Thursday, July 24, 2008

Joel Osteen ... can we move beyond the critiques

When I saw this link Tullian Tchvidjian's weblog, I was intrigued. Conde Nast Portfolio, the dreambook magazine of the wealthy and powerful, profiles one of the richest and most influential motivational speakers of our time: Joel Osteen.

I've held off of Joel for quite some time. Frankly, it's just too easy to satirize the carnival that his schtick has become. His Guy Smiley looks and featherweight message simply beg for some jester's lampooning. I've not read any of his books to date because of my refusal to read any book that features a toothy photo of the author dominating the front cover .... it's just a recipie for disaster. His routine isn't original; we can trace the lineage back through Robert Schuller, Norman Vincent Peale, and even to Henry Ward Beecher (see my review of last year's Beecher Bio for more on that lively character).

There is, however, another reason I've held off. Reformed Christians have become too good at whining for Jesus. We excel at adroitly skewering [insert popular religious figure] for his/her heresy/error/comedic value. Quite simply we've moved beyond being curmudgeonly to simply being cranks.

Yes, we must be discerning; yes we must call error what it is. Please don't take me for one who is advocating a watery blurring of doctrinal distinctions. Doctrinal conviction should inspire us to robust discussion and proclamation. We are dealing with truth here. Permit me to suggest however, that Reformed Christians are not in danger of going light on doctrinal error ....the danger we face is in failing to articulate the compelling truths that we hold. I don't want my writing to be focused on Joel Osteen....I want my writing to turn eyes to Christ.

For instance, let's look at the opening of the article:

Who will save us? Who will lift us up from crushing credit-card debt and resetting mortgage payments and impending foreclosure, from increasing gas prices and decreasing health-insurance coverage? We are a nation stumbling through our worst financial crisis in a generation and our worst housing market in a lifetime. And so we come, seeking gentle salvation, inspiring prayers, steadying words, soothing notions, and calming thoughts that will allow us to become, in Joel Osteen’s words, “victors, not victims.”

We are in Greensboro, North Carolina, making our way into the downtown arena through the hot, buggy air, to worship with the pastor who will save us, the man anointed, by one of his congregants, as “Reverend Feelgood.” Sixteen thousand will file in this evening, as have millions more to coliseums, concert venues, and baseball
stadiums around the country—all, in a way, his churches. We are a diverse, representative swath of troubled America: families struggling under debt, husbands and wives seeking reconciliation, young couples on first dates, children dragged by pious grandparents who promise them popcorn and BibleMan action figures. It is
religion as escapism, criticized throughout the Bible Belt as “Christianity lite” or “prosperity gospel.” But this murmuring crowd, slouching toward a kinder, gentler salvation, is a more telling indicator of the state of our union than consumer durables purchased or capital goods ordered. Unemployment they know; they don’t need to wait for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to publish a monthly number. O, but come to Joel, lift your hands to Jesus, banish your negative thoughts, and you can find in these dark times a beacon.

If, in this country, there is great hurting, then Osteen is here to soothe that suffering.

In this well crafted opening (I love the WB Yeats allusion in the "slouching toward a kinder, gentler salvation"), the author points us to some of the criticism about the hope that Joel extends. Rightly so. It's not so simple as "banish your negative thoughts" and all will be well. It's not so simple as God wanting us all to be fat and happy.

But let's frankly acknowledge that there is indeed a great craving for hope in our land. So let's speak frankly about that hope. Our hope in Christ is a hope that carries us through tears, pain and suffering. Our hope lies in the truth that we can honestly belt out the raw throated cry "My God My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?" (Ps 22:1). Far from banishing such negative thoughts, our God gives us a scriptural example of actually bringing them to Him. We worship a living God who loves us so radically that we can bring to him our doubts, fears, anguish, bafflement, confusion, disappointment, dysfunction, and general messiness. We can cry out with the father of the demon posessed child "I believe, help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). We can run to Jesus and say with Martha "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!" (John 11:21). We don't have to banish our negative thoughts .... we bring them to the Living God.

But then he doesn't leave us that way. By the end of Psalm 22, David is crying out "The ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord!) (v 17). Our hope lies in the truth that "All things work to the good for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:28) .... all things includes our pain, our cancer, our divorce, our unemployment, our mess. Jesus doesn't merely soothe our pain, he redeems it. He doesn't just make all the bad stuff go away, he transforms it into something greater and more glorious than we imagined. That is our hope. Not that everything will be painless, but that our pain will be transformed into something glorious for Christ!

Our hope lies in the truth that we're not abandoned in the midst of our pain...."Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words." (Romans 8:26). The Holy Spirit never abandons us, even when we feel most alone.

Shifting from hope, let's move to the "prosperity" part of the critique of Joel. Rightly, we raise an eyebrow at the concept that God wants you to be wealthy. God has a great plan for your life and he's waiting on you to realize it. Again, the critique centers on the sunshine and promise of bliss.

However, we believe so much more, don't we? We believe that every human being bears the imago dei. Psalm 8 asks "what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor." The bible clearly teaches both human depravity but also human dignity. Our dignity is not rooted in wealth, accomplishment, titles, position, power, accolades or recognition. Our dignity is rooted in the bearing of the image of God. No amount of poverty, sickness, degradation or dehumanization can take that dignity away. No tyrant, potentate, huckster, mountebank, or con artist can coercie it from you. Even the dirtiest, toothless, withered crone on the street corner carries that dignity. It's not a dignity that is from our nobility at is bestowed by the one whose image we bear. We believe God loves little people ... and He is glorified greatly through them.

Then there is the issue of preaching the god of Love vs the god of Wrath. Again, we Calvinists tend to cringe at such language. We rightly dismantle the arguments that draw a sharp distinction between the two. But can we truly articulate why it is good to believe in a God of wrath.

Can we not articulate that God's wrath is what upholds, protects, and defends his love. That love must be defended by his wrath against injustice, cruelty, manipulation, agendas, and the human propensity to consume all into the self. Miroslav Volf, in his Exclusion and Embrace, lays out this very idea that it is God's justice that ultimately gives us hope to live lives of love in the present: "Without entrusting oneself to the God who judges justly, it will hardly be possible to follow the crucified Messiah and refuse to retaliate when abused. The certainty of God's just judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence in the middle of it. The divine system of judgment is not the flip side of the human reign of terror, but a necessary correlate of human nonviolence."(p.302)

Let's actually believe our theology ... that it is the Holy Spirit operating through the proclaimed word that changes lives. Let's vigorously advocate for the truths we hold ... and may God be glorified through it.

Soli Deo Gloria