of the self-help guru’s disciples to have explained the roots of this tradition and how it has been adapted into this non-religious framework.

Instead, this is what readers are told at the end of the piece. Is this really a faith-healing festival?

Inside a cavernous room at the convention center … several thousand people listened to Joseph McClendon III, Mr. Robbins’s top coach, tell the crowd that pharmaceutical companies “do not have your best interests at heart. The reality is 80 percent of prescription drugs do nothing to change the disease itself.” …

“The media wants to concentrate on the bad news, when so much good goes on,” said Danny Davis, 43, who owns a roofing company in Denver. On his Facebook page, he said, “All anyone commented about was, ‘Did you get burned?’ ”

“It was 20 people out of 6,000,” he said with a shake of his head. He credited Mr. Robbins with making him “look at the old tape in your head, at old ideas your parents taught you and how you perceive the world” and rethink them.

“It gets you to be introspective,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s extremely exhausting.”

Faith-based story or not? What do you think of this coverage of the Robbins rites?

IMAGE: This hot photo is NOT from the Tony Robbins event, by the way.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.youtube.com/newlifelynden Brendan

    eh…I’ll be honest. Nothing about this story makes me want to know why they would walk on coals. Sounds like a self-help publicity stunt.

  • asshur

    Curious …
    Firewalking (or more properly emberwalking) or jumping over the open fire are -relatively- very popular events associated to St John’s night (24 June), St. Anton (17 Jan) or Candelmass in Spain.
    This are the kind of religious, simply secular fun or bragging or even superstitious behavior, all mixed inextricablily; so frown upon by “modern” religion. It’s funny to see it copied in a “new age” setting -perhaps ’cause they don’t know they are also traditional in old white, catholic Europe ;-)

    I’ve never walked embers (but did my share of jumping), but there seems to be a very simply trick to avoid burn: to tread hard and fast …

  • Tmatt

    And the journalism questions?

  • Jerry

    Is this kind of background material relevant to the Robbins rites,

    I know your answer but mine is “no”. Actually I’m not that harsh but it’s not the most important ghost in the story, the physics behind firewalking is more important. I don’t have a link to the full Mythbusters episode, but science is the key http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dgpsI1MdQI is a link to a segment of that episode.

    After exploring the physics, then a discussion of the psychology is important. Then the role of firewalking in religion could be mentioned if there’s space.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    You think that for the participants this is about physics? As opposed to a faith experience?

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen

    I was flashing on Appalachian snake handlers who claim that they need to trance the snake in order to handle them- and that requires being “in the Spirit”. So I applaud the reporter for getting the quote about being “out of state.” It did need a little background and I vote for asshur’s St. John’s day emberwalking.

  • sari

    It may be about a faith experience, but not of the religious variety. Self-hypnosis is a remarkably effective technique used by psychotherapists. Depending on the patient/therapist, it may take on a religious component, but the technique itself lacks that aspect.

    The quotes in the article point more to self-help, self-reliance, self-abnegation, even, but what I got was “It’s all about ME” rather than “It’s all about experiencing or trusting in G-d.”

    Charred Happy Bunnies

  • danny bloom

    This IS a good journalism question. I wish the NYT and other news outlets had been more harsh in criticizing Tony Robbins, as he is one complete faker from one end of the spectrum to the other. That some many news outlets give him the time of day is appalling. But I don’t see this as a religion story, since he is not a religious teacher, but more of a New Age fakery story that needs to be deconstructed with the ashes of Mr Robbins’ silliness (and dangerousness) exposed. That so many celebrities follow him is sad testimony to how the USA is broken today, spiritually and intellectually.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    what is missing is is the discussion of Robbin’s worldview/religion…

    Yes, the Oprah sophisticated know who he is and what he teaches, but the rest of us don’t know, so why not inform us? His brochure here is hype, but doesn’t get into the details…The Sceptic’s dictionary analyzes the trend, so there is no excuse for reporters not to do a little digging.

    These groups claim the US Government and many corporations send folks to attend these meetings, but actual details are hard to find on line.

    If so, have employees refused because it was against their religion?

    There must have been problems, because the EEOC has a regulation protecting these employees.

  • Jerry

    You think that for the participants this is about physics? As opposed to a faith experience?

    No, of course not. But my frame of reference was what the reader needs to know.

    One who is reading a news story should first know that firewalking is not magic but science. Otherwise they might misinterpret the story.

    Then they need to know about technique such as the Mythbusters segment demonstrated. Then they can understand that “out of state” refers or should refer to the psychological state required to walk properly (not hard as asshur theorized) but softly.

    Next people should understand the psychological value of confronting one’s fears. In other words, why someone would firewalk and what a psychological benefit might be. This involves trusting that the leader knows what he or she is doing. This is not a “faith experience” as in religion but a psychological experience.

    There’s also a long history of motivational speakers and events that play here. So someone should understand how Robbins’ fits into that group.

    That’s quite a bit of background to give in a news story. The use of firewalking in various religion’s rituals would to me come after all that ground was covered.

  • Julia

    The co-opting of religious practices by the secular world should be the big story here. What is sniggered at if connected to religious belief is admired when supposedly stripped of silly religious meaning.

    You’ve mentioned meditation and now fire walking. I think we’re beginning to see the Church of Christ without Christ that Flannery O’Connor wrote about. Big story.

  • Julia

    Wikipedia entry on Wise Blood, the novel wherein Flannery O’Connor tells the tale of the anti-Christian who founds the Holy Church of Christ without Christ.


  • Victoria

    Can I just say that the headline was odd…. as though there is a GOOD spiritual reason for walking on hot coals. Are you people OK ???????!!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    Umm, that’s just “the Church Without Christ”. The “Holy Church of Christ…” is prefixed by an unwelcome coattail-rider.

  • sk

    I know of Buddhist and Hindu villages in Sri Lanka where fire walking is practiced in communities with the head priest leading the procession as part of a festival that occurs before the fishing season for the year begins. It is odd that fire walking is de-linked from religion.

    I think the article could have delved into the possible religious influences on Robinson and where he sources his other ‘spiritual/self-help’ practices from.