Culture > Books

Books: Self-help occultism

Books | The No. 1 nonfiction bestseller in America is about communicating with the dead

Issue: "Promise Keepers breakdown," March 21, 1998

Wait a moment, I'm getting something. A message about the new No. 1 book on The New York Times bestseller list called Talking to Heaven. The message is coming: Hang up, quick! Spiritualism and the occult are serious matters. That the bestselling "nonfiction" book in America is a how-to book on necromancy is a chilling sign of the times. That it's peddled as a happy, religious, "spiritual" book- "talking to heaven" instead of "talking to hell"- is even more chilling, a sign of the public's dangerous spiritual naiveté. Readers need a warning label, and a verse from the Word of God would do nicely: "I will set my face against the person who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute himself by following them, and I will cut him off from his people" (Leviticus 20: 6). And yet, it's nearly impossible to take the author James Van Praagh seriously. Talking to Heaven is the autobiography/instruction guide written (dare we speculate that it was ghostwritten?) by this popular celebrity spook. He's hot right now. Oprah and Larry King love to have him appear on the program and talk to the dead relatives of callers. There's nothing new in this book nor in this medium's methods; Mr. Van Praagh's "readings" are amateurish parlor tricks. Much of the book is devoted to his mysterious and inexplicable psychic gift; the remainder tells readers how to develop their own. This is the same spiritual path Shirley MacLaine led readers down in the 1980s. Chances are, most of those folks are still trying to figure out how to sit in a dark room and think about nothing (since doing so is itself thinking about something). There's a subtle difference, I believe, between the two authors, however. Shirley MacLaine emphasized her own nuttiness; James Van Praagh claims to have made spiritual contact with Janis Joplin and others who have, shall we say, biochemically stabilized. How does a necromancer become one? Mr. Van Praagh recounts a childhood straight out of a Goosebumps plot: "As a child, I often found a variety of games, subjects, and distractions to assist in my validation of and fascination with the occult world," he writes. "A couple of my most cherished attractions were haunted houses and graveyards." Naturally, there was a spooky old haunted house he passed every day on the way to school: the Bell House. "A menacing structure, it was masked in chipped, antique gray paint, its worn-out shutters barely clinging to its hinges." Oooooohhh! The book's sales demonstrate that Americans are haunted about life after death and are looking for love in all the wrong places. In this sense, at least, Mr. Van Praagh truly is talking to the dead-sadly, the spiritually dead.

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