Rainn Wilson seems an unlikely figure to be advocating for a spiritual revolution. He’s best known, after all, for playing the Dwight Schrute on The Office, a cross between a lovable buffoon and a terrifying incel. He himself is acutely aware of just this, addressing the suspicion some will feel about a Hollywood actor advocating for a “soul boom”: “Why is the beet-farming, paper-selling, tangentially-Amish man-baby with the giant forehead and short-sleeved mustard shirts writing about the meaning of life?”
But Wilson has been building a portfolio as an entrepreneur of positivity for over a decade, since co-founding the production company SoulPancake in 2009 with the mission of providing uplifting digital content, never exactly an internet priority. His new book, Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution (Hachette) is actually his second guide to inner growth, after 2015’s Bassoon King. Soul Boom is an energized guidebook that argues for more spiritual thinking in our daily lives. Wilson is a funny and self-deprecating thinker who traces the commonalities of the world’s major religions, maintaining that embracing the general teachings of their inspirational scriptures can lead to a rich soulful life. It’s admittedly a sometimes clumsy exercise (as Wilson himself acknowledges), given to metaphors that don’t totally square up (such as humanity being a car).
Born into the Bahá’í Faith—a religion founded in 19th-century Iran that teaches the essential worth of other religions—Wilson has had a complex relationship to spirituality through his 57 years. We are first offered his earnest awakening story, one that begins for Wilson in his 20s against eroding mental health and gnawing addiction problems, and ends when spirituality (and some therapy) saves him. This renewed belief in a higher mysticism is informed by his own faith and close reading of many of the world’s holiest texts, including the Qur’an (Islam), the Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism), the Torah (Judaism), and Holy Bible (Christianity).
Soul Boom probes weighty issues, from consumerism to consciousness. But it illuminates the path to spiritual enlightenment with familiar reference-points, some drawn from pop culture. Wilson uses ‘70s TV shows Star Trek and Kung Fu as examples of transformative social thinking. One argued for a “spiritual revolution” (Star Trek), the other pushed for a personal journey of self-discovery (Kung Fu)—philosophies we can practice in our daily lives.
The world, Wilson argues, has become increasingly polarized, self-interested, and vain. In place of the escapism of social media or technology, he proposes adopting spiritual tools, like prayer or meditation. His approach is pantheist, and he’s interested in the spiritual dimension of religious thought, not the religions or religious practice themselves. But he comes across as a man of faith, not science.
In a chapter on death, Wilson argues that since so many of the world’s religions conceive life as transitory and death as access to a higher plane, we need to accept life itself as an immersive opportunity for “soul growth.” Aspirational qualities like kindness, empathy, and generosity can and should be achieved in our real lives—they will have enormous value in our next one. Death should not be considered a literal end but accepted as an exit to an elevated experience. Even cynics who have no interest in accepting a degree of mysticism into their existence may be able to embrace the goal of “ending … earthy life with the richest, deepest and most sincere set of divinely inspired virtues.”
Or maybe not. Though Soul Boom acknowledges that challenges like climate change or economic inequality aren’t going to be addressed on the astral plane, it argues that spiritual beliefs can help cure existential ailments and animate us to think more selflessly and keep community-minded. It advances seven solutions toward that growth. One pillar is “writing a new mythology of humanity” while another is “celebrating joy and fight[ing] cynicism.” There’s also the pillar of a “virtuous education,” which encourages mediation, meaningful use of social media, and financial literacy. Marxism is not one of the belief systems that Wilson examines.
Still, Wilson’s own struggles with depression and despair speak to universal human experiences that this spiritual roadmap aims to help guide. His earnestness is often endearing, and his joking asides (as when he says he’s not entirely blameless in being an actor on a spiritual path, since after all, “Shirley MacLaine communed with ancient aliens”) keep things moving. There’s some naiveté, some distracting tangents, and some clunky writing. But where Wilson can be faulted on his prose, he redeems himself in his honesty and verve. If you’re in need of a spiritual shot-in-the-arm from a kind teacher, you’ve come to the right place.