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.
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Gajanan Nial liked this on Facebook.
Great article John. One possible typo-you might want to change “not” to”now” in the sentence “…not more mainstream than ever before”.
If I had only brushed more with Pepsodent.
If I had only brushed more with Pepsodent.
If I had only brush more with Pepsodent.
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I’ve been enjoying your Douthat’s review and reflections.
In your title, I’m wondering if you were thinking of Napoleon Hill’s oft quoted book among investors, titled, “Think and Grow Rich” written in the 1930s, I think.
This prosperity idea also seems similar to Norman Vincent Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking, which I read over 3 decades ago as a non-Christian.
My guess is that Douthat did have Hill’s book in giving the chapter this title.
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Joel Osteen has made his career telling his listeners / readers just the opposite of what Jesus said. Jesus was providing comfort in assuring his hearers that this world is not all there is, that He alone provides a rest, a peace the world cannot provide.
All I am growing is slow witted and old.
all I am growing is slow witted and old
Great post, John. The health and wealth gospel is so terribly damaging. It appeals to everything in me that is “of the flesh.”
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Well said John. What makes this kind of preaching so nauseous is that it totally disregards the suffering of the majority world, ripped off by the West’s unwillingness to use God’s resources modestly and fairly. Jesus spoke of a divorce between God and Mammon, not a marriage.
Sadly, this is all too true John. I hate what this does to weak and poor people and how it misrepresents God to so many.
Without the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) and Paul Franklin Crouch Sr.and Janice Wendell Bethany Crouch , many of these charlatans and hucksters would not be known.
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Strange irony as well:
While Joel repeatedly has smiled large and declared he is not called by God to beat up people telling them they are sinners, what does his message lead him to do? In substance the only thing he offers his hearers is to try harder, do better, be the best they can be etc. The guy who wants everyone to feel he is the positive preacher who gives good news, in fact only gives advice and never gives the good news of Jesus.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
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“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.”
Very insightful. Spot on, John. Thanks.
Thanks, John. I need to read Douthat’s book, Bad Religion.