Positively Powerless, L.L. Martin. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2015.
Summary: Traces the “positive thinking” movement to its unorthodox beginnings, considers the impact of this movement in Christian circles, and the biblical alternative that frees us from the pretense of pretending to be better than we are and locates our hope not in “great thoughts” of self but the greatness of God.
“Sending positive thoughts your way.”
If you’ve ever used that phrase, or heard it used, you’ve encountered the “New Thought” movement that has had a pervasive influence on both the church and wider American culture in the last century. That is the contention of L. L. Martin, whose thoughtful writing about faith and culture I encountered several years ago on her blog, Enough Light.
Martin traces this movement back to nineteenth century influences from Emmanuel Swedenborg, Franz Anton Mesmer (who gave us the word “mesmerized”), Phineas Quimby, Mary Baker Eddy, and Walter Felt Evans. All of these focused on the power of thought to shape reality. From these early exponents, the ideas of “positive thinking” found their way into Christian circles through Norman Vincent Peale, and a generation later, Robert Schuller. Since then, these influences have given birth to a host of preachers telling us how positive thinking can lead to “your best life now” as well as secular writers like Rhonda Byrne and Eckhart Tolle, whose writings have also found their way into the homes of many believing people.
The only problem with all of this is that it is not really Christian, and far from empowering, can set us up for despair. The big problem is that this roots hope in our potential to think ourselves into a better life. This can lead to disillusionment because it is based on illusions of our own greatness that doesn’t see that we are both finite and fallen. Our problem is a pride that thinks we can be as gods, while the real God has humbled himself to enter our fallen condition to lift us up. Redemption begins as we recognize that we are “noble ruins”–God’s image bearers whose rebellion (Martin doesn’t hesitate to call this “sin”) leads to all sorts of discord with God, others, ourselves, and our world.
Facing this, and God’s entry through Christ to redeem these “noble ruins” is the beginning of the good news. Instead of positive thought pablum, the Christian message offers a life of rich paradoxes. We live in an “already” of new life, and the “not yet” that our “best life” is yet to come when Christ comes back. We live in the tension of enjoying right standing with God, even while we still sin, that allows us to be “real” about our progress and struggles. We live in the paradox of holiness, more conscious than ever of our sin, and more and more deeply drawn into the beauty of God’s holiness. We discover that serving and dying is the way to life, that it is not a matter of thinking more, or better of ourselves, but rather more of Christ.
The final chapter speaks of the importance of communities who are living these gospel realities, where people are able to be real about sins and struggles rather than having to put on a “positive” face. Yet the focus is not on community or vulnerability but on Christ, who enables us to love honestly and deeply.
Martin puts her finger on what might be called the “American gospel” of positive thinking and self-reliance. My only question is whether she has ignored the influence of the transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in “Self-Reliance”, which I think epitomizes this American gospel, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” or “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
Aside from this, I think Martin speaks compellingly of the “virus” of positive thought that has infected the American church (my analogy). Her purpose is not to name names or criticize ministries (from which she refrains) but to restore biblical discernment of a movement that neither adequately diagnoses our condition nor directs us to the greatness of Christ and God from whom our true nobility as humans comes. This book is a great example of constructive theological discernment in an age of either unthinking sentiment or outrage. It includes questions for individuals and groups to use for reflection.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”