An Open Letter to Joel Osteen

Editor's Note: Don't miss Faithful CitizenshipGreg Garrett's new ebook on politics and Christianity, available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $4.99.

Chris Lehmann reported in Salon last week about "America's Night of Hope," Joel Osteen's latest failure to discern the difference between American values and Christian teaching. Lehmann noted the inexorably positive theology Mr. Osteen champions:

If history is told by the winners, then Joel Osteen—the relentlessly upbeat spiritual caretaker of the national attitude—is history's designated chaplain. In a marathon Sunday faith rally in the heart of the nation's capital, Osteen, who presides over America's largest megachurch congregation, the nondenominational Lakewood Church in Houston, exhorted the tens of thousands of believers amassed in Nationals Stadium to "live in victory," to seize their "destiny moments," and to fulfill God's plan for their personal, financial and emotional success.

A year and a half ago, Patheos invited me to write a weekly column on the ever-more-important intersection of religion and politics. In the weekly process of examining the news of the day and doing theological musing about public life, my book Faithful Citizenship came to life. The heart of that book turned out to be, very simply, this: we tend to make political—and other—decisions not out of Christianity's highest values like compassion, generosity, and responsibility, but out of secular American values like self-reliance, self-interest, and acquisition.

Most of us are guilty, very simply, of bad theology—the very same kind of bad theology (bad reading of scripture, bad understanding of the Christian tradition, bad living out of Christian community) exemplified by the teachings of America's Pastor-in-Chief, the Rev. Osteen. Banker Jesus, as I wrote in an essay last summer about Mr. Osteen, is just as pernicious a myth as Spiteful Jesus.

Patheos wanted to re-run that essay that explains why Mr. Osteen drives me crazy—far and away the most popular thing I've ever written—and I agreed to let them bring it back in front of you for two reasons:

1) Joel Osteen is still the poster child for our critical inability to distinguish between our American aspirations and Christian teachings;

2) Judging from the thousands of "Likes," comments, messages, and emails this essay generated last summer, I am not the only pastor, teacher, writer, theologian, or just plain person of faith driven bananas by Joel Osteen.

So here it is again, or for the first time. I don't expect it to change Mr. Osteen, or even to slow down the juggernaut of God's Reward he preaches. But I do hope it will remind us of the spiritual mistakes we're all guilty of making, if maybe not quite so visibly—or successfully. If Jesus didn't live it—and you can't imagine Jesus saying it—then maybe it's not Christian doctrine.

Grace and peace,

Greg

*****

Dear Joel Osteen,

For some years now I've stood back and looked the other way as you preached your message of optimism and faith rewarded to tens of thousands of worshipers and to the millions of people who have bought your best-selling books, as you've become perhaps America's best-known preacher or inspirational speaker. Earlier this year The Guardian actually called you "America's Pastor," which forced me to sit up and take notice.

My attention during that time has been focused largely on those preachers and traditions obsessing with sin and suffering, on the death of Jesus on the cross as the only salvation for a wicked race. And so I kind of lost sight of you, a couple of hours down the road from me in Houston.

You have said that you don't like to talk about sin—who does, really?—and that you want to dwell on the positive messages of God's love. Those are nice antidotes to the mainstream American evangelical focus I abhor, and they may have given you a free pass until now. But I've come to believe that your nicey-nicey message and your God of infinite promises is as antithetical to genuine Christian faith as the always-dying and ever-angry Christ of conservative evangelicals.