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.

 

In Memoriam: Christina Grimmie, My Friend

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Christina with my Grandmother at my wedding

My wedding reception had just finished and I was trying to get back to my room to change shoes. After hobbling up a flight of stairs with throbbing feet and a cumbersome dress I realized that I did not have a card key to access the lodge hallway where the bridal party rooms were located.  As I was debating if I could make it back downstairs on my own, and honestly starting to feel quite lonely, a graceful, quiet soul appeared on the landing where I was waiting.  I explained to Christina my predicament, she helped me get in, and then we walked together to our neighboring rooms.

I will never forget this moment.

She told me how beautiful I was. I told her how beautiful she sang.  I thanked her for coming to make my wedding so special.  She thanked me for the opportunity to be a part of our story.  And then I told her something that proved to be more true than ever in the following years. I told her that while we may not be related by blood, her family was our family and I couldn’t imagine celebrating that day without them.  Their family, as she reminded me in that moment, liked to tell everyone that my family are the nicest people they know. But in that moment I knew the truth of who the nicest among us truly was.  We hugged, and we went our own ways.

Yesterday, Christina Grimmie went from ushering others to worship at the throne of the Lord through her beautiful life to standing before Him in heaven at the age of 22.

For those who are left behind, for those experiencing a tremendous grief, for those trying to make sense of the senseless, for those wishing they could just do something, this one is for you.

This is the Story of the Son of God

Hanging on a cross for me*

She was loving.  Christina’s love was genuine.  She loved her family, her pets, and her fans.  She loved music.  In an age full of manipulation and image crafting, Christina was true to herself and how God made her.  She was determined to be faithful to who she was and who God was calling her to be.  She ignored voices telling her to be or do something she wasn’t because she knew her fans and she had a vision for how to love them and minister to them through pop music. She loved others and she loved herself for she knew that God loves us all.

The causes she supported with her celebrity weren’t publicity stunts, they were accurate reflections of her heart.  When she said she loved her fans, she really and truly meant it with her whole being.  She received her success with deep humility, and used it to tirelessly serve those whom she inspired.  Christina gave to her family, just as they gave to her.  She sacrificed for others, and she sacrificed for God.  To all of us who had the privilege of knowing her personally, we know the depth of the love she offered and modeled.  Christina Grimmie was loving.

But it ends with a Bride and Groom

Standing By a Glassy Sea

She was faithful.  Christina’s faith was real.  It truly permeated her life and influenced her decisions, even at a young age.  Through her knowledge of scripture to her prayer life, she privately practiced the faith she came so publicly to claim.  She faced plenty of challenges, disappointment, failures and deep pain in her young life, and yet she always turned to God for healing and guidance.  She might not have been recording “Christian” music or serving on a worship team, but no one who knew her could ever charge that she sought to use her gifts for anything other than the Glory of God.  Christina Grimmie was faithful.

Oh, Death Where is Your Sting 

Because I’ll Be there Singing

She had hope. I remember when she and her friend Sarah were very young and first spent a visit at our home writing songs that they asked to perform for us before leaving.  These mini concerts became a regular tradition for our get togethers with the Grimmie’s, long before Christina uploaded her first video to share with the world.  I can earnestly say that watching God’s hand unfold in her life story from early childhood until now has inspired me time and again in remarkable ways.  God gave her a vision and a dream early on in her life and she believed in it with abandon.

She believed in it so much that she kept working toward it, tirelessly, endlessly, passionately, even when she had no clear path for success.  She had hope that God meant what he was speaking over her heart and into her life.  She had hope that no matter the obstacles, He could bring it to pass and that He would not forget her and her dreams.  She had hope that no matter the number of closed doors she encountered along the way, there was still a future for her.  For those of us who saw that hope in a young girl from South Jersey singing from our balconies and in our living rooms, who was self-taught and self-driven, we saw hope in action.  Christina Grimmie had hope.

Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord Almighty

She transformed others for good.  As Christina was performing on The Voice, I heard God speak over her an anointing while we were watching her cover of Drake’s song, “Hold on. We’re going home.”  What I heard that night was a reminder that this, too, was a manifestation of the gospel.  What she had accomplished was an act of taking something that seems to be worldly and hollow at its core and transforming it into something truly beautiful and meaningful.  So many of her covers infused this love and beauty into whatever she chose to sing.

The secret to her professional success in this world, beyond her talent, unique personality, and infectious joy, came in how she used her artistry to touch our hearts and remind us that there really is a Creator of this universe who is Love.  God used Christina’s life, as I believe He will continue to use her earthly legacy, every time she breathed His life, the life and freedom of Christ, into the music she performed.

As her family, her friends, her fans, we were all touched by her time walking along side us and we can honestly say that we are better off having known her.  She helped to transform our lives through her kindness, her testimony, and the work of her hands.  Christina Grimmie transformed others for good.

Who Was and Is and Is to Come

Her story is not over.  For those of you, like myself and my family, who have followed Christina’s journey from childhood on up, there is a particular pain to see her name so publicly renowned today.  We all prayed and hoped and believed a day would come when she would reach this level of recognition for her talents.  Never, never, never, could we have ever imagined that day would come because of how she died.  It is almost too much, too cruel.

It does not end like this.  It does not end in tragedy, just as it did not start in tragedy.  The headlines that now bring her story to the rest of the world are neither the beginning nor the end.  Much like the Savior she loved, the tragic and heedless nature of her death may call attention to her life, but it does not define who she was, is, and will be.

We will miss her here.  We will miss her so much.  We will miss her and all the things we will miss out sharing with her in this earthly life that ended so soon.  I recall on my wedding weekend talking to Christina and her mom at different times about how she was so inspired by the story of how my husband and I met through the divine hand of God.  I remember how she said our story gave her hope for what kind of man God had in store for her, in His timing, and the importance of waiting on God to fulfill these desires of your heart.

In so many ways, it hurts knowing that she never met that man on earth and that we will never have the joy of celebrating her wedding together, as she so powerfully helped me celebrate mine.  And yet – and yet – I know that Christina met her bridegroom last night while she stood all in white.

Her story has just begun.  Her life, her eternal life, began anew last night.  If we thought that she sang beautifully in this earth I can only imagine just how glorious she sounds today.  I know that her life and her heart is fulfilled.  I know that she is loved in ways we can only dream of.  I know that she is whole.

Each time we think of her life and the way that God used it, we continue her story here as well.  When we listen to her music, or watch her videos, or tell others about her, we continue the act of transformation she began.  When we think on how much she was and did in her 22 years and we choose to be and do even a fraction of that with our own, her story lives on.  When we choose to love, to be faithful, to hope, and to use our gifts to transform this world for good, we keep her life’s purpose alive and we point to the life that she now lives.  Christina Grimmie’s story is not over.

This is the Story of a Bride in White 

Singing on Her Wedding Day

Of the God who was and is to stand before a Bride who Sings

Holy, Holy, Holy, Is the Lord God Almighty

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* The words in Italics are the lyrics to the song “Holy (Wedding Day)” by City Harmonic.  This was one of the songs Christina sang at my wedding.  It is the song that she sang as I walked down the aisle on May 11th, 2013.  Never before has this song meant so much to me.  Our glassy sea was upon the shores of Lake Tahoe.  Hers are the glorious seas of Heaven.