Thursday, March 30, 2006

Concerned About Joel Osteen

Ben Witherington has an excellent post today on Joel Osteen. In it he says basically everything that I wanted to say about Osteen, only perhaps even more forcefully. I have very little to add to it.

Osteen represents to me the worst sort of hybrid between Christian liberalism and evangelicalism (perhaps I represent the best hybrid?):

He takes the un-defendable liberal denial of human sinfulness and combines it with the ridiculous false promises of the prosperity Gospel of the televangelists.

Witherington does an excellent job of communicating the differences between the Gospel of Joel and the Gospel of Jesus. There is nothing left for me to say. Reading Witherington's piece, and pretend that I wrote it!


Liam said...

I read the article in the Times he's commenting on and had many of the same feelings about it. I think he represents the natural progression of the self-help megachurch away from the Gospel and towards the shallowest and blandest expression of American consumerism.

This country is a strange place. It seems by far to be the most religious country in the industrialized world, but also the country that has most developed the shallowest forms of advertising, entertainment, and commercialism. How can we worship both Donald Trump and Jesus? Another question: how can a culture that celebrates a two-year-old mentality believing in the instant gratification promised by TV commercials (a mentality that I think explains our dire political situation more than any other single factor) come to grips with a spirituality that demands introspection, responsibility, and yes, a recognition of sinfulness and the sacrifice needed to confront it?

The answer is that it doesn't. We spend, we buy a self-help book to feel good about ourselves, and turn on the television. Osteen is a great marketer, and that's what this kind of religion is about.

Brian Cubbage said...

Liam-- sounds like you might find Bernard-Henry Lévy's most recent book _American Vertigo_ might be for you. I haven't read it, but apparently it consists of Lévy cataloguing a vast array of contradictions in the American psyche. (Or at least the American psyche as he perceives it; Garrison Keillor's savage and uncharitable review in the NY Times Book Review argues that Lévy gets the American psyche horribly wrong.) I don't know whether Lévy is able to reach any conclusions, though.

Liam said...

I read Garrison Keillor's review of it and I get the feeling that he may be right about Levy's work being a caractiture--after living in Europe for 11 years, I'm wary about Europeans coming to tell us what we're like. There's always a weird psychological thing going on, a certain amount of projection onto the US of their guilt for the evils of capitalism and imperialism as well as a purient fascination for the exoticly vulgar. I mean, hey, we're not all Elvis impersonators.

I personally find my own identity as an American is a tough balancing act between the extremes of everything I love and everything I hate about this country. It's big, diverse, and screwed up in so many ways, yet also so amazingly energetic and creative.

Amy said...

Whenever I read or hear about "health and wealth" theology, my mind wanders back to my days in Guatemala, and I mourn once again for the tragic consequences this theology can bring....

In the 1980s, as many of you know, life in Guatemala was dominated by civil war. In order to protect the power they had gained through coups, and regain it after getting thrown out, the military ransacked the countryside through a "scorched earth" policy. Under the pretenses of seeking out the guerrillas, entire villages were massacred. Mass graves have been uncovered with more than 200 bodies in towns accused of harboring rebels. It is this reality that led to the writings of Nobel Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchu.
The head of the military, and sometimes president, during these years was Efrain Rios-Montt. It was at his order that the village of Dos Erres was liquidated. At the same time that he served as a self-proclaimed President of Guatemala, he preached every Sunday morning over the radios as a minister of "Church of the Word," or "Iglesia El Verbo," a church that began evangelizing in Guatemala after the earthquake of 1976. For years, he was there most prominent and visible, and most highly endorsed, clergy member.

He, too, preached a theology of prosperity over the radio waves of Guatemala. In doing so, he justified the victimization of the people he claimed to lead by attributing his power and those of his allies to their faithfulness. He ascribed to God the situation that was the product of the military interventions and the oppression of the people of God. Through the process, he brainwashed and intimidated masses into backing his regime. This was an act of theological violence on a grand scale.

While I'm not about accuse Osteen of murdering small villages in the Texan countryside, I do think this theology leads to an acceptance and glorification of the stratification and economic marginalization that plagues our society. If we claim that our faithfulness will lead to riches, then we abandon the prophetic call to "bring down the rules from their thrones, and lift up the humble." (Luke 1:53, tenses changed). We fail to challenge the social sin that participates in oppression by focusing on material blessings for the righteous. We pretend that the world as we see it now is as God intends it to be.

"Health and wealth" theology preys on the poor. Sadly, those who are most victimized by our economic systems are also those who are most likely to fall victim to the false hopes that come with the Prayer of Jabez and lottery tickets. It placates rather than satisfies.

Osteen is participating in and encouraging the economic violence of our society. His theology cannot be condemned loudly enough.

Sandalstraps said...

Right on, Amy!

But we need to be responsible enough to condemn the theology without, in this case, condemning the person. Joel Osteen is by all accounts a good person, whose ministry reflects a deep concern for people.

Because he draws no salary from his ministry, it is difficult to compare the moral character of that ministry to other proponents of the health and wealth (or prosperty) Gospel. He is certainly not bilking people for personal gain.

My guess is that he is sincere, and teaches that God rewards those who give because he sincerely believes that. But, sincere or no, con-artist or no, the theology he teaches does a great deal of harm to the poor, as we've all noted.

I hate to say this, because I know where it might lead in my own life, but perhaps we ought to take this opportunity to reflect on our own participation in an unjust economic system.

Amy said...

I do realize that you can be a very nice person and have a very bad theology - Just look at all the Mormons I grew up with! I was impressed when I found out that Osteen no longer draws a salary. I agree that that is a sign of faithfulness.

However, I sincerely doubt that someone who started a radio/tv/popular ministry that spokke out the truth about prosperity theology would be able to find an audience - for the simple reason that it demands the resources and the backing of the powerful to use those conduits and get the word spoken and heard.

I, too, wish that we could and would examine how we ourselves participate in it - but I am afraid that if we do speak up, our voices will be muted...