deconstructing sin - the destruction of sin

I realize these last few posts are pretty long, but hey, the paper was 18 pages and at least I am breaking up in to palatable chunks. Of course I realize that palatable is contextual...

Rick Warren and Joel Osteen are culturally well-known evangelical pastors and authors; and their popularity makes their writings theologically significant for contemporary culture. Their appeal is far reaching and each of them has written commercially successful books about what it means to live as a Christian in the world today. As of a year ago, Rick Warren’s, The Purpose Driven Life, had sold over twenty-three million copies in English and has been published in numerous languages. His book remains on the New York Times Bestseller list in the Self-Help category and has spawned numerous side projects including journals, music and scripture memorization cards. The Purpose Driven Life is the bestselling non-fiction book in publishing history. Rick Warren is also the pastor a 22,000 member congregation in California and speaks at various engagements around the world. Joel Osteen is the author of Your Best Life Now, a book that sold 2.5 million copies in its first eight months. Osteen is the pastor of a 30,000 member congregation in Houston, Texas, and is watched around the world through a television ministry. Recently, Osteen has signed a book deal that is valued at ten to thirteen million dollars depending upon the sales of his new book. The popularity of these two pastors and authors is undeniable given the attendance of their churches and the statistics of their written works. However, the question that remains for me is what kind of theology do they advocate? Moreover, how have they contributed to the destruction of sin in popular theology?

As I read these two books, I couldn’t help but think of the fast food company McDonalds. In 2000, McDonalds introduced the advertising slogan “We Love to See You Smile.” In my opinion, McDonalds provides two things to their consumer. The first is a quick and easy solution to the immediate problem of hunger felt by an individual. Secondly, they provide a diet of empty calories that fills that same hunger for a brief period of time but has no lasting value for the nutritional needs of a human body. Holding the slogan “We Love to See You Smile” together with the two values placed on a McDonald’s meal helps me draw an analogy to Warren and Osteen. Namely, these authors provide theological consumers with quick and easy fixes, empty theological calories and a theological life that never reaches beyond the depth of a smile. While this analogy is applied to the totality of their works, it is their treatment of sin that is in sharp contrast to the work of Calvin, and is of concern in this essay.

The Purpose Driven Life

Of the two books we will examine, The Purpose Driven Life (PDL) has the most in common with Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion. However, I make that statement knowing that when compared side-by-side they share very little. Where the ICR is a four course gourmet steak dinner, the PDL is a Big Mac. Both meals might consist of beef, bread and vegetables but the quality of the ingredients that go into each meal are quite different. Before moving on to the PDL, I want to share two initial impressions in order to set the context for an exposition of his use of sin throughout the pages of the PDL.

The first impression I was aware of was the audience. With Calvin the audience seems to include Christians, philosophers, theologians and others interested in the Protestant movement. On the other hand, with Warren the audience is a Christian or a non-Christian, with an emphasis on the individual. The opening and guiding question for his book is “What on earth am I here for [emphasis mine]” (Warren, 2002, p. 9)? Furthermore, while the PDL expounds upon the necessity and benefits of community, they are couched in how the community is beneficial to the individual. This led me to read Calvin with an implied “we” versus reading of Warren with an implied “I.”

The second impression concerned the language used in both works. Calvin relied on traditional theological language, using rebuttals or refutations to explain his ideas. Calvin used the language and style of his time to provide a depthful argument for a way of living as Protestants in a Catholic world. On the whole, Warren’s PDL ignores theological language seeking to make points through repetition and quotation of paraphrased Scripture passages. Furthermore, the PDL contains little novel theological insight, relying on repeated phrases as pragmatic tools rather than theologically constructed meanings that help a reader critically reflect on their lifestyle in relationship to who God has called them to be.

Sin in the Purpose Driven Life

There is not a sustained discussion of sin in the PDL. Therefore, I will attempt to cull together several brief passages that either mention the word sin or imply its existence. I believe that for Warren sin is a peripheral theological and practical term, which explains his light treatment of it. Furthermore, I believe the word self-centered is sometimes substituted for sin. I interpret his use of this term as a psychological alternative to sin, meant to soften or replace the theologically loaded term and attend to its personal rather than corporate manifestations.

Warren states that sin is “failing to give God glory” (2002, p. 55) and that our failure to give God glory is rooted in our “prideful rebellion” (p. 55). This is in contrast to Warren’s statement that “living for God’s glory is the greatest achievement we can accomplish with our lives” (p. 55). Furthermore, Warren believes that God is glorified when an individual takes on acts of worship, love, service and evangelism and when they become more like Christ (p. 55-56). His discourse on giving God glory helps define what sin is not, rather than further elucidating what sin is and how it might function in the life of a Christian. Roughly fifty pages later Warren makes his second statement concerning sin and its affect on a person’s relationship with God. Here he states, “sin does disconnect us from intimate fellowship with God [emphasis his]” (p. 109). Warren also provides a small list of acts that, if read critically, could be construed as sinful. He says, “We grieve God’s Spirit and quench our fellowship with him by disobedience, conflict with others, busyness, friendship with the world, and other sins” (p. 109). Finally, Warren pays tribute to the idea of original sin when he admits that, “the image [of God] is incomplete [in a human being]… damaged and distorted by sin” (p. 173). This final reference to sin is weak at best with no supporting statements or elaboration (there are two other mentions of the word sin, both comment on how to deal with sin and will be dealt with later). Through Warren’s writings about sin in the PDL, I can state that sin has to do with a personal relationship with God and how that relationship is conducted. This is far cry from Calvin’s insistence on the knowledge of our total depravity and our dependence on God. It also progresses the notion that damage has been caused to one traditional understanding of sin and its role in the life of a Christian.

Before concluding, I want to briefly examine Warren’s use of the term self-centered. This term is not explicitly defined in the context of the PDL. However, it is used on a couple of occasions to describe immaturity, as in the case of babies (p. 182) and as the counter position of self-sacrificing service (p. 232, 233, 265). Self-centeredness is a psychological concept that has to do with preoccupation with the self. It is generally thought of as a negative term and the way it is used in the PDL does not give me cause to think otherwise. However, being self-centered has vastly different connotations than does being sinful. The term self-centered is fairly new and pertains to an individual rather than a community or widely applicable theological theme such as sin. Moreover, because of Warren’s focus on self-sacrifice and self-denial it is unclear what, if anything is left to this wonderful self that was created for a purpose in the first place.

Finally, because Warren does not take sin seriously, he cannot take grace seriously either. Calvin’s high doctrine of grace only works because of his emphasis on the depravity of humanity. Warren’s lukewarm statements about sin empty it of almost all of the traditional meanings that it carried leaving a hulking shell that has very little use for the Christian life. There are two references in Warren’s book concerning the antidote for sin. First, Warren states that “The battle for sin is won or lost in your mind” (p. 210). Furthermore, Warren believes this battle is won when someone finds themselves “adopting how God thinks…” (p. 182). Therefore, not only is sin a personal thing between God and a particular human being, but any “battle” waged against sin occurs and is won only through the power of the mind. One of the major problems with Warren’s concept of sin is that there is no systemic accountability for families, groups, communities, nations and others who find themselves in positions where they are abusing power in ways that diminish life. In the PDL the only thing accountable is an individual, which leads to a flawed and incomplete definition of sin that is dysfunctional at best. This theological “Big Mac” that Warren has provided is merely a quick meal and a bevy of empty calories that bears some resemblance to Calvin. However, Warren fails his readers by not challenging the sinful structures that permeate their lives and actions, leading to a collapse in: (1) personal responsibility and (2) dependence on God.

Your Best Life Now

Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now (UBLN) is best described as a self-help book with a mediocre dose of Christianity thrown in for good measure. Its chapters are an amalgamation of anecdotes, self-help taglines and rules for living a proper Christian life that emphasize positive thinking and a positive attitude. Overall, there is a theological naïveté at work in this book. This is evident through the simplistic ethic that he tells Christians to live by; namely, if I am good then God will reward me with “favor” (this could mean health, wisdom, but it mainly seems to concern material wealth and objects, i.e. – finding a good parking space, pages 42-43) and punish those who have or will do things that might hurt me in some way. Where Warren uses repetition and paraphrased scripture to prove his points, Osteen is concerned with anecdotal evidence and positive thinking as the primary resources for Christian living. Furthermore, where Warren seems to be concerned with sin as being self-centered, Osteen borders on the idea that it is a sin if one is not somewhat centered on the self. In fact it is not until the second to last chapter that Osteen even mentions the idea of giving and his reference is mostly with regard to the practice of tithing of one’s gifts (tithing includes a variety of gifts, but is mostly concerned with giving monetarily). This leads me to conclude that if Rick Warren’s book is a theological Big Mac then UBLN is a hand full of French fries, great tasting but devoid of any lasting nutritional value.

Sin in Your Best Life Now

As one might expect from a self-help book, there are very few traditional theological themes defined in the pages of UBLN. By my count, the word “sins” is used one time in Osteen’s work. This makes it difficult to define and describe the antithesis to Osteen’s perfectly positive human (though I will venture a guess). Instead of the term sin, a conglomeration of terms and phrases are used throughout the book to describe the opposite of a positive Christian disposition. Some of these include: “that ‘poor-old-me mentality,’ always negative, always depressed” (p. 14), “negative frame of mind” (p. 16), and “a wrong thinking pattern that keeps us imprisoned in defeat” (p. 30). Furthermore, Osteen states that “If you see yourself as unqualified, insignificant, unattractive, inferior, or inadequate, you will probably act in accordance with your thoughts… you will imagine yourself as a born loser, a washout, unworthy of being loved and accepted” (p. 56-57). This negative cognitive disposition is the closest he comes to laying out a definition of sin for the Osteenian vision of Christian life. As a result Osteen is, in many ways, the anti-Calvin. He focuses on the created good image and implies grace-filled living but completely ignores the idea that humans might have fallen to such a degree that only God can pull them out.

Throughout his work it is apparent that self is to be regarded only in terms of the positive and that anything contrary to this position is to be considered anathema in the life of a Christian. Osteen uses a variety of anecdotes to prove the value of his theological stance on humanity and our relationship with God. Generally speaking, these anecdotes move through a predictable pattern: negative thinking, negative life events, positive epiphany, change in self-image, change in circumstance and finally blessings (often materially-oriented) arrive from God (for examples see the anecdotes on pages 47, 110-111, & 117-119). Unfortunately this leads me to believe that, according to Osteen, sin should not occupy a prominent place in the lives of “healthy” human beings. Furthermore, his destruction of sin also destroys any hope of dependence on God for redemption and grace. Instead, an Osteenian Christian is dependent on and faithful to God in order to receive blessings and “favor” (p. 44), self-esteem (p. 91) and payback “for all the unfair things that have happened to us” (p. 164).

To conclude, Warren and Osteen provide a microcosm of thought concerning the place, definition and function of sin in popular contemporary Christian writing. Furthermore, because their books reach a large audience and their church ministries include large sums of people, Warren and Osteen have theological influence over the popular view of sin in the life of Christians. However, it is evident to me that anyone who professes to be a Warrenite or Osteenian Christian would have little or no concept of a theological construction of sin. Moreover, they might be oblivious to their own complicity in the sinful structures and systems that permeate the world. In the end, the Warrenite or Osteenian reader is no longer dependent on a God who offers the redemption and grace necessary for a sinful human being. Instead, sin is destroyed and the readers are left with depending on God for purpose or blessings. Unfortunately, this is a theological meal that can only satisfy for a little while, that is until these devoted Christians catch a glimpse of the next McDonalds on the horizon. Ultimately, these works lead me back to Calvin in order to deconstruct and recover his ideas about sin.



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