December 01, 1998
It's been said that God helps those who help themselves. God Himself never said so, at least not in any scriptural revelation commonly known to man. But that doesn't stop Americans from believing this principle wholeheartedly--and dropping $24.95 plus tax every chance they get for the latest tome from the "self help" publishers so that they can help themselves to financial prosperity, inner peace and rock-hard abs.
These books range from ponderous treatises to sanitized fluff and present a myriad of doctrines, strategies and meditations "guaranteed" in most cases to give the reader what he wants. You know the current crop of gurus--Anthony Robbins (Awaken the Giant Within), Steven Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), Deepak Chopra (Creating Affluence; Ageless Body, Timeless Mind), and even Dr. Laura Schlessinger (Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives), just to name a few. Their names are bywords for a certain blend of psychological insight, marketing genius and plain old hucksterism that Americans simply can't resist.
It's time to add one more name to that list--Brother Ty. But Brother Ty's book is different, you see, (no, really--it is!) because he's managed to out-tell the storytellers and out-sell the marketers, all while making the reader laugh at Ty's competitors. That he had a little help from Christopher Buckley, one of the funniest writers around (The White House Mess; Thank You for Smoking; Wry Martinis), and John Tierney, a New York Times Magazine staff writer, hardly detracts from his accomplishment. That he is not a real person hardly matters either, for in the world of self help, it's results that matter, and if your techniques work, you don't have to be real. (Have you ever seen a Tony Robbins video? Only Jim Carey is a better human cartoon.)
Brother Ty (as in "Tycoon") is a former Wall Street trader who forsook the world for the contemplative life at Cana Monastery in New York state. The brothers at Cana make wine--"Cana 20/20"--which is about as bad as it sounds. The wine's so bad, in fact, that the monastery is about to go bankrupt, no easy feat for a group of men under vows of poverty. In desperation, the Abbot puts aside the breviary of St. Thaddeus, who preached mortification of the flesh to the nth degree, and picks up Creating Affluence by Deepak Chopra, who is less than enthusiastic about sleeping in bramble bushes. In the mean time, Brother Ty is providentially in the right place at the right time (on an errand for the Abbot) to pick up his first hot stock tip since leaving the Street. The Cana Hedge Fund begins to grow. While Brother Ty credits all the success to God Himself working through the breviary, the Abbot suspects that it is actually Chopra's principles at work for the monastery.
The Abbot quickly applies Chopra's techniques to the monatery's wine-making efforts, bringing in an attractive management consultant (!) named Philomena to help turn Cana's sales around. Philomena and the monks create a wildly successful advertising campaign for Cana wine, culminating in an executive retreat center at the monastery complete with a waterfall ride (the "Cask-Ade") and a gift shop. They ignore the fact that their wine is undrinkable, however, relying on the Chopran command to "let the universe work out the details." However, the universe doesn't hold up its end of the Chopran bargain, and the wine itself remains undrinkable despite its fancy new label. The monks' resulting strategies for filling the millions of orders (as well as the unorthodox advertising campaigns) raise eyebrows back in Rome, and a papal investigator is dispatched. The controversy also catches the attention of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and even 60 Minutes. (Hmmn . . . . If you had to choose between the two . . . .) Soon, gallows humor is the order of the day for the monks, who are convinced that if they escape the BATF, Rome will relocate them to serve in a tropical leper colony. In the end, the monks manage to put their newfound knowledge of the self-help industry to good use, but the story of how they get there is a great read.
Brother Ty's book is such an effective parody of the self-help publishing world because it employs all the tried-and-true techniques of the genre. The story is used as a backdrop for Brother Ty's Seven and a Half Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth, and each chapter ends with one of the seven and a half laws, a "Market Meditation" and a prayer of reflection on the lessons presented in the chapter. Like the principles taught in so many self-help books, these end-of-the-chapter snippets cater more to the reader’s selfish instincts than to his needs for genuine self improvement. See, e.g., Law Number Two--"God Loves The Poor, But That Doesn't Mean He Wants You To Fly Coach." (Brother Ty explains in an introductory Author's Note that the Market Meditations were drafted by Messrs. Buckley and Tierney and were included because, according to the publisher, such things are "a necessity in today's personal growth book market.")
God Is My Broker also stakes out what is, to my knowledge, new territory in the self-help world--criticism of one's competitors. The Abbot, whose spirits have been lifted by Deepak Chopra, starts the monks on a survey of other self-help literature. Soon, the schisms begin in the form of the Robbinites vs. the Coveyans, with occasional disciples of Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, Harvey MacKay and even Norman Vincent Peale thrown in for good measure. The monks finally find unity in their old breviary, and none too soon for Brother Ty's tastes. But the endless disputations and quotations from these self-appointed self-help authorities allow Brother Ty to ridicule them more effectively than he could by attempting to take them seriously.
Sooner or later, someone had to write this book. There aren't many good parodies of self-help literature out there, and that's a shame, given how much material there is to work with. A few artists have made promising attempts--before he drove himself to an early grave with his self-destructive behavior, Chris Farley of Saturday Night Live did a nice job with the Matt Foley character, a third-rate, overweight motivational speaker who punctuated his sentences with air quotes and reminded his young-adult audiences that if they didn't shape up, "You'll be LIVING in a VAN, DOWN BY THE RIVER!" And though few may have seen it, the now-famous Ben Stiller did a top-notch Anthony Robbins infomercial impression a few years back, emphasizing Robbins' polished-white dental effect: "I'll hypnotize you with my teeth!"
Then there's the Dilbert comic strip, which has spawned several management books of its own (The Dilbert Principle; The Dilbert Future). Brother Ty's book manages to parody with a broader brush than these and similar efforts, though, poking fun at the naive optimism and boundless self-aggrandizement that pervade so many self-help books, whether the topic is financial management, spiritual improvement or an all-melon diet.
As always, the best recommendation for a book like this is that people aren't sure if it's supposed to be taken seriously or not until they start reading, and that's exactly what I've seen happen to friends who have seen ads for the book or heard me talking about it. Given the nature of the claims made by self-help authors today (whoever heard of an "ageless" body, anyway, and what's a "timeless" mind), I suppose I can't blame them too much. Besides, in today's turbulent market, wouldn't you like to believe that you could have God for your broker?
*John Pickering is an associate with the law firm of Balch & Bingham in Birmingham, Alabama.