America’s most popular preacher is a man commonly derided by Christians for being a charlatan, Joel Osteen. Most of the people in the circles I run in think he is a shallow propogater of the prosperity gospel, but one of the biggest circles I operate in is a social network of those educated at seminaries and theological institutions. Outside of these circles, he is much more popular. It is not an uncommon happenstance that I will walk into a Barnes & Noble to indulge my addiction to books that I will happen upon one of Osteen’s books prominently displayed.
What stands at the center of Osteen’s charisma and influence? Titles such as The Power of I Am, Your Best Life Now, Everyday a Friday, and You Can You Will provide insight into the influence of Osteen’s preaching. Each title contains a condensed narrative that evokes the imagination: personal empowerment and changed life circumstances. Just the titles alone convey micro-narratives that stirs the imagination that seeks for something different and better.
Consider the fact that Osteen’s primary audience tends to be people with less control over their life and less influence due to less wealth and less education, they often live in powerless circumstances. Living in such conditions, there is something within impoverished and powerless people that desires, seeks, and longs for life to take a different course. Osteen’s titles, books, sermons, etc. reaches into and appeals to the wounded core of these people and gives them a reason to hope, to dream, to imagine life afresh and anew.
Nevertheless, understanding the way Osteen does genuinely touch people and my belief that Osteen is sincere, I recognize that his way of reaching down to people in his charismatic manner also leaves many of them trapped in a world of fantasy. By legitimating his message through appeals to Scripture that treat the Bible as if they are to be read as a list of promises to be mined for personal posterity, people who hear his words feel this sense of rightness to Osteen’s messages that inaugurate into a world that does more to comfort than to change, that does more to help people cope with their lives rather than transform their lives. At the core of the power of Osteen and many other similar preachers is coping through fantasy.
It is here, however, that I want to distinguish my usage of the terms imagination and fantasy. By imagination, I am referring to the capacity of the human mind to think up possibilities that are not bound to actual sensation. For instance, I can imagine a horse in my mind without actually seeing a horse. In fact, seeing the word “horse” activates my imagination. On the other hand, fantasy refers to the belief in a world that can not be taken as credible to exist. Strictly speaking, I don’t mean fantasy to mean false but rather closer to unverified; however because unverified believes are routinely unreliable, it will often lead to believing something that is false.
Thus, imagination is a necessary ingredient for fantasy to emerge. By being disconnected from perception, the conditions are possible for imagination to lead to fantasy. Fantasy as unverified beliefs general entail being disconnected from sensation. However, not all imagination is fantasy as there may be other ways to verify the reliability of what I am imagining without direct, sensory perception. For instance, when I am doing historical study, I don’t have direct perception of the events in question but through the practice of multiple attestation in various primary sources, I can attempt to verify a historical belief. To believe that Jesus exist and even that He was raised from the dead engages my imagination, but through historical study I can verify it such that it isn’t fantasy. Verification does not ensure the truth of the proposition I hold to be true, however, but that it gives me good grounds to believe as I do, albeit defeasible if genuinely relevant information comes to light. So, I imagine through the reading of the Scriptures that Jesus was raised from the dead and I verify it through historical study, but I am still left with something I imagine and have no direct, sensory acquaintance with.
Why this distinction between imagination and fantasy? Firstly, I want to highlight the difference to show that what makes us engage in fantasy isn’t simply someone who evokes imagination such as a gifted speaker, but imagination turns to fantasy when we ourselves cease to engage in the process of verifying what has been brought to our minds and hearts. Put in different terms, we are seduced because we play the part in our seduction because of our own feelings of desperation. The relationship between Osteen and his audience is a two-way relationship, where Osteen provides a story they deeply long to hear and people believe it because it comes from a figure they consider having authority.
At the core of moving from imagination to fantasy is treat our imaginations true based upon narratives that 1) have legitimacy based upon a) a seeming plausibility of the narrative and/or b) the appearance of credibility of the messenger and 2) are emotionally satisfying to our desires and emotions. When we are seeking to cope with life’s difficulties, it is easy for us to accept narratives that present a nice resolution for us and only rely upon very superficial premises to think the story is true. The charisma of the speaker, including the appearance of confidence, and a narrative that simply seems possible are all that is needed to transformation narrative imagination into our fantasy, because the narrative that delivers emotional satisfaction needs only a deficient degree of verification, if even that.
Typically, in these circumstances, we would place the blame on the teachers, like Osteen, labeling them as charlatans. But, in a democratic and capitalist world, the balance of power between leader and the people is often decidedly shifted towards the people; their own wants and dreams are considered a moral necessity to address, otherwise you will be deemed irrelevant, callous, etc. and given no voice. While there are charlatans who are good as using imagination turned fantasy to manipulate the masses, more often than not, leaders are entrapped by the necessity of being ’empathetic,’ where they must deeply care across the board. But the reality is that so much of life and the deprivations we feel have no easy solutions or answers. Particularly as pastors, we can feel emotionally compelled to offer hope by using the idea of God and faith to present a hopeful narrative, lest we lose our relevance and influence. What happens here is that faith is turned into fantasy.
Now, faith, or trust, itself is itself a form of imagination. For instance, when a person trusts their spouse is faithful, they do not have the capacity to see how the spouse as acted every moment since they have been married, nor can they see the future. To trust one’s spouse is to imagine something to be true that is not immediately connected to anything they have seen or heard. Or, when we trust a physician we are seeing for the firs time, we will have no observational proof that they are competent and well-manner; we imagine a way things are. Used in reference to God in Scripture, it entails a trust that the God who has been at powerfully and lovingly at work will continue to be so. That isn’t based upon perception, as the Apostle PAul says “we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5.7)
Since both faith and fantasy are forms of imagination, it is easy for the boundaries between the two to get blurred, that religious faith gets used to facilitate fantasy. But there is an important distinction between the two. Faith pertains to our relationship to and expectations of another, but faith does not entail a specific epistemic framework.
In other words, different forms of faith will have different ways of legitimating what one trusts in. Blind faith operates in the face of contrary evidence, such as a person who believes their spouse is faithful even when all the evidence suggests the opposite. Then there is a form of an assumed trust where people believe something to be true, even though they have no real to verify it or doubt it. But, then there is a testable faith, where trust has been shown to be verified, which is to be distinguished by a lack of trust. All these three examples suggest that there is no single epistemic manner for trusting.
Consequently, when faith moves to forms of faith that are blind or assumed for the sake of coping with struggles, faith becomes a form of fantasy, where no verification is needed for what one believes to be true and may even be immune to falsification.
However, when faith is a tested faith, one begins to discern the cognitive chaff from the cognitive wheat, between what is unreliable and what is trustworthy. This is a form of faith that avoids fantasy. However, because it is a type of faith that is amenable to verification and even falsification, it can experiences shifts or even become extinguished depending upon how flexible people are, their degrees of patience, and how willing they are to adapt the content of their faith to what occurs. Because this type of faith can blur into the margins of unbelief at time, blind and assumed faith looks on the surface more sure, more resilient, and thus more legitimate. But it is only a tested faith that has endured the fires of trials but has come out verified that can reliably avoid falling into fantasy.
Furthermore, there is a dark side of fantasy: people who live in fantasy typically engage in aggression and avoidance to maintain their sense of fantasy. Any news that would call their fantasies into question is a pretext for fighting or avoiding the “evildoers who would destroy them,” although these are often people who are simply telling them the truth and puncturing holes through their fantasy.
I provide two examples of how faith has turned into this form of fantasy to a toxic degree.
Firstly, in the United Methodist Church, we are dealing with a struggle of division over sharply opposed understandings about sex most prominently but also theology and faithfulness to God. As it is, even though its numbers are dwindling in the United States, the UMC is an institution with many resources and a degree of respectability and influence in some circles. Furthermore, many people across the ethical and theological divide have formed cooperative and friendship bonds with each other. Thus, there are many reasons to desire to keep things together as they are; there are many vested interests from the bishops to the clergy, and even the laity. However, this has lead to rising tensions and hostility in the denomination over the decades that have compelled many people of the evangelical persuasion to say, effectively, “We need to get our act together or we are gone.” On the other side, there is a growing discontent that the church has not been deemed sufficiently inclusive. Two opposing forces with growing emotional intensity have been in direct and indirect conflict with each other for decades.
In the midst of this potential divide of the denomination, there are many who keep on trying to hold on to hope that the denomination will stay together without any sort of exodus. You will see people who continue to hold on to ‘hope’ that some unity will be salvaged, while being hostile to anyone they deemed to be agents of division, most particuarly evangelicals. This despite the fact that the hostility has only grown, not abated, over the decades. But there is sense that God will faithfully preserve the denomination as it is, but God hasn’t answered this prayer in the decades either. While some of the stories of God’s faithfulness can take decades to come to fruition, such as a promise of descendants Abraham, when Abraham tried to take ahold of the promise himself through his own action by having a child through Hagar, he wasn’t trusting God but himself. Similarly, when people continue to invoke God for the purposes of keeping the denomination together through all these years of rising anger and division, their faith in God has formed into a fantasy that is distant from the realities on the ground, the lack of a clear provision and direction from God, and overlooks the role their own power has had in controlling the circumstances. The unity of the United Methodist Church is a fantasy that has power behind it to keep it working just as it is, but the power that is accomplishing it right now is not God’s power but a social, institutional form of power that using God to legitimate itself.
This isn’t to say the denomination is over with and there is no hope at all for the future. But people will not be open to what God is actually doing and leading until they let go of their fantasy.
However, there is a second way that faith turning into fantasy is causing problems of churches: it pertains to the rising scandal of sexual abuse in churches. For over a century, traditional churches associated with orthodoxy have had a penchant for resisting many of the intellectual and scientific developments of the modern age. Consequently, a fundamentalist spirit has developed that in the face of huge challenges to the way it is understood that God works (as in the creation-evolution debate) and the way to interpret the Scriptures (as in the conflict with higher Biblical criticism) that began to turn a blind eye to anything that would create substantial change. This fundamentalist spirit wasn’t simply an attitude of critical appropriate and engagement with modern science and intellectual culture, but it propogated a view of faith that made it resistant to any sort of challenges. Traditional Catholics and Evangelical Protestants have been tempted through the years to abide by this fundamentalist spirit, pushing them to have a form of faith that is more blind. As a consequence, conservative forms of Christianity in seeking to maintain orthodoxy have often been tempted to abide by this fundamentalist spirit to protect orthodoxy from challenges.
Then, the sexual liberation occurred in the 1960s. The response of conservative Christianity was to try to control this rising tide of sexual power through more rules and regulations. Rather than engaging critically with the science that stands behind sexual experiences to understand how sex works, there was this semi-institutionalized fantasy throughout the leadership that if you simply trying to create more rules and regulations that are legitimate by Scriptural texts referring to sexuality, the church will be able to maintain its sexual praxis as is along with its orthodoxy. Meanwhile, the sexual problems were considered to mainly exist outside the church amongst those others who have forgotten God; sure, occasionally bad things happen in churches because the churches are made of sinners, but it was never really of a terrible sort.
Conservative and traditional forms of Christianity had been influenced by the blinder versions of faith that fundamentalists essentially espoused, allowing them to maintain religious fantasy about the nature of the church. But as scandals in the news and twitter have brought to the forefront, this is far from the case. Sexual abuse has been a very real part of the church. It hasn’t necessarily been worse across the board than it has been in other types of organizations and institutions. However, whereas most business and institutions that were accountable had to take some measures to address these problems, the persistent lack of accountability of churches allowed those seduced by the thinking of fundamentalism’s faith-turned-fantasy to become blind to the problems and thus dramatically slower to address this injustice and abuse, if not outright resistant. It is certainly no coincidence that the most egregious offenders that we know of in the new of are the traditional Catholic Church and the fundamentalist Independent Baptist churches.
All this is to say, Osteen isn’t the only propogater of fantasy amidst Christian circles. We can all readily turn our faith into a form of fantasy, and it can often times have deleterious results. Perhaps it results from leader marshalling the power of imagination, perhaps it is because the people of the church think the truth looks like a fantasy. However, it is only when we are willing to risk our faith to be challenged and formed can we hope to escape the comfortable confines of fantasy as God moves us into a mature faith.