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Joel Osteen, Cosmo Magazine, and the Life You’ve Always (Never) Wanted

I was wandering around a bookstore with my daughter the other day and eventually found myself in the “new and hot” section. There was the usual mix—a massive Ken Follett novel, biographies of Steve Jobs and Neil Young, the most recent fruits of Dan Brown’s fertile imagination, a book about global economics, and… yes, that’s right, the latest offering from Joel Osteen! Of course. Whatever would we do if we didn’t have Joel Osteen and his beautiful white teeth beaming down upon us from the bookshelves every year or so imploring us to become the people we were meant to be, urging us on in the quest to become as happy and rich and trim and successful and fulfilled as Jesus wants us to be?

For those who may be unaware, Joel Osteen is the pastor of some enormous church in Texas with like a gazillion weekly attenders who has written all kinds of best-selling books, and who is generally the cream of the American mega-church pastor crop. His church is probably bigger than the city I live in. Osteen’s latest book is called I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life. A month’s worth, I guess. 31 days is all it takes to get you into tip-top Jesus-blessing-shape. Or at least enough to get you by until Osteen’s next book comes out.

(I tried a few “declarations” when my daughter wasn’t looking, but they haven’t worked yet. At least I don’t think they have. Come to think of it, how would I tell if “explosive blessings” and “surpassing favour” had come my way? I’m not sure…. But presumably these aren’t the sorts of things that could go unnoticed, right? Perhaps it was because I wasn’t quite sure how to speak over my life. Do I have to stand on a ladder for that? Do I have to speak with a loud voice? Do I have to smile forcefully in order to display my (inadequate) teeth while declaring these promises? I’ve never been very good at “declaring” things—over my life or anyone else’s. I somehow just never sound confident or joyful or authoritative enough to get the job done.)

Of course, most people who have actually read the Bible or paid any attention to things like, oh I don’t know, what Jesus said, know that Osteen’s brand of “Jesus-wants-to-make-you-rich-and-happy” pop psychology is laughably stupid and demonstrably false. But this guy is massively popular. There are quite literally millions of people who read his every book and, apparently, swallow what he is saying. Incredible.

I was thinking about Joel Osteen the other day when I was waiting in line at the grocery store. As my eyes lazily scanned  the standard supermarket magazine fare, it occurred to me that Joel Osteen is kind of the Christian equivalent to Cosmopolitan magazine. It doesn’t matter what month or issue of Cosmo you pick up, you will invariably be presented with, if the magazine covers are to be believed, some variation of “10 revolutionary tips/techniques to have the most mind-blowing sex the world has ever witnessed.” Every single month. According to my math, that’s about 120 per year. How is anyone supposed to keep track of that many tips/positions/techniques? I guess they would need to make a list or draw some diagrams or something. And how many times can a mind really be blown? Once it’s blown, isn’t it… well, never mind. At any rate, it’s exhausting to think about.

Same thing with Joel Osteen. Every book is exactly the same thing. Techniques, promises, declarations, 12 step programs… and on the other side? Well, bliss, of course!! Sweet Jesus-soaked, filthy rich, awesome job, beautiful trophy-wife and kids, über-fulfilled, hyper-successful paradise!! The life you’ve always wanted! Jesus can get you there! I promise. Just say these words, pray these prayers, buy my books, listen to my speeches, be inspired and motivated… And, well, look at my teeth! Could anyone with teeth this white and perfect be lying to you?!

It’s easy to pick on Joel Osteen, right? Of course it is. But I wonder… Do we embrace subtler versions of this? If I just go to church and give faithfully… If I just do x or y, God will bless me… If I pray frequently or correctly or fervently enough, God is bound to… If I serve the poor and the marginalized, Jesus will… If I just follow “biblical principles” things will turn out all right… If I just make sure my kids have some good moral teaching, they won’t get involved with… Right? Right? There are all kinds of ways for faith to slide into superstition and for Jesus to become an insurance policy.

Our text for last Sunday’s worship was Luke 14:25-35, where Jesus tells the adoring crowds to hate their closest relations, to be willing to forfeit their own lives, to sell all their possessions, and to take up a cross if they would be one of his disciples. Probably the worst sales job in history. No techniques for God’s “favour,” no “declarations” to “speak over” our lives, no promises of health, wealth, and happiness.

You want to follow me?,  Jesus asks. Fine. But here’s the cost. It’s not always going to be pretty and fun, and all the standards of success that you might think would apply can go right out the window. Count the cost, and count it well. This isn’t about techniques and formulas for blessing, but radical reconstructive surgery. I wonder how many people were left scratching their heads after that particular speech. Or maybe they just got up and left in search of a different teacher who would serve up more palatable fare.

Jesus doesn’t offer us the life we’ve always wanted. He offers the life he’s always wanted for us, and a pattern for living through which to discover the difference.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Robert Martin #

    I have friends who frequently post or quote some Osteen stuff… and some of the stuff is rather innocuous and good, Jesus centered, spiritual stuff… But I find it hard to take those posts seriously because I know that, in whatever book it came from, it will always be accompanied by a “you will be happy” and “you’ll be safe” etc…

    Thanks for quoting Luke 14… I think we don’t as much forget that passage as much as we bury it deep in our psyche like the bad memory of the spelling bee in 6th grade….

    September 10, 2013
    • I have awesome memories of the 6th grade spelling bee… I think I even won a prize! In fact, come to think of it, it’s pretty much been downhill since then… :).

      I’m glad to hear there is at least some redeeming stuff in the Osteen oeuvre. I confess that I rarely make it past the the breathless introductions…

      September 10, 2013
  2. Amen, right on the spot! I’m getting very worried every time I see a shelf at a book store called “religion” and it’s filled with Osteen’s teeth. What impression will ordinary people get of Christianity?

    By the way, I tried the other day to put some Osteen quotes into Jesus’ mouth:


    September 11, 2013
    • Fantastic post, Micael. The images really bring home the absurdity of some of the things these guys say.


      September 11, 2013
  3. mike #

    I do think Joel Olsteen takes his message too far, but I also see some good in his teaching in that at the least he is expounding a Good and benevolent God theory as opposed to the task master God we are so familiar with. I also think there is something to be said for the practice of “affirmations” used to overcome negative thinking and a sour disposition (me 🙂 . but then.. I ‘ve found good teaching embedded in the trash of Dianetics ,Christian Science, Unity/Science of the Mind, Buddhism and Sufism…so I guess what I’m saying is, we can often find some Gold if we are willing to dig below the surface a little.

    September 11, 2013
    • Yours is a good reminder, Mike, and I do appreciate it. Sarcasm and summary dismissal are often far too easy… Far more difficult (and therefore necessary) to do the hard work of looking for good where you expect to find only bad.

      September 11, 2013
  4. Sue #

    Amen to your concluding thoughts! Jesus definitely did not preach what people WANTED to hear, but rather, what they NEEDED to hear. There will always be those with “itching ears” searching for someone to affirm their comfort and promise them an easy life.

    September 11, 2013
    • Indeed! Thanks for your comment, Sue.

      September 11, 2013
  5. Rachel #

    Seriously Sue, this sounds more like a rant springing from your personal insecurities than any meaningful critique of Joel Olsteen, save that you don’t like his teeth (No, I am no Joel Olsteen fan.). You’ve said nothing substantive here – nothing at all – but only levied an incredibly weak ad hominem attack. And, since you are holding Joel accountable to the scriptures, how about yourself? “Judge not,” and all that… (What was it you said about Jesus telling people what they needed to hear?) There is an awful lot wrong with religion these days, surely things far more worthy of your vituperous attacks than Joel Olsteen’s teeth and the fact that people (whom you obviously judge as shallow) are drawn to his perpetually optimistic message. Why not point your attention to those aspects of religion that are so troubling in our day and age rather than attacking someone who has done you no harm whatsoever? For instance, bloggers who invoke scriptural principles in order to attack people and in the process transgress those scriptures themselves? Just a thought…

    September 13, 2013
    • Rachel #

      Sorry, the above comment was meant for Ryan, NOT Sue.

      September 13, 2013
    • Thank you for your interesting comment, Rachel.

      I think you should have another look at the definition of ad hominem. I said precisely nothing about Joel Osteen as a person (aside from the “teeth” comment that you so dislike, which is mainly a tongue in cheek poke at how perpetually happy he seems in his public presentation… and, let’s be honest, if you’re going to put a smiley shot of yourself on the cover of EVERY book you write, you should expect a bit of ribbing). I was (and am) critical of what he teaches, which I think is false, misleading, and can do a good deal of damage to people’s faith in the long run.

      Re: “judge not,” well this could get silly pretty quickly couldn’t it? How exactly do you see your (judgmental? angry? “vituperative?”) response to my post as escaping this criticism? Obviously “judge not” does not and cannot mean that we are to cease making judgments about the merits of people’s ideas. You’ve felt quite free to do so here (as well as to speculate about my “insecurities,” which is amusing). That’s fine. We do this every day, as we should. But let’s leave pious references to “judge not” out of it, shall we? Or, if we’re going to apply this maxim erroneously, let’s at least do it consistently.

      You obviously feel very strongly about what I’ve written here. That’s fine. I would simply point out that my criticism of Osteen is not that he is too optimistic, but that his general message quite consistently contradicts the teaching of Jesus himself. I referred to this in the second to last paragraph when I mentioned Luke 14:25-35 (I could quite easily pick dozens of other passages). You evidently do not consider this “substantive.” Again, that’s fine, if a bit strange (is the teaching of Jesus insubstantial?). I am simply setting the basic message Osteen preaches alongside the consistent witness of the New Testament about the pattern of the life of discipleship and finding an enormous divergence between the two. If you disagree, please explain how I am wrong about this.

      September 13, 2013
  6. Corinne Crammer #

    I detest the prosperity gospel, but I’d rather hear Osteen (who does manage to leave you in a good mood) than some judgmental hell-fire and brimstone preacher who carries on about being washed in the blood of the lamb.

    September 13, 2013
    • Personally, I would go with, c) none of the above :). Osteen leaves me in almost as a bad a mood as some of the hellfire types.

      September 13, 2013
      • Amen Ryan, I have learned very quickly that the majority about anything (secular or non secular) has never been right about anything in the entire time of human existence…..I use to follow Joel, but once I studied the scripture as we are called to do I realized very quickly that Joel was being mislead by a deceptive spirit. 1 Tim 4:1-2 and Also from reading Job 3. I too was very rich from the worlds standard, a millionaire 5 times yet very unhappy and a real loose for joy….Now I follow what you stated in Luke, I am now a chaplain in several jails and prisons….I serve and don’t worry about others serving me. I follow Math 28 and I do God’s will 2 peter 3:9. Ryan great post. Ryan what country are you from, I would guess England….

        October 31, 2013
      • Thanks for sharing your story here, Chad. Sounds like quite a journey for you…

        I’m not from England, alas. Canada is my home :).

        October 31, 2013

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