The most influential book of popular theology published in the 21st century has had an amazing impact around the world. It has touched Christians in many languages and cultures and stands alone as the religious book of the decade. It has a glossy cover and a whole slew of celebrity endorsements. The book’s title: Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. The author is Houston’s mega-church pastor Joel Osteen.
Osteen has the highest-rated television show in America, a trio of #1 New York Times bestsellers, and an 18,000 seat home for his immense local congregation. Douthat adds, “Osteen comes as close to Billy Graham’s level of popularity and influence as any contemporary evangelist–and his cultural empire is arguably larger than Graham’s ever was.” But the similarities between Graham and Osteen are limited to popularity, not message. Graham preached a simple, basic gospel message of sin, forgiveness and new life. Osteen’s message is considerably “more upbeat. His God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than the next.” Osteen represents what Douthat correctly calls “a refashioning of Christianity to suit an age of abundance, in which the old war between monotheism and money seems to have ended, for many believers, in a marriage of God and Mammon.”
Only as recently as the 1980s this message was associated with charlatans and hucksters but today it is mainstream evangelical stuff. Douthat says, “As much as any trend in contemporary belief, the success of this message suggests that modernity and religious faith cannot coexist but actually reinforce each other–so long as modernity means American capitalism, and religion means the Christian heresy that has made Joel Osteen famous, and also rich.” This message had deep roots in American soil. As far back as 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville noted that it was hard to tell if the purpose of American sermons was to procure salvation in the world to come or prosperity in America!
What makes this new development so problematic? This strain of prosperity teaching has its origins in late-nineteenth century New Thought, a philosophy that taught the extraordinary potential of the human mind. New Thought argued that the human mind could shape the spiritual realities of our lives. Success, good fortune and health were all deeply rooted in our minds and if we recognized this “spark” of divinity within us we could align ourselves with the divine spirit of the universe. The movement was large and had amazing impact upon America. But the churches, especially those with orthodox confessions of faith, rejected this completely. The difference is that today churches of biblical and evangelical background and confession embrace this openly or subtly. What was once seen as the doctrine of cults is now more mainstream then ever before. Douthat addresses this message as we hear it in the ministries of Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn and K. C. Price. The central tenet of this emphasis is “ask and you shall receive.” And the appeal is subtle, even though its crudeness is evident to thinking people. Even the African-American church has embraced this “pray and grow rich” theology in larger and larger doses, even as more and more African-Americans fall below the poverty line. Celebrity preachers are in, those who preach the more orthodox message of Billy Graham are out.
At this point Douthat disappoints me. While he gets the real danger of the prosperity gospel right he then tries to link Michael Novak’s defense of the free market with this prosperity thinking by showing how he is captive to similar ideology. I am amazed at this conclusion. Michael Novak, and others who have defended liberty and freedom from a distinctly Christian perspective, have no relationship at all to “think and grow rich” theology. Surely Douthat understands this point. He is certainly right to remind us that vows of poverty should have a more prominent place in the church but he should know that challenging human freedom in the market place is not the right solution to greed and crony capitalism.