Tara Isabella Burton on Positive Thinking, the Prosperity Gospel, and the Vulnerability of Faith

Photo by Aliyah Jamous/Creative Commons

Tara Isabella Burton, who received a doctorate in theology from Oxford University, is at work on a book about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated in America, to be published in November 2020 by Public Affairs. Her novel, “Social Creature,” was published in June 2018. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.


In my early 20s, I got a well-deserved reputation for crying at parties. I cry easily — I cried once, at an embarrassingly advanced age, during a commercial for the snack food Goldfish, because the jingle told me that it’s the snack that smiles back until you bite their heads off. This unilateral cruelty was too horrible to contemplate.

When I drank, I cried more easily still, and when I let myself love — romantically, platonically, vocationally, self-abnegatingly — I cried most easily of all. I often felt not just vulnerable but incapable: that everybody else had learned, somewhere in middle-school, to develop a carapace between themselves and the world, on a day I had called in sick.

Before I became Christian — before I became the kind of Christian who, in the words of a Los Angeles studio executive I met with, “actually believes this stuff,” I saw this tendency as a curse. In the implicit theology of wellness that governs so much of contemporary millennial culture, I had — I feared — bad energy.

To be vulnerable, to feel emotions, to be too much, felt in some sense as if I had failed at the project of adulthood. Harboring bad energy, after all, is hardly conducive to a cohesive personal brand.

Not that the studio executive felt this any less. Moments before our discussion of my Christian beliefs he was explaining that he cleansed his office with sage. Indeed, about 30% of Americans say that they conceive of the divine as a form of energy or presence — but not the personal God of the Judeo-Christian Bible.

Much of our secular thinking about wellness and psychological well-being is indebted to New Thought: that quintessentially American 19th-century movement (also known as the “Boston craze” or “mind cure”) that privileged the power of positive thinking over, well, the vicissitudes of being in the world. Simply by visualizing success, or power, or contentment, or financial success — so saith the gospel of New Thought — you could manifest these things in your own life.

If you didn’t, or couldn’t, well, you were singularly responsible for your failures. As one foundational New Thought bestseller, William Walker Atkinson, put it in his 1901 book “Thought-Force in Business and Everyday Life”: “Anything is yours, if you only want it hard enough. Just think of it. ANYTHING. Try it. Try it in earnest and you will succeed. It is the operation of a mighty Law.”

It’s a legacy we see everywhere in contemporary wellness culture, from Rhonda Byrne’s 2002 bestseller “The Secret” to the oeuvre of Democratic presidential primary candidate Marianne Williamson, who in 2012 promised readers a Law of Divine Compensation: “To whatever extent your mind is aligned with love, you will receive divine compensation for any lack in your material existence. From spiritual substance will come material manifestation.” If we simply “think positive,” surround ourselves with good energy, we can overcome anything, even the human condition.

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Source: Religion News Service