Chapter 5 of Bright-Sided is about positive thinking’s influence in contemporary religion. (Previous installments were here: ch. 1, ch. 2, ch. 3, ch. 4.) The best part of the chapter is again the part that gets into the expected Ehrenreich territory of economics. She shows how pastors who incorporate positive thinking into their churches have been pushed into thinking of those churches as corporations. They’ve been compelled to think of congregants, and potential congregants as customers. They’ve imbibed a marketing orientation that tells them to make their services, their buildings, and their music unthreatening and familiar. They’ve abandoned European standards of beauty in favor of bland business modernism, and hard pews in favor of plush stadium seating. They’ve come to think of themselves as CEOs, and as people who ought to be socializing with CEOs. Thus, they were infected by CEOs’ promotion of positive thinking. This is interesting, though again I thought it was the most interesting topics that were handled most briefly.
Slightly less interesting is her discussions of how corporate positive thinking methods have infiltrated the university and the nonprofit sector, and of how some corporations—Amway, presumably, is one example—are even incorporating the positive-thought churches’ practices and turning into something cultlike, themselves. But this all comes at the end of the chapter and almost feels like an afterthought.
The bulk of the chapter is about Joel Osteen and his church. As you’d expect, Ehrenreich does give a secular critique here. She doesn’t like Osteen’s self-aggrandizement. She doesn’t like his emphasis on the acquisition of material things. She doesn’t like the way he encourages his congregants to pray for other people to do what they want (her example is praying to be seated quickly by a restaurant hostess and telling themselves that they’ve already found favor with her). She doesn’t like the way he encourages them to demand things of God and expect to get what they want immediately. She prefers Jesus the moral teacher who preached, “if a man sue you at law and take your coat, give him your cloak also.” (This particular teaching might be a little out of place in a discussion of a church Ehrenreich characterizes as made up mostly of poor and working class people. Surely she isn’t suggesting that when their wages are cut, they ought to work for free.) She says that everything went wrong when Jesus began to be considered a god. She doesn’t like that Osteen flaunts his own wealth and privilege in front of his working-class, mostly nonwhite congregation, and encourages them to see his lifestyle as a goal for themselves. (Most of this is explicit, though some requires readers to infer her intentions from their knowledge of her biography.) But the secular argument is surrounded by support from Ehrenreich’s Christian friends and from academic theologians, in a way that suggests she’s simply relaying their knowledgeable opinions about what’s really Christian. She doesn’t only suggest that she agrees with them that an ideology should be about God and not man—she manages to suggest that what she’s offering is a criticism of Osteen from within mainstream Christianity.
And if she’s not doing that, I don’t really see the point of what she’s doing here, why she included this material. It’s simply boring. I don’t care that there are large numbers of bloggers who regularly express fury at Osteen’s materialism. I don’t care that there are two theologians who each made a one-sentence criticism of his beliefs. I don’t care that there’s a self-professed Christian sect that has incorporated psychological and spiritual beliefs from sources that had diverged from Christianity. Admittedly, I don’t care about Osteen at all. I certainly don’t care that he uses a lot of music in his services or that he uses the wrong kind of music (rock from which, as Ehrenreich puts it, all “African” traces have been eliminated). Unfortunately, the chapter doesn’t give me a reason to care.
What it does do is provide an example, for those I assume are her enemies, of a liberal attacking Christians in a condescending way. Calvinist Evangelicals who agree with her sources might not see it this way. Anyone whose beliefs contradict what they told her will. This could be a writing problem, and again, a problem with context. A simple concession that there are divisions within Christianity could have permitted Ehrenreich to separate herself from her sources and talk about Osteen’s differences with them reasonably and without seeming to speak for people whose beliefs she doesn’t share. Similarly, while not everybody is a novelist, a fiction writer’s skills might have allowed Ehrenreich to describe the Osteens, whom she obviously dislikes, without appearing to ridicule them. The criticism that Mrs. Osteen’s unfashionably heavy eyebrows make her look “angry” seems especially misplaced in this book, in particular. It’s just inexplicable to me what Ehrenreich’s purpose could have been in about 75 percent of the material she includes in this chapter.
Something that is interesting is a comparison of positive affirmations and Osteen-style prayer, as Ehrenreich describes them, with magic, as it’s sometimes discussed from a religious perspective. What I’m thinking of is someone like the novelist Madeleine L’Engle, a writer of explicitly religious memoirs, C.S. Lewis-like science fiction novels, and women’s fiction, and before her death the writer-in-residence at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Magic runs throughout her novels. (I’m thinking of The Arm of the Starfish, The Other Side of the Sun, A Severed Wasp, and to some extent The Young Unicorns.) It is always treated as evil, the practice of a primitive people whose religious practice hasn’t yet incorporated the Good News of Christianity. And the reason given for its being evil is that it makes demands of God. While prayer politely requests something of God and waits for a response, magic—whether voodoo or reading cards—takes things or knowledge without asking. Notably, in L’Engle’s novels magic always works. She’s not making a scientific critique. For her, magic is evil because it works.
Growing up, I had somehow imbibed an Enlightenment explanation of the difference between magic and science. Magic, in this narrative, is a primitive attempt to do something like science. But where science first understands the world and then works with the way the world is, in order to make something happen, magic tries to force things and makes demands on the world. At least I think that’s what the narrative says. When I encountered L’Engle’s version, not having any familiarity with a religious or ethnic tradition in which magic was considered a real possibility, I missed the theological implications and assumed she was talking about the same thing I’d already learned; and by the time I realized there was a difference, her formulation had taken over from the original one in my mind. At any rate, I now think there’s an important difference between the two kinds of criticism. L’Engle’s could be directed just as easily at science itself. I’m very skeptical of supposedly left, supposedly atheist criticisms of magic that seem to take L’Engle’s kind of narrative too much to heart.
And Ehrenreich’s preoccupation with its being morally wrong to engage in certain positive thinking practices seems to me to come too close to that. The person who thinks to himself, as Osteen prescribes, “I know I’ve found favor with this restaurant hostess, and I ask You to lead her to seat me soon” (or even the more casual, “dear God, please let her seat us next”), probably isn’t trying to put the whammy on the hostess and make her do his bidding. The person who tacks up a picture of a sailboat or a television host, as a reminder that a material purchase or a terrific interview is his goal, is not necessarily trying literally to make a spiritual connection between his mind and those things, in order to force the world to do his bidding. The slide, from the very good psychological critique of the previous chapter, to this sketchy theological attack on magical thinking—not because it’s unrealistic, but because magic is morally wrong—is puzzling.
Also, I noticed that Ehrenreich does not say, in this book (at least she hasn’t said so far), that she’s an atheist. A reader could guess that, if she knew Ehrenreich’s biography and political affiliations (and assumed all scientists and socialists were atheists). She says her mother’s personality and views were formed in a strict Presbyterian household, but not that she had abandoned her grandmother’s religion (either one of them). She says her mother used to tell her, “When you’re on your knees, scrub the floor”; Ehrenreich uses this saying, explicitly, as an example of the Calvinist ethic. What an atheist is doing making an internalist critique of religion, if that’s what she’s doing, is a good question.