BECOME A BETTER YOU
7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day
By Joel Osteen
Free Press. 379 pp. $25
The theological heft of popular and telegenic Texas preacher Joel Osteen is a matter of debate. But this much is indisputable: His new book, Become a Better You, is a study in how to publish a bestseller.
The book, the second by the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, debuted at No. 1 on major bestseller lists. In a confidential deal with Free Press reported to be worth as much as $13 million, Osteen delivered not only a manuscript but also a guaranteed audience, what publishing people these days call a "platform."
The nondenominational church he pastors is America's largest congregation; Outreach magazine's 2007 list of megachurches pegs its size at 45,000. Broadcasts of Osteen's weekly services are shown on seven networks in the United States and reach more than 100 countries. His church also has e-mail lists of 750,000 people, and his first book, Your Best Life Now, has sold nearly 5 million copies since 2004. To make ready for Become a Better You, chain bookstores began taking advance orders from customers two months prior to publication. Chances are good that you can also find a copy at your grocery store or while shopping for toys and electronics at your favorite big-box retailer. Advance orders justified a first printing of 3 million copies. For comparison, Bill Clinton's 2004 autobiography, My Life, and Stephen King's new novel, Duma Key, had first printings half as large.
Those are great expectations. So what does the book offer? Its message is hardly new. The seven keys are self-help standbys dressed in nondenominational Christian clothing: Be positive, be passionate, form good habits and relationships, don't get stuck, stay calm, look inside. It's big on God and God's love. ("Tell yourself every day: 'I am the apple of God's eye. I'm his most prized possession. I am crowned with glory and honor. I'm valuable. I'm attractive.' ") But it's much less big on Jesus, a sore point with some Christian critics of Osteen's style. They want more talk of sin and salvation and the uncompromising teaching that Jesus is the truth, the life and the only way to heaven.
Osteen's not that kind of preacher, though. He says he has made a deliberate choice to keep his message simple and encouraging. What he sees as pastoral, his critics see as pandering. 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.
If Osteen's message is familiar, the Christian self-help genre is even more so. This has been the decade of it. Bruce Wilkinson's The Prayer of Jabez, based on an obscure biblical verse, was on Publishers Weekly bestselling lists for 44 weeks in 2001; a guide to "increasing one's territory," interpreted as a promise of prosperity, it blazed a trail out of the Christian bookstore ghetto that has become a well-traveled road. Beginning in 2003, The Purpose-Driven Life, by California pastor Rick Warren, topped bestselling lists for three years. Warren maintained emphatically that it was not a self-help book. But its goal of life improvement, and advice for doing so, made it walk and talk like a self-help duck. Its chief rival for the top-selling rank in 2005, the last year of its unprecedented sales dominance? Osteen's Your Best Life Now.
The pervasiveness of Christian self-help is relatively new, but it has both recent and distant antecedents in U.S. religious history. Presbyterian minister Charlie Shedd's Christian diet book The Weight Is in Your Head remained on bestseller lists for 23 months after its 1972 publication. The Chicken Soup for the Soul series of inspirational books now numbers over 100 titles, with more than 100 million copies in print.
Princeton religion historian Leigh Eric Schmidt, who charts the commingling of self-seeking and spiritual seeking in Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality from Emerson to Oprah, contends that today's spiritually oriented self-help literature is rooted in the American religious tradition that emphasizes individual search and introspection. That tradition includes such figures as Max Ehrmann, who in 1927 composed "Desiderata," a prayer that has lasted long enough to make e-mail rounds. "Be gentle with yourself," it urges. "You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and stars."
Ehrmann echoes in Osteen. Not just in Osteen, of course: Similar inspiration can be found at the greeting card store as well as the church, temple, mosque and bookstore. But with a basic grounding in scripture and a lot of TV know-how (acquired over 17 years of producing the televised sermons of his father, John Osteen), a preacher's kid who inherited a congregation now holds the keys to America's self-help impulse. ¿
Marcia Z. Nelson is the author of "The Gospel According to Oprah."