I usually don’t think it’s worth beating up on the purveyors of popular evangelical feel-goodism, for the same reason I don’t get in boxing matches with life-size Jell-O sculptures. But I had to make an exception for this tweet from human tooth-whitening strip Joel Osteen:
The facts may tell you one thing. But, God is not limited by the facts. Choose faith in spite of the facts.
— Joel Osteen (@JoelOsteen) November 26, 2014
Osteen is most famous for his surgically implanted smile and his prosperity-gospel theology which teaches that Jesus is a jolly, rosy-cheeked Santa Claus who’s eager to shower you with wealth, happiness and worldly success, if you only ask. His relentlessly upbeat preaching style, which has all the forced cheerfulness of a singing animatronic display in a mall, has given rise to a brutal satire, Third World Osteen, which juxtaposes the preacher’s blandly positive pablum with stark images of destitution and violence. For the record, Osteen himself owns a multimillion-dollar mansion in a rich Houston suburb. (You’d think prosperity-gospel believers would realize, eventually, that the only ones getting rich off this theology are the preachers who write the books about it; but somehow they never do.)
Osteen’s brand of Christianity-lite, which largely steers clear of politics and blends into self-help and positive psychology at the margins, is usually too vapid and watered-down to do any real harm. At most, it leads to shallow materialism and self-absorption – and it’s not as if America needs religion to encourage it in those pursuits.
But sometimes, when the wishing-makes-it-so message becomes too blatant, this theology can be very destructive indeed. That’s the line Osteen crossed when he openly encouraged believers to ignore the facts, to go on believing even if their belief is contradicted by the facts, to act as if what they want, not what is, is all that matters. And he’s not a random nobody preaching this idea in some out-of-the-way place, but a celebrity with 3 million Twitter followers and the senior pastor at the largest megachurch in the United States (Lakewood Church, built in an arena that formerly housed the Houston Rockets, with a weekly attendance of 43,000).
The evangelical belief in the success of prayer comes about only by selective attention which venerates the hits while banishing the misses. As I’ve written before, there are many stories of when prayer fails, but these stories get ignored or dismissed because they don’t fit with believers’ preconceptions. On the other hand, anecdotes and urban legends about apparently answered prayers always get passed on and are widely circulated within the evangelical community.
And this tendency to believe the fantasy, supported by cheery exhorters like Osteen, can lead to disaster. Most believers practice a finely tuned form of doublethink where they only pray for things that are likely to happen anyway, so they can deem it a miracle when events proceed in the ordinary course of nature. Even while asserting belief in an omnipotent god, they know to never pray for things that are obviously impossible. But sometimes the truly deluded choose prayer in preference to reality, and terrible tragedy results.
The classic example is religiously motivated child abuse, where parents allow their children to suffer and die because they believe in faith healing rather than medicine. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have celebrated the deaths of children who died from things that could have been cured with a blood transfusion. Christian Scientists are responsible for many shocking stories of callousness, like the parents who left their daughter sprawled on the floor with a broken collarbone after she fell down the stairs. The Followers of Christ, another anti-medicine sect, have been repeatedly prosecuted for child abuse, including a girl with an untreated facial tumor that pushed her eyeball out of its socket, and a teenage boy who died painfully from a simple urinary tract blockage. Just as Osteen counsels, all these people were “choosing faith in spite of the facts”. Would he say that they did the right thing?
And just this week, there was a macabre case out of Canada, where a man in a family of faith-healing believers died of a blood infection stemming from uncontrolled diabetes. His family refused to admit the truth and left his decaying corpse in a bedroom for six months while they prayed for his resurrection. They, too, chose faith in spite of the facts. What did it avail them? Does this outcome suggest that this is a strategy the rest of us should follow? Or is that, too, just another of those inconvenient facts to be waved away by those with eyes shut tight?