[Now that Christmas is packed away into the commerce clog of Claus and his elfin cronies, I turned the TV on the other night to catch up on some missed news. What I watched was likely a holiday rehash of Larry King. Joel and Victoria Osteen were his guests.
Finally, some sense of it all. At last, a set of smiles and a suave of success that seeks the good in me, the positive, the promising. I stayed tuned for the complete hour. Larry talked with Joel (I think he’d oblige the informality) about his new book Becoming a Better You, about his mega-church in Houston, and about his stardom. Becoming a Better You hit book suppliers three million copies strong, making it one of the largest first printing runs and the largest in that publisher’s history (Free Press). Numbing numbers, ay? What do you do with that? Maybe listen. So, I did -]
LARRY KING: What's the concept behind the new book?
JOEL OSTEEN: The concept is that God never wants us to get in a rut no matter where we are, how successful or how low we are. We should be growing. We should be learning. We should get better in our attitude, in our relationships. And so it's really just simple things that we probably all know, but it just reminds us to -- to don't get stuck in a rut. Don't get stuck, you know, with a health issue and think, well, I'll never get over this. Or even in a marriage -- don't get stuck at a certain level. We can all be kinder. We can be happier. We can, you know, grow in our relationship with God.
LK: Yes, but when you say God now, do you think that there is a God looking down on Joel right now...
JO: I do.
LK: ...saying I'm going to give Joel a good day?
JO: I do. I believe God's concerned about every part of our life. People kind of give me a hard time because I say, “You know what? God wants you to help you find a good parking spot or help you to, you know, have a good day.” But I believe God will be involved in as much of our lives as we allow him to.
LK: How can he do that with all the people in the world?
JO: Well, because he's God. He's so much bigger than us. I mean, our minds are, you know, are nothing compared to his. But, you know, the scripture talks about it -- if you believe the Bible -- that God knows the number of hairs on our heads. He knows our thoughts before we speak them. And, you know, we comprehend that. And I know in the natural world, it doesn't make sense. But that's what faith is all about.
[Not bad. Already, we learn that God wants us to grow (to jump “levels”), that he knows all our parts and parking places, and that, according to the Bible, God knows our hairs and our thoughts, each and every one. But Larry probes further.]
LK: This looks like -- and if you read the chapters -- a self-help book. Lots of advice for improving life. Major emphasis on positive thinking. That is not new. But is it new the way you express it?
JO: I think it just comes out of each person different. I don't think, like you said, a lot of the principles are not new. But somehow God makes us all individually, even though there's been billions of people that have lived. And I think it comes out a different way. I present the same Bible truths that my dad did and many other people down to the generations. But, again, I think God uses our personality and, you know, maybe the youth -- and just different things and different ways to express it.
LK: But he [God] isn't mentioned on the cover.
LK: And it doesn't even say you're a pastor.
JO: No, it doesn't. But you know what? My goal is to get outside the church walls.
[Larry King brings out a good point. Does getting “outside the church walls” mean you leave out divisive theology, or, as it appears by Joel’s comments, divorce yourself from theology altogether? Is that what “comes out” of Osteen? If so, perhaps Jesus is so far removed as to lose his messianic title. Take Advent. Advent forces us to pause between peace and love and remember that joy always has suffering in its hip pocket, that true contentment is not substantiated by feeling good about ourselves or accomplishing marked out goals. Rather, joy gains ground when aspirations and prosperity are surrendered and abandoned. It’s a joy that pertains to a salvific message and that means it is sacrificial (and may not smile all the time). Paul, give us a little dirge -
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
But, hold on. Maybe Joel is just talking about fulfillment and that God makes that idea a richer experience. Maybe he is simply trying to extract the nuggets of truth so people can take God and apply his Word in their everyday lives. Let’s cut back to the show.]
JO: [I want] to reach people that normally wouldn't go to church or normally wouldn't think about God. Or, hey, I'm not a religious person. And that's about half the mail we get. It starts with Joel...
JO: Yes, "Joel, I never watch a TV preacher, almost, and I've never been to church". Or maybe, "I went to church 20 years ago, but, you know, I just -- I fell away." So, no, I don't think you have to shove it down people's throat. You have to just present it to them. Just, you know what? The Bible is full of common sense that can help us in our everyday lives.
LK: Victoria, when Joel is criticized for not being the pastor who hangs the cross behind him, how do you react?
VICTORIA OSTEEN: Well, I just look at all the fruit and all the people's lives that are being changed and are being touched. And that's what we really focus on, because we hear -- every day we get mail, we visit with people and their lives are being changed. And I just think, you know, if they would come in, they'd hear our message; they'd see what's going on. I just believe that they wouldn't have that criticism.
LK: Could an atheist be changed?
JO: I think so. I think...
LK: Without having to believe in God?
JO: Well, I think there's a void in every person that only God can fill -- that only God can fill. I think that's how you can really be fulfilled, truly. So I would think an atheist can be changed and their attitude in certain things. But I think if you come to a belief that there's something bigger than yourself, you're going to be more fulfilled.
[Okay. About now, these shiny happy people were driving me nuts. Jesus never said we’d be fulfilled or accomplished. He never promised or even encouraged it, not in terms of personal gain. Rather, he required the opposite. In the same breath Jesus talks about abundant life (John 10), he addresses his own brutal death. And, if you find your life, guess what? You lose it. Try to save it? Lose it. Worry about it? You got it... you lose it.
Jesus’ “end” is crucifixion and he promises that those who follow him will likewise be hated. This doesn’t sell books. It doesn’t even sell “christianized caffeine” (likely not fairly traded) before a worship romp. It’s not positive in practical terms. And it was never meant to produce anything, least of all mega-churches and mega-pastors who hock their wears and celebrity status. Jesus is disruptive and he demands unpleasant and against-the-grain change. As a result, Christianity is a hunt, a pilgrimage, a restlessness.
Joel and Victoria seem so content that perhaps they’ve forgotten (or neglected... or skipped over) examples like Abraham’s bartering over Sodom, Jacob’s wrestling match, Elijah’s Broom tree fears, David’s anxiety, Job’s doubts, Zechariah’s shutting up, old man Simeon’s long wait, Zacheus’s tall climb, Arimathea’s crossed burden, etc, etc. History is stockpiled with stories of Christian “weakness” - peace that passes understanding, inheritance of the meek, riches for the poor, the last butting line to be first rank in the afterlife.]
LK: Why did you want it so big?
JO: Well, we never really did, Larry. We started -- my father's auditorium held 8,000 people and it started filling up. There was no room to put more people in. Our whole belief -- and I think a lot of people's -- is that you're not supposed to turn people away from the church. And so there wasn't any more room. We never said oh, let's go build a big church so people will think we're successful. It's not about that. It's just for helping more people. And so when the Compaq Center opened up, it was just a natural fit.
LK: That's -- it was the former home of the Houston Rockets.
JO: Yes, that's correct.
LK: So you're a basketball star... in a sense, I mean?
JO: I'm a fan, anyway.
LK: Where do all of the people come from? I mean they can't just be Houstonians.
JO: Well, they're all -- they come from all walks of life. They come from all over. Every weekend people fly in from all over the world. I met somebody there that flew in just from Korea Sunday to be in the service.
And I said, “Why did you come?” He said, “We just wanted to see you.” It's sort of, you know, I say this humbly, it's sort of a phenomenon to see 15,000 people come together in worship. And it's exciting and so...
LK: And it's seen in 100 countries, right?
JO: It's seen all over the world. Yes, sir.
LK: How do you react to the critics who call your message theology lite?
JO: Well, I've heard that before. It's interesting, Larry, every week in our services we deal with people that are -- have children that have cancer, people that have a husband or a wife that left them. We deal with the real issues of life. I talk about forgiveness and how to have faith when bad things happen and, you know, how to overcome and, you know, love your enemies and things like that.
So when they say it's Gospel lite, I think, you know, we're helping people where the rubber meets the road.
I mean last Sunday, there was a little girl there. She was 2- years-old. She has cancer. She's at our MD Anderson Cancer Hospital. And you know what? We give them hope. We pray for them. We say, “God's going to give you strength.” I mean we don't know exactly what the outcome is going to be. We hope she'll live. But, you know, how can that be gospel lite to me? That's why I come back to saying I'm helping people.
[He’s just helping people, right? Perhaps. But, he’s certainly not pointing down the narrow way and talking in Petrine terms about endurance and holy revolution inside people. My wife and I tried to convey to our three boys about the significance of true devotion last season and why the Advent wreath had a duller candle compared to the others. I asked them about those who followed Jesus... what they thought happened to them as a result of their devotion. “All but one were killed,” I said. “And not in normal ways.” (Their eyes grew.) “Crucifixion upside down, beheadings, and even the one who escaped to an island did so because he would not die in the hot cauldron of oil designed to kill him.” About this time, my wife nudges me and says, “Okay, that’s enough.”
What’s the point? Following Jesus is not simple and it’s not easy. You can’t cherry-pick out your three chords of truth and ignore the rest. And those who choose to believe need to be aware of the costs involved. That’s where the Osteen aura turns to shadows. Jesus did not touch down on earth to be our best friend or a charm that sends us blessings. He never promises that struggle will cease or we will “get our due” in this lifetime. He said he knows our needs and anxiety is his to bear. He said our burden is to take up a cross, to live in a way that is poor in spirit, merciful, pure in heart, meek - a way that is not understandable, that is paradoxical to the common order. It is here where the martyrdom of Stephen makes sense and the thorny side of Paul breathes easier. But, let’s give Joel the last word -]
LK: Do you think there's too much emphasis on me in the church, you know, what some call the prosperity gospel? And you're -- you're going to make money. You're going to be well. You're going to do good.
JO: Well, I think there needs to be a balance. I think there has been and there can be. But I think the whole prosperity thing is, you know, if somebody asks do I believe God wants you to be well and happy and whole and have good relationships and have beautiful children, my answer would be yes. Because I'm a father and I want the best for my children. I don't want to spoil them. And I'm not talking about, you know, all this money. But I want them to have a good life.
Well, God is our heavenly father. And I do think some people take it -- you know, some people can blow anything out of proportion. It's not all about money. I mean we all know people who have all the money in the world but can't sleep at night. So it's about -- I do believe God wants you to be blessed and he wants you to increase. He wants you to be successful in your career. God never wanted us to drag through life.
LK: According to the Bible, Jesus said, "It's hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven." How do you square that with your lifestyle? Do you think you may not get in because you're doing too well?
JO: No, I don't think so. I think you have to take...
LK: I'm only quoting Jesus.
JO: I know. No, no. I think you have to take the whole context. When he's quoting that, I believe that man's focus was all about the money. But it depends on where your heart is. I mean the scripture says it's the love of money that's the root of all evil. We didn't do this for money. And I don't think that you can say, if somebody is wealthy, boy, then, you know, they're not going to heaven or God must not love them.
Abraham -- way back where Christianity was started, it said he was the wealthiest man in all the East. And I think David left the equivalent of a billion dollars to his son since -- Solomon -- to build the temple. I almost didn't know it.
I should have gone to seminary.