Reading for Worldviews: The Alchemist

Editors’ Note: “When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue,” novelist Christopher Morley said, “you sell him a whole new life.” During the past 50 years more books have been sold than in any other time in history. So what type of life—or, as Abraham Kuyper would say, world-and-life view—are we buying?

As a partial answer to that question, we’ve asked several Christian thinkers to examine the worldviews presented in the top 10 most-read books.

Previously in this series:

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Originally published in Portuguese in 1988, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist has since been translated into 56 languages and sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. Why does this novel resonate with so many?

In his introduction to the English translation, Coelho at first claims not to know, but he goes on to suggest that perhaps it’s because “we all need to be aware of our personal calling.” This, I am sure, is one of its many appeals, but it’s not the only one, nor is it as blithely positive as it might seem.

Purposeful Life

Despite our otherwise pessimistic age, The Alchemist‘s popularity shows us that we still very much long for a meaningful life—a life structured around a single purpose. For those who haven’t read it, the novel recounts the adventures of a young shepherd by the name of Santiago. He studies theology at the urging of his parents, who want him to become a priest, but as Coelho puts it, “ever since he had been a child, he had wanted to know the world, and this was much more important to him than knowing God and learning about man’s sins.” With the blessing of his father, Santiago leaves the seminary at 16, buys a few sheep and begins a fulfilling life as a shepherd—fulfilling, that is, until he dreams about a child who transports him to the Egyptian pyramids and tells him: “If you come here, you will find a hidden treasure.”

Confused by this dream, Santiago seeks out the advice of a local gypsy and in the process meets that ancient king Melchizedek, who tells him that his dream depicts his “Personal Legend”: “It’s what you have always wanted to accomplish.” Following his dream would mean giving up the satisfaction and comfort of shepherding, and while Santiago struggles with this decision, he ultimately sells his flock and heads to Egypt. He encounters various obstacles along the way, not least of which is the temptation to settle for opportunities good in their own right—a successful job at a crystal store and marrying a virtuous (and beautiful) young woman—but that would ultimately derail his pursuit of his “Personal Legend.” Santiago overcomes these with the help of an alchemist, who guides him in reading the signs of the great book of nature. He discovers the treasure, which is, in fact, back in Spain and later marries the beautiful young woman.

Throughout the work, Coelho drills home the message that everyone has a “Personal Legend”—a “personal destiny,” a “mission on earth.” “To realize one’s destiny,” Melchizedek tells Santiago, “is a person’s only real obligation.” “God has prepared a path for everyone to follow,” he continues. “You just have to read the omens that he left for you.” Moreover, true happiness can only be found in accomplishing this mission. Santiago does, and the novel ends with the youth in ecstasy. Yet the story is also full of unhappy characters who have settled for something less than their “Personal Legend.” A baker who had wanted to travel never does because he values how others see him more than his dream, and a crystal merchant never takes his trip to Mecca because he has become accustomed to his shop and the success it has brought him.

Spiritualized Selfishness 

At the same time, the book shows us that we prefer self-rule to subjection. Coehlo suggests, using some pretty heavy-handed pantheism, that the source of our “Personal Legend” is ourselves, our personal desires, which turn out to be the very desires of God because “all things are one.” That desire may be wealth, as it is for Santiago, or it may be a longing for a particular person or the pursuit of a religious discipline. Whatever the desire, it is right and good, and the universe “conspires” to help us achieve it—“there is a force,” Coelho writes, “that wants you to realize your Personal Legend,” and that force is God. Thus, Coelho takes Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6:21, which is meant to encourage us to love God, not his creation, and inverts it by equating the two. Evil, in turn, is defined as that which tempts us to ignore our personal desires. Coehlo writes, for example, “Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is”:

At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend.

That we either cannot or should not follow our dreams, Coehlo writes, is “the world’s greatest lie.” In short, he offers his readers a spiritualized selfishness, encouraging them, in sugary prose that makes Walt Disney look like a deconstructionist, to follow their heart.

The novel also reflects our culture’s low esteem of reason. In the second part of the work, Santiago encounters a young Englishman searching for the alchemist. He is well-read and shares his books with Santiago. Yet the Englishman is generally depicted as missing the forest for the trees. Santiago reads the books (which include the Bible, the Qu’ran, and many other religious and philosophical works) and concludes that they overcomplicate what, to his mind, is so simple. He learns only what he already knew–that “the world has a soul, and that whoever understands that soul can understand the language of things–and tells the Englishman, to his disappointment: “But, above all, I learned that these things are all so simple that they could be written on the surface of an emerald.” The alchemist, in turn, tells Santiago that one cannot understand the world “by reason alone” and that the great book of the world has more to teach us than what Coelho surely views as mere human books.

New Age Legalism

Despite all its feel-good clichés, the novel can be rather cold in another respect. It states fairly clearly that only those who work hard at achieving their “Personal Legend,” persisting through all difficulties, will ultimately succeed. Those who fail only have themselves to blame. This is the dark side of self-rule, but it’s something that Coelho, and perhaps many others, are willing to accept to maintain the fantasy of personal autonomy.

While Coelho claims to be a Catholic, the novel promises readers what all other religions except Christianity promise: personal salvation, not by grace through faith, but, in the words of Milton’s Satan, by our own “unconquerable will.”

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  • Steve Cornell

    Great line: “the fantasy of personal autonomy.” Originally, it was the suspicion of Eden. Now it is the delusion that disappoints and destroys. The gospel shines in this dark backdrop!

  • Jozef Stefancik

    I liked the review and I would like to encourage everyone to get familiar with a book that has sold tens of milions of copies and forms spirituality of many who read it. When I read the Alchymist years ago, it really surprised me how spiritual it was and I would compare it to movies Slumdog Milionaire and Interstate 60. They all represent a worldview that says that if you long for something strongly/persistently/passionately enough, the whole universe will recalibrate to help you achieve it. But when you look beyond yourself, how could that work out for two individuals who want the same thing? Or when desires of two or more are in conflict? (just rhetorical questions) It really isn’t reasonable, it just sounds or feels nice to people in different points in their lives.

  • Jason Phillips

    It’s funny because I didn’t see any of that when I read the book. When I read the book I found John 5.

    39 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

    We search and search for what we think is right. We work for what we think is right, when the truth is, Jesus, what we really need and want is right in front of us.

    • Jozef Stefancik

      It could be that for you the book pointed you to John 5. I would stress the importance of seeing the difference between what truth the book presents vs. what truth Bible presents. From Bible we know-
      “…no one seeks after God.” Romans 3:11
      “I was found by those who did not seek me…” Romans 10:20
      “Your were dead in your transgressions and sins…” Ephesians 2:1-3

      So, for a secular person, I don’t think that the Alchymist would point to Jesus over Bible. God can use it as some eye-opener to those consumed with outward religion, but it isn’t really showing the way to God.

      • Jason Phillips

        First you commented that “for you”, meaning me, the book pointed me to something. My question is why did the book point me to Scripture and you to new age spirituality? From your post I assume we both follow Jesus and are not coming from a secular point of view.

        Second you stated there’s a difference between the truth the book presents vs. the truth the Bible presents. How can you assume you know the writers intent, thus the truth the book is presenting? I don’t the Alchymist points people toward the way of Jesus or is in anyway takes the place of Scripture. The story just illustrated to me my journey and many others as we have sought to follow God. We do many things but in the end we realize God has been there with us the whole time.

        But I’m interested in your thoughts and answers to my question:
        Why did the book point me to Scripture and you to new age spirituality?

  • Jozef Stefancik

    My background was atheist by default and it wasn’t until my 16 years that I became a Christian. Because I am from a higly secularized society (Czech Republic), I read books and see things more closer to how people who have no clue about Jesus and Bible would read them.

    I think that the book pointed me to Scripture and me to new age spirituality (not me personaly, but you are probably right, that is how I understand the message of the book) – because more than anything else, the book is communicating the idea that things are simpler that world tells us. So for you, perhaps, in context of over organized church life it reminded you that it is all about Jesus. Your God and mission were not replaced by it. On the other hand, for my people where only 1% of nation are evangelical Christians, the idea that things are simpler than world tell us is translated into a rejection of traditional religion as whole and person becomes his own God and follows his own heart.

    While we can accept the books idea about simplyfying some things, there are things that we cannot accept, such as the only was to God is through Jesus, people are unable to save themselves, church is God’s idea (while the author kind of accepts gospel, he probably doesn’t regard book of acts very much…).

    I gotta go to work, but would like to continue in discussion if there is still something to discuss. :)

  • dean

    Our idea of God & spirituality can mean many things as we seek to understand life in all its wonder & complexity as we look at the world around us, even the church has its mystic side, unuasual objects, ancient traditions & ideas, a sense of will & purpose, conversations & advice that is not always best to follow.

    Even after coming to faith in Christ there is still much mystery & maturing to do, regardless of age. The amazing thing is in the midst of all the confusion & conflicting ideas God has revealed a perfect path. Samson & King Saul come to mind(& they knew better)…looking for God in all the wrong places is a gate/archway that many enter & only a Good shepherd can save them from the consequences…”we all like sheep”