Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Newsweek on Joel and Victoria Osteen: "What's God Got to Do with It?"

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.


@bdul muHib said...

I would say that Piper is right on with his Christian hedonism concept, and that through a life of suffering God wants to serve us. Indeed, we've walked away from the faith when we say that we no longer are willing to be served by God, for we claim that we are greater and can satisfy our own needs. What would be your thoughts on this? Is that in accord or contrary to what you said here?

Jon Trott said...

No, I think it is in accord. But though God goes to lengths that are, well, scandalous in giving, serving, yearning over, and wooing us, I don't think that has much at all to do with the Osteens' gospel. Their gospel seems to me (and who am I?) to say "You can can wealth and health and a smile filled with perfect if artificial teeth if you have faith enough for it." And I'm left -- again -- wondering at how shallow that seems. Of course, on balance, my posturing as someone who knows about suffering for Jesus is also a cow pie. I have suffered very little in my life, and been blessed greatly. So I tread lightly here... one mustn't think one has all the answers, or even one or two sometimes. But I do look at Jesus in the Scriptures, and despite my own many failures to follow Him as I ought, find the Prosperity Gospel incredibly self-focused and self-serving. It sacralizes selfishness rather than challenging it. I need the challenge!

Jon Trott said...

Oops... that shouldn't have been:

"You can can wealth..."


"You can have wealth..."

Comes of typing faster than I'm thinking. And no, I'm not a speed typist. aHahahahaha... thud.

Jon Trott said...

And one more thing... I wish Piper was as good on women's equality (he's terrible) as he is on Christian hedonism. I had a hierarchalist male friend who used to use Piper's stuff like the Bible. Womens' "proper roles" and all the usual nonsense... depressing, really. But I digress.

@bdul muHib said...

I hadn't heard that about Piper. Shame. But I was once in darkness too, before God showed me the light. I know my uncle in Minneapolis (who knew Mary Steinkie) used to attend his church, and left, because of the way he condemned gays.

Anonymous said...

You may well be "a bit of a brooder, a doubter, a cup half-empty kind of guy"...but, that in no way prevents you from being right.
Criticism of a shallow, self-centered "gospel" is a good work.
Carry On,
GOrdon Stephan
Sherwood, AR

Dory said...

I googled "Obama + Deaf" to see if I could find how he stands with the Deaf community and found your blog today, and I am so glad. I immediately subscribed. Jon, you are a voice of quiet reason. Thank you. I just posted on my blog to publish in the morning and gave you a shout out.


Oh, p.s., Joel gives me the heebie-jeebies. Someone loaned me one of his books on CD and I found that his voice makes my skin crawl.

Jon Trott said...

Thank you, Dory. But I have to ask... you call (on your blog) your husband "Hunkie." Is that so together you can be "Hunkie Dory"? Inquiring minds want to know.