Ever found yourself sighing over the “prosperity gospel”? Side-eyeing books like The Secret? Wondering when “sending positive energy” and “giving good thoughts” to others became the norm? Ever felt the slight discomfort that a lot of the feel-good language pervading the church seems distinctly secular and not so theologically sound?
If so, L.L. Martin’s Positively Powerless: How A Forgotten Movement Undermined Christianity will be worth your time. A disclaimer here: I know Martin through this here blog of mine (and through Martin’s blog Enough Light) and we tend to have similar views, so perhaps I was predisposed to like this book from the beginning. With that said, I’m reviewing this book with the same critical eye I give to all the texts I approach.
This book functions in two unique ways. First, it offers the history of the New Thought movement – a good-energy good-vibes self-affirming positive-thinking make-it-happen way of being – and explores its damaging influence on mainstream Protestant Christianity. Secondly, as a result of this exploration, the book explores how we might reclaim a realistic, balanced faith from this mushy, name-it-and-claim-it sort of nonsense.
Because of my studies in philosophy and literature, I’m familiar with the New Thought movement and some of its thinkers. For the unfamiliar reader, though, Martin offers a pretty comprehensive and accessible survey of where New Thought came from and in what particular ways it has influenced, and continues to influence, Christianity. The book does a strong job of showing the ways in which New Thought can masquerade within the church as “Christian” thought, and identifies the many problems that can come of such a masquerade: an emphasis on self-empowerment and self-validation, a neglect of the concept of “sin” (pride in particular), a disinterest in humility and holiness, and a realignment of the relationship between Christians and God such that we become the central focus and guiding driver of intimacy and affirmation.
Martin is careful to emphasize that the opposite of the positive-thinking movement is not negative-thought Christianity; rather, she advocates for Christians to maintain a balanced and realistic worldview. One of the strongest chapters, “Simul Justus et Peccator,” discusses the tension that believers must maintain as they navigate the truth of being “almost but not yet” new creations, simultaneously saints and sinners in the process of becoming what God intends for us to be. And she offers a useful interrogation for believers near the book’s end in an effort to help them identify Biblically-sound instruction: “Are [the things you read] turning your eyes upon Jesus, or feeding your innate self-absorption?” This is the question the book asks and, ultimately, answers, and it is certainly a worthy one.
Anyone made uncomfortable by the me-filled secular platitudes of our modern age will relate to Martin’s book and find comfort in her realistic description of Christianity, and those wishing to mouth a defense against such mealy-mouthed affirmations will find the material for that defense here. There are other gems, too: Martin takes a few moments to parse the difference between socialization and fellowship (a distinction near and dear to my heart), and frets over whether believers might not “emphasize God’s immanence at the expense of God’s transcendence.” She unpacks theological concepts that may be unfamiliar to some believers with fluidity and ease. This book manages to be both an informative read – a careful case study of outside influences on Christianity – and a self-study of sorts, helped along by Martin’s reflection questions at the end of each chapter.
The only part of the book where readers might find their experience doesn’t quite dovetail with Martin’s is when she mentions that pride and humility (and meditations thereon) are “no longer a distinctive feature of Biblical religion.” An echo of this occurs later when she notes that “teaching in general has fallen by the wayside in many churches.” The assertions here and in a few other places in regards to this issue caught me off guard, primarily because I was raised in and have attended churches deeply concerned with the matter of pride and humility (and brokenness), deeply rejecting of New Thought-influenced concepts (which to some degree is how I discovered them to begin with), and supportive of Biblical teaching and truths in defiance of New Age and secular influence. I don’t think that Martin’s incorrect here in her assertions in general, but your personal experience within your own church will guide your response to them.
Still, we’ve all had our moments of contact with New-Thought influenced concepts. It’s likely that you’ll find yourself nodding as you read along, recognizing the echoes of self-affirming, self-glorifying, self-deifying talk that have drifted into your own Christian experience. For that illumination alone, and for the way it asks us to consider the balance and realism of the Christian worldview, Positively Powerless is certainly worth a look.
The book is available on Amazon here in Kindle, hardcover, and paperback versions.