On a recent fall day in Texas, a large crowd gathered for the well-known Get Motivated! business seminar. Before the keynote speaker emerged, 11,000 attendees danced to "Surfin' USA" while swatting beach balls around the auditorium. When the music subsided, former President George W. Bush emerged to give one of his first speeches since leaving office. Among other feel-good themes, the President-turned-motivational speaker encouraged faith, optimism, and principled living.
Why would Bush make his most prominent post-presidency appearance at such a hokey venue? For Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan), his decision made perfect sense. In its many forms, the positive thinking movement—everything from "possibility thinking" to The Secret, Your Best Life Now, and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series—has reached complete saturation within American culture. It has also crept into American Christianity, and that, says the author, is nothing to feel good about.
Ehrenreich first noticed positive thinking's pervasiveness when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Immersed in a world of pink ribbons, cancer walks, and motivational stories from survivors, she quickly found there was no place for her outrage at the disease. Anger or melancholy, it was insinuated, only aided the cancer. As in all forms of positive thinking, the key was to ignore the negative emotions and realities and focus instead on your desired outcomes—health and wealth being the usual. After this encounter, Ehrenreich set out to discover how positive thinking became such an accepted and disseminated American narrative.
Bright-Sided traces the lineage of today's positive thinking evangelists to America's first Calvinists. In Ehrenreich's view, early New England Calvinism was a "system of socially imposed depression," which eventually yielded to the New Thought movement of the 1860s. Ehrenreich may be correct that the movement's founders (people like Mary Baker Eddy) were reacting to a form of Christianity, but her characterization of early American Calvinism is shallow and inadequate. This is the weakest link in an otherwise convincing story.
While Ehrenreich seems to harbor no ill will toward Christianity, some of her harshest critique is directed at positive thinking's inroads into American churches. She indicts the usual suspects—Joel Osteen, Robert H. Schuller, Norman Vincent Peale—but she also includes much of the megachurch movement. Like other critics, the author believes the pressures of church growth have caused many pastors to adopt principles from the world of business and commerce at the expense of Christian distinctiveness.
This is a well-known critique; Ehrenreich's insight has to do with the consequences of churches' corporate decisions. Business leaders need to think positively in order to increase market share; so too do enterprising pastors, she says. Facing uncharted territory and a skeptical unchurched population, they depend entirely on their own charisma and salesmanship, which in turn depends often on positive thinking.
In other words, because positive thinking dominates corporate culture, inevitably it will be imported into churches by pastors who borrow heavily from that culture. We may groan at the most crass examples of health and wealth on Christian television, but Bright-Sided requires that we all look closer to home.
David Swanson is associate pastor at New Community Covenant Church in Chicago and blogs regularly at David Swanson.wordpress.com.
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Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
David Swanson also wrote "Dispatch from Lollapalooza."
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