Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pastor Feelgood

This last weekend, the local news in the Washington DC area included chatter about a worship service.   A local sports-o-tainment-megaplex was going to be filled to capacity, celebrating the arrival in town of Joel Osteen, America's Favorite Televangelist (tm).  It was a revival of sorts, called  Hopefully Hoping In Happy Shiny Joy Town America, or something to that general effect.

Osteen is arguably the best known pastor in the United States.  His church teems with tens of thousands of worshippers, sprawling across a campus as big as the Texas that spawned it.  His books sell by the truckload and Kindle-full.  And when he came to town, tens of thousands came out to see him.

Osteen also frustrates the bejabbers out of many other pastors.  His relentlessly chirrupy message of God's Big Hope-ity Wuv might be one of the few things that fundamentalists and progressives can agree on.   We both hate it.  O Lord, how we hate it.

We hate it because Osteen simply will not engage in any of the Important Issues that define so much of Christianity.   Abortion?  Homosexuality?  Politics?  He just won't get into it.  Nope.  Won't do it.

We hate it because what he preaches is sort of kind of the Word Faith movement, that nothin' to do with Christ's teachings gospel of prosperity in which God gives us all good things if only we trust enough to give ourselves to Him.  Oh, and if we give generously.  If you've got a need, don't forget to plant that seed!  The Lord will provide!

But even that is so watered down with such shiny shiny niceness that it somehow manages not to feel as crass and grasping.   Everything is washed out in the brilliant lens flare of his huge toothy smile.     Give us some exegesis, cry the pastors. Where's the context, cry the pastors.  But no.  There's little Bible talk.  There's just feelgood anecdotes and catchphrases, pouring out in a great firehose of affirmation, loving you in all the goodness that you are.

And it works.  Lord, how it works.  Folks come pouring in, which is perhaps the most frustrating thing for evangelicals and progressives alike.  That, and Osteen seems to have recently become the go-to-guy for faith stuff, making him increasingly the Billy Graham of this era.  What that says about this era I'll leave to your own ruminations.

A few years back, I took the time to actually read and review one of Osteen's books.  It doesn't really matter which one, because they're pretty much all the same.  What struck me most at the time was not that the book was utterly devoid of theology and only tangentially related to what Jesus taught, because I expected that.  Osteen is much more of a motivational speaker/presence than he is a theologian or scholar.  I also wasn't surprised that the book was...errr...how to say this nicely..."uncomplicated."

What surprised me was that I found myself obliged to admit was that much of the "life-livin'" advice meted out was not wrong.  Once you filtered out the 10% or so of Prosperity Magical Hoo Hah, the remainder of what Osteen focused on was just good advice.  Be positive, towards yourself and others.  Don't be selfish.  Try to find the good in any situation.  Give generously to others.

I also found myself forced to cede that a focus on negativity, conflict, and dysfunction leads, surprisingly, to negativity, conflict, and dysfunction.

Yeah, there's not a causal link.  Bad things happen to good people, Jesus being a prime example.   And just glossing things over with a happy varnish doesn't magically make them better.  It can have the opposite effect, in my experience.  Being blithely unaware of your own failings consistently gets you up poop creek without a paddle, no matter how confident you are in yourself and God's love for the Wonder that is You.

Then again, an orientation towards the good does increase the likelihood of the good actually occurring.   It's hard for naturally-pessimistic me to swallow, but positive inputs do increase the probability of positive outputs.  And Lord have mercy, is Osteen positive.

As much as he's not my cup of tea, and as devoid of substance as I find his writing and teaching to be, I just can't find it in myself to work up a good head of umbrage about him.  He doesn't teach people to hate.  He doesn't vilify or condemn or curse.

And that hair...I mean, really.  How can you hate that hair?


1 comment:

Jonathan said...

His teeth. He has so, so, so many teeth. Has to be far more than the 32 allowed. Has to be.

I joke that the real reason Reformed folk dislike Osteen is because he smiles.

Osteen, are you smiling?! There's no smiling in Theology!

http://youtu.be/rWoD2sQ9LiU