L.S. Klepp
March 26, 1993 AT 05:00 AM EST

A World Waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered

Current Status
In Season
M. Scott Peck
Self-Help and Psychology, Nonfiction

We gave it a C

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Scotty. The gospel according to M. Scott Peck isn’t canonical yet, but as a perpetual best-seller it has begun to give the Bible competition; his first book, The Road Less Traveled, has been on The New York Times‘ best-seller list for 488 weeks. Peck’s books have their miracles, parables, and prophecies: ”If Utopia is to emerge, it will do so primarily from the world of business.” This is from A World Waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered, which adds to the psychotherapeutic case histories, cloudy theology, and earnest common sense of his earlier books yet another revolutionary management technique — ”community,” the secret of not only business success but a new ”planetary culture.”

Peck is actually a more complex, reflective, and socially critical writer than the average best-selling packager of success and happiness, though he’s also less original than other psychologists who turned to ethics and social philosophy, such as Erich Fromm, Rollo May, and Abraham Maslow. His prose is festooned with the cheerleading and tear-jerking jargon of contemporary self-help and self-esteem literature — growth, empowerment, healing, etc. — but he’s far from being a merchant of self-absorption like John Bradshaw, apostle of the ”inner child.” If there’s a running battle in his work, it’s against narcissism and its permutations, such as romantic love. The stern psychological realism of his books, with their warnings against laziness, fantasy, and instant solutions, accounts for much of his popularity in a country where realism is in short supply. But what puts Peck over the top is that his pills are sugarcoated with a version of Christianity that’s half traditional rhetoric and half vague mysticism.

The new book takes up where his previous nonfiction book (The Different Drum) left off, pitching community, defined as a way of ”being together with both individual authenticity and interpersonal harmony.” Community begets civility or ”consciously motivated organizational behavior that is ethical in submission to a Higher Power.” If this sounds like a complicated way to talk about common decency, his efforts to sort it out in connection with marriage, family, conflict, and authority can be arresting: Discussing the ”idolatry of the family” and the false civility of dutifully submitting to it, he recommends that the fifth commandment about honoring thy father and mother be drastically revised since it causes more psychological problems than anything else does.

But Peck’s God, even with a sex-change operation (in previous books ”he,” now ”she”), can be a sanctimonious bore. Her habit of ”calling” people to things that don’t really need divine sanction is particularly annoying. Thus, what might have been a disarming enough authorial confession becomes a farce: ”I do not believe, however, that God calls everyone — or even most of us — to radical poverty…as…I have searched my heart in this regard, I have not heard within it any vocation to personal poverty or poverty work. To the contrary, the still small voice inside me seems to be saying, ‘Do not feel reluctant to enjoy fine hotels and resort vacations. Celebrate these gifts. They nurture you in the work you do. Otherwise, live modestly as you communicate with the upper middle class.”’ After I read this, God called me to nurture my upper-middle-class work with two bottles of beer. As for community, it’s clearly more easily achieved in the three-day ”workshops” that Peck and his associates organize in hotels, where people shout, hug, and experience uplift, than in, say, Bosnia. Like Peck, Peck’s God and Peck’s utopia work best in fine hotels. C

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