Monday, September 10, 2007

Your Best Life Now: a review of Joel Osteen's best-seller

In my Sunday School class, we finished Exodus last week. Between books, I often do miscellaneous lessons or a topical study. So, before we start Numbers next week, I did the only thing on my miscellaneous docket: a book review of Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now.

Now, why would I bother to read Osteen's book (I already have, more or less, my best life now!)—and why would I devote the time to talk about it in my class? First, a dear friend of mine gave it to me and my wife for Christmas. That's probably not an uncommon gift to receive, but it is noteworthy because he's a Southern Baptist minister (not exactly Joel's usual audience). Moreover, he credits Osteen's ministry with important changes in his own preaching—in terms of both style and substance.

Second, Hank Hanegraaff is not a big fan of Joel's, strongly critiquing him on the handful of occasions when I've heard him speak on the topic. In particular, he's labeled him as a "Word of Faith" (WoF) minister who preaches a "prosperity (health & wealth) gospel". I have tremendous respect for Hank's ministry through the Christian Research Institute. (CRI’s review of Osteen’s book is not a hatchet job by any means, but I disagree with some of the conclusions.)

So, how do I resolve the views of these two men? Well, for starters, I decided to read Osteen for myself!
My general/overview thoughts (Keep in mind that I have never seen/heard Joel in action. For better and for worse, this is only a book report!)
-The book is an easy read. It is quite redundant, but perhaps this is necessary given the themes. If one is having trouble in the areas that Osteen addresses, "saying it once" is unlikely to be sufficient.
-The book is Proverbs-like in that he is largely communicating principles, not laws of nature or of human behavior. If one wants to consider them rules, then there are clearly exceptions. In any case, the context of his remarks is relevant—and implied as one goes along. For example, he uses one example where a lady should remain in her job instead of taking an undesirable promotion (p. 96). But at other times, he encourages people to avidly pursue job promotions—if their reluctance has been a function of a negative attitude like fear or self-loathing.
-Likewise, in a sense, the book is sloppy—if one wants to read it closely/narrowly. This is not an academic work; he's speaking/appealing to a popular audience. And he’s depending on the audience to understand the context of his remarks. (Ironically, those who are more academic may be least able to read the book in this manner!)
In terms of my conclusions about the book:
-Most of the book is fine—if combined with already solid theology and practice. Even if one doesn't have a solid background, the book could still be helpful if one is recovering from some forms of bad theology.
-Likewise, how one reads/sees this will depend on their religious background and personal circumstances/background—whether Charismatic or Reformed, whether successful and confident or struggling and fearful.
-At least in terms of the book, Hanegraaff/CRI's critique misses the mark. Other critiques are (quite) valid, but Osteen (at least here) is at most a first cousin to WoF.
-Osteen points to (and pounds) the importance of hope, vision, and faith. As such, his (best) audience seems to be broken people and broken communities—whom Jesus describes in Mt 5:3 as "the poor in Spirit".
-The title of the book is descriptive. “Your best” implies the context-specific nature of what "best" means to each individual (vs. the usual WoF message of general health and wealth for the faithful). “Life now” speaks to the fact that the Gospel is meant to have a tremendous impact on our life on earth (not just fire insurance to get to Heaven)—and the need to take steps now, rather than procrastinating. These are themes developed by writers for whom I have tremendous respect: In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard talks about a “gospel for living not just dying” (as is often the case in Evangelical circles). And in The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis talks about the need to focus on the present and eternity and not so much on the past and future.

Notable themes:
-The biggie: the need to transform one’s mind and attitude (Rom 12:2). There is a considerable "focus on self" here. But the changes are accomplished with God’s help and ultimately directed for greater/godly ends. In addition, Osteen may have in mind a corrective to the standard Charismatic emphasis on the devil’s power. If so, Osteen is urging his audience to avoid blaming external factors and deal with internal aspects of the sin nature.

-Related to that: we need to believe in a big, involved, benevolent God (Jer 29:11, Heb 11:6)—and we need to go to Him with big dreams/goals (Eph 3:20; Mt 7:7-11).
-There is some emphasis on material prosperity, but it is reasonable/balanced. All things equal, “God takes pleasure in prospering His children” (p. 87a)—although, often, not all other things are equal! But Osteen has much more on spiritual prosperity and abundant life properly defined. (For example, later on p. 87, he identifies “a poverty mentality [that]…is not glorifying to God”.)
-Even within his discussions of material prosperity, all of Part 6 (50 pages) is devoted to giving and serving of all sorts. “We should concentrate more on being a blessing than trying to be blessed.” (p. 226) “Somebody needs what you have to give.” (p. 230) He challenges people to start sowing and planting—rather than waiting until things get better. And there is only one reference to church giving (encouraging people to stretch from 10-11%). Finally, it is evident that it is more important to Osteen that his audience would live a life of integrity and excellence vs. mediocrity—than a concern about material prosperity (ch. 31).
-Osteen repeatedly talks about adversity coming to us—and the importance of our response to it. In fact, all of part 5 (50 pages) is devoted to this topic, including chapters on “standing up on the inside”, trust God’s timing, and the purpose of trials (p. 206’s “God is more interested in changing me than my circumstances”). My favorite point here was his distinction between a “delivering faith” (where one has faith and God delivers you quickly from a trial) and a much more laudable “sustaining faith” (where one’s faith sustains you through a trial). This is good stuff in any case—but especially in contrast the WoF teachers to whom he is being compared!

-Likewise, Osteen talks (pointedly and at length) about taking ownership and action vs. blaming circumstance and others. “Quit complaining and start rejoicing” (p. 278). Chapter themes? Move on with life vs. getting stuck in paralysis (Jn 5:6’s “do you want to get well?”; II Sam 12:13-23). Be quick to forgive; don’t let bitterness take root. Let God take care of justice (David with Saul). Osteen also points to the need to overcome the crippling power of guilt and self-condemnation. In a word, choose life and blessing today (part 7); live with enthusiasm and passion; and “bloom where you are planted” (p. 273).
-Osteen devotes part 3 to the power of our thoughts and words. This is as close as he comes to standard WoF teaching. He might be a little hyperbolic or overstated at times, but the points are still legitimate. Our words and thoughts matter—a lot! In particular, he recommends searching the Scriptures for relevant verses and saying them out loud—for ourselves and for others. At times, he leaves the reader with the impression that words alone will get the job done (p. 140). But elsewhere (and often), he talks about the importance of habits, disciplines, and choices. I especially enjoyed his “remote control” analogy (p. 144-145)—where we make conscious decisions to change from a bad [mental/spiritual] channel or to stay there and even pull up a chair and grab a bag of popcorn to enjoy the “show”! This is similar to John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind” who talks about the need to have a “diet of the mind” to avoid a mental spiral into the depths of his schizophrenia.


-His misunderstanding and misapplication of Abraham/Sarah’s (lack of) faith is brutal (p. 79-80, 82-83).
-He is not clear enough in identifying his audience. It seems like he’s addressing Christians mostly (but that’s a problem given some of the critiques to follow). In any case, it would have been helpful/clearer to make this explicit.
-At times, he has too much emphasis on pop psychology—or at least, its lingo (e.g., p. 61’s self-esteem, p. 62’s self-image, 72’s negative attitude). At the least, it’s an unnecessary stumbling block for some in his audience. At worst, it is a stumbling block! As such, I could easily imagine a critique for Osteen being too much like Robert Schuller, Zig Ziglar, and Norman Vincent Peale. (That said, I don’t know enough about any of these four to say for sure.)
-Oddly, there is little reference to Jesus and nothing on the Spirit explicitly. It’s all about God. He does use references to the teachings of Jesus to help him illustrate his points. And he does have the equivalent of the sinner’s prayer—with Jesus as Lord and Savior—at the very end. He has an appropriate emphasis on “God’s provision and our participation”. And he talks about the related concepts quite often: “depending on God”, “empowerment by God”, etc.—but without any mention of the Spirit’s role in this. A few thoughts on this: First, it is certainly strange, given the usual WoF emphasis on being “Spirit-filled”. Again, this points to the fallacy in labeling him WoF. OK, so why does he do it? It could be a stunning lack of theology, but it’s difficult to imagine him being that deficient. More likely: he wants to avoid any connection (or wants to extend a corrective) to standard WoF excesses. Or most likely, I think: for better and for worse, a “seeker-sensitive” concern for his primary audience, wanting to avoid spiritual jargon.

Wrap-up: At the end of the day: I can’t speak for Osteen’s ministry. But his book (as a stand-alone) has some value, especially for those who struggle with the (wrong-headed) mindsets he critiques.


At September 10, 2007 at 5:35 PM , Blogger said...

Excellent review.

I'm no fan of O'Steen but wonder why evangelicals are so critical of his emphasis on life coaching. Would they prefer a secularist?

I'd enjoy reading your review of Michael Schermer's "How We Believe" -- available at the school library, I suppose.

At September 13, 2007 at 12:36 AM , Blogger Chris' Blog said...

Loved the review - excellent!

At September 13, 2007 at 9:43 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I'm cross-posting what John H. Armstrong wrote about my review after seeing it on Acton's blog:

I am not a fan of Osteen's brand of theology in the least. It is without a shred of classical Christian thought behind it but it is not unadulterated heresy either. I too have desired a fair critique like this since the book first appeared. I have seen him damned and praised, by various parties and sectarian voices but rarely has anyone treated the book so objectively and honestly. Thanks for a well-written blog. You treat him so well I would love to see him dialog with a critique such as this one. It would actually do many Christians a great deal of good to hear such a dialog. Again, thanks for work well done.

At September 14, 2007 at 1:23 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

By the way, Mr. Thompson's words were incredibly encouraging to me!

At September 14, 2007 at 1:23 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I'm cross-posting what David Gleue wrote about my review after seeing it on Acton's blog:

My son sent me this book as a father's day gift. My first reaction on unwrapping it was to throw it in the trash unread and unwanted. But because my son sent it, I left it for awhile on the kitchen counter where our incoming mail goes. A couple of hours later, I came back intending to trash it anyway, but instead opened it at random to the section on bitterness. Years earlier, I had spent many years in an abusive church and had much leftover animosity toward churches and religion. The few sentences I read were easy to read and happened to speak to my anger and resentment. And they touched the remnant of my faith.

I continued to read from curiosity, and I credit this book with turning around my relationship with God and Jesus Christ, Son of God, and opening my life once more to the Spirit of God to work in me. As a former college English teacher and academic, I can say I don't care about how redundant and non-academic Joel's writing style may be or how lacking it is in scholarly doctrinal teaching in this case. What matters to me is that his message turned me from bitterness and anger to daily praises to my God--my Father, Savior, and Strength. I can now relate to God in a positive way like I could not before. Isn't that, after all, why preachers preach (or should--I could say a few things about a Jonathan Edwards sermon, but I won't)?

I think the reviewer is fair and accurate, overall, but perhaps too hard on Joel's failure to single out and focus on Jesus and/or the Spirit. Doesn't God, after all, encompass both of these? I don't think Joel's intent is to teach doctrine but to give hope to the hopeless and strength to the weak. If he can avoid technical distinctions between God, the Father, Jesus, and the Spirit in order to simplify the message for those who need it, I say thank you. For the implied audience, or the audience God leads to this book, the inclusive name of God is sufficient. The details can follow in the renewed and thankful spirit of the reader.

At February 25, 2008 at 7:32 PM , Blogger Bryce Raley said...

Great review. I found the review from your recent link on Chip Ingram.

I like Hank Hanegraff and listened to him for quite sometime. However, I have ceased lately because he has almost gotten to full of himself. One sometimes needs to critique the critic as you've done here. I listened to Olsteen a lot on my path to becoming a Christian and I've listened to his book on audio. He has struck me as a simplistic teacher of scripture, but never would I throw him into the "classic word of faith movement" as Hanegraff did. I remember the day I heard Hanegraff use the very line above very matter of factl on his bible answer man show. I have lost a little respect for Hank's shortsightedness since then.

If you want to see a great interview with Olsteen, I woulld see if his Larry King Live interview from last year is on Youtube.

Joel made it very clear that different people are called to do different things. He said his call in not one of teaching and discipleship but of preaching and communicating a positive message of hope (maybe he could run for President on the democratic side). He said God has called many a great teacher of the word, but I'm not one of them.

On a side note. In the 6 years I attended Saturday morning bible study with Bob Russell teaching, I only heard him call one preacher a wolf in sheeps clothing- that was Benny Hinn. He often mentioned the flaws in the word of faith movement but he was hesistate to name them and declare them heretical. All but one. I can appreciate Mr. Hanegraffs ministry. It's an easy job being a critic though, but it's much harder to find something right with a situation or teaching. Mr. Hanegraff himself was under some scrutiny for mail fraud and a frivolous lawsuit in the past few years. Will he want any of us to rush to judgement about his ministry? I won't rush to judgement but he often does. I think we have do our own discernment at times, and we can't always rely on someone else.

Zig Ziglar is very far from word of faith. He really does a courageous job of talking about scripture in the secular business world. He is very bold. I think its why I've heard Bob Russell and Dave Stone quote him a dozen times in the last 7 years.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home