Thursday, December 06, 2007

My One – And Only – Defense of Joel Osteen

Joel Osteen is the butt of many of my more side comments. As the “inspirational” happy-go-lucky mega-preacher at Lakewood Church in Houston, he is one of the most lackluster representatives of Christendom I can imagine. While he (and his people) are much more sophisticated for running their business, er, church in that they don’t openly ask for money on the air, or promise God’s wrath unless a certain amount of cash is raised, the level of theological understanding is so poor it borders on out-and-out heresy. Indeed, that his could be called a Christian Church at all is rather insulting, given that no cross adorns its interior space, and I have rarely, if ever, hear the name “Jesus Christ” in any of Osteen’s infamous sermons. So I have many issues with what Lakewood does, how it does it, and who it has chosen to be its spokesman.

But I have to be honest that one aspect of his “ministry” is worthwhile, and it dawned on me during a prayer with a steak salesman. Yes, a man who refused to take “No” for an answer 6 times, finally sold me 60 frozen steaks. And this being Texas and all, he wanted to pray with me before he left my patio. (I have to give him credit, usually folks that know I’m a pastor are happy to let me do the praying.) Part of his prayer included the phrase, “…help us to be victors and not victims…”, and it struck me that this is part of the real appeal with Osteen, T.D. Jakes and others who sell the “positivist” gospel. People love to feel empowered, and convincing people that they aren’t victims, and are in fact victors is nothing if not empowering.

Now, I could quibble with this theologically. For example, it is not us, but Christ who is the real victor, and to say we are not victims may be empowering, but it is by no means the totality of who we are. Indeed, some of us are victims, and we may need to come to terms with that before we can more forward; in other words, maybe it can’t just be brushed off.

That being said, from a political point of view, I am constantly arguing against the victim mentality, and am glad someone is speaking against it convincingly. Clearly, our politicians can’t. The victim mentality leads to nothing good. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy whose endgame is poverty, misery, and a virtually guaranteed heirloom for subsequent generations. There can be little doubt that those who suffer from debilitating behaviors see themselves as victims. In reality, they often are. But their unfortunate inability to move past that mindset hinders personal or cultural growth.

One particularly interesting piece of this victimization puzzle is the competition for the black demographic. Certainly the victim mentality crosses racial and gender lines, among others. Many a white Appalachian landowner who sold good land for coal mining later claimed to be victims, an attitude that was passed down from generation to generation. It is not to say they weren’t victims of good salesman and a lack of geo-technical knowledge. But the victim mentality ruled the day once they realized what they had given up. So there is certainly no monopoly within the black community. However, the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and even Barrack Obama, whose populist political philosophy absolutely seeks to perpetuate victimization, are fully vested in minority communities continuing to think of themselves as victims. And in many cases, I have no doubt that they are victims: victims of racism and discrimination, overt and covert.

But the irony is that much of the supporting base for victor-not-victim Osteen is, in fact, black. While this is merely anecdotal, I have found that a large number of black Christians are crazy about Osteen, and a sweeping view of his “audience” finds a significant black (and Hispanic) population. So the message of empowerment is apparently quite attractive and appealing to the very people the victim industry wants to recruit. What difficult irony for me! The very people that Democrats hope and (pardon the pun) pray vote for socialism every other November may be hearing another alternative to their cynicism and perpetual poverty. If only the instrument had more depth!

So is the tradeoff worth it? Are Osteen’s heretical and deplorable distortions of the gospel worth his negation of the victim mentality? In a perfect world, I would much prefer just about anything to Osteen’s false prosperity gospel, and it greatly saddens me that people mistake his message for true Christianity. But it’s not a perfect world, and there’s little I can do to get him off the air. So I’ll have to live with his message, and gleam what is redeemable in it for now. And this will be my one – and only – defense of the lamentable, pitiable Joel Osteen.

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