Mr. Osteen goes to Washington

Ready. Set. Smile.

Joel Osteen is taking the nation’s capital by media storm, drawing a Beltway-size dose of attention in advance of a big event at the Washington Nationals’ ballpark this weekend.

The big headline seems to be Osteen’s statement to CNN that he considers Mitt Romney, who is Mormon, a “brother in Christ.” Godbeat pros Eric Marrapodi and Dan Gilgoff feature a handful of Osteen nuggets in an informative and entertaining post on CNN’s Belief Blog.

In a profile tied to the event, Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein explores the Osteen phenomenon on today’s front page:

Come sunset Saturday, Nationals Park will be full not with baseball fans but with 41,000 devotees of another American phenomenon: Joel Osteen.

Second base will become the main stage for the wavy-haired, ever-smiling Texan, whose cast for the 2 1/2-hour “America’s Night of Hope” includes 100 singers and musicians, 1,000 ticket-ripping volunteers, and a six-person social media team to keep Twitter and Facebook buzzing.

Yet, one of the largest religious events in the region since Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 visit is coming together pretty much outside of the organized church world.

With a few exceptions, there will be no church bus groups or pastor promotions, and many — if not most — of the people who paid $15 for a ticket didn’t hear about the event through their church, because they don’t go to one.

A reader who shared the link with GetReligion commented:

When I saw that bit about Osteen being the biggest religious event since Benedict, my teeth started grinding (how many heads of state visit Osteen, or hierarchs, or professors, or actual poor people, or…). However, I’m glad that I read through it all, because I learned more about how Osteen got started and felt that both sides were given their due.

A colleague quipped:

Notice how many times “Jesus” shows up in this story. And this is not a criticism!

(For the record, “Jesus” does not make an appearance in this story.)

Boorstein’s story, which I enjoyed, does a nice job of capturing the essence of Osteen and explaining why his followers love him and his critics accuse him of “cotton-candy theology,” as one source put it in a 2004 profile of Osteen that I wrote for The Associated Press.

Particularly given the space constraints of a daily newspaper article — this one runs roughly 900 words — the Post catches the appropriate high points of Osteen’s rise to fame and his place in modern American religion.

A revealing section of the piece:

With a few exceptions, there will be no church bus groups or pastor promotions, and many — if not most — of the people who paid $15 for a ticket didn’t hear about the event through their church, because they don’t go to one.

They are probably among the 10 million people who Osteen’s group says watch his weekly TV broadcast, the crown jewel of a mega­ministry built on the concept of a totally positive, in-your-corner God whose list of “don’ts” is pretty short: Don’t lose hope!

The show flashes ads for the monthly “inspirational” events more frequently than it flashes verses from the Bible. …

People love him for the same reason that many others, pastors in particular, shun him: his near-total silence on the subjects of sin, suffering and detailed doctrine.

“My message isn’t real religious,” Osteen said in an interview. “I’ve stayed good in my sweet spot, which is encouraging people, and hope.”

(“Sweet spot.” Event at a baseball stadium. Nice soundbite.)

Later, readers hear from a pastor favorable to Osteen and a theologian not impressed with him. Also quoted is a “non-churchgoing Catholic” who plans to attend the event:

James Bailey, a leadership professor at George Washington University’s business school who will be at the ballpark Saturday, found himself drawn into the Osteen vortex about a year ago while flipping through TV channels one Sunday morning.

“He isn’t heavy-handed with the practical elements: Do this or that, or you’re going to hell,” said Bailey, a non-churchgoing Catholic. “There was a light touch. It’s like, ‘This is about your relationship with God. All I’m doing here is helping you find that relationship.’?”

After providing details on the extraordinary growth of Osteen’s church and television ministry, the Post notes:

He’s sold a million books in Muslim Indonesia. Regular Sunday viewers and attendees at the ballpark will be Jewish, Hindu or the kind of people who check “none” when asked to identify their religion.

Osteen’s success says much about American religion in 2012, when “church” can be a bunch of strangers online who may not even be Christian and when one of the few pastors who can fill a baseball stadium preaches about love, not doctrine.

That’s fascinating information to me. I’d love to know more about the people drawn to Osteen. If I have one complaint, it’s that the Post doesn’t quote more Osteenites about why he appeals to them and what they believe. In particular, I’d love to hear from one of the Jews or Hindus referenced. I do know that Boorstein tweeted last week in search of potential interviewees planning to attend the D.C. event.

All in all, though, I found much to like about the Post story. As always, GetReligion readers are free to disagree. If you decide to leave a comment, however, please be sure to include a smiley face. Just kidding, although I just can’t resist.
:-)

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • kyle

    … and when one of the few pastors who can fill a baseball stadium preaches about love, not doctrine.

    Some people believe, as apparently the reporter does since this is written in the editorial voice, that love and doctrine are opposed to each other, or at least have no intrinsic relation to each other.

    Others believe that the two are essential to one another, that doctrine, statements about what’s true, are necessary for love to be authentic.

    Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith, through which the intellect attains to the natural and supernatural truth of charity: it grasps its meaning as gift, acceptance, and communion. Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite. Truth frees charity from the constraints of an emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content, and of a fideism that deprives it of human and universal breathing-space. In the truth, charity reflects the personal yet public dimension of faith in the God of the Bible, who is both Agápe and Lógos: Charity and Truth, Love and Word.

    I suppose it would be too much to ask that a reporter not take sides in that dispute.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Two quotes to note. Former Catholic: “He isn’t heavy-handed with the practical elements: Do this or that, or you’re going to hell.” Boorstein: “Osteen’s success says much about American religion in 2012, when ‘church’ can be a bunch of strangers online who may not even be Christian and when one of the few pastors who can fill a baseball stadium preaches about love, not doctrine.”

    Where have Mr. Baily and Ms. Boorstein been over the last 45 years since the close of Vatican II? In the Catholic Church in the U.S., there has been little to no talk of hell or doctrine. This is why we have a crisis of catechesis in the Catholic Church with most students coming out of 10 years of religious ed classes with nary a notion of what the Eucharist is, for instance. Most of the talk has been about love and not doctrine. Listen to a sermon at a typical Catholic parish and you get all sorts of conditional language: “kinda, maybe, you might want to think about, perhaps.” This is not the stuff of which hellfire, brimstone and doctrine are made.

    So instead of the line that they’re seeking “love” rather than “doctrine,” maybe they’re really seeking that ever-plastered smile and the possibility of a “blessed” and easy life. :-) (Or should I put ;-) ) But we won’t know that since Ms. Boorstein seems to think doctrine is still preached at churches and so she doesn’t ask that relevant question.

  • Sue McPhee

    I am a practicing Catholic, loyal to Church doctrine and the Magisterium. And I enjoy watching Joel Osteen. His sermons are definitely “cotton candy” and make you smile and feel good about being a human Christian. Sometimes, as Catholics we tend to beat ourselves up about this sin or that sin, fears of purgatory, hellfire and brimstone, etc., and preachers like Osteen can lighten up the heart. However, I think a steady diet of cotton candy short changes your soul, as faith is multi-faceted and as much as we don’t like to admit it, there are commandments, rules, laws, and truths that simply cannot be ignored or sugar coated. Catholicism is the meat and potatoes of my diet. Joel Osteen can sometimes be a nice, sweet, dessert.

  • Karen

    I think of Joel Osteen is more of a “motivational speaker” with a biblical-bent, as opposed to a Pastor who is preaching the living Word. He doesn’t preach doctrine, although he references the Bible. There’s nothing wrong with preaching a “message of hope and faith” as long as its not misconstrued for something other that what it is — a message of hope and faith. We all need that.

  • Tom Harris

    Osteen never talks about Jesus. It’s all about you and you FEELING good about yourself. Suffering, carrying your cross like Jesus did, sacrifices, loving your neighbor, prayer, etc., you’ll have to become a Catholic to walk the walk as Jesus walked. You are not going recognize the Jesus of the Holy Bible with this ‘Let’s make some money and feel good doing it,’ false prophet.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    For those new to the party, GetReligion is concerned about journalism and media coverage. If you have comments related to that, please knock yourself out. General comments supportive or not supportive of Osteen are not what we do.

  • Julia

    I’m just surprised as the softball questions he gets no matter the forum. Dolan and the Pope get some real doozies. Why the difference?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Does he get softball questions or only provide softball answers? I ask in all seriousness.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Bobby, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I think the questions Wolf Blitzer sends his way are pretty good, but the answers are just :-) And when an interviewer knows he’s going to get softball answers, that tends to make the interviewer ask softball questions.

    And there’s something about that smile. If I was interviewing him and asked him the stuff about Mormonism or poverty and suffering and pressed him on it using Scripture, I wonder how long his smile would last.