The Therapeutic Culture of American Christianity

I want to expand on and illustrate my observations from my review of Rapture Ready! concerning neurosis and pop Christian self-help. Let's take, as an illustration, Joel Osteen's best-selling book Your Best Life Now.

First, I'd like to note how Osteen's book isn't a crass "health and wealth" message. Osteen's book is less material than psychological in nature. Its contents easily parallel pop psychology self-help books only with a theistic twist. (Speaking as a psychologist, much of Osteen's book is just a watered down version of cognitive therapy, again with a God twist.) This psychological focus illustrates the point I was making in my last post. American Christians are approaching their faith to meet psychological needs. What kinds of needs? I claimed the needs were mainly neurotic, a distress that is largely self-inflicted from rumination, introspection, self-consciousness, worry, social comparison, and idiosyncratic obsessions or compulsions. Osteen's book helps confirm this diagnosis. Your Best Life Now can be largely seen as a manual to give a neurotic person the confidence, energy, and self-esteem to decisively step out of low self-esteem, lack of confidence, self-defeatism, and emotional rumination.

Take, for example, Osteen's Seven Steps that help move you toward Your Best Life Now:

1. Enlarge your vision.
2. Develop a healthy self-image.
3. Discover the power of thoughts and words.
4. Let go of the past.
5. Find strength through adversity.
6. Live to give.
7. Choose to be happy.

Psychologically, I'd like to quibble with some of this list (How does one "Choose to be happy"?). Theologically, I'd also like to quibble (although I like "Live to give"). But my point here isn't to argue with or make fun of Osteen, rather I want to use his book as diagnostic of the prevalent neurosis within Christianity and America generally. Look at Osteen's Seven Steps and then imagine the person they are offered to. That is, imagine someone with the opposite frame of mind from each of the steps. What does that person look like, psychologically speaking?

Neurotic, that is what they look like. Unhappy, low self-esteem, emotional baggage, negative self-talk, confused, a sense of malaise, and a feeling of underachievement.

Now let's be clear, this isn't just a Christian problem. Wander over to the self-help section the secular psychology books and you'll see that this is an American issue. Osteen's product is just aimed at a niche. Just add some God-talk to the routine pop psychological offerings found on Oprah and you have Your Best Life Now.

Now, is there anything wrong with all this? No. Low self-esteem is painful. So I'm for anything that can help people get out of these ruts. My concerns here are more about how books like Your Best Life Now can help us think about trends in the larger Christian culture. And when we do this what we find is that here in America we approach faith as therapy. Now therapy is a fine thing, but there are consequences for this focus. American Christianity is a therapeutic culture. And the trouble with this therapeutic milieu is that it is ego-centric and reduces the cross of Christ to a feel-good, psychotherapeutic intervention (Jesus Loves Me!, 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given, and the Jesus's footprints in the sand parable).

No doubt there is a therapeutic facet to the gospel, it is wonderful to feel loved and to self-identify as a Child of God. The concern is when the therapeutic focus is make the focal point of the Call of Jesus and, ultimately, getting stuck there. Church leaders know this. People flock to churches for emotional healing but rebel if church starts, after a time, making discipleship demands. We come to church broken and want to stay broken. We want to be comforted. Always. Who wouldn't?

And this situation creates problems when the Christian message begins to be filtered through the media and markets. Why? Because these outlets are consumer driven. We, then, via consumer choice, get to pick the gospel. Our needs shape the product. It becomes the message that I want to buy.

Again, it's not just the market facet that worries me, but the consumer needs (which I've argued are psychological) that are driving the market. Because the problem with the market is that it cannot shape or challenge those needs. It just meets the needs. It just reflects the needs. The market is not a master but a mirror. And that's the root problem. The market cannot challenge or shape us, it cannot produce Christ-followers. This is the problem with Christian retail. When I walk into a store I'm unlikely to find Christ there. Unlikely to purchase the true cross. Rather, as I slowly turn 360 degrees in my local Christian bookstore, I'm more often than not immersed in human needs, the gospel reflected through what will make me happy.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

8 thoughts on “The Therapeutic Culture of American Christianity”

  1. Richard, thanks for a such a compelling post. Christian consumerism has troubled me for sometime, but you've articulated your concerns far more clearly than I think I could have.

    You wrote, "People flock to churches for emotional healing but rebel if church starts, after a time, making discipleship demands . . . We want to be comforted. Always" and later "Our needs shape the product."

    I agree. Sadly, as you note, the comfort-driven "product" extends beyond merchandise at Christian bookstores and into our worship and our perception of scripture. I think the increasing popularity of contemporary "praise songs" has developed not only to appeal the musical tastes of popular culture (quite poor taste in many cases), but also because of the me-centered, comfort-oriented message of the songs. At the church where I attend, such songs comprise a large portion of our congregational singing. Besides the fact that a lot of those songs strike me as repetitive, insipid drivel, they trouble me because they speak neither to the sacrificial nature of discipleship nor to the spectrum of emotion within the human experience--you'd never know from such songs that pain, doubt, sorrow, or lament ever factored into the life of a Christian.

    Although our consumer-driven culture has heightened the quest for therapeutic faith, I think the desire for comfort has long affected us. Of course, there is a comforting element of faith, but there's a tendency to claim comfort where experience would indicate it doesn't exist, or at least to the degree we'd like it to--God's special care for believers, God's healing of sickness, etc. The desire for comfort has perpetuated a lot of colloquial views of the afterlife as well.

    On an unrelated point, I, too, quibble with the possibility that someone can "choose to be happy." I do believe we can make choices that can ameliorate our outlook on life to an extent, but ultimately I don't think we can choose how we feel. Likewise, I don't believe we can choose to believe something; we can't make ourselves feel more confident about something. Although I differ with some of the conclusions Marcus Borg has drawn in his faith and scholarship, I agree rather strongly with his reflection on how his faith in the fundamentalist tenets on which he was raised began to waver: "Looking back, I also see that, for me at least, belief is not a matter of the will. I desperately wanted to believe and to be delivered from the anguish I was experiencing. If I could have made myself believe, I would have."

  2. I wish I was smarter and more articulate in my speech so that I could explain better my point of view on this matter. All I know is that there is too much debate and talk about christianity and not enough living it out. God knows I can't keep up with all the books out there. I honestly don't even know how you all have that much time on your hands. Maybe this world is so neurotic because Christians are too busy debating and reading about how to be a Christian instead of actually being one to someone who needs it. Feelings are feelings and I think one reason books like this one are so popular is because it does say "depend on yourself and God for comfort" because we all know that comforting one another is just too damn difficult.

    The cure: Love!

  3. Well done, good servant. What a good review.
    I for one am a pretty classic low self esteem kinda guy, hitting on at least six out of the seven points. For a long time, I looked for Christianity to fix me. Finally I realized that I could go to Heaven, saved, justified, sanctified, aware of the Heidelberg Confession in detail, without ever escaping my personal pain and social awkwardness. So I've bracketed off good doctrine and am seeing a pro counselor who is bringing a mix of stuff you don't want to hear about. Maybe I ought to read Osteen after all, and the original work in Cognitive Therapy (and Whatever Happened to Sin from 1974 as well).

  4. Jason,
    Great observations. You scooped my next post on this topic: our inability to tolerate lament in worship. I think this goes to all our nerotocism, that we come to worship so stressed, worried, or depressed that we can't handle anything but the most sweet and comforting of worship experiences

    I hope you didn't here me picking a fight with Osteen. I was just using his book's popularity as a mirror. My larger point is that the core of Christianity is found beyond books like Osteen's (but his book has a place) but those kind of cross- centered books aren't bestsellers. Yet your point is well-taken.

    Bruce, Thanks for sharing that. As I wrote, self-esteem issues are painful and books like Osteen's (among other things) can help. The key point I think Osteen makes is about giving. Sometimes we can only do so much going "into" our pain and the best therapy is stepping outside of the pain in the service of others.

  5. RIchard,
    I hope you didn't hear me picking a fight with your post... Your point is well taken too. I just don't think its right to make a best seller out of other people's pain. My concern is along the lines of what Bruce was talking about. When we are hurting and suffering we are very vulnerable and will believe and do anything to gain this joy and happiness. Instead of discipling people and serving one another we isolate ourselves by building mental and religious walls by concerning ourselves ONLY with our OWN spiritual development. What I was trying to say in my last comment was that in order to get over our narcissism and this little "self-help" gospel as I would refer to it, is to get up and start serving others. The reason this stuff angers me so much is because we as Christians spend countless hours reading books about Christianity instead of being a servant to those who are in need, and so those in need feel compelled to read books like Osteen's. In my opinion we ought to be embarrassed that this book makes the best seller list. Just my opinion....

  6. Wow. Thanks, Richard.

    'American Christianity is a therapeutic culture.'

    I have noticed this the longer I live outside the US. Could this be why there seems to be a need to create spiritual heroes/heroines who are groomed and marketed by the recording and publishing industries in America? Why such a fixation for spiritual celebrity and pop idols, i.e., the latest:
    + worship artists (mostly sounds identified with Nashville and the deep American South – country, folk, gospel, etc.)
    + worship leaders
    + pulpit preachers/speakers
    + best-selling Christian authors
    + Bible-study gurus

    Why is such a premium placed on any of the above as influencers for spiritual development, especially when we know these ‘products’ are cultivated by the industry’s imagination, ultimately for the industry’s gain, not ours or God’s?

  7. Richard, a friend of a friend recently published a book looking at the impact of a therapeutic culture on the gospel.. link..

Leave a Reply