What would happen if you took Oprah at her word? About this time last year Robyn Okrant gave it a shot, and then wrote about her experience in Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk (Center Street, January 4, 2010). Here’s the description from an online bookseller:

What happens when a thirty-five-year-old average American woman spends one year following every piece of Oprah Winfrey’s advice on how to “live your best life”? Robyn Okrant devoted 2008 to adhering to all of Oprah’s suggestions and guidance delivered via her television show, her Web site, and her magazine. LIVING OPRAH is a month-by-month account of that year.
Some of the challenges included enrollment in Oprah’s Best Life Challenge for physical fitness and weight control, living vegan, and participating in Oprah’s Book Club. After 365 days of LIVING OPRAH, Okrant reflects on the rewards won and lessons learned as well as the tolls exacted by the experiment.

Now there has been a steady stream of such books. In fact it is a self-help genre all its own, that is, a humorous experiment in literal application for the sake of self-improvement, all the while admitting in a spirit of irony how down-right funny and challenging (if not impossible) life can be. Consider Julie Powell’s French cooking blog that became a popular book Julia and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously which eventually became a successful film with Meryl Streep as Julia Child.

The question I have concerns the origins of the self-help genre. Did it originally evolve in broader American culture, with evangelical authors and publishers following suit (and believe me they have!). Or did evangelicals themselves consolidate and extend the genre so as to make it a perpetual boom in American publishing? Is it possible that evangelicalism has contributed to the moralization (read “secularization”) of American culture? It’s difficult to say, but notice the publication dates.

First there’s the secular Jewish author A.J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (Simon & Schuster, 2007). A little while on Zondervan published a “Christian” version with The Year of Living Like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do (2009) by Ed Dobson. By the end of this month we will be able to read How to be Perfect: One Church’s Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords) by Daniel Harrell, which was originally based on a church’s Facebook project to “Live Levitically” for the duration of a sermon series through the third book of the Bible. The publisher whets readers’ appetite with this description:

Influenced by A. J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically, Harrell managed to recruit 20 members of his Boston congregation to join him in a month-long effort at living Levitically. Holiness was the ultimate goal, but so was learning. People who take the Bible seriously never know what to do with the book of Leviticus. And yet Leviticus is historically considered by Jews, and thus by Jesus, as the pivotal book of the Hebrew Bible. It’s impossible to fully comprehend such key New Testament terms as sacrifice, atonement, or blood without some understanding of Leviticus. The “second greatest commandment,” which Jesus said was “Love your neighbor as yourself,” comes from Leviticus (19:18).

As a longtime minister and preacher who had successfully skirted Leviticus for most of his life, author Daniel Harrell wanted to come to grips with all that Leviticus teaches–not just loving neighbors, but the parts about animal sacrifice, Sabbath-keeping, skin diseases, homosexuality, and stoning sinners, too. Yet rather than approaching Leviticus with a view toward mitigating its commands, he decided to simply obey them.

The surprising lessons they learned impressed on Harrell both the power of obedience and the necessity of grace. This book traces the adventures of a group of people eager to understand the Bible by living it. (2010)

Remarkably, I have it on good authority that popsicle sticks were employed for the purpose of reconstructing small replicas of the temple, presumably in an effort to “simply obey the Bible.” Personally, I think I would actually prefer kosher eating laws to Oprah’s vegan diet, but I’d definitely want to think it over before making a year-long commitment either way. Maybe I’d score a book contract out of it, and I’d have to consider who would play me in the film version of my year of biblical diets. That’s a tricky one – Robert Duval is too old and may not want to eat locusts and honey.

Finally, we have Phil Callaway’s To Be Perfectly Honest: A Year of Living Truthfully wherein the publicist reports a “Christian author blends honesty and humor” to “try and not tell a lie for a full year.” Sadly, arriving so late in the game of this tired genre the author must be kidding himself (which is arguably a form of lying). In any case, it is possible that Callaway’s other books Making Life Rich without Any Money or With God on the Golf Course are more (self-) helpful reads. I am inclined to think, given his last name, that he may have a promising angle for the second of those.

For further reflection try this classic article by our editor in chief: “Are Churches Secularizing America?” (March/April 2008).

Ryan Glomsrud is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine.