You have probably heard of the title, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, even if you don’t know much about it. I certainly had, and it was something I vaguely associated with Artemis Fowl, another book I have heard of but know almost nothing about.
Well, I have been disillusioned – there is no relation between the two. I was given a copy of The Alchemist for my birthday a few years back. The cover says: Paulo Coelho, The International Bestseller, The Alchemist. An impressive caption for such a thin little volume.
However, having a sneaky suspicion that the book was dodgy, I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until recently. I had been reading a history of World War I, so I felt like a little fiction as a break, and picked up The Alchemist.
So, do you know what an Alchemist is? Me neither… If you look it up, you’ll most probably find that it is someone who practices Alchemy. Not very helpful – what then is alchemy? According to The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary, it is, “a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life”
If you’re starting to hear a faint beeping noise, don’t worry, its just your quackery alarm giving it’s warning signals. “But wait,” your mental voice says, “its only a novel – don’t take the title too seriously, who knows, it might be a good story?”
I’m writing this post to tell you, it isn’t. Not only is the story and writing style weak, but the book is, in fact, downright harmful. But as it is an international bestseller, I will need to substantiate my opinion.
The poor literary style may stem from the fact that the book has been translated into English, or it may be inherent, I’m not sure. This idea may surprise you – after all, why then is the book so popular?
It is basically a story about a young spanish shepherd boy who gives up the good to go for the great, and follow his destiny. The book follows him on his journey in realising this destiny, and shows all that he learns along the way.
That may not sound too terrible, and it isn’t – but as the saying goes, “The devil is in the details.”
In my opinion, what makes the book so popular is a two-fold reason.
1. Universal dissatisfaction with life, and the belief that we deserve better
2. The pantheistic, khumbaya-eccumenical faith
The Alchemist borrows many characters and references from the Bible, and often sails very close to the wind with regard to outright blasphemy. It also makes references to other religions such as Islam, and basically presents an, all-roads-lead-to-Rome type of picture, where truth is a relative idea. The book encourages dissatisfaction with the ordinary, and the idea that one should be willing to sacrifice all in the quest for achieving/finding one’s destiny, and that anyone who truly loves you will be happy to be a part of that sacrifice. This mysterious entity, “destiny” can only be found by following one’s heart, because, “where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.” and the “omens” because according to Melchizedek, “…there is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, its because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth… The Soul of the World is nourished by people’s happiness. And also by unhappiness, envy, and jealousy. To realise one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation. All things are one. And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” 1
“In order to find the treasure, you will have to follow the omens. God has prepared a path for everyone to follow. You just have to read the omens that he left for you.” 2
What does Scripture actually say to these issues, when we aren’t ripping characters and verses out of context?
Jeremiah 17:9 says, ” The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
Matthew 6:21 is quoted quite often in The Alchemist, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” But if you read the two preceding verses Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” The treasure Santiago eventually finds is gold.
Leviticus 19:26 says, “You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes.”
Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
So to a well-informed Christian, the error of this book is clear, but to an unbeliever this book is very dangerous. First of all it encourages an unhealthy discontentment. Secondly, it presents a twisted view of Scripture, where one uses and interprets the Bible merely as a guide in achieving personal goals, and not as the sacred, infallible word of Almighty God, who says in Psalm 2:12, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all those who take refuge in him.” Thirdly, it presents the popular idea that truth is relative and that all we need to do to go to heaven is, follow our destiny and do the best we can.
Just as telling a man walking towards the edge of a cliff that all he needs to do is follow his nose to live a healthy life is fatal, so is the philosophy of The Alchemist.
1. Paulo Coelho. The Alchemist. HarperCollins. 2006. p 21
2. Ibid. p 21