Vail Daily column: Possibility thinking’s pitfalls
Televangelist Robert Schuller, who died at 88 years on April 2, offered what many Americans want from Christianity. From the Crystal Cathedral near Disneyland, Schuller hosted on Sunday mornings the most-watched religious program in the 1980s. Viewers tuned in to hear this preacher compliment their potential strengths, not scold them for failures.
Schuller kindly spoke to his audience like a grandfather consoles a remorseful child. He promised viewers suspicious of the sin-and-salvation churches that God turns their “scars into stars.” Schuller spun stories about people who transformed obstacles into opportunities. Jesus served as his prime example for changing problems into possibilities.
Schuller touched Americans’ felt needs. Many spurned traditional churches that condemned sinners and made church-goers feel guilty. Sensing that religious consumers like compliments, Schuller delivered upbeat Christianity.
Henry Steele Commager, America’s premier historian in the first half of the 20th century, affirmed Schuller’s gut feeling that we like to be stroked, not poked. Americans thrive on stories of success, wrote Commager. Super-achievers, risk-takers, and cowboys played by John Wayne saddled up to win the West—with gusto.
“As (American) nature and experience justified optimism, the American was incurably optimistic,” wrote Commager. “Collectively, he had never known defeat, grinding poverty or oppression, and he thought these misfortunes peculiar to the Old World. Progress was not, to him, a philosophical idea but a commonplace of experience; he saw it daily in the transformation of wilderness into farm land, in the growth of villages into cities, in the steady rise of community and nation to wealth and power” (“The American Mind”).
Schuller figured out that if Christianity shed its dour image and was marketed as bold, exciting and triumphant, it would sell. Because Americans burdened by faults suppress optimism, they deserve sermons that help them discover their possibilities. Flashing a trade-mark smile, a comforting voice, a twinkle in the eye and an encouraging personality, Schuller promised TV watchers that God filled them with possibility thinking. The greatest possibility thinker was Jesus because he dared dream about God’s plans; that is, he thought big.
Early on, Schuller benefited from the boost Norman Vincent Peale gave his ministry. The Reverend Dr. Peale’s Positive Thinking, published in 1952, topped the New York Times best-seller list for 98 weeks. “If you think in negative terms, you will get negative results,” Peale preached and wrote. “If you think in positive terms, you will get positive results. That is the simple fact … of an astonishing law of prosperity and success.”
In the late 1970s, Dr. Peale’s Manhattan Marble Collegiate Church invited me to join the ministry team. I declined but came away impressed by Peale’s entrepreneurial spirit. He sized up the religious market and produced a winsome brand of Christianity. Peale told me that New York, where he preached for over a half-century on Fifth Avenue, beats down people. Noise, pressure and the helter-skelter pace of a city that never sleeps “pulverizes people.” They seek a calming influence reinforced by positive words. He said my Princeton Seminary education emphasizing sin and guilt didn’t square with New Yorkers’ lives that left them brow-beaten.
Acting like barometers calibrated to emerging weather patterns, Peale and his protege Schuller curled Christianity around American optimism. They dovetailed their Christian message with environmental factors. New Yorkers endure harsh winters. Positive thinking helps them cope with frigid temps. Schuller’s sunny outlook blended with Southern California’s orange groves. His possibility thinking proved a perfect match.
Today, Joel Osteen succeeds Peale and Schuller. He preaches at the largest U.S. Protestant church, which is located in Houston—the home of Big Oil. Osteen sells a believe-and-succeed prosperity gospel to a market awash in oil. God wants us to succeed, promises smiling Osteen.
What’s the down-side to such peppy faith, advertised as positive thinking, possibility thinking or prosperity thinking?
Jesus did not promote self-realization by which we achieve success. Nor was he as optimistic about the human condition as are Americans steeped in the West’s self-help lore. Jesus taught we lack more than what our charms supply. Our maladies are more serious than bad habits and ignorance, which a strong dose of optimism can’t cure.
Often challenging popular values, Jesus taught God’s key to living puts us on a road seeking justice. Jesus challenges believers enamored with life crowned by success to walk a rocky road to Golgotha, the place of the cross.
What Jesus stood for is not a religious version of Americans’ optimism. He taught, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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