Walking on coals for no particular spiritual reason

Think of this post, if you will, as a sequel to that "define meditation" piece that I wrote here the other day. Or you can think of it as an unsolicited advertisement for "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics," the important new book by columnist Ross Douthat of The New York Times. I think that the book is important, whether one agrees with this Catholic writer's definition of "heresy" or not. The trends documented in the book are significant, even if you reject Douthat's traditional Christian point of view.

This brings me to an interesting New York Times piece about one of the most famous non-religious prophets (Or is that profits, in this case?) in our media world today. That would be the capitalist guru Tony Robbins. The key non-religious religion words in the story are right there in the headline: "A Self-Improvement Quest That Led to Burned Feet."

Obviously, this is a story about people getting hurt while walking over burning coals.

The larger question is WHY they were walking over these coals and how the Times team decided to frame the motives for that act. The story opens with the blisters on the feet of 18-year-old Madina Kaderi:

Ms. Kaderi was one of nearly two dozen who were injured on ... the first night of Mr. Robbins’s “Unleash the Power Within” seminar, which included a fire walk as a signature experience. She said she did not seek medical attention, but many of those hurt reported second- or third-degree burns, Capt. Reggie Williams of the San Jose Fire Department told The Associated Press.

Thousands participated in the walk, which stretched down 24 lanes, each around eight feet long.

“It transformed people’s lives in a single night,” said Carolynn Graves, 50, a real estate agent from Toronto, who crossed the coals without injury. “It’s a metaphor for facing your fears and accomplishing your goals.”

Ms. Graves suggested that the people who burned their feet “were out of state,” a term that participants said meant having the proper mental attitude.

So this is a "signature experience" that is supposed to transform "people's lives in a single night" by helping them "face their fears." This works, unless one is in the wrong state of mind. Is this the same thing as not having enough faith?

The story includes no coherent discussions of the religious implications of any of this. Thus, from GetReligion's point of view, the whole piece is pretty much haunted.

Here's my key journalistic question: Did this story need some kind of summary on the religious roots of this ritual? Even one paragraph? Consider this sample, sent by a GetReligion reader, from a website about traditions in Fiji:

The practice of fire-walking is believed to have originated on the island of Beqa, a few kilometres away from Suva and off the main island of Viti Levu. This ancient religious ceremony often requires great strength and discipline of the mind, body and spirit. ...

Firewalking is also practised by Hindus in Fiji as part of religious ceremonies. Here too there is much preparation involved in mentally building up to the event. Hindus also have strict regulations and protocols to adhere to prior to such ceremonies, which are usually conducted close to temples. Unlike Fijian firewalking -- which is conducted on hot stones -- Hindu firewalking involves crossing a pit filled with hot embers.

Is this kind of background material relevant to the Robbins rites, which claim to offer a dramatic transformational experience at the end of workshops that cost as much as $2,000? I would argue that it is. It also would have been interesting for one of the self-help guru's disciples to have explained the roots of this tradition and how it has been adapted into this non-religious framework.

Instead, this is what readers are told at the end of the piece. Is this really a faith-healing festival?

Inside a cavernous room at the convention center ... several thousand people listened to Joseph McClendon III, Mr. Robbins’s top coach, tell the crowd that pharmaceutical companies “do not have your best interests at heart. The reality is 80 percent of prescription drugs do nothing to change the disease itself.” ...

“The media wants to concentrate on the bad news, when so much good goes on,” said Danny Davis, 43, who owns a roofing company in Denver. On his Facebook page, he said, “All anyone commented about was, ‘Did you get burned?’ ”

“It was 20 people out of 6,000,” he said with a shake of his head. He credited Mr. Robbins with making him “look at the old tape in your head, at old ideas your parents taught you and how you perceive the world” and rethink them.

"It gets you to be introspective,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s extremely exhausting.”

Faith-based story or not? What do you think of this coverage of the Robbins rites?

IMAGE: This hot photo is NOT from the Tony Robbins event, by the way.

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