April 7, 2009

The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho

I've been a big fan of Paulo Coelho for years. He doesn't just write for entertainment or money, his writing is an outreach of sorts. He believes he knows things that others would be happier for knowing, and wants to share it. In fact he once made his publishers angry by making several of his books available free in digital form via his website. But perhaps "happier" is not the right word for his endeavors. And that's what this book is about. In part. He doesn't want to comfort or placate, he doesn't want us to be content, he wants to provoke us into action. To stop sitting around and pursue.

All of Coelho's books are in the spirit of learning. His most famous is The Alchemist, about the nature of dreams (both the night kind and the goal kind) and the following thereof. Veronika Decides to Die is about making the decision to live, really live, and The Fifth Mountain is about the life of one of the Old Testament's greatest prophets as well as about the power of written language. Some people call Coelho "New Agey," and he definitely can be that, but the things he writes about tend to be very universal. He has a blog, and his blog is extremely New Agey. Some of his books are definitely more New Agey than others. In fact he has hinted that he is heavily influenced by Carlos Castaneda, who wrote some very creepy books about practicing witchcraft and the occult in Mexico.

The only thing that bothers me about Coelho is that I believe he tends to oversimplify. It seems like he thinks that oversimplification is necessary to find the root of truth. That may be true for some things, or for some people, but a lot of the time it's just not necessary. It can actually make things seem more complicated then they really are.

The Witch of Portobello is about a woman who is on a quest to find what she calls the Vertex, a bright light or a presence she has felt. As a Christian I would call this the presence of God, which doesn't require a quest, but I indulged. She starts out as a very devout Catholic, but the church turns her away when she most needs it, so she goes looking elsewhere. Her quest takes her into Paganism and Mother worship and other practises.

Coelho uses this woman's quest as a device to (a) teach us about Gaia, or Mother Earth, as the feminine counterpart to God and (b) suggest that the Christian church is just a passing phase and in the next century we'll all be druids again.

Don't get excited yet, just digest that and let me continue.

In Coelho's other writings, I found many reasons to respect his wisdom. But in this book, he simply jumps to conclusions, doesn't think things through, and shows that he has a failing, a compromised bias against Christianity, a bias that he can't seem to substantiate. He probably could substantiate it if he tried harder, but he simply built on current unfounded prejudices. And he shows a huge lack of understanding of the spirituality of the Christian faith, which surprised me, because in his previous books he showed an affinity to Christianity.

His characters express an amazement that people choose to follow a male God, a distant God who simply wants to dictate rules and provide the bare necessities. With Gaia, on the other hand, there are no rules. No processes, only actions. They don't understand why people can't just love the earth under their feet, just love love, just believe. Believe in what he doesn't say, just believe.

Well, I'll tell you why they can't be satisfied with dirt and trees. And I'm not preaching or proselytising, just answering his questions in a scholarly sense. In the first place, they're wrong. God isn't a dictator, he's a heavenly father. But he's a mother too. I could cite numerous Bible verses on the subject as well as instances from my own life. He's a trinity, a family in one. He both provides and nurtures. And as any parent knows (I don't believe Coelho is a parent, I could be wrong), children crave rules. Without guidelines they are afraid and uncertain of their parents' love. Beyond that, there are many things the Earth does not provide. Yes it is physically present. But we need more than physical presence. We need to know there is something more, something beyond ourselves, something that will be there when we pass, something that can help as and guide us and teach us. Gaia does not teach. Gaia was born of chaos. She has no rules, she provides no comfort. She's beautiful, she's compelling, she's a force inside of us; in the pull of the moon and our own bodies and human relationships. But the only love she offers is a 6' hole in the ground. And that's not very satisfactory as far as I'm concerned.

Some quotes from the very first page:

"No one sacrifices the most important thing she possesses: love." Oh yes she does, in fact I think we all have. Parents especially sacrifice love every day.

"No one places her dreams in the hands of those who might destroy them." Heck yeah they do. We all do. We all trust people with our dreams and are let down. In fact a dream has to be crushed repeatedly before it can be brought about, or it wouldn't be a dream. Sometimes we crush our dreams ourselves, but most often we let others do it for us.

The church Coelho depicts in this book reminds me of that hate filled "Baptist" church that's always picketing funerals on the news. His church is an uneducated stew of zealots who care only about rules and nothing about God's love or compassion. And he expresses the belief that all Christian churches are this way. He is extremely wrong.

All that aside, my mediocre rating of this book is not due to his beliefs, but due to the fact that the story is weak, the teachings oversimplified, and his arguments weak. I highly recommend the other Coelho books I mentioned, but this one was a disappointment.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this review.

    I am a Christian who used to read fiction incessantly, and suddenly stopped reading anything but textbooks about seven years ago. I want to begin again, so a fellow Christian handed me "The Witch of Portobello" accompanied by rave reviews.

    A week later, I'm still in the first chapter. Mostly, I just keep scratching my head, wondering why he's writing this. What's he /really/ saying?

    Your review helped me understand what I'm getting myself into. Again, thanks.


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