Joel Osteen’s new book, Become a Better You, is reviewed by Marcia Z. Nelson in today’s Washington Post Book Review. Nelson places Osteen within the continuum of the burgeoning genre of self-help spirituality, a genre that ranges from Chicken Soup for the Soul to Prayer of Jabez to Purpose Driven Life. And rather than taking the easy shot at Osteen’s thin theology, she points out that Osteen does indeed have a theological foundation.
The pejorative label most often thrown at him is ‘Christianity lite,’ and it is true that his core message of self-acceptance seems, at first glance, to be more psychological than theological. But the book also has a strong scriptural flavor, with frequent references to biblical figures and 66 footnoted citations from the Bible. And Osteen insists that self-acceptance flows from God’s acceptance of humans, warts (or sins) included. So maybe it is simple but solid theology, after all.
I’m not sure that 66 footnoted citations from the Bible in a 379-page book qualifies as substantial for an author who is writing from an intentionally Christian perspective (that’s only one reference every 5.7 pages). And surely there is no end to the valid critiques of Osteen’s navel-gazing, self-help message. His words of holy encouragement and God’s acceptance are hardly a comprehensive Gospel message. There’s much more to God, the Gospel, and Christianity than self-help.
But I appreciate that Nelson stuck with Osteen long enough to find something of value, something of solid theology in his new book. After all, this is not the kind of book that I would read, but it surely is the kind of book many folks in our pews and communities are reading (after buying it at BJ’s, Wal-Mart, or Target), whether we like it or not. And finding some good in it is more helpful than slinging arrows. It might not be a book on my suggested reading list in my adult education program, but if our folks are reading Osteen’s books and watching him on television, it is good to know that there is something, if partial at best, of the Gospel in his message. For ours is a world and a church of decreasing spiritual and religious literacy, and better someone read this book than no religious book at all, it seems to me.