Rainn Wilson’s latest book, Soul Boom: why we need a spiritual revolution, is out. I didn’t think I’d read it. I have never related to Rainn’s public persona, and assumed his book would not interest me. But in the end, I was intrigued to know how he’d put the book together; after all, I’m writing a book about Baha’u’llah’s teachings and wanted to see how Rainn approached the task of writing about Baha’i spirituality. In the introduction, Rainn claims it isn’t about the Faith; nevertheless, it was clearly an effort to ‘teach’. “After all, this is not a book about the Baha’i Faith or for Baha’is; it is merely shaped and influenced by some of its spiritual, mystical and social teachings.” (Introduction) To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that this is done in such a professional and clever way, that the audience would not be put off by the subject matter. The writing is engaging, the ideas are fresh and the editing is sharp. I admit that I have read only the introduction and first chapter so far, and my enthusiasm for the book may wane as I get further along. I’m writing my preliminary thoughts now in case they are forgotten later.
Why do I say the book is brilliant? Because teaching the Faith to a mainstream Western audience is an extremely difficult thing to do effectively. Everything is against the writer. The Faith grew out of the Middle East and its largely misunderstood culture, its author is Iranian and has a strange name, the writings are geared toward a Muslim audience and the teachings rely principally on Islamic concepts to convey meaning. Official English translations are in old English, which no one talks and few understand, and the Baha’i administration keeps a tight rein on all books published about the Faith, which stifles creativity. Added to that, the Baha’is use an in-house jargon to understand and talk about the Faith, and are unable to abandon this language paradigm when addressing a mass audience.
How then does a writer communicate to a mainstream audience what the Faith is about, without putting them off? Rainn has found a way. That is why the book is brilliant. Achieving all of that is like walking the narrow and dangerous bridge over hell. He’s done it – and in doing so, he has done the Baha’i community a great service. He has shown, in a natural, entertaining, engaging, and unpretentious way, how to teach the Faith to a modern audience. “Besides, none of the other people who are way smarter and wiser and more spiritually evolved than me seem to be writing a book about this stuff, so why the hell not some weird, spiritually curious actor?” (Introduction) Why indeed.
In the introduction, Rainn sets the agenda for the book. He leads the reader into the unusual subject matter, with its unusual perspective, using a gentle, friendly narration. At this point, I expected to be put off because I find Rainn’s public persona too rambling and casual for me. But instead of coming over goofy, he levels with the reader and explains why the subject matters to him personally. Great stuff! That’s an invitation to the reader to relate too, through Rainn’s perspective and experience. He gives a moving and deeply revealing short biography of himself up to now, and how he got to his current understanding of spirituality. He includes an honest account of the loveless childhood he had, without sugarcoating the shortcomings of his parents, even though they were Baha’is. He shows how neglect and loneliness shaped him, led him into profound battles with mental illness later in life, and finally drew him into a serious search for answers, ending with the Faith.
“I’m no authority on spirituality, religion, or holiness, and I’m anything but enlightened. Yes, I’ve read and studied a great deal. I’ve suffered deeply. I’ve pondered and contemplated and meditated. I’ve struggled and many times failed. But aren’t writers on spiritual topics supposed to have life all worked out? I’m here to tell you they (we) don’t. Although I have some insights from work I’ve done, I still get anxious and confused a great deal. I swear too much. I’m impatient with my kid sometimes. I have a big ego that can sometimes consume me. I compare and despair. I have been (and can be) overwhelmingly selfish and judgemental. Just ask my wife.”Introduction to Soul Boom
Chapter one is a marvel. Rainn begins his discussion about spirituality with television. It is a brilliant move, and he pulls it off well. He focuses on two TV programmes he watched as a child in the 1970s: Kung Fu and Star Trek. (I watched Kung Fu as a teenager and was enthralled by it.) He weaves an argument that goes something along these lines: spirituality is a phenomenon that works on both the individual and the societal levels – individuals look to be enlightened personally, and societies look to be transformed collectively (eg, from racist ones to tolerant ones). Rainn examines both TV programmes, discussing how Kung Fu focuses on individual transformation, and Star Trek focuses on societal issues such as racism, world peace, and elimination of poverty.
“Because, ultimately, we sojourn forth with two forces in our hearts – two icons from the 1970s holding hands like the yin and yang – two ass-kicking guides to our spiritual journey, ushering us along the mysterious road of the soul, one leading us toward inner tranquility and the other toward the progress of humanity itself: Master Kwai Chang Cain and Captain James T Kirk.”Chapter 1 of Soul Boom
The chapter is a masterclass in how to teach to a modern audience. Rainn has taken the spiritual principles, found them in popular, everyday things, woven a connection between them and made spirituality relevant.
Congratulations to Rainn Wilson for battling his demons, coming out on top, sticking his head up above the rest, and blazoning the name of Baha’u’llah across the globe.