Pentecostalism for the Exurbs
Joel Osteen's God really wants you to dress well, stand up straight, and get a convenient parking space.
Hence, it seems, the erect-posture pointers, the counsel to "get in the habit of smiling on purpose," and Osteen's monotonous hymning of the health and wealth gospel of Word-Faith. "It doesn't please God for us to drag through life like miserable failures," he scolds. The Creator "wants you to succeed; He created you to live abundantly." Debilitating hereditary diseases are empty threats for a wonder-working God. "You must stand against those diseases and believe God for good health," Osteen announces. "You must think differently, and you need to take a different tack, take different action. You cannot prepare for defeat and expect to live in victory." Tellingly, he doesn't try to make his case by citing his father's sobering flirtations with faith healing, but rather the experience of his plucky grandmother, who airily informed a doctor who had just diagnosed her with Parkinson's disease that "I refuse to have that." And sure enough, Osteen writes, she never did, because "she didn't let the negative words take root."
Osteen's rigid—and plainly dangerous—nominalist faith sits uncomfortably alongside an obsession with blood heredity, which seems to contradict the notion of a purely spiritual and supernatural health-care plan. Then again, Osteen insists that "our spiritual bloodline"—God's authorship of our being "before the foundation of the world"—trumps our merely "natural bloodline" and the bad habits, addictions, and negative thinking bequeathed us by our thankless kin. "Your Father spoke the worlds into existence," Osteen marvels in what seems a fairly transparent case of Oedipal transference. "He could have chosen anybody, but he chose you." And what a doting parent He is: "If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be up on it. If God carried a wallet, your photo would be in it."
Indeed, if you bracket all the scary, irresponsible health-and-wealth cheerleading that jolts through Become a Better You, this exurban image of God the indulgent dad is among the more troubling features of the gospel according to Osteen. For it turns out that the divine hand turns up everywhere, at least in Joel Osteen's life. God upgrades his reservations to first class on a long international flight; God spares his car in a water-planing wipeout on the Houston interstate; God allows Osteen and his wife/co-pastor, Victoria, to flip a property "for twice as much as we paid for it" in a once-sketchy Houston neighborhood; God swings a critical vote on the Houston zoning board to permit Lakewood to move to its mammoth Compaq Center digs—and God even saw fit 35 years earlier to ensure the engineer who designed the ramps leading to the Compaq Center provided easy parking access for Lakewood. This is a long, long way down the road from the inscrutable, infant-damning theology of this country's Calvinist forebears—it is, rather, a just-in-time economy's vision of salvation, an eerily collapsible spiritual narcissism that downgrades the divine image into the job description for a lifestyle concierge. Lakewood and Osteen seem to keep God so preoccupied it's a wonder He can ever find the time to stock his fridge or whip out His wallet.
There's, of course, nothing inherently suspect or dishonorable about seeking uplift and consolation in the Bible. But the point of those "deep theological doctrines" that Osteen seems to deride is to leaven that quest with the less agreeable features of life—pain and suffering, the persistence of evil, the fleeting quality of all endeavor, the cosmic insignificance of the human self, let alone that self's subordinate chosen modes of expression in body posture or a near-pathological penchant for smiling. After all, the same Bible that Lakewood's arena full of believers champion as a handbook for what they can do and be also contains these words, in Revelation 3:17: "Thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing: and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked."*
Chris Lehmann is a senior editor at Congressional Quarterly, a D.C. correspondent for the New York Observer, and the author of Revolt of the Masscult.