The Search for a Self-Help Messiah

How did we get here in Western Culture? When did we shift from an emphasis on character to personality? What is behind an understanding of achievement and material success as a type of secular salvation?

Book photoSteven Watts’ new book, Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America, discerningly unpacks the “ministry” of Dale Carnegie who lived from 1888 to 1955. Dale Carnegie grew up in a Christian home, but moved away from the faith of his father and mother where his mother, Amanda, was a church organist, Sunday school teacher, and accomplished lay preacher.

Eventually, Dale Carnegie distanced himself from that parental heritage of faith and even his family background. That distance was symbolized by a change in the spelling of his name, from Carnagey to Carnegie, which also aligned his name with the spelling of Andrew Carnegie.

It is not surprising that in the midst of the Depression people were looking for hope. It is also not surprising that Carnegie’s pivotal book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, became popular as an aid to face fears – including the fear of public speaking. (I would note that many people have been helped by Carnegie courses and this Medenblog is not meant to detract from the value that people have received through the years.)

What is surprising is how little we remember about this man and his self-help ministry. The culture of North America has shown aggressive growth in developing a culture of personality and a fuzzy faith that is “moralistic” rather than rooted to a Biblical Messiah. Dale Carnegie is near the source of change leading to our current culture and faith expression.

Near the end of his book, Steven Watts provides the following set of statistics to reveal the extent to which Carnegie’s vision of therapeutic self-improvement has come to dominate modern values and sensibility.

“In the late 1940’s, the United States had roughly 2,500 clinical psychologists, 30,000 social workers, and less than 500 marriage and family therapists. Sixty years later in 2010, however, the country had 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 105,000 mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches.” p. 504

The prevalence of therapeutic, self-help values in American culture are very evident, but that prevalence has not led to a reduction of anxiety or a “better” life.

Even back in the summer of 1948, Life magazine had a cover story entitled, “A Life Roundtable on the Pursuit of Happiness.” The final report contended that ultimately happiness could only be found in the “inner lives” of men and women rather than in external, economic, political, and social circumstances.

“People are searching themselves and their society for deeper answers than the outer world alone is able to reveal.” p. 437

As a former church planter, I regularly came in contact with people who came to the end of their self-help Messiah quest and then were open to hearing more about the Messiah that the church proclaims.

Sometimes people ask me, “What is the value of good theology?” The value is we point people to the Messiah who is seeking them rather than the self-help Messiah that is always just out of reach.

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