Friday, January 29, 2021
It's Friday, January 29, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
“Manifesting” Is Taking a New Generation by Storm: The Same Old Lie of the Positive Thinking Movement Is Now Mainstream?
Have you been manifesting lately? Do you have any idea what that's even about? Well, evidently it's not only a new fad, it's a new cultural phenomenon. And our interest is really in the fact that what we're seeing is a resurgence of a very old idea, a very old heresy in American religion and in American history, the movement known as positive thinking. And evidently we're told it's catching on in a whole new way with a new generation. Ruth La Ferla reports for the New York Times, an article with the headline, "The Power of Positive Thinking Reborn." The subhead, "A New Generation is Manifesting in the Name of Wellness."
She begins by telling us about a young man who at age nine had set his heart on owning the Power Ranger Flip Heads. He said, "I never told anyone, but I wanted these toys so bad. I sat in my room holding this scenario in my head of how I would feel when I got them." The article then goes on, "He had in his new age tinctured phrase, launched his dreams into the universe." And as he tells it, "The universe heeded his call." He said, "The very next day, my dad got me the Flip Heads. That's when I realized that there was something to this." What's the this? Well, it's the power of visualization, the power of attractive magnetic thinking, the power of positive thinking, the power of manifesting. That's the term that is now increasingly popular.
There's an old history to this. There's a very fascinating theological background to this. But it also tells us something about our cultural moment that right now the New York Times says, "This is not a fad. This is a major movement among younger Americans, younger Americans who are dispirited and fatigued in the midst of a pandemic." The Times tells us, "Manifesting sits alongside a smattering of belief systems, astrology, tarot, paganism, and their metaphysical cousins being resurrected by a youthful generation in the name of wellness."
The article cites Lucie Green. She's identified as a writer and trend forecaster in New York. Evidently, that's a job description. She said, "For Gen Z in particular, it can be a form of self-soothing. It's a way to make sense of things in a moment where nothing makes sense." Now the point that's made by this article in the Times is that this manifesting, this new dimension of the power of positive thinking, is being rebranded in the context of wellness, and wellness is big. On The Briefing, we discussed the fact that wellness is now an industry.
There's a wellness industrial complex in the United States. There are billions of dollars being made in wellness products, therapy, astrology, all kinds of occultic metaphysical practices. Manifesting now gets in line. But it's really interesting that the headline in this article is "The Power of Positive Thinking Reborn." Why would it say reborn? It means that there was cultural attention to something called the power of positive thinking in a previous generation. And we're going to be talking about what that meant and what this resurgence of positive thinking and manifesting now means.
One observer pointed out that among the defining means of the last year was, "Shut up. I'm manifesting." Now wait just a minute. What does it mean to manifest? Well, to manifest etymologically in terms of definition means to make real, to see, to reveal, to make real. But manifesting is something that's best understood as a new, new age practice. It's an extension of this idea of positive thinking. We're told, "Its practitioners view it as a coping mechanism, a legitimate alternative that organized religion or psychotherapy may not always provide."
Princess Asata Louden's spiritual practice includes "the law of attraction." This described as a belief that your experiences have a direct correlation to your thoughts. We're told that she is by the way, a 24 year old dancer and graduate student at UCLA who likes to perform by candle light or near an open window. She said, in addition, "I also communicate with my ancestors and spirit guides," Rituals to make her feel divinely, protected, and guided. One of the things we need to note by the way is that there is no particular divinity to the divine that is cited in this new age, positive thinking, manifesting thought.
She said, "Manifesting has gotten me through all of this pandemic stuff, but even in the midst of this pandemic stuff, it turns out that she is not religious, but we're told she takes on faith that we have this power to manipulate energy," the report in the Times tells us speaking of this young woman and her generation, "Many of her contemporaries preach a similar gospel of self-realization on YouTube, TikTok, and other social media platforms."
These days, the internet teams with their slogans and self-affirmations receiving blessings from the universe, or there's no competition when you're manifesting in your own lane. One other young woman, she's an 18 year old high school students said, "I really think our generation is here to push this idea into the mainstream. We see it as part of a new enlightenment." While she may think it's part of a new enlightenment but that's partly due to the fact that she's 18. She doesn't recognize it's not a new enlightenment. It's not even an enlightenment. It's certainly not new.
A Look at the Theological History of the Positive Thinking Movement in American Religion
As a matter of fact, the positive thinking movement in the United States came to cultural prominence in particular in the 1950s with the publication of a book by a New York pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, that was entitled The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952. But Peale didn't really come up with those ideas.
He drew them from the new thought movement that emerged in the United States in the 19th century, the new thought movement was associated with people such as Phineas Quimby. If you don't know about Phineas Quimby, well, you should. He had a lot of influence in this idea of positive thinking and visualization. The idea that our ideas can manifest or attract reality, that we can change history, that we can make things happen merely by thinking them powerfully. That's the power of positive thinking. Quimby influenced figures such as Mary Baker Eddy, who would establish the Christian Science movement, a movement that as one of my professors said is best described as analogous to grape nuts, neither grape nor nuts. Christian science is neither Christian nor science. It is nuts. In American history ever since Phineas Quimby and the new thought movement that took hold amongst so many. It led to all kinds of abhorrent practices.
But the bottom line idea is that if you can think it, you can make it happen. And of course, now you have contemporary preachers such as Joel Osteen in Houston who just preach a softer version of the very same idea. If you can just think it, you can make it happen. Now one of the things we need to note as Christians right up front is that this is not only sub Christian. It's not Christian. It's not the gospel. It's not consistent with biblical truth. Nowhere in the Bible does it say, if you can just think these thoughts, you can attract energy and even make material things appear. That's just entirely foreign. That would be described in the scripture actually as something closer to sorcery or witchcraft. It's also very important to recognize that if you're going to preach something like the power of positive thinking, and you're going to present it in some kind of theological term, you're going to have to make those terms very generous, inclusive, and universalistic.
You can't be too particular about this god who is at your beck and call when you manifest. But of course, as you're looking at some of these Gen Zers quoted in this article, there's really very little even theological content of this. There's really very little citation of the divine. No. They think themselves rather omni-competent to think. And by the power of their magnetic thoughts, make things happen. The law of attraction, it has sometimes been described, the principle or power of positive thinking, later in this article, the law of attraction comes up, but in the world's weirdest way. In the contemporary context of critical theory in so many other confusions, you have the statement here that the law of attraction might actually be tainted by an undercurrent of racism, because the argument seems to make sense, "Maybe you manifested, maybe it's white privilege."
Manifesting according to one person cited in the article feels entitled in dirty. "The real advantage that you have in this white body in this time and space, you have tremendous resources that most of the world does not have." The explanation comes later. "Manifesting carries an implicit rebuke to members of impoverished or disenfranchised communities," that according to Denise Fournier identified as a psychotherapist in Miami. "Subtle or not, the message is insidious. It's why aren't you manifesting a trip to Tulum? Why aren't we seeing you on Instagram? You must not be a good manifester. That's problematic." She goes on to say that some would even find it selfish. You think? The idea that you can make reality bending your thoughts might be selfish? It's not just selfish. It's ridiculous. But nonetheless, one of the things you need to note is that this kind of manifesting, positive thinking, whether it's embedded in your economic privilege or not, the reality is you really are arguing that the universe is at your beck and call.
Your mind is so powerful that you can change history, that you can make material objects appear. You can make things happen. You can manifest.
Now you won't be surprised to find out that manifesting is big in some of the soft cultural pockets of great influence, such as Oprah Winfrey. Oprah's magazine, ran an article entitled How to Manifest Anything You Want or Desire. This article is by Kimberly Zapata. And then she raises the question, what is manifestation exactly? "Essentially manifestation is bringing something tangible into your life through attraction and belief. That is if you think it, and it will come." One of the implicit, maybe even explicit beliefs in this system is that if you are specific enough, if you give enough mental attention as something, you can actually make it happen.
But going back to that criticism of manifesting that came from what you might call political correctness. The reality is that there is an implicit judgment that if you don't have what you want, it must be because you're not good enough at manifesting. The article in Oprah Magazine gets specific quote, "In addition to changing your mindset and behaviors, you will need to remove any obstacles or limiting beliefs, which may cloud your vision, including fear and negative self-talk." The article cites Oprah herself, who said, "Telling yourself you're not good enough. You're not worthy enough. You're not smart enough. You're not enough. It's a tape that's playing for a lot of people. If you're not conscious of that, then you end up acting out of that belief system and not what you know to be the truest or want to be the truest for yourself. You don't become what you want because so much of wanting is about living in the space of what you don't have."
Now if that makes sense to you, I worry about you a bit. But the reason I read that section, including the quote from Oprah is to make clear that this entire new thought positive thinking, manifesting movement is based upon the ideas that all ideas are separated between the positive and the negative. And if you do not have what you want, it must be because your negative thoughts are compromising your positive thoughts. And so what you need to do is replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. And of course, Oprah says, the place you begin is with yourself. Replace negative ideas about yourself with positive ideas about yourself, and you can create a new you. Now let me just point out again. That's actually the antithesis of the Christian gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ does not say that our problem is that we do not think well enough of ourselves or not positive enough about ourselves.
It tells us that we think so highly of ourselves going back to our first parents, Adam and Eve, that we would wish to be as God. And of course, redemption in the scripture doesn't come, salvation doesn't come by thinking better about ourselves, but by coming to faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ and repenting of our sins. But of course, when you're looking at the positive thinking movement, as I said, there are theological dimensions here in American religious history and frankly on the headlines of today. The American religious history part is really interesting going back to that new thought movement. But the question is how in the world would that have come to influence Christians? Well it's because there were a lot of people who are ready to hear the message that the universe really is about us. There were a lot of people ready to hear the message that we can actually change our lives if we will just think differently.
Now this was dressed up in a sense for Manhattan by the time you get to the power of positive thinking and Norman Vincent Peale, who preached in the beautiful sanctuary of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. And he attracted a very large audience. He eventually established a foundation, a magazine known as Guideposts. He became a very influential figure in America. He changed the way a lot of American salespeople thought of their task, and they began to visualize a sale before they made it. All kinds of positive thinking issues emerged in the larger culture going mainstream. Norman Vincent Peale had a lot of influence upon people, including Donald Trump, who as a boy, was taken by his parents to Marble Collegiate Church to hear Norman Vincent Peale.
What Is the Real Problem of Prosperity Theology? It’s Not That It Promises Too Much, But Far Too Little — The Gospel of Christ Promises Infinitely More
But I want to make sure that we are also aware of the fact that the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movement also emerged in a very real sense out of that new thought movement and its collision with orthodox or biblical Christianity.
And by the time you get to the middle decades of the 20th century, you have an exploding movement with figures, such as Kenneth Hagin, a word faith movement that argued based upon a misreading of scripture, once again, that if you can think it, you can make it happen, that God just wants to make your dreams come true. And you need to get rid of negative thinking and replace it with positive thinking. You say a word, and if you say it with enough faith, by the principle of faith, you can make it happen. Now, as you recall that politically correct criticism of manifesting that it implied that the people who don't have what they want just aren't good enough at manifesting. The reality is that even more insidiously by the word faith movement, this came into certain circles of Christianity in the United States, where it was argued that if you don't have what you think you deserve, then it must be because you don't have sufficient faith.
This was filtered down through figures, such as Oral Roberts in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and eventually, of course, it's now perhaps most quintessentially represented by Joel Osteen and his movement in Houston. He's a media celebrity who mainstreams, like Oprah, an awful lot of the ideas of the new thought movement, the positive thinking movement. And he does it all with his famous smile arguing that if you can just think the right thoughts, you can make the right things happen. If you want a new job, if you want to change your romantic life, if you want to solve marital problems, you just need to claim it. You need to say it over and over again. Interestingly, some of the formulas, people like Osteen represent are some of the formulas that are seen in this article in Oprah magazine, it cites the three, six, nine method, "in which you write down what you want in the following order, three times in the morning, six times in the afternoon, and nine times at night for 33 or 45 days, but it can also be as simple as a letter to the universe."
Now let me just interject here because I just feel like I have to, if you find yourself writing a letter to the universe, please get some help, but get some gospel help. The article in the New York Times, let's remind ourselves is about a new generation coming to what it declares to be the new enlightenment, which is basically the same old lie of the new thought movement and positive thinking. But the article tells us that even some secular authorities are concerned about the self-absorption that this really represents. For example, you have the statement that was made by Dr. Fournier I mentioned she treats a number of 15, 16, and 17 year olds in her practice.
She describes what she calls a culture of special-ness, the use of spirituality to create this idea of being exceptional and supremely gifted. "The thought is how can I use my spirituality to serve my own person?" Well, Dr. Fournier clearly implies it's not enough to serve your own person, but we have to backtrack as Christians and say, this is based upon a fundamental lie in the first place. But if nothing else, when you hear someone talk about manifesting, you now know what they're talking about. They're talking about positive thinking. They're talking about new thought. They're talking about perhaps a secular or new age version of the old word faith heresy. What they're talking about is thinking about something strongly enough, sincerely enough, powerfully enough, repetitively enough that they can make it happen. Now, as Christians, we need to recognize that if you're going to be reckless with scripture, you can find some snippets of scripture in order to try to create some justification for these kinds of ideas.
Faith is like a mustard seed, but remember the mustard seed is faith in Christ. It's not faith in faith. It's not faith in ourselves. It's not faith in manifesting. It's faith in God. And just remember that the problem with the prosperity gospel, prosperity theology is very much a part of this word faith movement. A part of the lie of the power of positive thinking is that it makes God into a great source of energy at our disposal. It contorts, it indeed sets the entire system of biblical theology on its head, but there's a sadder dimension of this. It leads to untold broken promises. It leads to depression. It leads to a faithlessness. It leads to despair on the part of many. If you really buy into the word faith movement, the problem is you have the reality that what you think you have faith in doesn't happen.
What you're manifesting doesn't come. The promises that you have claimed from the great universe to which you wrote a letter, those promises don't happen. And unfulfilled hopes and broken dreams are the residue of bad theology, indeed, even heresy. The gospel of Jesus Christ makes promises and it always delivers on those promises. Christ is faithful. Christ never fails to deliver what he promises. And what Christ promises us is eternal salvation, redemption from our sin. The reality is that coming to biblical terms with ourselves, doesn't lead us to despise ourselves. It leads us to despise our sin. And thus we are drawn to Christ because in Christ, we are promised the forgiveness of sins based upon his accomplished redemption on the cross. The cross and the empty tomb point to the finished work of Christ for the atonement of our sins, atonement in full, redemption promised and redemption accomplished.
The Bible doesn't tell us by the way that we are to manifest our salvation, but rather that we are to receive it. All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. If we profess with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in our heart that God has raised him from the dead, we shall be saved.
You know, as we conclude this edition of The Briefing, just think about this. There are those who are drawn to prosperity, theology, positive thinking, the word faith movement, the prosperity gospel because of its promises and those failed theologies failed to deliver on their promises. But the reality is that the gospel of Jesus Christ delivers not less but infinitely more. The problem of the prosperity gospel, prosperity theology, and all its forms, new thought, the power of positive thinking, manifesting you just go down the list, the problem with these false theologies is not that they promise too much, but that they promise too little.
Christ is the answer to our problem. And the gospel comes down to faith and repentance. We don't receive our salvation because we manifest it because we can't and Jesus on our behalf did not merely manifest our salvation, he achieved it. Just recall the words of that old precious gospel hymn, "Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe. Sin had left its crimson stain. He washed it white as snow."
Don't try to manifest that. Just believe it. And then sing it.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.