Many adults search for spiritual guidance and direction and persist in seeking answers to life in today's fast-paced world. With burgeoning economic challenges, political corruption, war in Iraq, poverty, health care concerns, environmental concerns, rising fuel costs, violence, racism, and oppression, many adults seek solace and greater understanding for their own lives. Some adults seek respite and comfort during these increasingly complex and challenging times by attending a church, temple, synagogue, or mosque, and/or by reading the Bible, Koran, or other books of wisdom, inspiration, encouragement, and empowerment. Many adults still participate in traditional forms of church worship activities, including Bible study groups and adult Sunday school classes that are fundamental to religious education.
This article's purpose is to highlight a specific genre of popular religious literature. I will review some recent examples of popular religious literature by focusing specifically on the category of Christian self-improvement (CSI) books. This review is to encourage adult educators teaching classes in adult growth and development, life-cycle/life-span areas, and gender and/or racial issues to consider using these books in adult education. Adult religious educators can explore popular religious literature to better understand some of the whole-life issues adults are facing. CSI literature can provide an excellent context for new and future areas of research in adult and religious education as it relates to adult growth and development; gender, socioeconomic, and racial issues; and how these issues are addressed in this genre of contemporary literature.
The earliest origins of self-help literature can be traced back to a 1784 legal self-help book, Every Man His Own Lawyer by John G. Wells (Salerno). It was not until the early 20th century when two seminal works were published that self-improvement literature began to flourish (Salerno). Those books, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie's book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, are still popular and available today.
The use of self-improvement literature in the 1970s and 80s ushered a new realm of books based on spiritual enlightenment, spiritual living, and spiritual self-improvement. Most notable was M. Scott Peck's book, The Road Less Traveled. According to McGee (2005), Peck's book "proposes a spiritual alternative in a world where the likelihood of material success became, for the average American, an increasingly elusive goal" (p. 57). Thirty years later, this sentiment still rings true for many Americans. McGee noted other spiritual self-help books appearing in the 1980s from well-known religious leaders such as Robert Schuller. His books have been described as "scripturally derived homilies and with 'possibility thinking"' (McGee, p. 57). Similarly, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner's books, When Bad Things Happen to Good People and When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, enjoyed phenomenal success. McGee asserts, "Indeed, the history of American success literature is filled with ministers providing moral justification and spiritual boosterism" (p. 58). Garrett (2007) notes, "Americans like their religion with a heaping portion of practical application. That makes self-help with a religious or spiritual slant enduringly popular" (p. 47).
In a poll conducted by The Associated Press (2008), two-thirds of Americans surveyed said they read the Bible and other religious works more than any other category of books. The poll also noted that older and married women, lower-wage earners, minorities, less educated people, Southerners, rural residents, Republicans, and conservatives are more likely to read religious books.
As the spiritual and religiously-themed self-help/improvement literature continually pervades every area of society, it is important for us as adult educators to acknowledge, critically examine, and even conduct empirical research on this genre and how it affects adult religious education, growth, identity, and development. …