Though he has yet to achieve household-name status in the United States, Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho is now the second best-selling writer in the world, surpassed only by John Grisham. Mr. Coelho has sold more than 27 million books. His works have been published in 117 countries and translated into 43 languages and have become the No. 1 bestseller in 18 countries. And the Coelho craze is catching on in the United States. His books have sold over one million copies here, making fans of such celebrities as Julia Roberts, Madonna, Elie Weisel, and President Clinton. Mr. Coelho's biggest publicity boost yet in this country may have been when photographers captured on film President Clinton reading The Alchemist, the book that established the writer's worldwide reputation. Mr. Coelho's formula is a syrupy mixture of the most palatable parts of pop psychology, New Age mysticism, multiculturalism, and traditional religion, presented in slim volumes that suit even the shortest of attention spans. The Alchemist (translated into English in 1993) is a "fable about following your dream," as the book is subtitled. Here, alchemy is not just the mythical art that turns lead into gold, but also the process that leads to the "Soul of the World," or the so-called "universal language with which all things communicate." Mr. Coelho says the message of his book is that "When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it," an idea echoed by the book's New Age mantra of "All things are one." Mr. Coelho's most recent work, Veronika Decides to Die, is the story of a young woman whose failed suicide attempt leads her to discover the true value of life. Mr. Coelho appeals to readers worldwide by invoking the deities and teachings of every major religion and many of the minor ones. Though he claims currently to be a Roman Catholic, he says he has "explored different religions," including Buddhism, Wicca, Hare Krishna, and the Occult; The New York Times reported that Mr. Coelho also "dabbled" with the satanic teachings of Aleister Crowley. As Rosemary Gund, a writer for Brazzil, put it, "His books do not preach any religion in particular, but all religions, with his commonplace messages that can be incorporated by Jews and Muslims alike, without necessarily offending any creed." On his website Mr. Coelho explains, "I believe that each and every religion, when chosen with sincerity, leads to the same God." Accordingly, a character in Veronika Decides to Die exults, "I'll quote from Ecclesiastes to the Catholics, from the Koran to the Muslims, from the Torah to the Jews, from Aristotle to the atheists." That's not exactly what Mr. Coelho does, however. He invokes psychologist Carl Jung as confidently as the Apostle Paul, the Koran as freely as Ecclesiastes. By mingling elements of all these belief systems into one narrative and philosophical package, he has succumbed to one of the most dangerous of theological temptations: syncretism (see "Serious questions," WORLD, May 13). And he is leading millions of readers down that road with him. Enough truth glimmers in these pages to seduce unwary readers. Amidst a culture of death, he affirms the inherent value of life. He rejects the existential belief in the essential meaninglessness of the human condition. And while many writers from the turn of the 19th century purveyed pessimism and despair, Mr. Coelho, at the turn of this century, offers a refreshing optimism and hope. In our postmodern age, people look to real life for entertainment (i.e., millionaire game shows, MTV Real World-style peep shows, and desert island survival documentaries) and turn to fiction for "truths" to guide their lives. Nor are Christians immune from the lure of fiction over truth. The lead jacket endorsement for The Alchemist is from Joseph Girzone, whose Joshua novels are bestsellers in the Christian market. The tremendous and continued acclaim by evangelical Christians of Mr. Girzone's Joshua series attests to the failure of many to discern the significant differences between the book's New Age, fictional Jesus and the true Jesus revealed in Scripture. The Christian Book Distributors' author profile of Mr. Girzone (a former Roman Catholic priest) extols that his books are "popular among people of all different religions, including Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Shintoists, Hindus, Moslems-even those who don't identify with any faith." A Jesus compatible with all of these religions isn't the Jesus of the New Testament. The real Christ is not a pop therapist, nor a global guru, but the stumbling block who is the one way to salvation.
-Karen Swallow Prior teaches English at Liberty University