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Conversations with God“–the true life story of Neale Donald Walsch, the bestselling author of the book series of the same name–hits screens nationwide this weekend. The books have sold more than 7 million copies worldwide, and the first one sat on the New York Times bestseller list for well over a year. (You can watch a clip from the film here.)

As the films in the “spirituality” genre are wont to be, “Conversations With God” is verrrrry slow at points. There are lots of “reflective silences”–gazing into space, at a lake with surrounding mountains, sitting on the couch during one of Walsch’s particularly down-and-out moments. This slowness–rather than coming off as artistic, moving, or even suspenseful (see “Whale Rider” as an excellent film with little conversation but electric intensity)–comes across as cheesy. Viewers are supposed to experience these silences as pregnant with meaning, but they verge on the awkward, if not entirely boring.

That said, once the film starts really exploring the juxtaposition of Walsch’s current life and success as a bestselling author with his earlier experiences as a homeless man living in a tent, the film picks up and audiences will find themselves wanting to know the bits and pieces of this rags-to-to-riches story. In other words, I did eventually watch with interest as Walsch’s transformation unfolded, but it was hard to lose the feeling that the makers of this movie were trying to manipulate me, wanting me to cry, and most of all, to buy the book.

I must admit, I have not read any of the “Conversations with God” books–though Book One has been sitting on my shelf since the late 90’s, a gift from a friend who thought I should read it during a difficult time in my life. At the very least, seeing the movie has sent me searching through the mountains on my shelves for my copy of that book. I’m now curious to read more than the snippets and excerpts the film offers viewers–it did whet my appetite (score one for the producers!). I imagine movie-goers still uninitiated to the series will feel a similar curiosity.

And the religion scholar in me couldn’t help but ask, while watching Walsch’s story unfold: Is Neale a modern-day mystic? One whose relationship with God is so intimate, so intense, that he cannot help but feel compelled to share this profound knowledge with the world? Neale’s sensibility of the divine is as friend, and even more so as Love–a portrait not unfamiliar within the history of Christian mysticism. Hadewijch of Antwerp, believed to have lived in the 13th century, wrote many poems and lyrics inspired by her intimate encounters with God, which evoked Love as the proper divine address.

Yet it is not quite right to compare someone like Hadewijch with Walsch. Hadewijch’s portrait of Love/God is far more nuanced and complicated–her God can break your heart over and over and She (God) is undoubtedly Christian. Walsch’s God seems to be one who loves you, yes, but who also wants to fulfill your every desire, whether monetary or otherwise, and seems most suited to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. Most striking of all, though, is that Neale’s God and Neale himself seem to be more or less one and the same. (This certainly launches him away from claiming a spot within the history of Christian mysticism–though it’s not as if he’s lobbying for one, either.)

Watching the film made me wonder: Walsch’s claims, his publications, and his speaking/preaching tours do mimic (at least to a degree) what we know of many mystics across history–so why aren’t scholars wondering about his status as modern-day mystic? Is it his lack of association with one religious tradition? Is it that our skepticism is too strong? Or is it the fact that perhaps, ultimately, his “Conversations with God” are too much about serving the “me” in all of us, and lack that ethical component–a sense of justice–evident throughout the history of mysticism?

Viewers and readers will have to decide for themselves.

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