Pentecostalism for the Exurbs

Joel Osteen’s God really wants you to dress well, stand up straight, and get a convenient parking space.

Joel Osteen wants you to stand up straight. “Even many good, godly people have gotten into a bad habit of slumping and looking down,” Osteen writes in his best-selling self-improvement tract Become a Better You. “[Y]ou need to put your shoulders back, hold your head up high, and communicate strength, determination, and confidence.” After all, “We know we’re representing Almighty God. Let’s learn to walk tall.”

Osteen is the pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church, a Pentecostal congregation recently named the largest in the country by Outlook magazine, hosting some 47,000 souls in the former Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets used to play. Every Sunday, he broadcasts a running string of similar homespun nuggets of wisdom—usually rife with metaphors of automotive and financial trials that resonate with his exurban flock’s daily routines—while beaming incandescently before an audience of millions on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and various other cable services. And each of those sermons kicks off with Osteen’s patented chant, with those 47,000 voices declaring, “This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. I do what it says I can do,” and building to an oddly colorful climax: “I am about to receive the incorruptible, indestructible, ever-living seed of God, and I will never be the same. Never, never, never. I will never be the same. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

The chant is about as close as Osteen’s relentlessly upbeat preaching ever comes to a theological doctrine, and it captures many of the key themes behind his runaway appeal. There’s the stark individualist ethos that lies behind the definition of scripture as first and foremost an agent of identity change. There’s the curiously infantile quality of both the act of the chant and its diction. (No matter how emphatically an arena full of believers may shout “Never, never, never,” they always sound like pouting toddlers.) Most of all, though, there’s the vividly sexualized power ascribed to the Word of God, which serves as a sort of skeleton key to the Osteen phenomenon. While Joel Osteen has never formally trained as a minister, he is heir to a theological teaching—the movement known as Word-Faith. Word-Faith holds that believers possess, in divinely sanctioned snatches of scripture, the stuff of miraculous self-healing and prosperity—an odd turn for the Pentecostal movement, which first took root in some of the poorest (and blackest) stretches of the West and Southwest. Then again, the Word-Faith tradition is also part of a much broader movement toward therapeutic healing in American Protestantism—including the Mind Cure and New Thought teachings of the late 19th century that produced Christian Science, the positive thinking homilizing of Norman Vincent Peale, and all manner of New Age folderol, up through The Secret and The Prayer of Jabez.

Osteen comes into the Word-Faith gospel via the graces of his late father, John, Lakewood’s founder, a onetime Baptist who fell in with the Word-Faith doctrine after converting to Pentecostalism in the 1950s. Like many healers of the Mystic Word, the elder Osteen took his teaching very much to heart, holding that a pair of Texas Word-Faith healers known as Mom and Dad Goodwin had helped Joel’s sister, born with a cerebral palsylike condition, to be made whole. John Osteen wrote scores of books touting the health and wealth message of Word-Faith, and even pronounced himself healed of kidney failure and complications from high-blood pressure after Lakewood “confessed” his recovery. The elder Osteen died of a heart attack in 1999, at the age of 77—two weeks after he claimed to have a divinely sanctioned vision of himself preaching into his 90s.

Joel, who succeeded to the Lakewood pulpit on his father’s death, has pointedly refrained from pronouncing visions, performing wonders of the spirit such as speaking in tongues, or really doing much biblical preaching at all. He has the wardrobe and tirelessly dapper mien of an oil industry lobbyist; it’s as a walking advertisement of the success creed, and not as any manner of prophet, that he’s made his name. “I’m not called to explain every minute facet of Scripture or to expound on deep theological doctrines or disputes that don’t touch where people live,” he writes dismissively in Become a Better You. “My gift is to encourage, to challenge, and to inspire.”

Hence, it seems, the erect-posture pointers, the counsel to “get in the habit of smiling on purpose,” and Osteen’s monotonous hymning of the health and wealth gospel of Word-Faith. “It doesn’t please God for us to drag through life like miserable failures,” he scolds. The Creator “wants you to succeed; He created you to live abundantly.” Debilitating hereditary diseases are empty threats for a wonder-working God. “You must stand against those diseases and believe God for good health,” Osteen announces. “You must think differently, and you need to take a different tack, take different action. You cannot prepare for defeat and expect to live in victory.” Tellingly, he doesn’t try to make his case by citing his father’s sobering flirtations with faith healing, but rather the experience of his plucky grandmother, who airily informed a doctor who had just diagnosed her with Parkinson’s disease that “I refuse to have that.” And sure enough, Osteen writes, she never did, because “she didn’t let the negative words take root.”

Osteen’s rigid—and plainly dangerous—nominalist faith sits uncomfortably alongside an obsession with blood heredity, which seems to contradict the notion of a purely spiritual and supernatural health-care plan. Then again, Osteen insists that “our spiritual bloodline”—God’s authorship of our being “before the foundation of the world”—trumps our merely “natural bloodline” and the bad habits, addictions, and negative thinking bequeathed us by our thankless kin. “Your Father spoke the worlds into existence,” Osteen marvels in what seems a fairly transparent case of Oedipal transference. “He could have chosen anybody, but he chose you.” And what a doting parent He is: “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be up on it. If God carried a wallet, your photo would be in it.”

Indeed, if you bracket all the scary, irresponsible health-and-wealth cheerleading that jolts through Become a Better You, this exurban image of God the indulgent dad is among the more troubling features of the gospel according to Osteen. For it turns out that the divine hand turns up everywhere, at least in Joel Osteen’s life. God upgrades his reservations to first class on a long international flight; God spares his car in a water-planing wipeout on the Houston interstate; God allows Osteen and his wife/co-pastor, Victoria, to flip a property “for twice as much as we paid for it” in a once-sketchy Houston neighborhood; God swings a critical vote on the Houston zoning board to permit Lakewood to move to its mammoth Compaq Center digs—and God even saw fit 35 years earlier to ensure the engineer who designed the ramps leading to the Compaq Center provided easy parking access for Lakewood. This is a long, long way down the road from the inscrutable, infant-damning theology of this country’s Calvinist forebears—it is, rather, a just-in-time economy’s vision of salvation, an eerily collapsible spiritual narcissism that downgrades the divine image into the job description for a lifestyle concierge. Lakewood and Osteen seem to keep God so preoccupied it’s a wonder He can ever find the time to stock his fridge or whip out His wallet.

There’s, of course, nothing inherently suspect or dishonorable about seeking uplift and consolation in the Bible. But the point of those “deep theological doctrines” that Osteen seems to deride is to leaven that quest with the less agreeable features of life—pain and suffering, the persistence of evil, the fleeting quality of all endeavor, the cosmic insignificance of the human self, let alone that self’s subordinate chosen modes of expression in body posture or a near-pathological penchant for smiling. After all, the same Bible that Lakewood’s arena full of believers champion as a handbook for what they can do and be also contains these words, in Revelation 3:17: “Thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing: and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.”*

Correction, Jan 3, 2007: This piece originally and incorrectly referred to a book of the Bible as Revelations instead of Revelation. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)