Joel Osteen is the head pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, the largest congregation in the United States, with over 43,500 members. He is an author whose books have reached No.1 on the Times Best-Seller list, and the weekly broadcast of his sermon is the most popular show of its type in the world.
Osteen is the subject of much controversy for the content of his message. He preaches a softened non-denominational version of Prosperity Gospel, which teaches that God provides material wealth for those He favors. The image central to Christianity—the cross—is conspicuously absent in Lakewood Church. I don’t believe, of the handful of complete Osteen sermons I’ve heard, that he’s mentioned sin once. He is also oddly soft-spoken about the issue of salvation, as he demonstrated as a guest on Larry King Live.
For many of us who grew up in an Evangelical church, Prosperity Gospel is hard to stomach. The quest for material wealth seems so diametrically opposed to the Bible’s message, that we often assume those who advocate such a quest are charlatans. Those of us who consider ourselves “rational” Christians might also protest that Prosperity Gospel is ludicrous simply on the face of what we know about existence.
Parse what Osteen is saying on Larry King carefully, though, and you realize he’s not really wrong. When asked if a Jew will go to Heaven, he simply answers that it’s not for him to say, and God will decide. But wait, you think—Jews don’t believe Jesus Christ is the son of God. There’s no way they can go to Heaven! But for all I know, Larry King, who is Jewish, could convert to Christianity tomorrow. The only one who knows whether this will happen is God, who I believe is all-powerful and all-knowing. And there’s plenty of textual evidence in the Bible to suggest we should refrain from pronouncing judgment.
What really should frustrate Christians about that interview is that Osteen seems to be dancing around the issue. If he’d simply stated that yes, you do have to accept Jesus Christ, but no, he does not personally have the ability to say to another person God will reject them, that would be a perfectly acceptable theological answer, in my opinion. (I understand most non-Christians, and many conservative Christians, would object to this—but it’s not really the point of what I’m writing about). But Osteen insists on continuing to smile and radiate positivity, which suggests that the issue is not of supreme concern to him.
Which brings us to another common criticism of Osteen. Many of his critics claim he is not preaching a religious message at all, that he is simply another pop-culture proponent of Positivity, which can be found amongst numerous guests on Oprah or the Self-Help section of a bookstore. Osteen’s brand of Positivity is economic, and encourages people to think of financial well-being as a mystical gift which they will inevitably receive by staying Positive. Watching an Osteen sermon, the overwhelming effect is this sense of Positivity. Do not despair. Keep plugging away. Stay faithful to God. It will happen for you.
Christianity and the Housing Crash
In December of 2009 The Atlantic ran an article called “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” Much of the story focuses on a particular Virginia congregation which practices Prosperity Gospel.
Author Hanna Rosin’s impressions of one of the church’s services:
Pastor Garay, 48, is short and stocky, with thick black hair combed back. In his off hours, he looks like a contented tourist, in his printed Hawaiian shirts or bright guayaberas. But he preaches with a ferocity that taps into his youth as a cocaine dealer with a knife in his back pocket. “Fight the attack of the devil on my finances! Fight him! We declare financial blessings! Financial miracles this week, NOW NOW NOW!” he preached that Sunday. “More work! Better work! The best finances!” Gonzales shook and paced as the pastor spoke, eventually leaving his wife and three kids in the family section to join the single men toward the front, many of whom were jumping, raising their Bibles, and weeping. On the altar sat some anointing oils, alongside the keys to the Mercedes Benz.
Rosin also raises the question of whether the actions of Prosperity Gospel preachers and congregants contributed to the housing bubble by encouraging people to take out risky mortgages for homes they clearly could not afford, in the belief that God would somehow make it work. The article doesn’t provide much direct evidence of Prosperity Gospel making an impact on the housing bubble, although some of the circumstantial facts are hard to ignore: many of the neighborhoods hit worst by the housing crash are in areas where Prosperity churches are very strong—Texas, the Sun Belt, California. And at this particular Charlottesvile church, Countrywide agents were even allowed to hold sales meetings sponsored by the church. They agreed to donate a certain amount of money to the church based on how many congregants signed up for a mortgage.
But as unsavory as this sounds, it seems beside the point. Because the truth is—all of us were believers in Prosperity Gospel at one point, in 2005, or 2000, or 1998. Someone might have taken a subprime mortgage in 2004 because they thought God would provide; someone else might have taken the same mortgage because they thought prices would continue to rise indefinitely, and they were guaranteed a profit. Psychologically the motives are similar—both people are treating the economy like it is magic.
The Recession, and Recovery
When I graduated high school, the United States was enjoying possibly the greatest (although, as it turned out, not even close to being the longest) economic boom in its history. Most of my classmates, including the studious and ambitious ones, had vague plans for their careers, at best. It all seemed to be out there waiting for us, and we felt comfortable taking our time before we reached for it.
Many of the nineteen and twenty-year olds I run across now have a very different mindset. Inundated with horrific stats about job prospects and skyrocketing tuition, they tend to see the economy as a contest, with a highly limited number of prizes. It’s a perfectly logical way to think, considering the circumstances. It’s also poisonous to the general well-being.
The most frustrating thing about the recession, for me, is that the root of it is psychological. Money simply will not flow where it needs to go. Everyone is afraid to spend, to invest, to hire, or to grow. Each individual decision not to do these things has a ripple effect, causing more ripple effects, and on, and on.
The logical stance for an individual or a corporation in recession is austerity. Business is bad everywhere, a risk taken now is much more likely to end in failure than a risk taken five years ago. There’s a good chance, today, that a new hire will cost an employer more in salary than he or she generates in revenue. But all of those individual logical decisions, when put together, make recovery impossible.
What Joel Osteen is really saying, to me, is that we can’t allow our actual circumstances to dictate how we behave. It’s not really logical, but it gives us hope. And much of the basis for the hope has to be within ourselves–we have to believe our perseverance, talent, and know-how will win out. But we can’t provide all of it, especially when we are desperate and struggling. Some part of that hope has to be trust that an external force will, sooner or later, work for our good. Adam Smith may have called it the Invisible Hand, philosophers may call it the common good, and we Christians call Him God. Ambition and greed drive investment and entrepreneurship, but even those powerful forces aren’t enough when times are as bad as they are now. You sort of have to believe in Providence, at least a little bit. So I guess what I will be praying for is that Chase Bank, in a flash of Providence-driven inspiration, says “heck with it, let’s roll the dice,” and starts to actually loan some of that bailout money to real people instead of dumping it in the bond market.
Rosin misses a fantastic irony in her article about Christians and the housing crash. Prosperity Gospel may have helped get us into the recession. But one day it’s going to get us out.