Columns DIY Faith Opinion Tara Isabella Burton: Religion Remixed

I’ll cry if I want to: Positive thinking, prosperity gospel and the vulnerabilit …

Photo by Aliyah Jamous/Creative Commons

(RNS) — 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.

Christianity does have its own version of this in the chirpy optimism of “prosperity gospel” theology, now embraced by as many as 40% of evangelicals. But while the prosperity gospellers evangelize and exhort us to see the light, secular wellness culture often treats vulnerability as discomfitingly contagious: a mental disease that – insufficiently vaccinated against – can infect a herd.

The good old-fashioned theology of sin gives us a way to see vulnerability differently. Human frailty, so central to the wider Christian tradition, affords us (me at least) an avenue out of the swamp of failed self-sufficiency, or what philosopher Martin Heidegger called “thrownness” — the sense that we are thrown, unprepared, by God into the vagaries of a world whose certainties and sense never seem available to us.

Christianity, and maybe all faith traditions, offers us an account of the seeming paradox we encounter in the world: that we are at once agentic, free actors — with the whole world before us — and constantly vulnerable: to pain, hurt, disease, decay and death.

“Jesus Wept” by James Tissot circa 1890. Image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum/Creative Commons

A few weeks ago, during a difficult period in my life that included a death of a close family member, I spoke with an Episcopal pastor with whom I was teaching. I talked to her about my fears — particularly my own fear of vulnerability.

How could I ever reconcile the person I wanted to be with the person who, well, cried in the corner at parties. She reminded me of one of the most famous verses in the Bible — and the shortest: “Jesus wept.”

The gospels are silent on whether Jesus cried in the corner at parties. We do know that he experienced the full range of human emotions, including righteous anger, and that he was unafraid to express it when necessary. The willingness of the ensuing Christian tradition to reckon with the paradoxes of human contingency has been a powerful rejoinder to a secular world that, more often than not, stresses our agency to the point of absurdity.

We cannot visualize, or positive-think, our way out of the human condition. There is no God-given law that makes us masters of our own lives, much as we wish there were. Sometimes, crying at parties is all we can do.

About the author

Tara Isabella Burton

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.

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