January 30, 2005

Joel Osteen: Easy listening Christianity

I'm ok, you're ok, we're ok, so
I think I'm gonna buy my own radio show
Spread the good news and the Barry Manilow
Happy talk, no rock, non-stop easy listening

- Steve Taylor, "Easy Listening"

I have heard an awful lot about Joel Osteen over the last year or so, mostly positive. But I've never had a chance to see his program until today - in Canada it only airs at 9 am Sundays on Vision TV, when I'm normally at church. Well, today I was under the weather, so I skipped the morning service and took advantage of my situation to turn Osteen on.

Well, as the Dread Pirate Roberts told Buttercup, I should get used to disappointment. The message was theological pablum, along the lines of: Have a positive attitude and trust God when things don't go your way.

Giving Osteen the benefit of the doubt - perhaps this was an atypical message - I downloaded a couple more from his Web site. It wasn't. In fact, after viewing two more messages - I really couldn't have handled thirty more seconds of his plastic smile and feel-good "preaching" without a massive dose of insulin - I concluded that Have a positive attitude and trust God when things don't go your way is pretty much the sum total of Osteen's message. He's a one-trick pony. Start with a positive-thinking theme. Throw in a few illustrations from Scripture (from the Old Testament exclusively, from what I saw) and some personal anecdotes. Sprinkle liberally with Holiness buzzwords like "abundant life" and "victorious living." Congratulations, you've just built the largest church in the United States.

Unfortunately, Osteen's message is about a mile wide and a millimeter deep. Osteen's Bible gets the most miles on it when he holds it aloft and leads his congregation in the weekly "This is my Bible" mantra. Where is "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21)? Where is "Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2)? Where was Jesus at all, outside of the formulaic "salvation prayer" he tacks onto each message with no connection to what was said? Is a church that professes Christ fulfilling its mandate if it fails to preach Christ and the whole counsel of God?

Call it what you will, but don't pretend Christless vapidity is "Christian." 35,000 people in Lakewood Church want to have their ears tickled with this easy-listening message.

The motto of Osteen's massive Lakewood Church is "Discover the Champion in You," which strikes me as a great motto for Wheaties. Of course, boxed breakfast cereal is sweet, tasty, convenient, and doesn't require the hard work and sacrifice of a big breakfast. But it's a poor substitute for oatmeal, bacon and eggs, and Joel Osteen's happy-sappy affirmations are a poor substitute for authentic, biblical Christianity.

Postscript: After posting the above, I did my sort-of-daily blo run. Coincidentally, Michael Spencer, the redoubtable Internet Monk, has also been thinking about the same subject, obviously for longer than me, and posted a call to Evangelical bloggers to "out" Osteen. The iMonk has accrued considerable "credibility capital" on the Net and deserves to be read. He asks: "When evangelicals have been represented by John Stott and Billy Graham [and Francis Schaeffer, as he says elsewhere], are we going to be silent while Osteen becomes the new voice of evangelicalism?" I'm not usually one to jump on the bandwagon, myself, but in this case it looks like I was already on the side of the road, trumpet in hand, waiting for it to arrive.

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