I was recently in a OfficeDepot, searching for a replacement computer for my Mac (it’s a long story), and while I was waiting on a sales attendant to check his stock, I had the chance to have a good ol’ conversation with a native of the area.
We talked about what each other were doing, we talked about the fact that I ride a scooter to commute to work during the winter (I know, you must think I’m crazy), and also where I work. I told I work at a church ‘downtown.’
He began to talk about how hard it is to get people to go to church these days. I agreed with him, citing (really hinting) at the fact that we are a consumer driven culture, even with our churches. But I told him that our (relatively large) congregation was stable, especially in the last half decade.
He also began talking about preachers he likes to listen to. He talked about a TV preacher, which began to make me feel unsettled. I was hoping he was talking about the local Baptist church that broadcasts every Sunday…
But no; he began to talk about some guy “near Houston, Texas” that has a big church, where he preaches in the stadium.
…my heart sank.
“His name is… uh, J-, Jes-, no… Joe…” I piped in, “Joel Osteen.” He quickly exclaimed, “Yah! That’s the guy! Joel Osteen! I like his preaching.”
What proceeded to follow in the conversation was frightening, but not surprising. He spoke about how Joel Osteen makes sense, how his teaching is so down-to-Earth and heartfelt. He also talked about how his teaching makes money sense, how what he says about the Bible sounds right.
Anyone who has more than a surface-deep understanding of theology know to be wary of Joel Osteen. Why is this so? He has been often lumped into a particular teaching called “Prosperity Gospel,” a term which refers to the theological leaning that God is a bank, an overflowing benefactor, who wants YOU to be richly blessed spiritually, emotionally, financially, and materially… but mostly financially and materially. He gets up, in front of a 10,000 (maybe more) member attending congregation and says: “God wants YOU to be richly blessed, because you are highly favored in his sight, and that all you have to do is ASK.” Music is an essential component of his sermons and his services; it lifts up the spirits, and the congregation seems so emotionally involved in the service and entertainm… err, I mean, musical worship.
There are both liberal and conservative evangelicals which have exposed the folly and theologically weak arguments of the Prosperity Gospel. It is both poisonous and sweet; it has often been the cover of many ponzi schemes (E.g. Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, etc.) and falsities. One of the most recent critiques of this movement (implicitly) was John MacArthur’s most excellent “Strange Fire” conference which aimed to expose and break down the Charismatic movement (which most of these Tele-evangelists and TV preachers lay). This blog post does not intend, nor does it need, to address the theological inadequacies and utter treason this movement commits against God’s word.
What I do want to write about is the saddened irony of my acquaintance at OfficeDepot. What he was saying (other than when Joel Osteen paraphrases scripture wrongly) is absolutely correct. It all makes sense. But, that doesn’t make it right.
When aforementioned acquaintance says, “it makes sense;” I agree with him. The logical coherency of what Joel Osteen says (apart from how it differs from scripture) is sound.
- God is a benevolent banker, ready to bless;
- The Bible says so;
- Human testimony says so;
- Therefore it must be true.
Osteen says this to millions of people every week, showing them (through his cursory… err, I mean straight-forward exegesis) that all we have to do (Jew, Christian, Muslim, whomever you’d like to be) is ask with earnest and emotional hearts.
Most people in his church (I’d say, probably 80%) do not read the Bible. The other part read the Bible through Joel Osteen’s plethora of best selling books. One of the best (if not the best) selling book, “Your Best Life Now” outlines how to grasp and harness the power of angels, prophets, and spiritually evolved beings in history to ascertain God’s “rich and powerful blessing.” It teaches you how to live your best life now, paying no special attention to the afterlife.
What makes all of this ironic? It is ironic because, given the philosophical framework of his followers and himself, this is the best way to make sense of life. According to Osteen (et al), life is generally pleasing, but with obvious downsides. Sin doesn’t exist (sin being treason against God both in our nature and in our actions), but in a convoluted way bad things exist. Financial burden is bad, suffering is bad, but in no way connected to sin. So, what we really need is someone (something) that is big, awesome, and financially charged to bless us to bring us up to generally amazing welfare.
It makes “sense,” because in a world, a culture, which desires to deny the existence of God (but not the idea of good and evil), is constantly trying to better their narcissistic ways. It makes sense because the idea that God is not a benevolent benefactor is not part of the schema, the a priori, of our thinking.
Our churches have ceased to be places where we give thanks and praise for who God is, and more now of a place where we go to cash our spiritual (and material) checks with God. When something doesn’t go right in the worship service, or when the music is too loud, or not peppy enough, or when the sermon was too long, or to depressed, we think to ourselves “I’m supposed to be uplifted, and encouraged! Not put down; God doesn’t hate me!”
So, when this acquaintance comes to me and says “Joel Osteen makes sense,” it is with a burdened and saddened heart (much like when Gandalf, in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, aches for Frodo when Frodo offers to take the ring to Mordor) that I think, “That’s exactly what your heart, your mind, your fallen condition, wishes to believe; the Devil is succeeding. You are walking to your death.”