It is no great secret that I have made a hobby of studying magic—not practicing, mind you—and folk lore, primarily from American/Western European traditions. In history, fiction, and modern practice, I would like to think I can reasonably discuss the subject better than the average bear.
Which brings me to the story of a Dutch Reformed Church minister, originally of Ohio and originally Methodist, named Norman Vincent Peale. Reverend Peale wrote several works, but his most famous was published in 1952, The Power of Positive Thinking: A Practical Guide to Mastering the Problems of Everyday Living.
This book claims a firm foundation in Biblical and psychological principles. “Claims” being the operative word.
First, as to the psychological foundations, we notice that all of the experts and many of the testimonials that Peale quotes as supporting his philosophy are unnamed, unknown, and unsourced. Examples include a “famous psychologist,” a two-page letter from a “practicing physician,” another “famous psychologist,” a “prominent citizen of New York City,” and dozens, if not hundreds, more unverifiable quotations. Similar scientific studies of questionable validity are also cited. R. C. Murphy, a contemporary psychologist and critic, wrote, “All this advertising is vindicated as it were, by a strict cleaving to the side of part truth,” and referred to the work and the quoted material as “implausible and woodenly pious.” [Wikipedia is good for a few things if you know how to use it.]
But I am not a psychologist. I am a pastor with 30 years of professional experience and a master’s degree in divinity, a former seminary professor, author, and student of the esoteric. I know a book of magic when I see one.
Peale’s work basically describes a process for getting what you want:
- Picture yourself succeeding.
- Think a positive thought to drown out a negative thought.
- Minimize obstacles.
- Do not attempt to copy others.
- Repeat “If God be for us, who can be against us?” 10 times every day.
- Work with a counselor.
- Repeat “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” 10 times every day.
- Develop a strong self-respect.
- Affirm that you are in God’s hands.
- Believe that you receive power from God.
What do I see there? Repetition of mantras as a way of binding the universe to your will. Will-work in which the desired outcome is rehearsed and imagined until believed as a sure thing. Aleister Crowley, the self-described “wickedest man in the world” and notorious sex-magician, wrote much the same.
I also see a theology that is all about ME and not really about God at all. It claims the power of God, but it is really about you commanding reality.
From this work we get modern outgrowths like Joel Osteen, Paula White, Prosperity Gospel, and name-it-and-claim-it Christianity. We get a practice that claims the trappings of Christianity but has at its heart wealth and worldly success. We have a system that employs magical thinking to reject anything that might contradict a desired outcome, unreasonably claims success based on no actual results, and a blind refusal to accept constructive criticism or the need for revision. It elevates the desires of the individual, promotes exceptionalism, and has no room for concern for others.
Now if this was just the guy down the street’s muffler shop, I might shake my head and sigh and get on with my life. It is not just him. This kind of magical thinking, and that is all it can reasonably be called, has so infected American thought that it is crippling our ability to engage in civil discourse, much less address actual problems.
Do not doubt that “the power of positive thinking” is an un-Christian belief system. Christ teaches us to be humble before God and others. To not seek our own good, but the good of the other. To be aware of our sins and confess them. To rely in faith on God to provide what we need.
This system is not only un-Godly, but it is ineffective and dangerous.
It is also virulent and pervasive.
And maybe it has infected you.