(Blogger’s note: This post from September 27, 2018, is sadly still relevant in this truth-averse moment in American politics and Christianity.)
The article focused on Joel Osteen, mega-pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, which boasts America’s largest Christian congregation and attendance of 43,500 per week.
This number seems absurd in itself, that so many believers of the unbelievable are so compulsively believing. Osteen is described in the article as “often thought of in the Christian world as almost more of a motivational speaker than a pastor in the traditional sense.”
Osteen, with his lovely, swept-back pompadour, thousand-watt smile and irrepressibly sunny disposition is the king of elastic religious faith, the prophet of worldly happiness. Victoria, his wife and pastoral partner, is joined at Osteen’s hip. In a sermon, she proclaimed some things that even to a heretic sound suspiciously heretical:
“I just want to encourage everyone of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God — I mean, that’s one way to look at it — we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”
What happened to the gospel of suffering?
Certainly, striving to be happy in life is a worthy goal for religious zealots and heathens alike, but it’s just never been the fundamental driver of Christianity through the ages. Personal suffering — the worse the better — has always been acknowledged by Christians as a much better indication of authentic piety and eligibility for Paradise.
Still, the Osteens peddle their gospel of joy and prosperity as though it’s the new normal. Clearly, it’s working, as evidenced by the tens of thousands that attend their services each week. But when did holy scripture change to this new paradigm? It didn’t. It’s a rhetorical question, whose answer is already well-established.
Christian scripture tells us that the key to heaven’s gate is acquired through humility, self-imposed poverty, kindness and — above all else — love of God. In fact, when asked what he should do for redemption, Jesus famously told a rich man to give away everything he owned and follow him penniless.
The Osteens must have skipped those chapters.
The key to heaven
Indeed, in Christian doctrine, ease and wealth are viewed as inherently sinful because they necessarily mean innocent others have less of each. In scripture, true happiness — and immortality — can only be obtained through abject devotion to the divine and complete rejection of all peripheral worldly concerns.So where exactly are the Osteens and other prosperity-gospel proponents coming from, because it certainly isn’t scripture?
In fact, they make their doctrines up. Whatever ideas keep the faithful filing into church each Sunday (and other days) are the gospel of these preachers. It’s consumer Christianity, and for charismatic Pentacostals, halleluiah Baptists and Elmer Gantry-esque, bible-thumping faith healers the product is ecstatic emotionalism.
For the Osteens, that’s private joy and riches — and they’re apparently especially fulfilled in their faith because they’ve got loads of both.
However, this giddy ethos just doesn’t square with orthodox Christianity, which, if we’re being fair, is really the only kind.
As Atheist Republic concluded:
“In the mind of the atheist, doing what works for me and also caring about others makes good common sense. But in the mind of the religious, this is blasphemy. The religious person must be thinking about what pleases God and what God is commanding. All behavior must start from there.”
So, indeed, the Osteens really are just motivational speakers who peddle the feel-good product of personal joy under a faux banner of heaven. They promote idolizing self-actualization over a personal God.
It’s an absurd confection, of course. But this is America, where religious freedom means being free to invent our own faith out of nothing but private imagination.
Remember that the flim-flam man Joseph Smith invented Mormonism, which for some strange reason continued to spread even after he was murdered for being a irredeemable cheat. Today, it is one of the world’s fastest growing religions. The term “absurd” doesn’t even begin to explain it.
Indeed, being happy almost certainly won’t ever get anyone to heaven, because it just doesn’t seem to exist.
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