When I was in Bible college, few things received scorn as unanimously and frequently as the self-help genre. The corner of your local bookstore dominated by big, bright covers and names like Oprah and Tony Robbins was, almost all of us young, restless, Reformed pre-seminarians agreed, poison. We understood that the self-help genre was a gospel-less, Jesus-less, church-less, and worst of all, theology-less morass of pop psychotherapy and New Agey gobbledygook. The enormous sales numbers of such books was an implicit challenge to my generation of Christian leaders: Whatever the cost, get these books out of your church members’ homes, and get them reading the Bible instead.
To this day, I still feel a twinge of guilt whenever I am listening to a “motivational speaker,” the same kind of twinge I got as a 15 year old sneaking down to the basement to listen to Top 40 radio. Though I can’t hear any bad words, I know this “sound” is not something I, as a Christian, should enjoy. The sound of someone telling me to focus more, to identify my purpose, to take more charge of my days and to understand my limits and my potential and my calling—well, that’s the sound of non-gospel. Right? Right?
Here’s what I’m having a hard time with nowadays. For all my theological education, I tend to have only the foggiest, most vague ideas about my life. I know that the whole universe exists for God’s glory. That fact, alas, did not translate into a workable budget for me last year. I know that God works all things to the purposes of His will, and that no one can thwart him. But not one person in my church or seminary life has ever explained to me that the reason I feel behind at the end of most weeks is that I haven’t identified what was most important to me at a personal level. A few weeks ago, I randomly stumbled across a YouTube video of a motivational speaker who warned his audience against failing to set priorities. If you don’t identify what matters, he said, your days and then weeks would bleed into a directionless, reactionary existence. Whoops.
For all my Christian culture’s scorn of self-help, couldn’t we at least have talked about actually living life in a non-theoretical, non-gospelly cliche way?
One of the things I am having to slowly unlearn is the idea that having good theology is the most important thing in life. I cringe even as I write that sentence, because for years to even think a sentence like that indicated, I believed, a willingness to embrace bad theology. The only people who talked about moderating the importance of theology, I was convinced, were people who wanted me to believe the wrong thing. It turns out I was wrong on both counts. It turns out, on the contrary, that while those whose professional lives rest comfortably at the intersection of study and theoretics (which describes a huge percentage of the “thought leaders” in my corner of Reformed evangelicalism) can afford to say “theology” when they mean “all wisdom everywhere,” many of us cannot afford to do the same.
Sometimes it was supposed in Bible college that the real reason people read self-help books is that they don’t want to be confronted with the moral demands of the Bible. I actually think that’s incorrect. I think most people read self-help lit because they know they need insight, motivation, and perspective from outside themselves. What’s more, I think many Christians read secular self-help lit because they have tried and failed to resize their life to fit a 20 minute per-day devotional box. They read books on becoming a better them because they believe, rightly, that Jesus calls them to be something greater than what they naturally are, but so much of their “gospel-driven” books seem to think that their problems will go away if they know more about divine sovereignty and human agency. In the absence of a relatable explanation of what following Jesus means for being an authentic human being, most people will assume that what they need to know about being an authentic human being and what they need to know about following Jesus are two separate issues.
In my experience, Reformed evangelicals are often so eager to engage in polemics against culture that we often create a conflict that isn’t actually there. And in this case, we tend to create a conflict between common sense and faith. Self-discipline, forward-thinking, intentionality, awareness of one’s own weaknesses and strengths—how is any of this inherently frictional with Christian confession? If it’s not, then another question: Where is the theologically orthodox and accessibly literary body of Christian self-help literature? Perhaps we balk at the phrase “self-help.” Fine. What ideas do we have for alternatives? Is there a space for Christians writing about motivation and inspiration and discipline in a way that is decidedly spiritual but not decidedly reducing life to propositional theology?
I hope all will understand that my point is not that our reading or thinking should be less Christian. My point is that there’s something to be said for not setting up false antitheses, and for articulating a Christian vision of human flourishing that actually meets felt needs, not just intellectual ones. If we sigh at pop culture’s flocking to the latest TED Talk for spiritual guidance—and there’s much to sigh about there—perhaps we should ask ourselves what our seminaries and churches are doing about it.