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.