I spoke with an editor of a large faith-oriented website yesterday; I had pitched a couple of ideas to this site and hadn’t had any luck getting a contract. We talked about how most of their readers were looking for breezy, self-help articles. He mentioned Joel Osteen more than once.
When I think about folks like Joel Osteen or Rhonda Byrne (author of The Secret), I have deeply ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, no one can argue with the worldly success of such things as the Law of Attraction or the Prosperity Gospel: clearly, people are hungry for a message that provides hope and encouragement. As a writer, I would love nothing more than to author a book that will speak to millions of people. And it’s not just because of the royalty check (although that would be nice); it’s because I know how much effort goes into a book and I’d like that effort to be useful for others. So there is a temptation to join in the prosperity chorus. But it’s only a temptation — my editor friend and I joked about the absurdity of me writing to fit in with that genre: “Julian of Norwich wants you to be rich!” I don’t think so.
Meanwhile, it’s become fashionable to attack the Joel Osteens and Rhonda Byrnes of the world. But while I have my questions and concerns about the whole prosperity-consciousness industry, I am no more interested in attacking it than I am in just becoming part of it. I’m willing to assume good intentions on the part of the prosperity mongers (really, I am. I don’t think Osteen and Byrne and their cronies are out to get us, and I think even their obvious materialism is driven by belief in their message, and not the other way around). But I also believe their message is ultimately flawed, or perhaps a better way to describe it is, it’s incomplete. It’s spiritual junk food. It tastes great (“change your thinking, and health and wealth are yours!”) but it doesn’t satisfy. It leaves you hungrier than ever. Which is why the prosperity mongers stay in business: their incremental sales are guaranteed, ad infinitum.
When I’ve told people that I’m writing a book on mysticism, a common response I get is this: “Oh, that’s beyond me.” Mysticism is seen as too esoteric, too advanced, too elitist for the ordinary person. I want to challenge that notion. In fact, I think mysticism is the logical next step for the person who begins to see the limitations and weaknesses in the mainstream “change your thinking, change your life” message.
Here’s what I mean: I think the fatal flaw of the prosperity mongers is that their message typically seems to be this:
Change your thinking and you’ll get what you want.
Frankly, that’s just empirical nonsense, even though practically all of us can improve our lives somewhat by improving our thoughts and behaviors and attitudes. So yes, we need to do all we can to better ourselves, but then it’s time for the next step: not a huge leap, just a single step:
Change your thinking and let God get what God wants.
That’s when mysticism begins. Will it make us happy? Maybe, and maybe not. Will it “taste good”? Maybe, and maybe not. No guarantees in either of those categories. But it will nourish us. It’s truly satisfying — on a deep, soul, for-all-eternity level.