I believe in god about as much as I do the tooth fairy (come on, TF, if you were real, you’d financially compensate adults who lost teeth, not kids; they’ll just waste it on crap).
But I must confess a love: televangelist Joel Osteen.
This should not be. As the son of an atheist — if there were an official atheist card, dad would have enlarged it to the size of a sandwich board — my earliest memories of TV Bible thumpers were from granny’s shitty 12-inch black and white television, which could hail only the local religious channel. It was CNN for sinners — Hell and Brimstone, 24/7. I would become an ordained minister just for the irony, though it will come in handy soon.
Then one day I channel-stopped on Osteen’s weekly sermon, broadcast to seven million people weekly in more than 100 countries. And though he looks like a TV weatherman with an unfortunate brush with Botox, I can see how he became the nation’s preeminent preacher.
He got less godly.
Listen closely to the gospel from the Lakewood Church in Houston, the nation’s largest house of worship for Protestants (his flock, 43,000 strong, bought Compaq stadium, home of the Houston Rockets). Sure, he ends with a prayer and impossible promise: tune in by show’s end, and you will be saved. And don’t forget our book.
But aside from requisite idol worship, Osteen takes a largely untrod path to faith. He is nearly areligious. He does not use the word hell, or Satan. He invokes the almighty, perhaps, a third as often as other preachers, if that. No fires waging eternal here.
Instead, he talks about taking a righteous path. You could substitute “life,” “karma” or “Fortuna” for every reference to god, and the message remains largely intact. He waxes not about the demon Lucifer, but the demon within. And just as present, he urges, is an inner angel.
More important, he recognizes religion as analogous, not actualized. He understands parable like a wordsmith. Osteen recently spoke about those circling the post-divorce drain: the depressed amd addicted, the broken-hearted and jobless. Not once did he lay blame, nor did he suggest, ‘You are being punished. You deserve this.’
Instead he did something canny. You are not broken, he urged. You are not damned. You are a super computer with unmatched processing speed. “Your software is just corrupt,” he said. “You don’t need to throw out the computer. You just need to find the virus.”
What a knowing tactic. I can see Maude attending service, yellow umbrella et al. If religion’s stratagem has been to nag until you submit, Osteen’s is to cheer until you conquer. He seems to sense that the realities of today don’t always reward the just and punish the wicked. Some days, you have to do it yourself. He seems one of the few behind the pulpit who understands that the only sermon that resonates is the one you tell yourself.
In a recent interview, a reporter asked Osteen about his glory gospel, why he refers to “the enemy” instead of Satan, why he does not engage in the cautionary tales of a vengeful, omnipotent father who has grown sick of his children.
“When I grew up, the Devil was a reason why I had a headache or got mad,” he answered. “I like to make it broader. Sometimes the enemy can be our own thoughts, our limited way of thinking. We can excel. But some people preach about Hell like you’re already going there.”