Admission here. I have never liked Joel and Victoria Osteen's version of Christianity. For one thing, he smiles way too much. (And no, I'm not kidding.) For another thing, his low-key but ever-present focus on "prosperity gospel" messages leaves me wondering how he would play in Darfur or various other ravaged portions of this world. No, he seems to me a uniquely American phenomenon, part of our long history of "Prosperity" / Faith preachers including Reverends Copland, Hagin, Creflo Dollar (best preacher name EVER!), and all the way back to Father Divine.
But that could all be me. I'm a bit of a brooder, a doubter, a cup half-empty kind of guy.
Maybe that's why I resonated with Newsweek's Lisa Miller, who subjected the Osteens to what appeared to me a theological critique. For instance,
Prosperity preachers are neither new nor unique in America, but the Osteens' version seems especially self-serving. Victoria's book betrays her interest in the kind of small gratifications that rarely extend to other people, let alone to the larger world. She recommends that women take "me time" every day, and indulge occasionally in a (fat-free!) ice cream. She writes repeatedly about her love for the gym. Her relationship advice is retrograde dross: submit to your man, or at least pretend you're submitting, and then do what you want anyway. "I know if I just wait long enough," she writes, "eventually my idea will become Joel's idea, and it will come to pass." When I asked her how she kept her two children interested in church, she answered that even though they were a broccoli and lean-meats household, she gave them doughnuts as a special treat on Sundays. All this is fine, in the pages of a women's magazine or a self-help book. But what has God got to do with it?
"What's God got to do with it?" Shades of Tina Turner, that is my question exactly. And when one throws Jesus into the mix -- Jesus in turn introducing suffering, taking up one's cross to "follow me" -- things get even stranger for the Osteens.
The biggest lie -- and that's a very strong word for folks I think are probably quite sincere -- hidden in the Osteen's theology is that God is there to please us. That's exactly 180 degrees wrong. We are here to please God, to adore God, to pursue God, though in all of those things He precedes us and draws us. (Not, however, "irresistibly" -- I'm not a Calvinist.) But God is God of all peoples in all places, many of those places completely antithetical to and unable to comprehend the sort of Americanized Christianity offered by the Osteens.
There is tremendous blessing and fulfillment in loving God, a God C. S. Lewis once called "a hedonist at heart." God does want to bless us. But he also, and on a deeper level I believe, wants us to enter into the suffering this world knows every day, every hour, every second. Such a calling, central to the biblical message, is completely absent from Prosperity preaching.
Joel Osteen smiles too much.