Soul Boom- Dwight from The Office creates a new religion
Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution
Rainn Wilson 2023
"I think God has a tremendous sense of humor" Rainn Wilson
For nine seasons, actor Rainn Wilson entered American folklore as evil, obnoxious toady Dwight Schrute on the NBC sitcom, The Office. The real Rainn is nothing like Dwight, and since the show left the air he has shown another dimension side with videos, books, and content about spirituality, religion, kindness, and the divine. It's an odd transformation, as I half expect him to say something Dwight would say, like "In the wild, there is no healthcare. In the wild healthcare is 'Ow, I hurt my leg. I can't run. A lion eats me, and I'm dead.' Well, I'm not dead. I'm the lion. You're dead."
The Office made its entire cast superstars, and Wilson has used this fame as a force for good with his website SoulPancake. (Now a part of Participant media). The site's stated goal was to explore the ways we all seek connection, hope, truth, identity, and purpose in life. The videos, still available out there, are touching and moving, especially the ones from his short-lived show, My Last Days, about how dying people appreciate life more than the rest of us. His latest venture is his new book, SoulBoom, a very personal look at his spiritual journey and a prescription for the general malaise that he sees everywhere.
SoulBoom presents Wilson as someone who grew up in a religious family, specifically the Baha'i faith, turning away from it in adulthood. He mentions battling demons and depression during that time, and he claims that a variety of religious and spiritual books healed him to where he is today. Wilson clearly has studied all the faiths, including those of Native Americans, and he quotes freely from religious texts and leaders like Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tsu and more. The premise of the book is that there is a great sickness in the country that can only be solved by a spiritual revolution.
It's hard to disagree with the premise, though the solutions are where things get tricky. We have a plethora of pandemics, Wilson writes, including deaths of despair, loneliness, polarization, racism, materialism and all sorts of maladies coming from a people who are cut off from each other. The cause of most of these maladies, he claims, is a disconnection from community and the divine caused by a culture that emphasizes technology, individualism, and material wealth. The solution, which I have seen presented many ways in other books, is a return to connection, with both the divine spirit internally and with our fellow humans externally.
Being a creature of television, Wilson credits some of his main inspirations as being two old television shows. The first, Kung Fu, starred David Carradine as a peace-loving monk trained in Eastern religions traveling through the violent Wild West. The main character, Kwai Chang Caine, uses both martial arts and Oriental wisdom to tame the violent characters that he confronts. His journey, according to Wilson, is a personal one that is all about him and his struggle with the violence of the culture around him. In contrast, the second television show that inspired Wilson was Star Trek, (which he appeared in once), a future-based show that focused on a collective journey of mankind in general. Captain Kirk and all of his successors had already evolved past the things that currently limit us like racism, materialism, tribalism and hate, and they spread the message of acceptance and unity to all that they met in a spirit of peace, transforming even the violent Klingons eventually.
This is a heavy book that covers the concepts of death, God, and sacred spaces in a way I haven't seen before. Wilson doesn't sugar coat the atrocities that have happened in the name of God and religion, and can see why so many are becoming "nones" today, shunning the hypocrisy and limits of organized religions. But while he acknowledges the problems, he also proposes that, done correctly, religion can heal, inspire, and bring together people in ways that disconnected atheism cannot. That's why we keep trying to get religion right, failing because bad people keep getting control in a misguided quest for power, control, and riches.
To improve on the past, imperfect religious structures that have mostly failed us in an age of climate change, gun violence, and economic uncertainty, Wilson proposes a brand new religion called Soul Boom. His new religion would take all of the important characteristics that make religion worthwhile, such as:
- Belief in a higher power - Life after death
- Utilize the power of prayer - Transcendence to higher levels
- Moral compass - The force of love
- Increased compassion - Service to the poor
- A strong sense of purpose - Community and belonging
To that, he would add more important items, some of which are borrowed from his own faith of Baha'i:
- No clerics- power is dispersed - Diversity encouraged
- Centrality of the divine feminine - Cooperaton between science and faith
- Connection with the natural world - Centrality of justice
- Life of service to others - Spiritual tools for life
- Emphasis on music and the arts - Humility
Wilson has obviously given this a lot of thought, though his new religion seems to be mostly a tongue in cheek mental exercise. We are probably decades away from what he wants to see happen, but I'm sure some smaller denominations are already transitioning away from the doctrinaire tribalism that's common today. Individualism has been the true religion of America for centuries, and individual solutions to complex problems are what people are still trying to achieve. A lot of the self-help industry and prosperity gospel religions are all about selling individual tickets to heaven or enlightenment. With the problems that we have now that are systemic, individualism can't fix any of them- which is why we need society as a whole to come together to fix them.
Wilson is devout in his beliefs but humble as well, which prevents this book from being a pious sermon on why we should all believe like him. His reason for believing in some sort of God makes sense to me. He firmly believes that the scientific, empirical explanation of chemical and biological collisions determining everything doesn't explain how love, music, or morality can exist. For centuries we have sought out a higher meaning, and just because we've failed miserably most of the time doesn't make the attempts fruitless. The central problem is not the existence of God, but what kind of God do we believe in? A loving soul and creative force that binds everybody and everything, or a distant, angry, and vengeful supreme being that creates and destroys while yielding unimaginable power?
Wilson, inspired by Native American spiritualists like Black Elk, prefers the connected, loving God, but his vision is currently a minority one. There are roughly 8 million Baha'i in the world, compared to 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, and the Catholic church, with its top-down vision of the Old Testament Christian God, isn't going anywhere soon.
This is a thought-provoking book and hopefully it will inspire folks to connect more with each other and with the divine, in whatever form makes sense to them. The great disconnect has been in the works for a long time, and social media has only made it worse. Meaningful, loving connection with others and the spiritual is a much better hope for future generations than dying with the most stuff or getting guaranteed tickets to The Rapture. One of my favorite quotes on the topic is from Johnny Cash, “We’re all in this together if we’re in it at all.”
I did a deep dive through the Soul Pancake videos to get some idea of what Rainn Wilson and his friends have been up to since The Office went off the air. They are very touching and inspirational. Here is my favorite one, from a short-lived show called My Last Days about people facing death with appreciation for life. It's worth a look.