One of my favorite scenes from the Christmas classic Home Alone (1990) is when Peter McCallister is attempting to encourage his curmudgeon brother Frank as the family hurriedly rushes out of their Winnetka, Illinois manse en route to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for a family trip to Paris.
Frank: There’s no way on earth we are going to make this plane. It leaves in 45 minutes.
Peter: Think positive Frank.
Frank: You be positive, I’ll be realistic.
Frank and Peter’s exchange highlights a prominent movement in American thought and spirituality – the New Thought, or Positive Thinking, or Optimism movement. This pseudo-religious/health/self-help/spiritualistic movement emerged in America during the 19th century through the teachings of P.P. Quimby and one of his famous disciples, Mary Baker Eddy. It was Eddy who took Quimby’s ideas and baptized them in cultural Christianity to form the Christian Science movement. The basic idea of said movement is that human mentality can change human reality. If a person thinks positively about a particular aspect of life (business success, health, personal goals) then some transcendent force will press down on the natural world and bend providence in the favor of the person who thinks. Likewise, if a person thinks negatively, the results could mean disease and death.
Positive Thought, Optimism, and American Culture
This line of thinking became deeply entrenched within American culture in the 19th and 20th centuries and still plays a prominent role today. Author Mitch Horowitz wrote the first significant history of the positive thought movement in his 2014 book One Simple Idea. According to Horowitz, the subcultures of art, foreign policy, sports, business, health and wellness, and religious groups all borrow from Quimby and Eddy’s philosophy. For example, one of the more popular songs in 1945 was a tune by Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers called Accentuate the Positive. In the song, Mercer structures his lyrics and chorus in the style of a sermon, beginning and concluding with the main point:
You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
Consider the shift of many a sports commentator who, during an injury timeout on the field, fills in time by remarking our thoughts and prayers are with the injured player. What good does thinking about the player accomplish? If positive thought is correct, then perhaps all that positive energy could change reality. In her speech Smile or Die journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich notes that Lehman Brothers, Countrywide, and AIG were crippled by their culture of positive thinking amidst the housing bubble crisis of 2008. Employees who voiced concern with the housing projections were censured in some cases and fired in others.
So, does Uncle Frank have a point? Is this type of optimism or positive thinking ultimately unhelpful for human beings and cultures who want to flourish? Furthermore, what should Christians make of this optimism? Should the reaction of the Christian church be to become negative people who only think critically and harshly about things?
Hope For 2015
The problem with the positive thinking movement is not that it preaches positivity or optimism. The problem with the positive thinking movement is that it is a Trojan horse. Hidden deep within its philosophical core is the dangerous idealism of self reliance. The problem with this form of optimism is that it relies on self. Positive thinking is a self-reliant perspective. Optimism makes for a great tool, but a poor theology. It fails to account for the reality of human frailty and the tendency for humans to mess up. A Biblical alternative to this unbridled and unchecked optimism is a more Biblical term. That term is hope. To be sure, the terms “hope” and “optimism” became synonymous during President Obama’s 2008 political campaign and this move muddied the American lexicon. But stripping away a clever campaign strategy and getting to the Biblical definition of the term, hope is not a perspective. Hope, according to Scripture, is a person. And that person is Jesus Christ.
Take a look at 1 Timothy 1:1 (ESV):
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope“
For Christians, the good news of Jesus Christ is that he is our Hope. And our Hope is sovereign over our 2015, because our Hope is sovereign over the past, present, and future. Our Hope does not call us to the false gospel of self-reliance. Instead, Jesus calls us to rely on Him for 2015 and beyond.
So the answer to the aforementioned question is this: As believers in Christ, our posture for 2015 is not to put on more self reliance. Our posture, according to Scripture, is to rely on Jesus Christ, who is our hope. Can we be positive people? Of course. Positivity can be a helpful tool in our discipleship arsenal. In a race, for example, positive thinking can help us continue to take steps so that we can cross the finish line. The Bible says much about the damage a critical tongue can have on the church community. But these make for helpful tools, not overarching theologies. Jesus is the one who is God over positivity and negativity, optimism and pessimism. So rather than relying on the tools, may we rely on Jesus in 2015.