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i>The Secret is a publishing phenomenon. Its publisher, Simon & Schuster, just announced the largest reprint in its history -- 1 million copies -- because of the demand generated by Oprah, Larry King and all the other high priests of pop culture.

The Secret combines Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking with the wealth-and-prosperity preachers and the New Age philosophers of recent years. It suggests a long-hidden secret -- known only to a chosen few such as Plato, Lincoln and Winston Churchill -- concerning the Law of Attraction.

Of course, the church didn't want you to find out about all this, and it succeeded in hiding it for thousands of years. But thanks to Rhonda Byrne, the author of The Secret, it was uncovered in 2004 when she read a century-old book called The Secret of Getting Rich.

This law tells us that "like attracts like." Think good thoughts, and good things will happen to you. Think bad thoughts, and only bad things will happen to you. So put on a happy face.

The slickly produced DVD features a panoply of people whose listed occupations range from "visionary" to "metaphysician." The Secret is cleverly composed to make itself appear compatible with a variety of traditional religious persuasions while adhering to none. In fact, it is really a mishmash of New Age philosophies and a heady whiff of Gnosticism, a stubborn early Christian heresy that posited a secret knowledge shared by Jesus with only a few of his followers. Like all heresies, it keeps returning in various guises. This idea of hidden wisdom was behind a previous publishing phenomenon, The Da Vinci Code.

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But The Secret also has roots in Christian Science's teaching of mind over matter, and in the strong American belief that a person is in control of one's own life and can make of it whatever he wants if only he believes it.

The subtle negative message of The Secret is that if you are miserable or, God forbid, poor, then it must be your fault. You've let your thoughts lead you to this existence. All of us are the "deliberate creators" of our own lives, so if something isn't right, guess whose fault it must be.

The dangers of the secret are easy enough to foretell: Seriously ill people give up their treatments when they realize they only need to think positive thoughts. People obsessed by wealth or love or possessions are told to fixate on that desire and it will come true.

While it is easy to mock this kind of message, what is more worrisome is that there are many religiously illiterate people out there, including Catholics, who don't recognize this message for what it is. That is why we encourage pastors and educators to see The Secret phenomenon as a teaching moment.

In contrast to the self-centeredness of this year's "prosperity gospel," the real gospel asks us to lose our lives so that we can save them. It warns against putting one's faith in material possessions, and it asks us first and foremost to recognize that God is creator and master of our universe. In short, the real gospel asks us to be humble before God, while this ersatz gospel would make us gods.


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