REVIEW: Casper ter Kuile’s guide for ritualizing everyday secular life is practical and encouraging, but The Power of Ritual is missing crucial self-awareness.
As a closeted gay teen in an all-boys boarding school, Casper ter Kuile fought his loneliness with solo viewings of You’ve Got Mail. As he developed specific habits for re-watching the movie, the hope and attention he gave the film transformed the viewings into a ritual. Watching the 1990s rom-com began to give him something he’d never gotten from his classmates– or from organized religion.
“I am convinced we are in the midst of a paradigm shift,” ter Kuile argues in his new book, The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices. “In the midst of these age-defining changes, the old answers, rituals, and structures that helped us find meaning and connection no longer speak to our lived experience.” We are in a crisis of isolation and distraction.
Casper ter Kuile knows he isn’t the first to point out this problem. His proposed fix isn’t anything new either: put simply, more “connection.”
So what does The Power of Ritual bring to the table? This book seeks to take the goal of increased connection from theory to practice. It offers a specific methodology for elevating everyday experiences into “spiritual practices” with purpose and commitment.
“We are building lives of meaning and connection outside of traditional religious spaces, but making it up as we go along can only take us so far. We need help to ground and enrich those practices. And if we are brave enough to look, it is in the ancient traditions where we find incredible insight and creativity that we can adapt for our modern world.”
The modern “religious none,” ter Kuile argues, can “unbundle” and “remix” religious traditions to suit their own needs, facilitating connection with themself, the people around them, the natural world, and the “transcendent.”
This concept is the focus of much of ter Kuile’s scholarship and work. Notably, he co-hosts the popular podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which applies methods of scripture analysis to contemporary fiction. Fans of the podcast will find a lot to love in the book, which is built around the same essential approach.
The book highlights other technically secular communities that incorporate ritualized, quasi-spiritual elements. Soul Cycle, which has long been compared to a spiritual community (favorably as a church and unfavorably as a cult), gets a particularly compelling analysis.
The tone is consistently gentle and encouraging. Casper ter Kuile is all earnestness here. He truly believes in the power of his approach, and you get the sense he’d be delighted for you to try it.
The book drops the barrier to entry as low as it can go. It promises readers that they can dip their toe into ritualizing everyday life with small shifts in habit.
“…you already have a host of rituals we might call spiritual practices–even if you’d never use that language. Reading, walking, eating, resting, reflecting: these are legitimate and worthy of your attention and care, and they can be the foundation of a life of deep connection.”
Despite the warm, fuzzy language, the suggestions in The Power of Ritual are tailored for a very narrow audience. The author is clear that he expects his readers to share his wholesale dismissal of traditional religion, as well as a fairly unfettered and flexible lifestyle. The book gives little consideration to anyone that differs significantly from the author.
The Power of Ritual would have benefited tremendously from a co-author who could offer some context. Another writer, perhaps one at another stage of life, might have pushed back against the sweeping generalizations and blind spots in the book. I would have loved to hear from someone with a different relationship to traditional religion tackle these same practices. At the very least, I would have appreciated an acknowledgement in-text that the author is interested in only a very narrow audience.
As the book concludes, the author tells us:
“I hope you feel empowered to translate ancient traditions to enrich those modern practices and that you feel permission to be creative in combining the ancient and the emergent.”
This line helped me verbalize what bothered me about the book’s approach to religious tradition. Why is the author positioned to grant me that “permission?” Despite his assertions that “we have inherited great traditions from our spiritual ancestors,” Casper ter Kuile is clear that he isn’t religious himself. Is this really, then, his heritage? The book shows us no hesitation or self-reflection about stripping ancient practices of their historical, cultural, religious, and racial contexts.
The result is an attitude I might call “spiritual colonialism.” The book is underpinned by an unquestioned assumption that the religions of the world are waiting to be plundered and rebundled for secular consumption. If it makes you feel good, the book seems to argue, then you have a right to it, even if you don’t know anything about the people who created it.