The Prosperity Mongers

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.

Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
Pentecost and Ecstasy
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • zoecarnate

    Hey, this should go in your book. :) Speaking of books-in-progress…

  • Carl McColman

    Everything in this blog is book-fodder!

    And yes, I know, I know….

  • girlwhocriedepiphany

    Personally, I believe that the word “breezy” should only be used in a spiritual context if one is describing say, her meditation practice that involves sitting on a windy bluff overlooking Galway Bay.

    This post is an interesting companion to the piece you wrote about those we leave behind specifically in terms of accepting the fact that mysticism is not for everyone while at the same time wanting to bring it to a broader audience. How does one avoid injecting too much NutraSweet into the message in the attempt to transform the broader consciousness from the “me” to God? Because the path of the mystic appeals to so few (based on personality and inclination as you say), it seems an inherently difficult entity to effectively bring to the marketplace. That is not to say that all of us who understand its nourishment will not continue to try…

    In George Monbiot’s book on global warming called _Heat_, he asserts that one of the barriers to making people understand the need to change their behaviors to counteract climate change is that “nobody ever rioted for austerity.” I am assuming that people were not stampeding into the sand to follow the desert mothers and father either. But perhaps we can believe (and help along) a culture that is ready to turn from its obsession with prosperity consciousness and fossil fuels to embrace a less simple set of answers and realize a much profound vision of success.

  • Trish

    Hi Carl,

    Here’s a thankyou from Downunder for both this posting, and for sharing your own journey on this blog. Since beginning to explore the work of Ken Wilber about 18 months ago, my interest in spirituality and mysticism has grown and become a focal point for my own phenomenological understanding of the differences between the two words. I resonate strongly with your blog, having recently come back to exploring my own Christian background via Gnosticism.

    I’m responding to this posting because it has astounded me when I’ve heard others denounce works like ‘The Secret’, people for whom I would’ve thought that this sort of material would fall well below their radar. The way I understand it, “The Secret’, indeed, does present seventh chakra realisations (about the order of the universe) within the realms of the second chakra (where you can have all the money, power, status that you could ever dream of).

    What I’ve been graced with is an experience or two popular New Age materials such as ‘What the Bleep’ and ‘The Secret’ being really helpful for others who have needed just those words, at just that time. While I don’t necessarily think our culture would benefit from the promulgation of these works, that they exist, and that other people derive benefit from them, for my thinking is best addressed by simple acceptance from myself. To do otherwise seems a little akin to deriding Vedanta because I’m a practising Catholic.

    ‘Letting go, and letting God’ seems to require that I face the world in an open, caring manner, where the dysfunction of the world, and myself, has to be acknowledged, and consciously worked with. You’re precisely right, it’s not always fun, and has it’s moments of seeming to be non-rewarding. But to denigrate someone else for explaining the workings of the world in their own terms is about as far away from a human practice, much less a spiritual practice as I ever want to be.

    So thankyou, ever so much, for being another voice that rails up against the railing!
    I look forward to your publishing date,

    Love and light,

  • intheneighborhood

    Honestly, positive thinking makes one feel good.

  • Carl McColman

    Of course it does.

  • Lynne

    What about the ‘law of attraction’ or ‘prosperity gospel’ is at odds with Jesus’ words of ‘ask and it will be given you, knock and the door will be opened’ or ‘if you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, move over there, and it will move’? I’m curious how you reconcile those, in that case.

  • Carl McColman

    Lynne, I never said the prosperity gospel is contrary to the teachings of Christ. I just don’t believe it represents the fullness of the gospel, that’s all.

  • Lynne

    Ah okay. That makes sense. You’re right, obviously it’s not the full story. :)

  • Carl McColman

    Indeed. This is why I don’t like to take sides in the whole prosperity/”Secret” debate. People get mighty dogmatic in a hurry, whether they are defenders or detractors of the whole “think and change your life” movement. I’d rather avoid getting dogmatically quagmired, even if it makes me suspicious in the eyes of both “sides.” Where I sit, there doesn’t have to be any “sides” anyway!

  • Darrell Grizzle

    I like much of what Joel Osteen has to say, but I don’t look to him for theology. He’s a motivational speaker, and to me he’s a much better one than Anthony Robbins, Wayne Dyer, et al. Reading Joel Osteen or watching The Secret should always be balanced by a heavy dose of Ecclesiastes.

  • Peter

    When my wife and I joined Amway (for one year), she made the sharp observation that there seemed to be two kinds of successful pyramid people: most of them used their increased wealth to relax, upgrade their status, and party; a small minority used it to benefit the needy and hurting of the world. Darrell is right about Osteen’s motivational giftings! But what we do with what we gain has to fall under the guidance of a New Testament, Spirit-led, mature conscience, informed by the book of Ecclesiastes and maybe the latest reports of AIDS statistics in sub-Saharan Africa or persecution of minorities in various places of our world. Let’s do our best to fulfill the full implications of the Good News!

    Love, Peter

  • Acidri

    I guess no one will read this last post as the threads been lying for two years. there is more than a connection between Joel Osteen and Rhonda Byrne. I hope this post helps to draw out the plain similarities in the New Age methodologies. Here is “Joel’s La Vi Da Loca”