Sure, it’s an I-Can-Read book for the suspect and rather baffling Christian New Age movement. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth here, and let’s face it, lots of people need I-Can-Read spiritual help. Of course that doesn’t mean this incredibly dumb narrative is it.

WARNING: This review may include spoilers!

The Celestine Prophecy sports on its beautiful dust jacket one of the more compelling ideas for a story that has come down the pike in recent times:

    In the rain forests of Peru, an ancient manuscript has been discovered. Within its pages are 9 key insights into life itself—insights each human being is predicted to grasp sequentially, one insight then another, as we move toward a completely spiritual culture on Earth.

Now, my God, that’s a good enough lead-in for an Indiana Jones movie. How could I do anything other than read the contents? I picked up the book at the library on the basis of that paragraph alone, expecting both a wonderful story and deep spiritual insights.

Oh well…at least it had a rich, dark green cover.

The Story
I’m hardly the first one to voice this complaint, but here it is anyway: author James Redfield is a terrible writer. He’s literally about as bad as one can be and still get published (excluding self-publishing, obviously), and I doubt it is possible to write worse prose while discussing more seemingly grandiose concepts.

Setting aside for a moment Redfield’s spiritual insights—the slow revelation of which is the work’s primary excitement—this novel has the flattest characters, the most mind-bogglingly stupid storyline, and the largest number of Dickens-like coincidences of any book ever to grace The New York Times Best Sellers list. This is awful “professional” writing at its worst, and the answer to why Redfield never took to a thesaurus to keep from repeatedly using Dr. Seuss-level vocabulary must be that his story didn’t deserve such salvation. There are no metaphors. There is no subtext. There is only a dismal, linear plot littered with characters so lacking in depth that I’ve known sock puppets with more personality.

Further shaking the foundations of Celestine are the numerous factual errors. For example, the Catholic Church, contrary to what he says repeatedly, has no problem whatsoever with the theory of evolution. That may surprise some people (like, presumably, Redfield), but this hasn’t been an issue since at least before Vatican II in the early 1960s. Unfortunately for Redfield, that renders his storyline almost nonsensical in nature. There are other problems here including: (1) South American geography, (2) the author’s understanding and portrayal of Catholic Christianity, and (3) a so wildly inaccurate characterization of the country of Peru as to make it look like a banana republic.

From a strictly literary point of view, this vapid book is an excruciating read.

The Spirituality
The only redeeming quality of this work, aside from the aforementioned dark green cover, is its collection of nine spiritual “insights.” Whether these are truly insightful or just plain hokum naturally depends on the reader, and personally, I found them either regurgitated wisdom or head-slappingly stupid. According to the story, these insights come from an ancient Mayan manuscript written in Aramaic(!) in 600 BC. That’s implausible enough, but it gets a lot worse.

The Manuscript’s First Insight is roughly impersonal pantheism in the place of a personal Judeo-Christian God presented in a wrapper of paranoid amiability. More directly stated, everything you experience is a coincidence and if you’ll just stop think about these happenings, you’ll see begin to believe that they’re not really coincidences at all but part of a larger “supernatural” experience.

While that’s rather unverifiable, it’s still probably vague enough to make even a hardened skeptic say, “Yeah, maybe.” Of course, it’s also not much of a step beyond the ambiguous statement of fortune teller ( “At some point in the future you will read a really banal pseudo-spiritual fictional novel which the library has inexplicably classified as nonfiction and it will bore you to tears”) or the typeset message of a fortune cookie (“Man with hand in pocket feel cocky all day”).

Yeah, maybe. (At least those two are verifiable.) The truth is that humans excel at comparatives, and though we don’t regularly focus in doing so, we can find “coincidences” around us in droves. Remember how once you bought your new car all of sudden you saw dozens of them on the road? It’s not that there are any more; it’s that you’re now attuned to the fact. Life in general is that same. We just don’t usually pay attention because, frankly, there isn’t any reason to.

The Second Insight is that we should view our own existence through the lens of human history, and that history—at least in this millenium—is a spiritual search interrupted by technology and the Modern Age. That’s not terrifically insightful if you ask me, but it seems fair enough to view human history from whatever vantage point a person wishes.

The Third Insight is the all-powerful Obi-Wan Insight. This is where Redfield talks about the magical, mystical energy field surrounding all living things. Clearly, the man has seen Star Wars way too many times. Nonetheless, it’s very difficult to argue that there isn’t some weird as-yet-unknown energy field enveloping the universe, and I really like that Redfield says our attentiveness to this energy field is known through our appreciation of beauty. Of course, I also really like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, and that doesn’t make them real either.

The Fourth Insight piggybacks on the third and says that when we meet with other people we will either give them energy or take their energy. In other words, all human interaction is a competition to dominate others and take their energy. Once we understand this motivation, so the Insight goes, we can transcend it and end all of our petty conflicts.

I disagree. Redfield excluded, people are more psychologically complex.

The Fifth Insight is that instead of hijacking each other’s energy, we can and should open ourselves to the energy of the universe and steal it from there, supposedly because it has energy in infinite supply. Redfield prescribes mystical, consciousness-raising experiences as the means to tap into this energy, but I have a really difficult time believing that achieving such a state of transcendence is as easy as he makes it out to be. Admittedly, I’ve had similar moments of extreme lucidity that were not drug-induced, but those events are neither frequent nor rooted in a goofy New Age philosophy like the one Redfield espouses. That doesn’t negate what he’s saying—maybe the universe is one big cosmic emotional solar panel—but if “experience is evidence” as he says (and it’s not—quantifiable experience is evidence), then I have no reason to think that the Fifth Insight is anything other than philosophical mumbo-jumbo.

Unfortunately, I have to mention Redfield’s stunningly naive psychological corollaries to the Fifth Insight. Basically, Redfield says we have a few personality types (which he calls control dramas) which lead us to steal energy from others in specific ways. While I’ve certainly met a few people who seem to suffer from some of the “control dramas” Redfield mentions (Interrogator, Intimidator, etc.), I get the sense that he must run with a pretty unself-actualized crowd. Also—and I’m not the first one to make this point—what exactly is a “Poor-Me” in Aramaic?

The Sixth Insight is evolution applied to the notion of control dramas. That is to say that our control dramas come from our parents and that we synthesize their control dramas to create our own. Happily, if we can solve our own issues, we’ll find that we’ve “evolved” beyond our parents and moved the human race forward. Don’t ask how. Details aren’t provided. Just go with the flow and believe we’re a slowly self-perfecting society. You’ll be happier if you think it is so. And no fair manifesting any control drama which your parents didn’t have first.

The Seventh Insight says that dreams, daydreams, and visions contain important information that we can tap into. Duh. It also says, in essence, that we should will ourselves to think happy thoughts.

The Eighth Insight is Redfield’s social policy propaganda chapter, including nuggests of wisdom the resulting pile of which sound like an advocacy for China’s one-child policy, a Dr. Spock child care guide, and an Emily Post ettiquette manual all in one. Along the way, it also warns against co-dependent relationships, tells men to get in touch with their feminine side, and offers more fun-and-games with energy fields. It was a chapter that, taken as a whole, really made me think that Redfield should be committed.

However, when it comes to Insights, there is no topping number nine. The Ninth Insight is the most toweringly stupid prediction of human existence which I have ever read. In it, Redfield says that everyone on the planet will slowly begin to grasp the insights he’s laid out for us, and, in so grasping, will begin to literally vibrate at a higher level, ultimately vibrating out of the realm of the physical and into a new plane of existence. Redfield offers Jesus (don’t they all nowadays?) as an example of this phenomenon and implies that the Mayans vibrated themselves beyond the material world as well. As dumb as this sounds (and I’ve not heard anything dumber in recent times), the road leading to our upcoming utopia apparently resembles an global Amway meeting.

I say this because if we’re all destined to go around trying to vibrate our lives away, how exactly are we going to make a living? I mean, we’ve got to put food on the table somehow, even if we are busy trying to leave this world via a mental teleporter.

Redfield’s delightful answer for us is that people will cease to hold full-time jobs, and instead acquire their wealth from “…people who are giving us money for the insights we provide.” One would expect Redfield to be decidedly self-congratulatory about this multilevel marketing scheme of an insight since he sits atop the pyramid, and apparently he is, because at the end of the book there’s an order form for his $30 audio tape and his $30 newsletter.

So it was with tears in my eyes and Mayans and Jesus buzzing in my ears that I finished reading The Celestine Prophecy, perhaps the worse “spiritual” book I’ve ever had the sad misfortune to read. If ever there were a case to be made for book burning, this is it.