LM writes: “My son’s H.S. Freshman English teacher is considering reading the book “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. I am unfamiliar with this book but have looked at some descriptions on the internet. It seems New Age to me. I also looked at the document “Jesus Christ, Bearer of the Water of Life” and see that alchemy is referred to several times.
“Am I correct that this book is New Age? If I am correct and the teacher goes ahead and reads the book in class, my son will need to read an alternate book. Could you suggest a book with a Catholic world view that would be appropriate for a H.S. Freshman and might give the same type of message (”pursue your dreams”) as The Alchemist? Also, if I am correct could you give me some explanations that I might be able to present to the school. This is a Catholic high school.”
While the underlying story of The Alchemist (written by Paolo Coelho), about a shepherd boy who pursues his dream, is a good plotline, there are definitely some issues in the way the author presents the journey.
As one reviewer put it, religious elements from the major world religions are woven “throughout the story.” Of course this is not a bad thing, because we want our children to learn about and understand major world religions, but the philosophies and teachings of Buddhism have been described as a “predominant current running through the book.”
The title itself is problematic to me, and can certainly explain why the Pontifical document refers to “medieval alchemy” as being part of a New Age trend to revive pagan religions.
Alchemy is defined as a “form of chemistry and speculative philosophy practiced in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and concerned principally with discovering methods for transmuting baser metals into gold and with finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life. It is also known as “any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value.”
In Coelho’s book, the alchemist is the “hero” who shares his wisdom with the shepherd boy by teaching him that sometimes we need to take chances in life to achieve our dream and that comfort and security are not necessarily the way to personal happiness.
Omens also play a large role in the book and are said to be “rampant” throughout the story, with the shepherd boy relying upon them to lead him to his treasure.
I can’t comment on why a Catholic school would recommend a book of this nature to students other than to appeal to the occult-fiction craze that is currently gripping our youth. If a book doesn’t deal in witchcraft, vampires and magic spells, it’s considered to be “dull reading” these days.
There are certainly many other books that teach these basic life lessons just as well. The best place to go for advice on alternate Catholic books would be the Catholic mom website which has all kinds of titles listed by category: http://www.catholicmom.com/fiction.htm
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