Bad theology, self-help, and Christian bookstores

This week saw the release of a new Joel Osteen book (and if you don’t know who Osteen is, Google is your friend), entitled “Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day,” which normally wouldn’t even interest me in the slightest. Actually, it still doesn’t interest me in the slightest; I have no fondness for Osteen, nor do I feel much in the way of antipathy for his preaching and ministry. He is, in my humble opinion, one of the most overrated evangelists I know of.

What is remarkable about the release of this book are some comments that I ran into about the book itself, although criticism of Osteen’s writings and general ideology is certainly unsurprising given his popularity and pre-eminence as a Christian figure in society. If we Christians are going to nitpick over something, high-profile seems to be the first place to start.

No, what is remarkable is what these comments say not about Osteen’s new book but about one aspect of the Christian sub-culture: Christian bookstores.

The comments I refer to are by Tim Challies of challies.com and Brent Thomas of Colossians Three Sixteen, both of which negatively review Osteen’s follow-up to the bestselling “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential.” One comment of Challies’ that is probably fair is the accusation of being overly repetitive (although Challies uses the adverb “maddeningly” instead): the subtitles are practically the same! It is probably true that Osteen set out to do the same thing with this book as the last, while raking in a nice little profit in the meantime. (Was that too cynical? If you’ve read the title of this blog, that last bit of commentary shouldn’t have been a surprise.)

But besides some of these complaints, the main timbre of these reviews is that Osteen’s books are bad theology. Challies says of the book:

Become a Better You contains some teaching that seems consistent with the Bible, and certainly there is lots of Christian terminology woven in. But Osteen teaches what is clearly a woefully inadequate theology of sin, repentance, sanctification and life.

Thomas agrees:

Osteen says that he hopes to reach everybody with his book, including people that are not used to coming to church. This is fine and good, but we must be clear, Osteeen’s book is not about God, it is not about the Bible, it is not about Christ, it is not about sin, nor is it about salvation, it is about you.

This is fine, and some (if not most) of their complaints are probably on target in this regard. I am not a big fan of theology that emphasizes material blessings when the Bible is clear that true blessings are not in comfort or luxury (c.f. Matthew 5:1-12, for just one notable passage).

But the simple criticism of Osteen’s book is not what Thomas has in mind:

Joel Osteen’s newest book should not be sold in “Christian” bookstores, quite simply, because it is not a Christian book. It might be a book written by a Christian, but it’s [sic] message is not in line with the message of Christ.

Let’s think about this claim: Thomas is implicitly saying, “There is a standard that Christian bookstores do or should have when it comes to material that they sell, and Become a Better You does not meet that standard.” It’s a simple claim at face value, but it really says far more about the notion of Christian bookstores than about Osteen’s book.

For one thing, we have the distinction between a “Christian book” and a “book written by a Christian.” (I can almost guarantee that C.S. Lewis is rolling in his grave right about here.) If this doesn’t make sense to you (and it probably shouldn’t), then I’ll try to translate: a “Christian book” is one in which the content is explicitly concerned with some aspect of Christianity, such as theology, and a “book written by a Christian” is…well, a book written by a Christian but one where the content is something other than Christianity directly. Mere Christianity is the former, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the latter. I’ve heard this distinction before in regards to music, where a “Christian band” or artist sings explicitly about Christian themes, perhaps mentions God or Jesus in every song, and a “band with Christians in it” might sing about other content but be writing songs from a Christian perspective.

But Thomas doesn’t stop there. He delineates another condition, that the materials sold in a Christian bookstore should be “in line with the message of Christ.” I don’t oppose this necessarily, but it seems to me that Thomas applies the criterion inconsistently. In a comment, Thomas is asked if he would oppose the sale of a shirt that says “Think Positive” in a Christian bookstore, and he answers affirmatively. Isn’t “Think Positive” in line with the message of Christ (c.f. John 14)?

Here’s the bottom line: If the problem is content that doesn’t have enough religious language in it, then that won’t cut it as a way of sifting out “good” Christian material from the “bad.” If the problem is content that does not primarily deal with theology or the gospel, why isn’t Thomas speaking out against Christian fiction, most of which only mentions Christianity as an aside, or about books on family or marital issues? As much as Tim Challies disparages Osteen’s book for bearing an uncanny appearance to all of the other self-help books out there (was he really surprised?), are Christians somehow immune from feeling like they need some direction and looking in books for it (other than the Bible, that is)? If there’s a need for Christians to determine how to live a better life – and I would say this in the abstract sense of virtues and moral character – then why criticize people who go out and do it? If the Bible is the path to right living and it needs interpreted, wouldn’t a self-help book directed at Christians do just that?

And if the problem is content that bears some fatal theological error, then shouldn’t Christians bookstores stop selling the Left Behind series and a large number of other works? For that matter, what theological paradigm should be used to determine what constitutes a theological error? Must Christian bookstores now declare whether they are a Catholic bookstore, a Reformed bookstore, etc.?

These essays leave me with the same impression that I am used to: that being overly critical of anything new is the real gospel being preached in evangelical circles, and our Not-So-Great Commission is to go out there and rip everything to shreds that resembles any sort of change from the status quo, whether or not that criticism is fair. If only we could put half as much effort in speaking positively, maybe then we really could become a better us.

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