I recently bought two books I did not want to buy. I hate dishing out hard-earned money on books I consider barely worth stealing (at least one of them!). But because both books are such mega-sellers, I had to break down and get them in order to properly analyse and discuss them.
Both books have been out for a few years now, both have sold zillions of copies, and both are in many respects fairly similar. That is the really scary part. You see, one book is written by a popular Christian preacher, while the other is written by a leading New Age mumbo-jumbo huckster.
But their story lines are so similar at so many points, that as I was reading them, I sometimes had to look at the cover to see which of the two I in fact was reading. Incredibly both books contain so much parallel thinking, that it is often hard to distinguish the two. Consider these four representative paragraphs:
“Try this for a couple of weeks and see how it changes your reality: Whatever you think people are withholding from you – praise, appreciation, assistance, loving care, and so on – give it to them. You don’t have it? Just act as if you had it, and it will come. Then, soon after you start giving, you will start receiving. You cannot receive what you don’t give. Outflow determines inflow. Whatever you think the world is withholding from you, you already have, but unless you allow it to flow out, you won’t even know that you have it. This includes abundance. The law that outflow determines inflow is expressed by Jesus in this powerful image: ‘Give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap’.”
“Starting today, get on the offensive and start making positive declarations over your own life. Every day, say things like ‘I am blessed. I am healthy and prosperous. I am competent. I am called. I’m anointed. I’m creative. I’m talented. I am well able to fulfil my destiny’. If you want to know where you are going to be in five years, then just listen to your words. You are prophesying your future. If you want to be stronger, healthier, happier, if you want to break addictions, then start declaring it right now. Remember, you will eat the fruit of your own words, so bless the future.”
“The voice in your head will be telling sad, anxious, or angry stories about past, future, or imaginary events. The voice will be blaming, accusing, complaining, imagining. And you are totally identified with whatever the voice says, believe all its distorted thoughts. At that point, the addiction to unhappiness has set in.”
“Don’t live with regrets. Don’t go around saying, ‘Well, I should have done this or that. I should have gone back to college.’ Or, ‘I should have spent more time with my family.’ ‘I should have taken better care of myself,’ No, quit condemning yourself. Your analysis and observations may be true, but it doesn’t do any good to put yourself down. Let the past be the past.”
So which two quotes are written by the Christian, and which two are written by the New Ager? Kinda hard to tell, huh? They all seem to express quite similar sentiments. Actually the first and third quotes are by the New Age guru Ekhart Tolle, from his book, A New Earth (2005). The second and fourth quotes are from Joel Osteen’s book, Become a Better You (2007).
All four quotes have to do with the belief that words have power; that you can create your own reality by your speech; and that life is really about mind over matter. Of course this has long been a staple teaching of the Mind Sciences and the New Age Movement. More recently it has been picked up by the Word of Faith Movement and the health and wealth gospellers.
Both teach the power of words, and how we can visualise things into existence. Both claim that we need to focus on positive thoughts and utter positive words, and we will create a positive future. Occult groups and cults like Christian Science have long taught this, and as of late some prosperity preachers and Name It and Claim It teachers are also pushing these beliefs.
So here we have a big-time New Age teacher and a big time Christian preacher proclaiming nearly identical messages. Many more such similarities can be pointed out between these two books. (And you get more of the same in Osteen’s sermons and other writings.)
Now while there is much common ground between these books and authors, there are obviously some major differences. The chief difference of course is that Osteen is a Christian. However, in reading his book, one would be hard pressed to clearly know that. The truth is, Jesus is actually seldom mentioned in the book. In fact, Jesus is quoted far more often in Tolle’s book!
Indeed, key Christian terms are almost absent in Osteen’s book. Vital biblical terms such as sin, salvation, the cross, judgment, hell, redemption and repentance are rarely found in his book. God gets mentioned quite often, but for the uninformed reader, there are not that many clear indications here that the author is a Bible-believing Christian.
This may not be surprising. Osteen has made it clear that he thinks theology is unimportant. As he has said, “I’m not called to explain every minute facet of Scripture or to expound on deep theological doctrines or disputes that don’t touch where real people live. My gifting is to encourage, to challenge, and to inspire.” Or again, “My message is not about doctrine. I don’t have to get 50 references from Scripture in a sermon for it to be a good sermon.”
Interestingly, Tolle agrees. He too speaks about blockages to spirituality when people “harden their doctrinal positions”. But Christianity is above all a faith based on truth and doctrine. The Apostles’ Creed for example summarises the basic doctrinal beliefs that one must adhere to in order to claim to be a Christian.
To play down doctrine and theology helps no one, but simply makes the Christian message indistinguishable from any other religion, philosophy or ideology. In Christianity truth matters and doctrine counts. We play it down to our own detriment.
But Osteen seems to want his book to be a doctrine-free zone. The Christian gospel is simply lacking. In fact, it is only in the very last page of the book (p. 377), under the title “We Care About You!” that any sort of gospel message is in fact found. The rest of the book is little different from thousands of non-Christian feel-good self-help books.
It is all about how you can be a better you, as the title suggests. It is about how you can feel good and look good and feel more positive about yourself and have a better self-image and a better bank balance and better health and better relationships and better everything. It is all about you in other words.
But the truth is, the biblical gospel is not about you at all. It is about the one true God who is worthy of our worship, fear, praise and adoration. It is about denying self, taking up our cross, crucifying the flesh and serving others. The biblical gospel is entirely opposed to the me-first theology of popular self-help books and feel-good pop psychology.
Jesus was our model in all this. He did not spend his life obsessed with self and trying to obtain better self-esteem, lose weight or get expensive cars. He came to serve others and give his life a ransom for many. And he told his disciples that the servant is not above the master.
The follower of Jesus is to give his life away in selfless service for others, just as Jesus did. He is not to spend his whole life obsessed with me, me, me. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” Jesus said (Matthew 10:39). Any theology that is fixated exclusively on self is not the biblical gospel.
It is little wonder that Mr Osteen’s church is the biggest in America. He is telling people exactly what they want to hear. But we are called to tell people what they need to hear. We are not to tell people that they are just fine and can order their entire lives around themselves, but that they are lost sinners on the way to hell, and desperately need to renounce sin and self and turn in repentance to Jesus Christ and let him become the boss.
A follower of Jesus is someone who has renounced sin, died to self, and decided to live for God and others. That message will never be popular, and that is why true prophets and pastors are always rejected by the crowds. The masses do not want to hear about Christ and him crucified.
Yet Paul said that was the only message he was going to preach (1 Corinthians 2:2). And he said he was not ashamed of this gospel (Romans 1:16). Those who faithfully proclaim the gospel of Christ will be reviled, rebuffed and persecuted. It brings shame and reproach. It did to Jesus and it will to all true followers of his.
Now am I saying that there is nothing of value in the message of Osteen? No, there are some general helpful themes and emphases here, many of which can be found in secular thought. There are indeed such things as psycho-somatic illnesses. There is some truth to the value of a positive outlook on life, and so on. But that is not what the Gospel is primarily about.
And am I saying that Osteen is not a believer or that he is not trying to follow Jesus? No. But with all due respect, he really does not seem to be proclaiming the whole counsel of God, which Paul commanded us to do (Acts 20:27). If we simply tell people what they want to hear, we do them no favours. And we end up sounding a whole lot like plenty of other secular and New Age pop preachers who also proclaim a me-centred message. That is just not good enough for ministers of the Gospel.