A number of months ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of The Complete Works of Florence Shinn, a monograph containing four of her works: The Game of Life and How to Play It, Your Word is Your Wand, The Secret Door to Success, and The Power of the Spoken Word, all four written from 1925-1945. My comments in this post are a reflection on the first work, and, apparently, Shinn’s most famous work, The Game of Life and How to Play It.
I would like to begin by noting what I think is positive about Shinn’s work. I do not disagree with the general principle that what we say and what we think is powerful. I do not disagree that binding yourself to certain ideas or sentiments oftentimes seems to create self-fulfilled prophecies. For instance, the person who is obsessed with illness oftentimes seems to get sick. The person with the positive attitude, who has a strong sense of faith and optimism, oftentimes seems to overcome obstacles.
Furthermore, I do not disagree with the general idea that attitude is important, that verbalization seems in some sense to trend toward actualization, and that the inward disposition tends to manifest itself outwardly. I do not even disagree with the general idea that one’s disposition and attitude, which is usually reflected in one’s words and actions, has a kind of attractional pull. That is, like tends to attract like.
In noting these realities, Shinn has a point. What is alarming to me, however, is that Shinn goes far, far beyond these ideas as general principles and has created instead a metaphysical system that, tragically, is buttressed by a talismanic and almost magical view of language (heck, the second work is literally entitled Your Word is Your Wand!), the calcification of fairly common sense principles into mechanistic “laws,” the collapse of theological terms and constructs into anthropology, a staggeringly eisegetical approach to scripture in which the wider context of verses is ignored and snippets are reduced to maxims shaped to support Shinn’s tenuous assumptions, the reduction of theological reflections to man’s comfort (usually in monetary terms), and a non-orthodox Christology that appears time and again to reduce Jesus and HIs work to a mere schema of self-actualization and possibly even to man’s own innate power to bring about desirable outcomes.
In short, there is much to be very, very uncomfortable about with Shinn’s work. Let me explain.
Near the end of The Game fo Life and How to Play It, Shinn offers what I would suggest is her thesis statement for the entire work:
All the good that is to be made manifest in man’s life is already an accomplished fact in divine mind, and is released through man’s recognition, or spoken word, so he must be careful to decree that only the Divine Idea be made manifest, for often, he decrees, through his “idle words,” failure or misfortune (p.69).
In that statement you can see the hallmarks of Shinn’s book: the curious use of terminology (i.e., “in divine mind”), the granting of great power to man’s “recognition” or “words,” and the talismanic approach to language (i.e., say the right thing and good things happen, say the wrong thing and bad things happen).
As I finished this work I thought, “This is a Pentecostalized Platonism.” Only in reviewing the first pages of the book again as I began this review did I remember that Shinn indeed gives Plato credit for the basic framework of her ideas: “There are three departments of the mind, the subconscious, the conscious and superconscious…The superconscious mind is the God Mind within each man, and is the realm of perfect ideas. In it, is the ‘perfect pattern’ spoken of by Plato, the Divine Design, for there is a Divine Design for each person” (p.4-5).
Within this framework, Shinn develops the idea that man needs to tap into the affirming, person-exalting intention of the superconscious mind, the God Mind. Why? Because “Infinite Intelligence, God, is ever ready to carry out man’s smallest or greatest demands” (p.7). Shinn loves the idea that God wants to give man whatever man wants and she loves the language of “demand.” We should “demand” this or that, for we are indeed entitled to such. This leads Shinn to say truly shocking things at times:
A student once made this wonderful statement: “When I ask the Father for anything, I put my foot down, and I say: Father, I’ll take nothing less than I’ve asked for, but more!” So man should never compromise” (p.72)
Wonderful? The Christian mind cringes at the thought of “putting our foot down” with God. We’re a long way from the writer of Hebrews’ idea of coming “boldly” before the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). What Shinn is proposing strikes me as outright presumption and entitlement. Lest you think I am being too hard, please note that Shinn says man should “demand that the enormous sums of money, which are his by divine right, reach him under grace” (p.70).
Here is where we can see how Shinn’s work laid a metaphysical foundation for the prosperity gospel so prevalent on religious television and in many churches today. “Infinite Intelligence” wants you to have your best life now, and if you say the right things and think in the right ways you can tap into that upper level reality and let the blessings flow into your life!
There are other problems. Frequently, Shinn’s handling of scripture is extremely muddled. Take, for instance, Shinn’s handling of Isaiah, 55:11—”so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.” In this text, God proclaims His sovereignty and His ability to save His people. In Shinn’s handling, this was said by Isaiah and demonstrates “that words and thoughts are a tremendous vibratory force, ever moulding man’s body and affairs” (p.10). How tragic. She takes words from God’s mouth and reduces them to an example of an alleged innate self-actualizing power of words in our mouths. This is what I mean when I say that Shinn collapses theology into anthropology. It really is all about man in her mind. This mishandling of scripture occurs time and again in Shinn’s work. For her, “He restoreth my soul” (Ps. 23) “means that the subconscious mind or soul, must be restored with the right ideas, and the ‘mystical marriage’ is the marriage of the soul and the spirit, or the subconscious and the superconscious mind” (p.19). Wait…what?! Shinn even anthropologizes Satan, defining “the tempter” as “the adverse thought or reasoning mind” (p.12).
Shinn’s Christology is woefully lacking. For her, Christ is a purveyor of maxims intended to be used for self-actualization. This leads her into truly dangerous exegetical waters: “When the subconscious is flooded with the perfect ideas of the superconscious, God and man are one. ‘I and the Father are one.’ That is, he is one with the realm of perfect ideas…etc.” (p.19). I consider Shinn’s handling of scripture to be the single most pernicious and disastrous aspect of her work. That is an absolutely unacceptable way to handle Jesus’ words about His union with the Father. Here’s another instance of her misuse of the words of Jesus: “Jesus Christ said, ‘And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.’ So, we see freedom (from all unhappy conditions) comes through knowledge…” (p.31). But is that what Jesus meant by “freedom” there, that you would be free from all unhappy conditions? I kept wondering while reading Shinn what she would say about Job, a man who did NOT invite disaster with careless words, or what she would say to the martyrs who died and suffered and experienced all manner of “unhappy conditions” precisely because they said the right words!
On and on I could go. Some of her statements are just stop-you-in-your-tracks stupefying (“Money is God in manifestation, as freedom from want and limitation, but it must be always kept in circulation and put to right uses” ((p.47-48)).) Some of her statements potentially heap piles of shame upon people who would actually believe them (“All disease, all unhappiness, come from the violation of the law of love” ((p.49)).) Over and over again she reduces everything to man’s own material success (“Many of the richest men in this country have been tithers, and I have never known it to fail as an investment” ((p.52)).) Tithing is “an investment”! Her view of language and its effects sometimes sounds occultic (“It takes a very strong mind to neutralize a prophecy of evil” ((p.56)).) At times her words sound like a caricature of themselves (“…so she determined to deny the loss, and collect the two thousand dollars from the Bank of the Universal” ((p.58)).) She uses this idea of a heavenly “bank” more than once by the way.
While Shinn does refer to God and Christ as external realities and persons, on numerous occasions she refers to God and Christ in ways that make it unclear whether or not these are even entities separate and distinct from human potential (“‘Every man is a golden link in the chain of my good,’ for all men are God in manifestation, awaiting the opportunity given by man, himself, to serve the divine plan of his life” ((p.24)). And again, “A woman in urgent need of money, ‘made light’ upon the Christ within, the superconscious, with the statement, ‘I cast this burden of lack on the Christ (within) and I go free to have plenty’ ((p.38)). And again, “A prenatal treatment should be: ‘Let the God in this child have perfect expression; let the Divine Design of his mind, body and affairs be made manifest throughout his life, throughout eternity” ((p.62)).)
Tellingly, Shinn seems to give us a glimpse of her cards at one point. In redefining “sin” Shinn writes, “The student learns that in metaphysics sin has a much broader meaning than in the old teaching” (p.64). Metaphysics vs. “the old teaching.” That gives us a clue as to what is happening here.
Shinn saw herself as an enlightened soul who could take the traditional language and categories of Christianity and reappropriate them in the service of her man-centered philosophy of betterment. This is evident perhaps nowhere more clearly than in Shinn’s assertion that “Christ was both person and principle; and the Christ within each man is his Redeemer and Salvation. The Christ within is his own fourth dimensional self, the man made in God’s image and likeness” (p.75). Shinn cannot build her system around Christ the “person” for such is tied to objectivity and historicity, to the particulars of the gospel story. Christ as He is is not open to the malleable reshaping of Him into mere self-improvement techniques. But Christ as a principle can be reshaped and used in whatever way we want to reshape and use Him. That is what Shinn has done here: she has not spoken the gospel. She has taken the language of the gospel and baptized it into a philosophy of human self-esteem, self-improvement, and self-betterment. Even the book cover communicates pretty clearly what the upshot of Shinn’s philosophy is:
I think it was Barth who once said that you don’t get God by shouting “Man!” loudly. I thought about that statement a lot while reading Shinn.
I will try to end this very negative review with a positive: as a precursor of the modern health-wealth-prosperity zaniness of extreme forms of Pentecostalism, Shinn’s work does have historical value. Other than that, I would steer clear.