When Joel Osteen Shows-Up (sort of) at Your Daughter’s Soccer Game…

Last night the Mechanicsburg Area High School girls soccer team advanced to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association District 3 championship game with a thrilling 2-1 double overtime win over Berks Catholic High School.  The game was held at Hershey Park Stadium in Hershey, Pennsylvania.  As some of you know, my daughter plays on the team.

When I arrived at the stadium last night and headed over to the ticket booth I was greeted with this sign:

Osteen at Hershey

Is the Mechanicsburg victory last night a sign that the members of the team are “living their best life now?”

Phil Sinitiere, I need your help!

Who Do Evangelicals Trust on Politics?

Trump Beleive me

A recent poll has found that almost fifty percent of evangelicals say a Donald Trump recommendation would make them more likely to vote for a candidate.  Meanwhile, fifty-four percent of evangelicals said a Hillary Clinton endorsement would make them less likely to vote for a candidates.

Here is the list of evangelicals’ most-trusted celebrity endorsers:

  1. Donald Trump
  2. Mike Pence
  3. George W. Bush
  4. Paul Ryan
  5. Barack Obama
  6. Michelle Obama
  7. Oprah
  8. Joel Osteen
  9. Bernie Sanders
  10. Jerry Falwell Jr.

Here is the list of evangelical’s least-trusted celebrity endorsers:

  1. Hillary Clinton
  2. Kim Kardashian
  3. Nancy Pelosi
  4. Bill Clinton
  5. Kanye West
  6. Barack Obama
  7. Michelle Obama
  8. Beyonce
  9. Ellen DeGeneres
  10. Bernie Sanders

Kate Shellnut has a story on this survey at Christianity Today.  Read it here.

A few quick observations:

  • Joel Osteen is the only minister who made the top ten.
  • Evangelicals trust Oprah more than ministers to offer them political advice.
  • The Obamas and Bernie Sanders are on both lists.
  • Evangelicals do not take political advice from Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Beyonce, and Ellen, but the fact they they made the “least-trusted” list shows that they are clearly obsessed with these celebrities.

Laura Turner: The Backlash Against Joel Osteen is Part of a Larger Anti-Evangelical Spirit in the Age of Trump

Lakewood

I think it is probably fair to say that Joel Osteen could have done a better job in responding to Hurricane Harvey.  Because of his prosperity preaching and wealthy lifestyle he gets hammered by just about everyone other than his Lakewood Church parishioners and his television audience.  When a disaster like Harvey hits Houston, and Osteen fumbles the ball, he is going to get nailed.  I am glad to see that he has finally mobilized Lakewood Church.

As Laura Turner writes at BuzzFeed News, a lot of the criticism of Osteen is part of a larger criticism of evangelicals in the Age of Trump.  I don’t count Osteen as one of the so-called court evangelicals.  As far as I know, he has stayed out of politics.  But his prosperity preaching certainly makes him an honorary court evangelical in the minds of most critics.  For many, Osteen represents the spirit behind the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump.  They care about the Supreme Court and the culture wars, but they won’t open their churches to flood victims.

Here is a taste of Turner’s piece:

The backlash against Lakewood Church, and the resentment fueling it, ties into a larger national narrative around the hypocrisy of politically involved evangelical leaders who helped put Donald Trump in office. American evangelicalism in the last four decades has been an increasingly politicized movement, rooted in many ways in the establishment of the Moral Majority, a political action group whose very name declared its concern with rectitude and character. Yet evangelicals are more often known for what they are against — abortion, same-sex marriage — than what they are for. More and more, prominent evangelicals seem to be folding conservative politics into their belief system.

Evangelical leaders like Dinesh D’Souza and Eric Metaxas have devolved into self-parody under the Trump administration. Metaxas, who wrote a best-selling biography of the theologian and World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, now tweets about hosting Sebastian Gorka on his radio show and wrote an op-ed about why Christians must vote for Trump. Dinesh D’Souza was a policy adviser for Ronald Reagan and wrote a well-regarded book on Christian apologetics before he launched his career as a pundit railing against Barack Obama, and eventually spent time in jail for making illegal campaign contributions under other peoples’ names. D’Souza tried to return to relevance with a 2013 infomercial for his friend’s artificial Christmas tree, and just this week was retweeted by Donald Trump when he shared a Washington Post article claiming that left-wing demonstrators were the true source of violence at a Berkeley rally.

Criticism of white evangelicals has reached a fever pitch with the Trump administration, and not without reason. A recent PRRI/Brookings poll asked whether a politician can behave ethically in office even if he has committed immoral acts in his personal life; the results showed that “no group has shifted their position more dramatically than white evangelical Protestants,” who went from 30% affirmation in 2011 to 72% in 2016. This practice of changing the rules in service of political expediency drives others — Christians and non-Christians alike — to censurewhite evangelicals, especially those who espouse virtues like chastity out of one side of their mouths and use the other side to support the policies of a groping, thrice-married opportunist who once claimed he has never needed to ask God for forgiveness.

It is also true that there can be a kind of glee with which some people rush to assume the worst about evangelicals and prosperity gospel Christians. “Joel Osteen gets it from both sides,” says Kate Shellnutt, associate editor at the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today. “Plenty of Christians criticize him for offering what they see as shallow, self-help faith, for not preaching enough on sin. Then non-Christians or former Christians will see him as a prime example of their concerns about the church: that it’s too flashy, money-focused, selfish.”

Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School and the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, has observed similar attacks on Osteen and argues that he is misunderstood: “Joel Osteen is not the flashy money-grubber that people imagine when they think of a prosperity preacher,” she says. He is an encouraging pastor, Bowler says, but people want to believe that his enthusiastic persona must be a cover for underlying greed and evil.

A storm as severe as Harvey, with all the pain and desperation it brings, puts any pre-existing criticisms of Osteen and his brand of religion into even sharper relief. Bowler says, “In the face of a natural disaster, the prosperity gospel lacks a language with which to account for problems that cannot be remedied by individual faith.”

Read the rest here.

Of course there is another, more accurate, way to understand evangelicals and Hurricane Harvey.  From what I have seen and heard, evangelical churches and ministries have mobilized to bring relief to the suffering and the displaced.  Many of these churches do not associate with Osteen’s brand of prosperity Christianity.  I am confident that stories will emerge showing evangelical Christians at their best, living out the Gospel in the midst of Harvey.  And some of these evangelicals may have even voted for Donald Trump.

Making Sense of Joel Osteen

61470-osteen

Joel Osteen, the prosperity preacher who is the leader of the 38,000 member Lakewood Church in Houston, has been taking a lot of heat for apparently not opening his church to flood victims.

I really don’t have enough information to judge what is happening with Lakewood Church.  Those who don’t like Osteen are taking some pretty hard shots at him on social media.

In the last forty-eight hours I have found two piece sto be helpful.

The first piece is Kate Bowler‘s “Here’s why people hate Joel Osteen.”  She writes:

With his yachts and jets and endlessly-smiling mouth offering promises of “Your Best Life Now” (that’s the name of his best-selling book), Osteen was already a subject of contempt among Americans, in general.

But in the past few days he has been lambasted as being, at best, sluggish in providing emergency aid to those suffering from the disaster and, at worst, a hypocrite who cares more about people’s wealth than welfare. In fairness, the city of Houston has more megachurches than any other metropolitan area in the country, with dozens of big-church celebrities to thrust into the spotlight at a time like this. So what is it about America’s grinning preacher that everyone hates so much?

I’ve been studying the American prosperity gospel for more than a decade, and I have come to the stunning conclusion that Joel Osteen seems to be a pretty nice guy. He is the cheery advertisement for the 606,000-square-foot Lakewood Church and, with the gorgeous Victoria by his side, tours the country in packed-out arenas to bring “A Night of Hope” — a religion-lite, inspirational speech set to music. And, for those who don’t mind waiting a few minutes after the service, he will shake your hand and tolerate your comment about how his hair looks even better in real life. It does.

But there are three main reasons long after this controversy passes, Joel Osteen will still be the preacher America loves to hate — and perhaps for Christians more than others.

Read the rest at the Washington Post.

The other piece is by Wheaton College professor Ed Stetzer and is titled “Some Christians Hate Joel Osteen More Than They Love The Truth. And That’s Wrong.”

Stetzer writes:

Apparently, Osteen had canceled church on Sunday and the church indicated (perhaps inarticulately) that the church was impassable. (They did not say it was flooded, though who needs to worry about facts when we hate someone, right?) The church directed their people, and presumably others, to take shelter with friends, family, or at the George Brown Convention Center.

As the waters rose in Houston, social media spread the word that Lakewood Church, housed in a 16,800 seat arena, was turning people away who were seeking shelter.

Nope. They said that is not what happened.

You can see more facts herehere, and here.

Christians Joining in Spreading a False Narrative

Fast forward twelve hours and the facts began to surface that the church itself was flooded in a few sections. And Lakewood responded that only three people came for shelter, and they had all been helped.

So, well, maybe we might see that facts are our friends.

And just because you hate (or just have theological concerns with him) Osteen does not entitle you to your own set of facts.

I’m not saying they did not bungle their first statement. I am saying that a lot of Christians spread false statements. Let’s let the world spread lies as we stand for truth.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Phillip Luke Sinitiere

salvationwithasmilePhillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. This interview is based on his book Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (NYU Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: I wrote Salvation with a Smile out of a long-standing interest in the history of American evangelicalism. After completing a chapter on Joel Osteen in my first book Holy Mavericks (NYU Press, 2009), I wanted to write a larger story on the smiling preacher that considered his place in American religious history. As a life-long Houston resident, I also wanted to explore Osteen and Lakewood Church in relationship to Texas, and to the Sunbelt.

In my research, I found that everyone I spoke with had an opinion about the smiling preacher; folks either loved him or hated him. I wanted to investigate Osteen and Lakewood Church beyond the binary responses I was hearing. After all, there’s a reason why 40,000 people attend Lakewood weekly, millions of people read his New York Times best-selling books, and millions of people tune into his television broadcast. I wrote Salvation with a Smile to figure out why.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: Salvation with a Smile argues that Joel Osteen, and by extension Lakewood Church, is America’s most powerful twenty-first century evangelical minister; it explains how Lakewood became America’s largest megachurch and Joel Osteen became Joel Osteen. While neither represents the sum total of American evangelicalism, the history of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen explains significant developments that illuminate connections between neopentecostalism, the prosperity gospel, televangelism, and religion in the American South.

JF: Why do we need to read Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: Salvation with a Smile shows that Joel Osteen’s father, John Osteen, along with post-World War II neopentecostalism and the prosperity gospel movement helped to make the smiling preacher. In this regard, I hope the book adds another chapter to the broader history of the prosperity gospel that scholars such as Kate Bowler, Gerardo Marti, and Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, among others, have brilliantly documented. Furthermore, Osteen’s nearly two decades of religious television production and broadcasting experience before he became Lakewood’s full-time pastor in 1999 helps to contextualize how in the early 2000s Joel harnessed emerging social media platforms in the service of propagating his prosperity message. In this sense, Osteen and Lakewood’s story connects to the history of American televangelism. Finally, Osteen’s ascendance in American evangelicalism during the Internet Age—and his presence on television and social media—has generated a flurry of criticism, much of it from American evangelicals. Thus, Salvation with a Smile historicizes New Calvinist critiques of the smiling preacher as both an index of his notoriety and as a way to understand the fractures and fissures within contemporary U. S. evangelicalism; in other words, the account of Osteen and his detractors reflects the “crisis of authority” about which historian Molly Worthen has beautifully written.

 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PLS: While I had designs on pursuing a career in professional golf—I was a student-athlete on the golf team at the University of Houston, and later at Sam Houston State University—in college several professors brought history to life and I found that my passions shifted. The late Terry Bilhartz, one of my mentors at Sam Houston State, was one of the most engaging lecturers I’ve ever seen. At the University of Houston, James Kirby Martin always emphasized the importance of writing clearly and accessibly, Kairn Klieman helped me to understand the power of history beyond the classroom, and Gerald Horne modeled the centrality of archival research for academic scholarship. Reconstructing the past at its best tells a story and the ways that my professors and mentors conveyed history in lively, compelling, and comprehensible ways drew me in. Additionally, I found, and still find, archival research both enjoyable and exciting. Sure, the work at times gets tedious, but the detective sleuthing so vital to the art of reconstructing history is great fun. Connecting the dots between past and present is both challenging and exhilarating whether it is in the classroom with students or in moments of solitude when I’m writing. While I may be a professional historian according to industry standards, I remain very much a student of history with many questions for which I continuously seek answers.

JF: What is your next project?

PLS: For Rowman and Littlefield, I’m completing a short biography of 20th century writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin. I am also editor of and contributor to two essay collections on the twilight years of W. E. B. Du Bois between the 1930s and 1960s. One volume, under contract with Northwestern University Press, examines Du Bois’s career in global perspective; the second volume, which the University Press of Mississippi will publish, explores concepts of American freedom in Du Bois’s intellectual and political work.

JF: Thanks, Phil!

John Wilsey Reflects on Day 1 of the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

John Wilsey of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary offers another dispatch from the American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta.  Check out his first report here.

It was a busy day—after lunch on Saturday, I went back to the book display to walk the second level, and still didn’t see everything. Although, I was excited to see Phillip Luke Sinitiere’s new book on Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen, Salvation With a Smile, published by NYU Press. If you haven’t seen Sinitiere’s book yet, it is a must read. I was privileged to read the manuscript, and the book offers groundbreaking insight, not only into Osteen’s ministry, but also into the character of American Free Church evangelicalism in the 21st century as a whole.
On Saturday afternoon, I attended the Religion and US Empire Seminar. The topic was “Conceptualizing American Empire: Theoretical and Methodological Approaches.” All five of the presentations were fascinating, but the question and answer session toward the end was one of the most productive, helpful, and engaging Q & A sessions I have ever witnessed. Often at the end of a long session with four or more papers read, participants are tired—and when a session ends right before supper, people are not only tired, but also hungry.
But not this time. I can’t even remember all the questions that were asked, but they were all penetrating. One person asked about how Americans view categories such as “empire,” “imperial,” and “colonial” in comparison with how the British, or even the Russians might view those categories. She followed this question up with one on how religion influences empire, and also how empire influences religion. Someone else brought up the differences between frontier and border when it comes to demarking empires, which resulted in an interesting conversation about empires being defined in terms of space or power. Sylvester Johnson of Northwestern University addressed this issue in his presentation, and he stressed that empires are defined not in terms of geography, but in terms of power. It occurred to me that in the early American republic, both forms of empire evolved: in the Old Northwest, the Northwest Ordinance set the pattern for settlement and governance, and this pattern was geographically based. But in the South, the plantation system spread west, laying the foundations for American economic power and expanding the institution of slavery. Space and power seem both to provide a basis for the concept of empire in America, and adding the development of American civil religion to this concept makes the subject so much more interesting to consider.
I’m looking forward to what tomorrow holds. AAR/SBL is pretty overwhelming, and not a little intimidating. I’m relatively new to the society, so I don’t know very many people. And I’m an introvert, so the thought of walking up to someone and introducing myself in an effort to strike up a conversation is about as appealing as putting my hand into a cage full of tarantulas.
So, I enjoy being alone in a crowd. I like to take it all in, roam the book displays, sit on a sofa with a cup of coffee and people-watch. (There aren’t very many places to sit. There are over 10,000 people here, and painfully few chairs in the common areas of the Hyatt Regency). I like to see what books people are buying, and what books people look at but then put back on the shelf. It was the first full day of the conference today, so it is also fun for me to watch old friends seeing each other for the first time in a long time. You can always tell who these are, because they are the ones that greet one another the most loudly, and usually with lots of hugging and hearty hand shaking.
I teach at a conservative Baptist seminary, so my own contact with people who think differently about faith than I do is quite limited on a day-to-day basis. I’m fairly confident that not as many people who attend AAR get that excited about the debates going on in my circles—supralapsarianism vs. infralapsarianism, covenant theology vs. dispensationalism, Radical vs. Magisterial Reformation, General vs. Particular Baptism, inerrancy vs. authority, etc., etc. There are Muslims, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, and Pagans here. There are feminists, LBGTIQs, and secularists. There is a Pentecostal/Charismatic Movements Group meeting at the same time as the Qu’ran Group, the Religions, Social Conflict, and Peace Group, and the Schleiermacher Group meets. There are dozens of other groups as well. It is a seriously diverse crowd, and it is definitely an education for me to listen in on the conversations as they take place in both formal and informal settings. Of course, I don’t share many of the faith commitments that other communities represented here hold, but it is a lot of fun to be exposed to new, and sometimes challenging, ideas.

I ended the day watching the Baylor vs. Oklahoma State game.  Which reminds me—my friend Arthur Remillard is presiding over the Religion, Sport, and Play Group this Monday morning. Stay tuned.

Does Joel Osteen Dye His Hair? (And other thoughts from John Turner)

John Turner, writing at The Anxious Bench, tries to make sense of the Joel Osteen phenomenon.  Like it or not, Turner argues, Osteen represents mainstream America.  He is not an “outlier.”  He is a “vanguard.”  Here is a taste:

Osteen is used to criticism from certain evangelical quarters; the issue of homosexuality is not really at the core of such criticism. Despite such criticism and despite the fact that Osteen does not seem interested in naming and claiming the label “evangelical,” I think it fits him rather well, and not just because he includes his version of the sinner’s prayer at the conclusion of his telecasts. Even if one quibbles (or does more than quibble) with Osteen’s preaching (not a great deal of Bible, few calls for repentance, etc.), the fact is large chunks of American evangelicalism has moved in Osteen’s direction over the past several decades. Osteen’s hardly the only one eschewing much talk of sin and repentance in his sermons and reducing the extent of scripture reading and exegesis. Perhaps Osteen is an extreme example of the therapeutic turn in American evangelicalism, but he’s more of a vanguard than an outlier, for better or for worse.

Setting the issue of homosexuality aside, I found it curious that Soledad O’Brien would express shock at the fact that Osteen might call someone a sinner. Good thing she didn’t attend a Charles Finney revival (most ministers who preach about sin now do so in the third person rather than in Finney’s “you are a sinner” style).