Friday, February 18, 2011

Jesus' Path to Success

The Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life by Emmet Fox

This unlikely little book is one of the great classics of New Thought literature, and Fox one of its most eminent teachers. He is frequently cited in contemporary self-help literature, and his teachings and methods have been particularly advocated by Louise Hay. The Sermon on the Mount is his classic work, considered to be the best example of his teaching, and is still in print.

Fox himself, however, has faded somewhat into obscurity. Perhaps because, unlike other New Thought teachers of the early part of the Twentieth Century, he never successfully established his own personal school or church. He was a minister of the Divine Science sect of Nona Brooks. He may well have been the first to establish a really successful "Hotel ministry" - whereby he gave his lessons and services in rented function rooms or concert halls - something that was to become a feature of New Thought ministries, and used with particular success by Ernest Holmes, founder of the Church of Religious Science.

Fox died in 1951, just as Holmes was beginning to take off, and we can assume that he was a great influence on the work and style of Holmes and others. He was also influential in the beginnings of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement, and many early AA members adopted his Sunday services as their home church. Fox's influence was greatest in the 1920s and 30s - The Sermon on the Mount was first published in 1938 - and in her wonderful scholarly study of the life and influence of Norman Vincent Peale, God's Salesman, Carol V. R. George suggests that Fox's writing and ministry were also an influence on the then-young and impressionable Peale.

Like most New Thought books of the era, The Sermon on the Mount is filled with Christian imagery and language. Of course, the whole thing is based on Christs's Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, and offers a new, "metaphysical" reading of the message of the Beatitudes. It is a canny offering, because many of the seemingly anti-materialist statements of the Sermon must have sat at odds with some of New Thought's this-wordly aims - especially those of prosperity, success and abundance. Fox, in this intriguing little book, re-casts the Sermon on the Mount as the ultimate New Thought text, and re-casts some of the interpretations of the text, rejecting traditional readings as both faulty and horribly superficial. The book came with an addendum, a long exegisis on the Lord's Prayer, which is particularly fascinating and quite hard-hitting.

For all of the accusations against New Thought as being a feelgood path for the undisciplined, Fox's message of, and insistence upon, total forgiveness of one's enemies (as prescribed in the Lord's Prayer) comes across as particularly forceful.

"Search and see if you are not really holding a grudge (it may be camouflaged in some self-righteous way) against some individual, or some body of people, a nation, a race, a social class, some religious movement of which you disapprove perhaps, a political party, or what-not. If you are doing so, then you have an act of forgiveness to perform..."

Such an injunction strikes guilt into my own heart, and would certainbly be salient advice to many modern advocates of spirituality. In a tradition dating back to the 18th century writings of Swedenborg, Fox in this book is decrying what he sees as overly-literalist and decidedly unsophisticated Biblical analysis. He asserts that the Beatitudes, the most-loved and familiar list of Christian advice, are almost entirely misunderstood by those who claim to be Christians. He posits the text instead as a prescription for success in life, part of the great New Thought project of reclaiming the Bible as historic self-help book.
I don't think it's unfair to say that the book is somewhat dated now, its overtly devotional tone making it an uncomfortable read for a secular audience. And of course the author assumes a great deal of Biblical knowledge which simply doesn't exist among a 21st century readership. Nonetheless the book's chatty, elder-brother tone still works its charm, and its frequent rallying cries and urgings are still efective as motivational tools and inspirers of thought. Ironically, his re-reading of the message of the Sermon on the Mount is even more counter-cultural now than it would have been in 1938. In many ways this particular part of the Bible has been re-claimed by Christian progressives who cast it as the ultimate anti-establishment and anti-materialist teaching of Jesus Christ. It is fascinating to hear it being cast in this book as somewhat the opposite, as "The Key to Success in Life," and a tool to successful negoitiation in the material world.

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