Joel Osteen, filthy lucre and the cult of personality, three points of reference and intersection that seemed so distant, so separate, so distinct . . . until today. The atmosphere is electric, buzzing with anticipation. Osteen is about appear. If you were not mistaken you might think you were at a rock concert, the only thing missing might be the smell of pot and the tatted up, scantily clad teenagers. Osteen is televangelism’s new rock star. He is what is referred to as a prosperity preacher, suggestive of the belief that God is keen to see his children prosper in this life, not just the next. The mantra is “all is well in Zion!” or, on the street, “it’s all good baby.” And, like music that makes you feel good, Osteen is well prepped to deliver a message that will warm the cockles of the heart.
I am sitting in a floor seat at Lakewood Church in Houston Texas. With friends and family in the area I thought I would take a break and see what all the hub-bub was. The woman next to me can barely contain her excitement. “There he is” she gasped as the impeccably dressed Osteen flitted across the stage to the dais above. In one fell swoop this attractive middle-aged woman has morphed into one of those wild-eyed girls that Elvis and the Beatles were so familiar with. Instead of screaming and reaching out at him she let out a rapid-fire stream of little groans suggestive of imminent hyperventilation.
I had come a little early so as to get a good seat and, with a bit of downtime, I thought I might google a bit of information to get the low-down and a bit of context. As the auditorium, seemingly more sports arena than church, started to fill I read that the weekly Sunday evening service averages about 43,500 attendees. The facility has a seating capacity of about 16,800. Seeing it up close and personal you get a sense of just how many people that is. The place is huge and looked just shy of being filled to capacity. Who woulda-thunk that a non-denominational church could draw sooo many people. His sermon, Choose Faith in Spite of the Facts, was vintage Osteen.
To say that Osteen is a master preacher is to do him an injustice, he is so much more than that. His preaching style is calm, collected, unusually articulate, cerebral, erudite and compelling. I am shocked at how attractive his presentation style is. If I could compare him to anyone it might be the great motivational speaker Zig Ziglar and even that might prove a false comparison. Osteen has the feel of something new and unique. He comes across as eminently likable and authentic. There is a boy next door sort of charm about him that is disarming. He appears to talk through a perpetual smile and while it is hard to put a finger on it, his presence has the feel of an instant comfort zone where your problems seem to melt away. Fathers would be thrilled to death if their daughters were to bring someone like him home.
I found myself getting caught up in the message as Osteen told us that, despite the seeming facts of a given situation, trial or problem, if we would just believe, we could overcome anything. We were created to be free and victorious and if we could but believe it to be, God would make it so. While facts were against us God is with us and for us. We all have a grand destiny and God sits eager to thrust us toward it. If we will but shake off our doubt and negativism and trust God in his promises the impossible will become possible. God does not want us to suffer, feel pain and/or experience trials for the rest of our lives. No, God, as it turns out, is poised to fix every problem, bind every wound and set in place every broken bone regardless of what some evidence or fact-based medical report might say. Oh, and by the way, he is planning on doing it this year, Osteen can “feel” it.
For a long stretched out moment it all tasted good, like manna from heaven. That is, until I pictured the untold millions who suffer infirmities and sundry issues, pray for help in good faith, and yet remain infirmed. With all the exultation I had gotten caught up in I started to feel, well, a bit uneasy, even a little queasy. The little irritation in my gut started to swell and I felt myself squirming. The comfort was melting into discomfort. I looked around for kindred spirits. Snake oil can lay heavy in the gut so I imagined that others might be having the same reaction. I could not see much as my view was a bit limited but in my mind’s eye there seemed to be a little more nervous energy in the house. It was probably just a bit of projection on my part as I could not imagine right-minded people buying this. The cognitive dissonance I was feeling was best articulated in my father’s warning that “if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Was it possible that this particular brand of the Gospel, what the New Testament refers to as Good News, was “too good to be true?” The good times had turned into bad and I found myself in a state of disconnect. Osteen’s message? Well, if I continue to have issues and my hopes and desires in life continue to come up short, then perhaps I ought to stop being so faithless and weak. My problems are clearly of my own making.
If any of the thousands in attendance that night at Lakewood Church were to do even cursory research on the biblical facts at hand they might have found that the New Testament,conveniently less referred to than God in the night’s sermon, suggests very little in the way of correlation between God’s purposes and the kind of prosperity Osteen promises. In fact, if one were to take the Hebrew and Christian Bibles at face value, the norm in life is not prosperity and resolution but suffering and trial. And while Osteen will occasionally and more explicitly address the problem of human suffering, it is generally offered up in context with the failure of the child of God to exercise faith.
Many prosperity types refer to Job from the Hebrew bible as the paradigmatic example of how God will test us but in the end bless the faithful by taking away the pain, replacing it with joy, happiness, success and the material fruits thereof. Indeed, God’s faithful can expect, like Job, after the trial and “activation” of their faith, to be abundantly prospered. If you want a luxury home, here you go. If you want a hot spouse you got it. Want obedient children? No problem. While God is at it, hey, why not smiling faces all around, it’s on the house.
While Osteen would damn these pesky and altogether inconvenient facts, the facts are that the biblical Book of Job, when properly understood, was originally intended to help people accept the fact that life is filled with pain and suffering and that God does not just willy-nilly step in and make it right. Further, the Book of Job serves as a metaphor for the nature of God in relation to a very painful and mostly unbearable human existence. And while it may be inexplicable, God is not obligated to explain, justify or restore in relation to said pain, suffering and loss. The ending where Job gets all his stuff back? Well, it’s an apparent interpolation (spurious later addition/redaction) calculated to make a hard story a bit more palatable. In short, the thesis of the original text is a bit dismal, even depressing. That is, God is transcendent, life is very difficult, deal with it. But you won’t hear that from Osteen, it wouldn’t pack the house or help move one of his otherwise best-selling books.
The problem for Osteen and others of his ilk is the difficulty one finds in squaring the idea of a just or loving and omnipotent God with the reality of human suffering. In other words, “why do bad things happen to good people (all day every day)?” We’ve all seen the seeming incongruence in the very difficult and painful death of a child as he/she succumbs to cancer and squaring that with the idea of a loving and all powerful God. Theologians refer to this problem as Theodicy, or the justice of God. This seeming in-congruence might, if Osteen were on his game, be properly resolved in a simple deductive syllogism sort of a verbal 1+1=2). To wit: Premise A: God is Love; plus Premise B: God is omnipotent; equals Conclusion C: God will never ask you to endure anything that is not otherwise in your best interest as same would be inconsistent with his nature. It is here that, instead of focusing on the obvious resolution, Osteen stumbles. While the Bible is an obvious conflation of disparate and sometimes tension filled ancient documents agreeing in some places and disagreeing in others, if there is something approaching consensus in this regard it is the biblical notion that the presentiments of human pain and suffering are always consistent with the nature of a loving and all-powerful God. In short, when based things happen, have faith, God knows what he’s doing.
In preaching what he thinks people want to hear Osteen misses his opportunity to preach what they desperately need to hear. This is where the Joel Osteen cult of personality and emphasis on filthy lucre betrays his flock. The pain and suffering Osteen does away with by offering it up on his feel good, prosperity-based, alter of sacrifice, is actually the refiner’s fire that is the biblical heart of the journey back to God. Take it out, and where is the opportunity for growth? The Jesus of the New Testament is depicted as “a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief.“ Indeed, he is the self-same Jesus of Nazareth, who in his pain and grief declared, “I am the Way . . . come follow me.” It is instructive that Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested, in his Cost of Discipleship, that the call by Christ to “come follow me” should properly be understood as the call to “come suffer with me.” As it turns out, without the call to suffering as Christ suffered Osteen is essentially calling his parishioners to a different, more convenient, less growth-oriented path. And, like the Book of Job and its offending conclusionary interpolation, Osteen’s Christianity is gutted of all original intent and subsequently left with little or no apparent link to biblical Christianity.
While we are on the point of biblical consistency or otherwise one might well ask, “Where is mention of the Cross, the symbol and theological heart of Christianity, in all of this feel good preaching?” The short answer is that, like the Lakewood Church structure itself, Osteen’s message is not adorned by the Cross. In fact, Osteen does not generally use the term Christ, preferring a simple reference to the name Jesus and this generally only a few times at the end of his sermons.
In a curious way Osteen is actually preaching a theology of weakness. His suggestion is that there is victory in begging God to remove every pain, temptation and trial. The Bible however appears to preach a theology of strength and fortitude through the endurance of pain, temptation and trial. The child of God asks not for a way out, but for strength and courage in the face of trial. One might well ask who might a true warrior prefer to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with on the battle’s front lines? The ill prepared soft one looking for a safe exit or the one fully prepped for battle through trial, without excuse, ready to conquer and overcome?
One can only imagine what might have happened if Osteen had offered up an honest, biblically consistent message that mid-November’s eve. If he had been honest about what the Bible actually had to say about the prospects for prosperity in the wilderness-place would there be an auditorium at all? Would he still live in a 10.5 million dollar home furnished and fitted with the fine accoutrement of wealth? One might wonder if he would still be worth forty plus million dollars and counting. Osteen justifies it all by suggesting that his personal wealth is derived from book sales and not from the ministry. This may be a bit disingenuous as his books are as much a part of his ministry as his preaching and any attempt at distinction smacks of self-serving sophistry. Uncovering intent here might be as simple as putting it all into our by-now familiar syllogism. That is, if Premise A is preach a feel good Gospel, and Premise B is preach it in a manner that is aesthetically pleasing, then it stands to reason that Conclusion C just might well be get filthy rich.
If you turn the channel a bit you might find one Jimmy Swaggart, the erstwhile one-time incorrigible sinner who ultimately, it would seem, found redemption in the cross. And while he is a hard person to like, very hard-line and preachy with an heir-apparent son that is just plain cranky and difficult to endure, whatever else can be said of him, he does exude an air of prophetic-like authenticity, and he does try to preach the Cross. But alas, his message is not a feel good message, it is too, on the whole, biblically consistent for that. While his ministry is again picking up steam, as long as there are itching ears in the pew the latest iteration of Swaggart’s Ministry will remain an also-ran. Osteen is too economically savvy, it would appear, to bother with something as money-killing as the cross.
After enduring a full range of Osteen’s sermons it became apparent that each sermon seemed a redo of the last. “You are destined for greatness; this is your year for success and victory; God has something special planned for you, etc. etc.” Yes, “it’s all good baby!” Listen to his sermons on his SiriusXM radio channel and you will swear that they have the same sermon running over and over in a loop. It wouldn’t be so bad but every example he produces is the “second verse, same as the first,” while only the names and places appear to change. They all go something like this; “I knew a person…she didn’t believe she could get over such and such a problem…she finally activated her faith…her problem was miraculously resolved.”
In the end, with a message that, in my view, turns out to be, like commercials for the local lottery, a stealthily delivered and constructed false bill of goods designed to remove the green from your wallet, Osteen’s ubiquitous presence on TV, Internet and Radio may just serve to compound and exaggerate the suffering and eventual disappointment of the very people he relies on to grow his bank account. Something, as it turns out, he may have in common with the antagonist/adversary in the Book of Job.
At the end of the sermon Osteen assured us that “faith, healing, abundance and victory” were headed our way. He then sent us off with an unusually abbreviated alter call, a simple prayer that if we were to say along with him would christen us born again. Curiously there was no context, biblical or otherwise for what he was asking us to do. But in keeping with the night’s theme, apparently all we had to do, in-spite of life’s hard facts, is simply believe, and we will be saved, not just in the life to come, but, as it turns out, for the rest of our mortal lives.
As the day’s festivities came to an end and people started filing out, it occurred to me that as full and warm as the auditorium once was, it was starting to feel a bit like a wilderness-place, cold and empty. Perhaps Osteen was biblically consistent after all. Indeed, life in his wilderness-place had indeed become a place of incongruity and suffering and of high hopes and disappointment.
As I navigated the steps outward my thoughts wondered back to the pew of my youth and the biblical injunction against filthy lucre or “shameful income.” The words came to me . . . Joel Osteen, filthy lucre and the cult of personality. Oh, and rock star extraordinaire.
Blog By Matthew R. Fellows
Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible.
The Cost of Discipleship (1937). Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Top Photo By: Jackie Flickr License
Second Photo By: Malcolm Logan Flickr License
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