Today I stumbled across a video in my social media feed on Higher Education from spiritual comic JP Sears. I don’t have much to say about the topic of whether higher education is a waste of time, although I must say that this video’s starting assumption — that education is about making money, so the fact that one has to go into debt to get one ought to invalidate the premise of getting a college degree — is a bit insipid and insulting to intelligent people. Moreso than I think he intended!
We should all be grateful to JP Sears for his witty, biting commentary to criticize the New Age movement in a manner that has caused many people to say “so true”. As he once put it…
Ultra Spiritual is the practice of looking spiritual and getting other people to notice how spiritual you look.
He’s a prophetic voice decrying hypocrisy and encouraging honest self-reflection, and there’s always a place for that in our society. He’s setting out to show the shadow side of spirituality and delivering the unpleasant truths with just enough humor and lightness to make people willing to get the medicine down. Let’s honor his work so far for what he has genuinely achieved.
By this time — what is this? Episode #2,382? — I’ve enjoyed quite a few of JP Sears’s videos. Thank you, JP Sears, if you ever stumble upon this post, for many laughs. But now, let me say to JP: you’re getting a bit like an annoying party guest that I wish would just go talk to somebody else. You’re basically a comedian who’s still using the same old routine long after its novelty wore off, and let me tell you, Mr. New Age Stephen Colbert, you’d do all your fans a major service if you shook up your spiritual teachings with a fresh approach.
JP Sears apparently thinks he’s VERY FUNNY, and a ton of people agree. His videos on YouTube have scored “well over 100 million views, and his following is both massive and faithful” … but I suspect that some of the fans may be moving on. Perhaps people have started to catch on to the fact that he’s feeding them a diet virtually 100% in sarcasm, satire, and parody. But that’s a starvation diet for the spirit.
Trust isn’t built on endless, repetitive, unremitting sarcasm. For one thing, it’s untruth after untruth after untruth designed to make you feel very intelligent for being “in on the joke” and “reading between the lines”. But after a while, there’s a bitter aftertaste. Not to mention the fact that JP now seems to have started to do spiritual teaching of a more conventional variety, and it remains to be seen whether “don’t take yourself too seriously” is a great brand for embracing the fullness of life as opposed to escaping from it or bypassing darkness into superficial lightness.
For another thing, sarcasm and parody have a short shelf-life. They’re disposable tweaks best when used sparingly by the powerless against the powerful as a way of achieving a measurable outcome. They’ve been used in the past brilliantly by social critics from Mark Twain to Oscar Wilde.
But JP Sears’s videos routinely get tens of millions of viewers (his aforementioned post on Higher Education is already at 12,414,000 and counting). Some of his videos get half a million hits and counting. By now, JP Sears is (by all appearances) another successful, famous, rich, white guy using a vast social media empire and legions of adoring fans to put down (other) people who are genuinely trying to turn their lives around and embrace anti-materialistic, spiritual truths. It doesn’t quite ring authentically prophetic in the way that I wish it would.
For another thing, parody functions through a subtle cruelty. It may distort people’s actual beliefs with exaggeration in order to attack them. Because it is delivered through the persona or false self rather than authentic self, it deprives the audience of a depth of feeling and connection and love that are necessary for healing the pain generated through the parody.
TV parodies like “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show” are frequently funny — especially if you already agree with their political agenda — but they are vehicles for exacerbating polarization, defensiveness, self-righteousness, and cynicism. It would be a very strange thing to say about SNL’s “Weekend Update” that it feeds both our better angels and coarser angels equally or that it’s not spiritually enlightening. We tend to set our standards pretty darn low for anything on a TV comedy show. But a spiritualized version of “Weekend Update” becomes susceptible to this sort of criticism. We ought to ask: how long can this purportedly spiritually enriching show go on?
What I see also is a talented and smart comic artist whose work has started to grow stagnant. His criticisms, once poignant and novel, seem a bit shallow and banal these days (as in the flat, unfunny parts of the Higher Education video). So here are five constructive suggestions for JP Sears to revitalize his shtick.
- Start challenging your audience with more actual ideas, not just parody. My favorite living philosopher, Ken Wilber, is also known as a fierce critic of the New Age movement. But consider their differences. One big difference between Sears and Wilber is that after slamming the intellectual paucity of New Age dogma the latter will give you the intellectual tools for replacing your fallacies with philosophy and your “cheesy junk food” worldview with something nourishing and One Tasty. JP Sears doesn’t really go there, but he’s got amazing hair. Wilber can’t compete there one bit.
- Speak more from a standpoint of sincerity rather than merely mockery of others. Take a cue from the journey of Stephen Colbert who gave up his invented persona in favor of showing up in the world without the fake facade. Not only would you doubtlessly reveal to us your serious side and passions — as you do on some of the videos on your Awaken With JP site — you would probably find a funny side as well that uses humor more subtly rather than always going “low” with mockery and parody.
- Own your inner critic. As your video on critics makes clear, you don’t like critics. You think they’re hiding out from life by staying safely in the bleachers. But not all critics are like your YouTube viewer who just types, “Your a jerk”. Good criticism is nothing to be afraid of. Good critics help us to get real; they help us to own shadow; they help us to … wait, I’m lecturing a master critic. You do criticism better than 99% of the New Age spiritual figures out there … so give yourself some credit for it.
- Try honoring the truth and partial values of the beliefs you are making fun of. I know this is a difficult piece of advice considering that you’ve chosen parody as your favorite vehicle for delivering a message (see points 1 and 2, above). But maybe you can find a way that gives a more balanced and nuanced point of view alongside your own. Rather than spell this out, I’ll just let you think about it. It can be done and possibly even without losing your brand as a humorist.
- Make fun of Ken Wilber and Evolutionary / Integral Spirituality. There’s a lot to work with there, so go for it. We are the elite of the spiritual elite. We had a whole great big Theory of Everything while you were still reading The Aquarian Conspiracy. We need Meta-Ultra Spiritual, the more evolved, integrated, and AQALly-informed version of Ultra Spiritual.
From one JP to another, that’s what I wanted to say about (and sometimes to) JP Sears. He’s one of the funniest spiritual humorists working today, and I hope that he keeps reinventing himself and staying fresh for many years to come, all the while challenging others to grow alongside him.