Our Dysfunctional Family Values: On Believe Me by John Fea

img_9395.jpegThere is nothing quite so painful nor so beautiful as delving into the study of your own family.  Where there are wounds or unresolved questions, such study becomes all the more necessary yet somewhat halting and – even, at times – haunting. As Oscar Wild wrote in his classic The Picture of Dorian Gray, “I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.”

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, by John Fea, offers fellow white American evangelicals a chance to study the harsher realities of our family legacy by illuminating the detestable parts of our past and laying bare the faults of our present.

For many of us within the church the current era of Trumpism has confirmed our worst fears and challenged our most defensive reflexes about the faith community we call home.  This has been a time of reflection and repentance, but also one of bewilderment.

In describing his first reaction on election night Fea shares his emotions, which to many of us are all too familiar. “I was shocked. I was saddened. I was angry.”  Trump’s victory brought about disillusionment not really because of who lost, but rather because of who and what so many of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ appeared willing to endorse, enable or empower.  As Fea notes, realizing that eight out of 10 of his fellow church goers most likely voted for Trump “seemed to reflect deep divisions in how we understand the world, and it was deeply distressing.” (5)

For those who, like me, share these sentiments of shock and uncertainty, Believe me offers a renewed explanation for why this happened and sketches tentative suggestions for the road ahead.  He offers us a historical framework mixed with contemporary analysis through which to understand our present time, particularly by focusing on the religious leaders and prominent Trump supporters Fea terms “Court Evangelicals.” In all, the book reads as a satisfying catharsis for unresolved questions about why and how we got to this point in our family history.

Grounded in an overview of the modern dance between evangelicals and the Supreme Court, Fea describes how and why evangelicals have turned to political solutions as a means for devotional salvation, especially in the second half of the 20th century. Also acting as primer on the darker moments in religious American history, from the faults of Salem and Massachusetts Bay Colony, to the theological justifications of slavery and Jim Crow, to the rise of the “Know Nothing Party”, the Scopes Trial, Operation Wet Back and many more, Fea’s book offers us a colorful family album of evangelical foibles, sins, and woes.  He explains:

“Evangelicals have worried about the decline of Christian civilization from the moment they arrived on American shores in the seventeenth century.  They have celebrated values such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ while simultaneously building exclusive communities that do not tolerate dissent.  They have revealed their fear in the ways they have responded to the plight of the people who do not share their skin color.  White evangelical fear of newcomers – those who might challenge the power and privilege that white evangelicals have enjoyed in a nation of Protestants – has been present in every era of American history.” (65)

Seen in this light, the voting habits and rhetoric of the 2016 election were a continuity of our worst impulses, an almost inevitable outcome for a people who have yet to reckon with the their own darker past.

Playing up the thesis that the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump is driven most prominently by fear, Fea recounts the events leading up to the election by wryly noting, “The evangelical candidates stoked fears of a world they seemed unfit to tame.” (33) The rhetoric, developed over almost forty years by the leadership of the Religious Right, mixed with age-old concerns about foreigners, criminals, and encroaching secularism, is not to be seen as an abrogation but rather as a continuation of the more troubling legacies within the American church.  As Fea explains: “In a sin-cursed world, we should expect anxiety-induced emotions to rise in response to social change.  But evangelicals have not always managed their fears in a healthy way.” (65)

Crucially, he identifies how the over glorification, or nostalgia, of our past has led to a confused mentality of how best to confront the concerns of the present.  While addressing the complex historical implications of the controversial campaign slogan Make America Great Again, he asks for us to question more deeply what message that fourth word conveys.  Which America, which season of American evangelicalism, do we wish to reclaim? What is meant by great AGAIN?

“It is easy for white evangelicals to look back fondly on American history.  There is, of course, a lot to celebrate… At the same time, America is a nation that has been steeped in racism, xenophobia, imperialism, violence, materialism, and a host of other practices that do not conform very well to the ethical demands that Christianity places upon our lives.”  (137-8)

Looking back to this darker past is the key to understanding a path to a brighter, more hopeful, future.  It also helps us put in perspective the widening political gap between white evangelicals and our minority brethren in the faith.  As Fea pointedly queries, “Why would any African-American want to ‘reclaim’ a history steeped in racism?” (134) Yet somehow these voices remain unheard or unheeded and the sins of our forefathers, or perhaps the sins of our own hearts, are the reality we still must confront, repent, and mourn.

What then should we do about these dysfunctional family values?  Fea ultimately concludes with a call to hope over fear, humility over power, and history over nostalgia.  Through further self-reflection and an embrace of values exhibited in the civil rights movement, he thinks we can find creative and faithful ways to respond to the unique (and not so unique) challenges of our times.

Moreover, Fea suggests that we should respond in such a way that is inclusive and welcoming of the entire multi-racial, multi-ethnic body of Christ, seeking after an understanding of the great promise offered by this land of the free that is relatable to all.  “For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear,” he says, “real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.” (154)  Adopting a posture of humility, we should therefore see both the future of our faith and the future of our polis as one in the making, a work in progress ripe for healing and new growth.

While Believe Me is a helpful and insightful addition to the burgeoning literature seeking to explain how a thrice married, notoriously bankrupt (in more ways than one) former reality tv star ended up as President of the United States of America, I do have three critiques to offer.

First, for a book that proclaims to specifically offer an understanding of the evangelical embrace of Trump or Trumpism, Fea fails to adequately define the distinct roots and branches of our family tree.  Since the 2016 election there has been an ongoing discussion, particularly among scholars of theology and church history, regarding the meaning of the label “evangelical” and the authenticity of the poll numbers which Fea readily cites as the basis of his book.  Not only did Fea choose to overlook this discussion about the contemporary use of the term, but his historic examples of “evangelicals” are quite generous in definition, including faith groups as diverse as puritans, members of mainline protestant denominations, prosperity gospel preachers, and pentecostal churches, among others.

The closest Fea comes to defining what he means by American evangelicalism is found in his categorization of the so-called “court evangelicals” who “come from three primary streams of American evangelicalism: the Christian Right, the followers of what has come to be known as the ‘prosperity gospel,’ and the Independent Network Charismatics.” (106)  While I found this to be a helpful way to group the personalities he features, I am certain some of his peers will question if these are all fair representatives of evangelicalism as a historically defined religious movement.

Even if these are all fair representatives of white evangelicalism, Fea still fails to define with greater clarity what he means by the term. (Personally, I am inclined to give him some latitude for accepting this type of self-identified “evangelicalism” as representing an important sociological grouping, if not a precise theological label.)  A significant part of reflecting on our family roots is looking into our DNA, the unique genetic ties that connect us together throughout time.  In Believe Me, Fea fails to even attempt to make these ties apparent.  He uses the term “evangelical” so broadly at times it ceases to mean much more than just a generic, interchangeable, title for the American Christian.

Second, I am afraid this book is not written in a way that makes it fully approachable to the 81% who voted for Donald Trump.  While the dedication “to the 19%” who voted for someone (or no one) else in 2016 seems quite fitting, this book offers an opportunity to bridge the political divide and invite us all onto a mutual path of familial reflection.  Unfortunately, where Fea diverges from the necessary detachment of historical inquiry, there is a touch of off-putting bias.  More than once I caught myself noting how he describes the fears of those who have embraced Trumpism as merely reacting to perceived threats, while at the same time he qualifies the prejudices of both the present and the past as definite and real.  This pattern is particularly evident in his discussion of the Obama presidency where, for example, he fairly critiques the racism behind birtherism but understates both the political and judicial threats to religious liberty posed by the Obama administration both at home and abroad.

While I concur that the Christian Right, among others, ginned up excessive hyperbole and fear in our recent history, I also think that Believe Me as a whole misses the mark in examining the trends in European and American culture that elicited genuine fear and anxiety among orthodox Christian believers.  As many astute observers of our age such as Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option have noted, some evangelicals (presumably including those within the 81%) are responding to shifts in belief and behavior which could lead to actual persecution over time – more than mere social change or inflexibility as Fea implies.  We certainly need to debate the best, most Christ-like way to respond to such threats, but it is folly to gloss over the actual ways these changing public policies and mores may inhibit our freedom of religion in the days to come.

Fea’s overarching thesis, that our fears should be met with hope and humility, remains timely and significant.  Yet by discrediting most of these fears as over exaggerated, or simply as part of a legacy of religious bigotry, he limits his most likely audience to those already inclined to agree with the prescient warning that fear and nostalgia can all too easily lead to ungodly racism, bigotry and exclusion.

Finally, any great examination of family history eventually needs to look fully and fairly at the entire family tree.  When newly exposed to the foibles and abuses of our elders or peers it is only natural to want to keep digging, to find all the hidden or forgotten skeletons, and to reflect upon them through grief.  This process of emotive truth-telling is an important part of healing, but it is not the entirety of the healing process.  What Believe Me starkly overlooks, a bit oddly given the intended audience, is the historical context for evangelicals who currently dissent.  Be they the 19% who didn’t vote for Trump, or part of an unknown percentage who cast their votes for him but still vocally object to policies and behavior which run counter to the Christian Faith, these white evangelicals are standing in an important tradition that also reaches back before our founding.

Family histories are complex, and any readings that are all positive or all negative tend to miss the mark and fail to give complete justice to the truth of our heritage.  Where Fea fairly derides the positive revisionism of David Barton and his ilk for an all-too-simple storytelling of a mythic Christian America, reading Believe Me in insolation risks leaving us with the impression that the legacy of white evangelicalism is mostly negative: a long, sad, solitary tale of bigotry and hypocrisy.

Such a uniquely sordid picture could not be further from the truth.  Look to every moment of ugliness and shame in our nation’s history and there you will find evangelical dissenters, missionaries, and advocates.  While the darker parts of our past must be reckoned with, a feat Fea does quite well, we should not lose sight of the many ways throughout our own history that evangelical Christians have stood with the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed.  That story of compassion and sacrifice is just as if not more significant to tell, not so as to lead us into a nostalgic triumphalism but rather to inspire those who are currently distressed with the knowledge that we are not alone.  Others have stood here before us and stayed faithful to God, upheld human dignity for the downtrodden, and fearlessly spoke truth in the face of persecution, isolation, and apparent powerlessness.

I find Fea’s ultimate answer, for us to look to the civil rights movement as a model to follow in these times, quite compelling.  But I also hope we do not forget the legacy of the abolitionists, the suffragettes, and the urban social movements of the 19th century, among so many others.  The examples of fear and hatred in our past run deep and wide and current events suggest this legacy still lives with us, possibly within each of us, to this day.  But there are also so many examples in our history of rugged perseverance, crusaders for justice, and generous biblical hospitality.  Those saints, many of whom were white American evangelicals, offer us ready examples of what it means to live our lives with a bold, unapologetic, public witness in often dark or confusing times.

These concerns aside, Believe Me is a helpful and ultimately hopeful read worthy of further reflection.  Going into this week of national celebration, I hope we can come to see the role of our familial engagement within the public square not as an opportunity to worship the perfection of what we think our country once was, or what it might already be, but rather, using Fea’s description of the outlook found within the civil rights movement, as “a gesture to what” we hope “the United States might become.” (164)

 

Fea, John. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018).

I received a free advanced copy of this book to review.  Special thanks to Eerdmans for this opportunity and apologies for not publishing sooner! Reading and writing with four under five is quite the adventure. 🙂 

 

The Power of Self-Centered Thinking (Part 2): On Justification, Insecurity, and God’s Will

9789381841723-ukLike many avid PBS viewers, my husband and I were in for quite the experience this week when we sat down to watch their annual coverage of “A Capitol Fourth”, the live broadcast of D.C.’s Independence Day concert and fireworks.   Since we were splashing around town with our toddlers in downpours earlier that day we knew it would be a miracle if the fireworks proceeded as planned.  Imagine our surprise when not only did the fireworks begin, but we were treated to occasionally marvelous aerial coverage of the event featuring crisp monuments, clear skies, and picture perfect displays of pyrotechnic celebration.

Instead of watching a live dud of a display as one would would expect at the conclusion of a rainy day, or seeing some sort of notice announcing that this was a previously recorded display due to inclement weather, we were given an odd amalgamation of both.

While no disclaimer was made during the broadcast, we apparently weren’t the only puzzled residents looking for clarification.  PBS tweeted an explanation of the broadcast the next morning, confirming that they used a mixture of old and new footage in order to improve our viewing experience.

On one hand I totally get it.  The eerie scenes that were obviously live looked more like coverage of the bombing of Baghdad than the happy celebratory pictures we all hope for on the 4th.  However, the cognitive dissonance they created with their creative presentation of truth was ultimately a disorienting and disappointing lie.

Like many lies in our own lives, it wasn’t all fake.  Only key parts of the finale were made up of recycled footage while the bulk of the presentation came live as advertised.  Such combinations of truths and lies are often presented in a positive light, as PBS tried to do the morning after.  Isn’t it for the best when we cover over our darkness and disappointments with something more beautiful or appealing?

The difficulty comes when we sprinkle falsehoods in with truth as an attempt to recreate our reality.  Once combined, it becomes challenging to separate one from the other.  We start to loose touch with what is true and what is false.

Such is the kind of experience I had in reading through The Power of Positive Thinking.  As Peale quotes a psychologist friend in his opening chapter, “Attitudes are more important than facts” (22).  When this perspective becomes your maxim, “reality” is based less on truth and more on how you choose to perceive your circumstances.

PBS invited viewers to perceive the reality of this year’s national fireworks as one filled with sparkling excitement and clear skies.  Peale invites us to perceive our reality as a one where we can attain anything our heart desires so long as we come to believe in ourself.

Chapter 1: Believe in Yourself

We are justified by Christ, believe in Him.  I suppose it comes as no surprise that a book described in big bold letters on the back cover by the line, “Faith in yourself makes good things happen to you” would open with a chapter entitled Believe in yourself.  As Peale explains, “A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement” (13).

In fact, he argues that “Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy” (13).  To help us meet this goal of earthly success, Peale outlines 10 steps comprised mostly of various forms of thought conditioning designed to keep us positive.

Since he was a pastor, Peale’s message is often riddled with mentions of the importance of a belief in God and in the help found in scripture for daily life.  This is the truth he offers.  In fact, some of his prescriptions are fairly good ideas for all believers, like reading the Bible regularly, praying fervently, memorizing verses, and seeking out counseling when facing struggles from your past.  If we take Donald Trump as his word, he loves reading the Bible.  That is no surprise for a follower of Peale’s teachings.

However, the fissures and falsehoods appear as we examine how Peale advocates using scripture and a belief in God for our own gain and self-fulfillment.  Take, for instance, his promise that “You can develop creative faith in yourself – faith that is justified” (13).  To be clear, when Peale says justified here he is referencing a faith is justified by a realistic appreciation of yourself.  This is not a theological truth, it is a pep talk.

Of course, to the self-centered soul this is also a core foundational belief.  I am right, I am worthy, I will do all things well.  So the mantra goes.  Once self justified, you can do no wrong.  Add God to that picture and you’ve found the makings of a monstrous deformation of what God creates us to be.

It should go without saying that this teaching of self justification is the antithesis of Christianity.  Ironically, one of Peale’s favorite scriptures to quote comes from a key passage dealing with justification.  For Step 5 of his assured ways to build self confidence he suggests: “Ten times a day repeat these dynamic words, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ (Romans 8:31) (Stop reading and repeat them NOW slowly and confidently)” (25).

I realize that Romans 8:31 is a favorite verse for many believers, and for good reason.  It is, as Peale notes, encouraging and even empowering.  But we need to ask the question: WHY is God for us? Who is God in the first place? In Peale’s world, to the fundamentally self-centered, he’s whatever we need him to be to support our inner power and outward success.

Contrast that to what the Bible says in full.  Leading up to the beautiful claim of God’s support and love for His children, we find one of the most crucial passages of scripture on the nature of salvation, justification, and the elect in Romans 8:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;    

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

First, it is clear that God justifies us.  God is the actor.  Through Him, through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, we are justified.  Not by who we are.  Not by what we do.  We are justified by Christ.

Second, because we are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified through the great love and grace of God, we now know that “if God is for us, who can be against us.”  The first part of verse 31 is important as it references the powerful statements of truth that proceed it.  We can’t start with the premise that God is for us, rather it is merely the conclusion drawn from all “these things” about who God is and what He has done for us.

True teaching reveals that you don’t learn about God and his nature by looking primarily inside yourself, and you definitely don’t partake in the promises of God by purely inward thinking.  It is by looking up and out to God that we learn more clearly about who we are and what we can do.

Third, God is on our side so that we shall not be separated from His love.  We are more than conquerers, but not in the sense that we are actually guaranteed protection from hardship, failure, or even tragic death.  We are more than conquerers because of the promises regarding the ever present love of God, our salvation, and eternal life.

In fact, because of how we are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified we are told that we may be killed for the glory of God.  Not exactly a winning premise for “self-realization and successful achievement”, especially if your idea of achievement is based primarily in the events and currency of this world.

On a certain level it is a good idea to heal our wounds and believe in what we can achieve with God’s help.  But this belief is only worthwhile when it is grounded in a firm notion of who God is, of the great things He has done, and of who He created us to become.  We are justified by Christ, believe in Him.

God strengthens us to do His will.  In Step 7 Peale tell us to repeat “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” 10 times a day. Then he commands, “Repeat these words NOW. That magic sentiment is the most powerful antidote on earth to inferiority feelings” (25).   Aside from his appeals for repetition starting to feel like a youth camp gone all wrong, his use of this verse throughout the book as a hallmark feature of building self-confidence is troubling.

Like we saw with Romans 8, the entirety of a passage matters in clarifying what followers of Christ are actually promised in this life.  Can we really do anything we set our minds to, without limits?  Can we use God to achieve something contrary to His teachings? What happens if we fail?  Was God not on our side that time?  Did we not have a sufficiently large enough faith?  Consider these preceding verses in Philippians 4:

8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.

God strengthens us so that we can put into practice that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in.  We are not kept from storms, but we are strengthened to weather them.

Also, we can do these things because of who God is.  God is great.  God is good.  God is love.   God is Lord.  Therefore we can do amazingly powerful things for Him.  Note, he doesn’t strengthen us so that we might be great.  As the Eucharistic liturgy exhorts, “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is Yours, almighty Father, forever and ever.”

It can be as much a struggle to excel in these things that bear righteousness in times of plenty and success as in times of famine and failure.  Yet God gives us the strength to follow Him, and in turn to bring Him honor, glory, and praise.  God strengthens us to do His will.

Our insecurities should encourage compassion, not contempt.  Peale identifies the root of our individual problems as our own inferiority complex, or “deep and profound self-doubt” (17).  Note that our struggles, fears, and problems do not come from any particular acknowledgment either of sin or satan.

A cure for inferiority is to “fill your mind with to overflowing with faith” and to “Develop a tremendous faith in God and that will give you a humble yet soundly realistic faith in yourself” (17).  Ok, so that doesn’t sound bad, right?

Caution friends, this is a trap.  As much as it might be helpful and healing to develop a “humble yet soundly realistic” view of ourselves, especially one that begins with a faith in God, it is severely damaging to make faith in ourselves and our capabilities a chief goal in life.  Why?  Because it makes our faith in God fundamentally about us and our well-being, not about God and how He calls us to serve one another.  This is what it looks like to build your house upon the sand.

Peale’s own derision toward those who have yet to find self-confidence comes to the surface in ugly ways.  He notes, “It is appalling to realize the number of pathetic people who are hampered and made miserable by the malady popularly called the inferiority complex” (13).  One can almost see Trump’s now infamous remark “Sad!” after that comment.

Peale’s message rings hollow for his sights are set so low.  Consider this advice given to a middle child who underperformed in school in contrast to his high achieving older brother, “Just because somebody gets an A in college doesn’t make him the greatest man in the United States, because maybe his A’s will stop when he gets his diploma, and the fellow who got C’s in school will go on to get the real A’s in life” (17).

First, the ‘real A’s’ he is talking about aren’t about character, the pursuit of righteousness, or eternal life.  He is depicting a story like that of the biography of Donald Trump.  You might not be the top of the class, but you can still be more successful and more wealthy than your older brother when you enter the real business world.  Take heart!  Your success is yet to come! You can still be the greatest, the best, and the brightest.  Just believe in yourself.  Yuck.

Second, note how he turns the predicament of one person’s weakness into a story of pitting one brother against the other.  It’s not enough to suggest that those who get average grades can still be successful later on in life, he also has to point out that the older brother might start tasting failure after school ends.  The confidence of one is built upon the potential failure of another. Such is the rotten fruit that comes from attempts to justify ourselves.

Moreover, consider this observation from Step 4: ”Do not be awestruck by other people and try to copy them.  Nobody can be you as efficiently as YOU can” (25).  Let Trump be Trump? Anyone? Anyone?

“Remember also that most people, despite their confident appearance and demeanor, are often as scared as you are and as doubtful of themselves” (25).  Well then.  Guessing those confident people aren’t really true positive thinkers, they are just fakers waiting to be revealed.

The dummies.  The losers.  Like you.  Like me. For here is a central problem of the theology presented by Norman Vincent Peale: mere positive thinking and attentive effort at building self-confidence isn’t actually all that fulfilling.  It isn’t really the answer to all of your problems or the healing balm to your deepest wounds.  Not only will you find the need to justify yourself through your superiority to others, but you will still be fearful inside that someone might find out that you are actually faking your way through life.

Stop trying to justify yourself, for we are all sinners who will endlessly come short.  Belief in yourself, when placed at the center of your life, is tremendously hollow and disappointing.  Belief in yourself, which is rarely humble or truthful when exercised apart from an active relationship with Christ, can lead to great evil.  We are justified by Christ, believe in Him.

Our belief in God and His love for us is not primarily designed with earthly success in mind.  God may gift that to us, but we will all have our crosses to bear, thorns in our flesh, and disappointments in life.  God’s help is offered so that we may love Him more fully.  His promise is that once adopted as co-heirs with Christ we will never be separated from His unconditional love and saving grace.  God strengthens us to do His will.

As we seek to grow and heal we will discover the places in our hearts that are wounded and sinful.  Recognizing these scars and faults in ourselves ought to lead us to a place of empathy where we can enter into the pain, fears, and failures of others.  We are meant to build up, not tear down.  Our insecurities should encourage compassion, not contempt.

 

If you missed my opening, check out Part I on the backstory of blogging through this book and my summary thoughts on Peale’s Preface.  I never set out to take this review as a chapter by chapter guide, but I was so struck by the ideas listed in the first chapter I wanted to spend extra time on some of what he writes there.  As we go on in the coming week or so, and these assertions are repeated time and time again, I will address groups of chapters together and cover new or different areas for further thought.  

 I am using the 1992 edition of The Power of Positive Thinking printed by Fawcet Crest/Ballantine Books.  All citations reference this copy.

 

 

 

The Power of Self-Centered Thinking: Norman Vincent Peale, Donald Trump, and American Evangelicalism (Part 1)

9789381841723-ukOne evening during the 2016 primary season my husband and I were reconnecting, as we often do, through political analysis.  As we discussed the daily rumination on the latest and greatest from Donald Trump’s campaign, we stumbled upon a video from one of his more notorious public appearances: the 2015 Family Leadership Summit in Iowa.  You might have seen clips from this interview as well, for it is when he defended his tweet calling John McCain a loser because, according to Trump, “I like people who weren’t captured.”

Watching his appearance in its entirety, however, I heard something remarkably clarifying about the belief system of Donald J. Trump.   Not only is this the part of the interview where he stated his uncertainty over ever asking God for forgiveness, but he also named his favorite pastor and life-long spiritual advisor who wrote his favorite book.  A book, I’d wager, that represents his personal gospel: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.

Now, the astute student of Christian History that I am, I had to get my hands on a copy of this former New York Times bestseller to read for myself.  I’d heard of Peale’s mid-century popularity and was aware of his role as a precursor of sorts to our modern day self-help/prosperity gospel movement, but I had not done much study of his seminal work before this month.  What I’ve found in the pages of his once dominant bestseller concerns me deeply.

Given the importance of so many of the issues and attitudes addressed in the pages of Peale’s crowning achievement, I’ve decided to blog my way through this onetime favorite of the American public.  It is a bestseller that helped fashion the ethic of Donald Trump, but it also helped fuel any number of theological abuses within the Evangelical church.

A few cautionary thoughts: The majority of observations gleaned from this work are not primarily meant as political guidance.  While it is prudent to understand the worldview accepted by Donald Trump, or any other leading candidate for president, these deviations from Christian orthodoxy are not enough – in and of themselves – to deem him unfit to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

In fact, it is likely many other presidential candidates from the 20th Century adopted a Peale-esque understanding of Christianity.  They just didn’t live out this belief system as publicly and unabashedly as Trump does to its inevitably selfish and soulless ends.

If you are looking for reasons to not vote for Donald Trump in November I suggest there are a multitude of other factors that might lead you to that conclusion.  The problem regarding his ambition for the presidency of the United States is not purely his favored spiritual guidance and its lack of Christian orthodoxy, but how it appears that he applies it in the defense and promulgation of evil.  Therefore, consider my musings as one way to contextualize much of Donald Trump’s public behavior, policy suggestions, and persona.

Additionally – I might say, primarily – reading through this book became a self-critique of modern Evangelicalism.  More than a guide for the election in 2016, The Power of Positive Thinking acts as an indictment of our faith community: against the pernicious ways we are all tempted to use our faith in God for selfish and hurtful purposes; against how we often demean His story for personal gain; and against those who devalue the great cost associated with Christian grace.

More than once when reading this work I was struck by just how familiar these ideas and stories were, almost as if I’d heard them all before.  The familiarity almost lent the chapters a sense of compelling legitimacy, even as I identified the problems riddled throughout.  Then it dawned on me. I’ve heard these same talking points in sermons!  Far too many sermons, in churches representing a full spectrum of denominations, scattered throughout our country.

Rather than demonstrating a throwback to old heresies, I found myself staring straight into the mirror of our contemporary American church.  Peale might be forgotten or out of fashion, but the school of thought he promoted certainly lives on.  It is little wonder so many prominent Evangelical leaders now wholeheartedly embrace Donald Trump and even applaud the ways he addresses them and speaks of their all important “power.”  More on that to come.

For those who champion Bonhoeffer’s costly grace, for those who believe words forgotten to history still matter, for those who think what leaders claim to believe is central to understanding how they might act, this series is for you.

As a starting place, let’s take a look at the introduction of Donald Trump’s favorite book:

Introduction: What this book Can Do for You∗

Beware cure-all elixirs.  In Victorian society, both in North America and in Europe, the peddling of health tonics and pills claiming to solve all forms of illness was a fashionable trend and a regular facet of culture for both high society and the emerging middle class.  These cure-all elixirs were typically comprised of anything from mere sugar water, to some kind of oil, to varieties containing high levels of arsenic, alcohol, opium, morphine, or cocaine.

The tonics and cures were often schemes designed to help their creators, and sometimes doctors and pharmacists, get rich quick while fleecing the general public.  Although, I’m sure some producers also genuinely believed in the efficacy of their products. Either way, few “cures” possessed actual medicinal qualities.

In spite of, at-best, minimal legitimate health benefits, these elixirs were considered by many people as a go to cure-all for colds, flus, teething, headaches, toothaches, and just about any other malady of young and old you can fathom.  The more popular varieties continued to be used even when communities were faced with their inability to improve their ailments, or even their potential to harm and kill those who consumed them.

There was always a testimony or three offered of how these tonics genuinely helped cure some great illness or blemish.  No doubt – when not a boldface lie – the testimonial phenomenon is understood by the power of the placebo effect or even, dare I say it, the power of positive thinking.  Unfortunately, many people positively thought their way to the grave.

In his introduction to The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale offers us a cure-all elixir for the maladies of life.  The back cover of my edition makes tremendous claims about what this book will do for me, but my first thought is that perhaps this was just some marketing strategy by the publisher embellishing the original intent of the author.  But no.  Let me assure you, Peale literally intends for this book to change your life.

His self proclaimed simple work, with “no pretense to literary excellence nor does it seek to demonstrate any unusual scholarship,” was written with the “sole objective of helping the reader achieve a happy, satisfying, and worthwhile life”(x).  Well, what’s wrong with that?

Not only will his book achieve those things but I counted at least six key promises he makes in how our lives will improve by following his understanding of “applied Christianity; a simple yet scientific system of practical techniques of successful living that works” (xi).  By employing these teachings, we will:

  1. Become better liked and more popular
  2. Gain a new sense of well-being, or “new life”
  3. Achieve a new degree of health
  4. Attain more pleasure in living
  5. Transform into more useful and efficient people
  6. Expand our influence and power

All that gleaned from the teachings found in this one little book. Where has it been all my life?

Lest you think Peale overlooks the fact that life can be tragic or difficult at times, he assures us, “I certainly do not ignore or minimize the hardships of this world, but neither do I allow them to dominate.”  Rather, “obstacles are simply not permitted to destroy your happiness and well-being” (ix).

Oh, ok.  Perhaps you are starting to catch on to how someone who is captured in war – and who chose to remain imprisoned when given an opportunity to leave before his fellow POW’s – is, well, a loser.

It turns out our ability to overcome these tragedies and obstacles stems from the realization that “you can modify or change the circumstances in which you now live.”  Tell that to a Syrian refugee child in Lebanon and see how it works out for them. Thus we encounter the opening flaw to Peale’s notion of “Christian” power, success, and happiness.

His is an ethic for an affluent audience, most specifically for his parishioners from the upper crust of New York society (such as young Donald Trump and family).  He is writing for those who can afford to change their circumstances with relative ease, or “will” a better life.  However, if you aren’t already living amidst the trappings of earthly power, just follow his steps and you too will soon attain this level of material success, have no fear. Or so he claims.

Still, who doesn’t want to believe that their “life can be full of joy and satisfaction” (ix), or that it is possible to experience improved levels of “achievement, health, and happiness” (xi) as we walk on this earth?  Maybe, somewhere inside of us we agree that “It is a pity that people should let themselves be defeated by the problems, cares, and difficulties of human existence, and it is also quite unnecessary” (ix).

We’ve all met the “Debbie Downers” of life – maybe we’ve been them ourselves at times – who only see the foreboding or fearful throughout the day and who rarely note the hopeful or positive.  Perhaps you are drawn, as intended, to this idea that if we forgo negative thoughts we will also forgo negative consequences and experiences.

Our life is in our control, so the story goes, and as such we can control where we take it and what we make of it.  This is a pastor writing about the practical applications for Christianity after all.  Doesn’t God want the best for us in this life?

As much as Peale’s promises come across as over reaching, they may also strike you as secretly appealing.  They are meant to.  Beware cure-all elixirs.

 

Also in this Series:

Part 2: On Justification, Insecurity, and God’s Will

Part 3: On Forgiveness, Prayer, and Eternal Life

I am using the 1992 edition printed by Fawcet Crest/Ballantine Books.  All citations reference this copy.

 

Testing the Waters III

For my third and final book concept, I have outlined a devotional for the unemployed, particularly the young and unemployed.  More generally, this book would address the question, ‘How do we hope for the future when living in a dark and disappointing present?’

Below is a tentative introduction, which explains the project in greater detail.

How does this idea compare to concept 1 (the allegorical novel) and concept 2 (the popular theology of the imagination)? Which book do you think I should write this summer? Which one is your favorite?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

While We Wait

Hope For A Generation Unemployed

Introduction

This is a book written in the midst of weakness.  I have no great story of success, at least not of the kind that we are used to hearing about.  My only true credential for writing on such a weighty topic as hope is that I strove to reject the ever present temptation to despair in the face of unemployment, rejection, and uncertainly.

Perhaps we often expect too much of hopeful thoughts and sentiments, or more accurately, we misunderstand them.  We hold onto someone else’s success because we desire that our lives will soon follow in their path.  In essence, we chase after hope because we are trying to escape from the reality of our present sufferings by willing them to end as soon as possible.  Yet hope filled messages are not meant to act as glib prescriptions slapped onto our circumstances after some great deliverance has come.  Rather, the province of hope is the place of unfulfilled desires, broken dreams, and anxious nights.

My own quest for employment was filled with its share of highs and lows; moments of laughter and months of tears.  Some days I awoke with great enthusiasm and faith in the future and other days it was a true accomplishment to simply find my way out of my bed and into a pair of jeans.  Through the changing of the seasons I have felt the cold fears of winter, the optimism of spring, the exhaustion of summer, and the pensive reflections of fall.  The ideas found in this book are simply the lessons, stories, and prayers of my heart from the journey I have taken.  In my writings I have tried to understand and share what it means to walk with Christ through the valley of unemployment, and more generally, in times of darkness and confusion.

I once heard hope defined as the posture of life that always rejoices in the future which lies in the hands of God.  There is great depth to this definition and, as I am no expert, I fear that my own fragmented exploration merely scratches the surface of why and how we can find joy in all things.  But I know for certain that it begins and ends with the truth of God, the great I Am.  I cannot think of hope without first thinking of God for without Him there is no joy, no goodness, no love, no purpose, and no future.

If you do not know Him, then I pray that these words might help you to understand a fraction of who He is and how much He loves you as His creation.  I can promise you that He is there, waiting for you to reach out to Him in the midst of your disappointments and pain.  For those of you who, like me, knew the one true God before your struggle, may these words strengthen your faith and by the power of the spirit lead you closer to his heart.

Waiting is uncomfortable, but it is not impossible.  So while we wait, let us do so with hope; rejoicing today for the blessings of tomorrow.

Testing the Waters II

For my second book concept I am contemplating authoring a work to outline a popular theology of the imagination.  The draft of an opening segment is below for your feedback and thoughts. 

Would a book like this be helpful for you?  Would you read it?  Which do you prefer, this idea or my first concept of an allegorical novel?

The Creative Witness

Reclaiming the Christian Imagination for Every Day Life

Part 1: The Vision of a Baptized Imagination

ImageWho cannot help but remember with fondness those days as a child when we were so easily amazed by the ordinary and saw the mysterious as commonplace.  It is to this whimsical world of a child’s imagination, one of fairy tales and dreams, that we long to return – when we are brave enough to admit it.  The beautiful truth of redemption is that the fulfillment of this longing is not beyond our reach.  In fact, for those of us seeking to follow in the way of Christ, our imaginations have already been as much redeemed as every other piece of our body, mind, and spirit and lie ripe for cultivation and harvests of bountiful fruit.

Flowing forth from our redeemed imagination comes the ability to envision the intangible and distant elements of faith that are otherwise lost in the mundane and stressful distractions of our daily routines.  Once awakened by the work of the spirit, our imaginations can guide us towards the perfection of holiness and help us to overcome the inevitable seasons of doubt and despair that we all face in this life.

There is an unfortunate misnomer in our culture that the imagination is the currency only for a creative elite; those who are deemed by connoisseurs and critics as the artistically gifted.  It evident that some among us have been specially called to make artistic works of superior form and beauty.  These creations, skillfully crafted by our anointed brothers and sisters, ought to play a central and vital role in the work of the Church.  But what I want you to hear me say to you, above all else in this book, is that each one of us has been given the faculty of the imagination as a blessing from our Creator to enable us to more fully see Him, to learn from Him, to glorify Him, and to love and adore Him all the days of our lives.

The calling of the Christian imagination is one that we must reclaim for the entire body of Christ. This is not a matter of having an eye for aesthetics, the voice of an angel, or the pen of a poet.  This is a matter of being fully equipped to taste and see that our Lord is good.  Once the Christian imagination is rekindled within each of us, the church as a united whole shall stand stronger and brighter as that prophetic city on a hill; seeking day by day to dwell in the light of truth and beckon lovingly, yet boldly, to the surrounding world.  The unfolding pages, chapters and parts shall endeavor to cast a vision for what our imagination is meant to be, discuss the barriers that we all encounter which hinder its proper use, and ultimately suggest a way for each us to reclaim the Christian imagination for every day life.

Testing the Waters

I am in the midst of deciding which of my book concepts to take up for the rest of the summer.  The following is a tentative beginning and mock up for one of my options: a fictional, semi-autobiographic, novel told with tinges of allegory.

Would you want to read more? Let me know!

Purifying Grace: The Making of A Woman

For my beloved down here, whose love
Draws me ever closer to my Beloved up there

Part 1: Beginnings

“I was born in the way of truth: though my childhood was unaware of the greatness of the benefit, I knew it when trial came.”

~ St. Ephrem the Syrian

Chapter 1: At Birth, A Name

SHE was born precisely at the stroke of three on a warmer than average autumnal morning.  Nothing about time would ever be precise for her again.

There is a quality about birth that will always remain a great mystery for us humans; even for the mothers who have been through labor, or the fathers who stood present and in awe, or the doctors who have aided in hundreds or thousands of deliveries.  No matter how many births we witness, or how many children a woman may carry to term, we will never be able to remember our own entrance into this world.  It is the fundamental event of our earthen bound lives and yet we can only learn of it through legend.  How strange a fate to know of our beginnings merely second hand.

She was no different than your average little newborn of medium length and less than memorable weight.  Overcome by her timely entrance and subsequent wails she was quite ready for a nap. Her parents, tired themselves from a long night of labor, were quite predictably also ready for some rest – yet their joy at the arrival of a person much hoped for and long waited upon compelled them to stay awake for the time being.  As they clung together in that moment the early threads of a family were woven; threads that would one day form a beauteous tapestry worthy of hanging in the grandest of halls.

So engrossed were her parents in the birth of their little family that they hardly heard the doctor enter their plain little room to inquire, “Well now, what is her name?”

What a heavy laden question!  The burden to name another rests all too easily upon the apathetic shoulders of our thoughtless generation.

There was – for a brief moment – uncertainty in the air.  In those days the methods of determining gender were not as advanced and these parents had been prepared to have a little boy.

They had no name to give.

At long last, after gazing at the little miracle she held in her arms, the girl’s mother smiled and said, “Pure.  We will call her Pure.”

Her father nodded and then added, “Her middle name should be Grace, after some of our bravest ancestors long since gone.”

Looking lovingly into each others’ eyes as only newly crowned parents can, they knew that they had found their daughter’s preordained name.

And so it was that the journey of Pure Grace in this strange place called earth ever so simply began.

This piece is cross-posted at my Tumblr blog.