The Common Good
December 2004

License To Thrill

by Jason Byassee | December 2004

Three pop theology books to leave behind.

Jesus wants you to be much happier than you are.

Jesus wants you to be much happier than you are. Really.

So argue three extraordinarily popular recent books, one on prayer by a preacher who thinks we pray too little blessing for ourselves, another by a workplace motivator who sees Jesus as the ideal entrepreneurial guru, and a third by a prophet for a new kind of men’s movement.

Nothing is new about their ideas - this sort of prosperity gospel has been part of the American religious scene for some time. What is striking is the number of books they’re selling and the best-selling lists they’re gracing. Alongside the better-documented publishing successes of the Left Behind series, The Da Vinci Code, and The Purpose-Driven Life are these promises of unbridled happiness for those who follow Jesus in the way these authors describe. The market for religious publishing is apparently not exhausted; it is only just beginning to be tapped.

Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez is the simplest of the three. 1 Chronicles 4:10 records the prayer of this Jabez and God’s response: "‘Oh, that you would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that your hand would be with me, and that you would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!’ So God granted him what he requested." Wilkinson discovered this prayer 30 years ago and still prays it every day. He sees in it the promise of an extraordinary exchange: "Your want for God’s plenty." He tantalizingly asks, "When was the last time you saw miracles happen on a regular basis in your life?" If the answer is "seldom," he has a recipe: Pray this prayer and that can change, immediately. And if you don’t believe it, just look at Wilkinson’s own life: "I’m living proof," he writes.

It may seem selfish, even un-Christian, to ask blessings for oneself. But Wilkinson thinks we’re just being priggish and unbiblical; God actually has blessings stacked up for us in heaven that tragically go ungiven if we fail to ask for them. The examples Wilkinson gives of miraculous answered prayers include the evangelizing of Long Island in six weeks and the taking over of the island of Trinidad for Christ (you may have missed these, but never mind). Future goals include the training of the largest Bible-teaching faculty in the world - 120,000 Bible teachers, one for every 50,000 people on earth. Wilkinson’s ambition is far grander than asking God for material gain. He recommends his readers ask God to "give me more ministry," to offer added chances to witness for Christ. For "God favors those who ask." And if you pray this prayer daily (and keep a record of changes in your life using a journal he’ll sell you), "you’ll have a front-row seat in a life of miracles."

Laurie Beth Jones is less inclined to promise "miracles," if only because she believes Jesus’ advice as a life coach should be transparent to anyone’s understanding and easily applicable to anyone’s life. Her Jesus, Life Coach follows other best sellers such as Jesus, Entrepreneur and Jesus, CEO. A "life coach" is similar to a psychotherapist, only with the intention of encouraging the client toward greater success in the future rather than digging around in the same old painful past.

Jones offers short snippets for chapters, crafted for devotional-style reading in a single sitting. These typically open with a cute vignette from her own experience, then draw a conclusion for how to be more successful in life or business, and finally show from scripture that Jesus teaches his "staff" (the disciples) the same lesson, on the way to making them into "lean, clean marketing machines." Jesus himself "practiced focused thinking." His "get behind me Satan" was a keen diagnosis of Peter’s disproportionate "need for human approval." Jesus gave his followers each their own "Individualized Education Plan," as any coach would. Jesus’ spat with Mary at Cana shows he was "very conscious of his boundaries." My favorite example from this collection of campy, patronizing readings of scripture: "Even from the cross he was delegating: ‘Mary, this is your new son, John.’"

I wish such uses of scripture were self-evidently ridiculous, but Jones’ sales success suggests they are not. Suffice it to say that an American business person whose "Individualized Education Plan" for himself included such "positive confrontation" with authorities that he and his "staff" wound up summarily excluded by their co-religionists and tortured to death by the state for high treason would not likely unearth the desire to go and do likewise from many "customers." Never mind how Jesus and his disciples wound up; Jones is doing swimmingly.

JOHN ELDREDGE’S Wild at Heart is the most substantial of the three, even if that’s not saying much. Jesus’ plan to make us happier, Wild at Heart declares, is for men to be men again. Eldredge looks around at the men in his church and describes them as "nice" and "boring." He sees them wallowing away at jobs in cubicles and at various spare-time amusements in the suburbs and insists that what’s missing is men’s specifically masculine hearts. God designed man with three great needs: a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to save.

So how shall men recover their battling, adventuring, beauty-saving hearts? By watching lots of movies, engaging in various extreme and outdoor sports, participating in devotional exercises in which God speaks to you directly, and by having a wife who wants to be rescued by a manly man and sons who want to test their strength against their father by wrestling and pursuing games involving guns.

Eldredge refers to popular films more than any other source in his book. This is not accidental. Movies portray manly battles in a safe way. Braveheart, Gladiator, and Henry V come in for particular praise. Eldredge writes about what he "heard" from the Lord at one point in prayer: "You are Henry V after Agincourt...the man in the arena, whose face is covered with blood and sweat and dust, who strove valiantly...a great warrior...." The Lord himself is a "warrior" in Exodus and covered in blood in Isaiah, and Christians who would point to Jesus’ turning of the other cheek run the risk of being "emasculated." To show the importance of saving a beauty, Eldredge points to various James Bond and Indiana Jones films, in which getting the girl is crucial to being the hero. In all this he asks: Isn’t a few minutes of any one of these films a great deal more thrilling than a lifetime in the average church, where most men are chipper but boring, and women unloved and tired?

Eldredge refers often to Robert Bly’s Iron John, in which the sage tells mythological tales men need to recover to be men again. The problem is Bly knew he was dealing in myths, but Eldredge’s literalist approach to the Bible leads him to a confidence that his observations about manliness are etched in the words of holy writ. And this can be terribly dangerous. "That strength is so essential to men is also what makes them heroes," Eldredge writes. "If a neighborhood is safe, it’s because of the strength of men. Slavery was stopped by the strength of men, at a terrible price to them and their families. The Nazis were stopped by men. Apartheid wasn’t defeated by women.... And have we forgotten - it was a Man who let himself be nailed to Calvary’s cross." Here Eldredge demonstrates the very thing feminist theologians have warned about - masculinity is made essential to the divine life itself, and "maleness" is baptized as worthy of our worship.

These books have their individual problems, but they share some overriding flaws. Jesus is inessential to each. He appears frequently as an illustration of points the authors make on other grounds, and if you remove him the books look the same. You don’t need Jesus to promise someone a life of blessings too numerous to count. You don’t need him to be a life coach - Laurie Beth Jones and others are just fine at coaching clients’ strengths and making them into champion marketers. And Eldredge doesn’t need Jesus for men to become men again. In fact, an unmarried rabbi who doesn’t defend himself, spends lots of time wandering aimlessly and in prayer, and who fritters away time with outcasts would seem more like the girlie-man Arnold Schwarzenegger blasts than the characters Eldredge extols.

There was a day when we could count on conservative evangelicals to remind us that Jesus and respect for scripture are at the heart of things. Now these self-avowedly evangelical authors usher Jesus to the margin and treat the Bible as if it’s on a quota system - you gotta have some of it in there, just don’t give it too important a place.

Most of our lives are comprised of the mundane - making meals, getting the kids to bed and school, loving our spouses, messing up and asking forgiveness, trying to work up the motivation to celebrate in worship weekly. And it is precisely into this mundane life that Jesus enters, first in the courage of Mary, then in the humdrum of our various vocations, to be Emmanuel, God-with-us. These books sell because they are clear, confident, and assured in their delivery of God’s word to readers, and because they insist that life be thrilling. If only we could find writers (or more boldly, preachers) who could do the same with reference to where we really live, work, and play. We wouldn’t necessarily be happier or more thrilled, but something better - more faithful.

Jason Byassee is assistant editor at The Christian Century and a Ph.D. candidate in theology at Duke University.

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