Omri Elisha, “Moral Ambition,” (2011)

Omri Elisha, Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, (2011)

In his ethnography of two megachurches in Knoxville, Elisha argues that socially engaged evangelicals navigate between many competing demands. In a tradition often associated with individualism, this minority seeks to call others “out of their comfort zone” and thereby change the world for Christ. While cultivating personal religious virtues, they make moral demands on other Christians and society at large. As social reformers, the evangelical institutions from which they emerge both inspire and inhibit them, support them and view them suspiciously. They are inheritors of the complex legacies of revivalism, overseas missions, Christian temperance, and fundamentalism. Elisha’s conservative evangelical reformers are intensely self-critical members of the middle class who genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of the poor, but who generally don’t see capitalism as a problem in itself—and who see the poor as fundamentally lacking. Elisha uses the term “moral ambitions” to unpack this “particular style of religious subjectivity, one that manifests in moments of concerted action and mobilization and yet reflects a range of personal desires, theological and cultural norms, historical circumstances, and social opportunities” (18). Elisha talks to ambitious people: reformers with a new vision for the church, activists who want to bring about meaningful change. But these folks display moral ambition: their ambitions are fundamentally social, being focused on others and produced by particular institutions.

Elisha’s book offers several important reminders to scholars of evangelicalism. First, he reminds us that conservative evangelicals care about more than just language and texts—much of their religious activity consists of doing, not saying or reading. Because the concept of the Word is so important for evangelical theology, we scholars tend to look to language/semiotics as the key to understanding evangelicalism. Elisha engages words surprisingly rarely. Second, Elisha offers a refreshing emphasis on evangelical sociality. Anthropologists probably deal better in general with relationships than historians do, but Elisha proves especially adept at drawing out the institutional and interpersonal side of evangelicalism. In Elisha’s telling, evangelicalism emerges through social structures like class, institutional structures of financial support, small groups of friends, and shared discourses. Personal salvation, silent prayer, and private reading play their parts, but they’re bit players in Elisha’s ethnography. Third, Elisha’s book reminds us that serious books can also be funny. As a Jewish anthropologist from New York, Elisha could never really shake his outsider status among the evangelicals of Knoxville. But that didn’t stop them from putting him to good use. I actually laughed out loud reading the epilogue, when Elisha finds himself thrust into the role of chaperone for a youth mission trip: “After nearly a year of participant observation… I was used to performing unfamiliar roles. But I honestly never imagined I would one day be the driver of a big church van, shuttling pubescent soldiers of Christ through the streets of DC on their mission to do God’s work” (213-214). Though Elisha’s subtle turns of phrase exaggerate the humor of an awkward situation, his disquiet also reveals how his subjects’ moral ambitions work. The mission trip pulled the kids out of their “comfort zones”; in a completely different way, Elisha got pulled out of his. Being thrust into the role of a socially engaged evangelical leader, Elisha could get down to the business of seeing the world change.

Joel Osteen, “Your Best Life Now” (2004)

Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (Warner Faith, 2004)
Review by A.T. Coates

Osteen’s Your Best Life Now! exudes positive thinking, affirming words, supernatural victory, and a can-do perspective on Christian life. Relentlessly. To a sarcastic person like me, it proved almost unbearable. Your Best Life Now is a performative text, in which the “smiling preacher” Osteen speaks affirming “words of faith” into your life in order to transform you supernaturally. The book bubbles with one-liners that a reader could easily memorize and recite as mantras: “If one dream dies, dream another dream” (85), “God wants you to be a winner, not a whiner” (191), “Sow a seed in your time of need” (259). Positive thoughts, positive attitude, and positive speech produce tangible, positive results. Written in a conversational tone (and frequently in the second person), the book leads you through the seven steps to living your best life now: 1) enlarge your vision, 2) develop a healthy self-image, 3) discover the power of your thoughts and words, 4) let go of the past, 5) find strength through adversity, 6) live to give, 7) choose to be happy.

Kate Bowler’s forthcoming book, Blessed, identifies four key markers of the prosperity gospel that fit Osteen’s book neatly: faith, health, wealth, and victory. Supernatural faith. Divine healing. Financial blessing. Christian victory. Using jokes, urban legends, split infinitives, and countless anecdotes about his beloved “Daddy,” Osteen performs this classic prosperity message with relatively little jargon. Packaged for easy consumption and practically made for Wal-Mart’s book section, Osteen’s text seems more like a self-help book than a work of esoteric theology. Everyone deserves the “best life.” To have it, readers need only experience the right way to think, speak, and act.

Your Best Life Now joyfully celebrates the creative agency of individual subjects. This is its most pernicious element. Though almost never mentioned by name, the social forces of race, class, and gender stand as the foils of Osteen’s positive faith. If your parents were poor, and your grandparents were poor, and their grandparents were poor, that doesn’t mean that you have to be poor: “God is a progressive God. He wants you to go further than your parents ever went” (24). For Osteen, multigenerational cycles of poverty are simply illusions that faith can overcome. Gendered oppression shouldn’t stand in your way of positive-thinking your way into a promotion—nothing can constrain the power of God, who showers blessings on those who speak and act in faith. Osteen frequently warns against adopting a “victim mentality,” writing, “There is no such thing as the wrong side of the tracks with our God” (109). Such statements strongly imply that structural racism and other forms of social oppression do not exist. The individual, as a creative agent, must choose to think positively despite circumstances and rely on God to effect change. Those who remain oppressed have only themselves to blame.